A tale of lies and flies and thongs.

27 03 2013

I’ve already said that the girls were older when Jen and I got together and our families blended. It’s true … they were older, more sassy, more difficult and generally harder to read. Erica developed a strange and hitherto unknown capacity for lying, and Ella became one of those kids who would happily ping the strings and push the envelope, but would appear totally outraged if accused of doing so.

So … they were kids … and they were going through it, in their own, very individual ways.

There’s a quarry near to us, and next to it is a large lake. It is called, for the sake of anonymity, Something Pool. My ex-husband was driving Erica, Max and Vinnie by this lake one day when Erica announced that she had previously swum in Something Pool.

Max: No you haven’t, Erica.

Erica doesn’t turn round to face her accuser, but remains staring steadfastly ahead.

Erica: Yes I have.

Max: No you haven’t.

Erica: Yes I have. You don’t know.

Max: That’s rubbish. You’ve never swum in Something Pool.

Erica: Yes I have!

Max: So why didn’t I know before?

Erica: Because I kept it a secret!

At this, Max, aged six, falls about laughing.

Dad: Don’t tell lies, Erica.

Erica: I’m not lying! I have swum in Something Pool!

She begins to cry at the sheer injustice of it all.

The thing is, nobody swims in Something Pool. It just isn’t done. And when you add to this one of Erica’s other memorable untruths,  that she’d heard on the news that a man had turned into a fly, you get some idea of where her head was. Well, I say that, but if you do, you’re closer than I ever got.

Ella didn’t tell lies like that because she didn’t need to. She was the boss and the others played along accordingly.

It wasn’t long after we got together that we took the four of them out to a sandwich bar. We thought it would be a nice treat. They sat together, a little bit away from us, because the place was pretty full. Soon, we realised there was an ‘atmosphere’. Whenever we looked round, everything seemed fine. They were engaging with each other. But every now and then there’d be a quick silence followed by a short but noticeable group giggle. This didn’t feel right.

I got up and went to their table.

Carol: What’s going on?

All four look mortally offended.

Ella: What do you mean?

Carol: There’s something going on. What is it?

All four of them: Nothing/don’t know what you mean/ why are you always accusing us?

Carol: I know something is going on.

She continues on to the Ladies.

A couple of minutes later it became clear when I returned from the Ladies to find them all looking intently at a customer sitting at the table to the left of theirs. In full view, as this customer leaned forward, the top of her thong was exposed. At the very moment I caught on to what they were doing, the poor woman did too.

I froze in mid-return. The whole thing took a second or two but felt as long as it takes to get Max to do the kitchen recycling. The woman had clocked it and looked as humiliated by them as I felt (although it has to be said: she could at least go home childless).

We left that building in some haste.

Jen: I give up on you, Ella. That’s disgraceful behaviour.

Ella is most put out, striding down the road with that ‘I don’t know what the fuss is all about and I’m not hanging around to find out’ air.

Jen: Come back here!

Ella doesn’t turn round.

Jen: Ella, I’m warning you!

Ella turns, but keeps walking.

Ella: Why are you having a go at me?

Jen: Because what happened in there was disgraceful and you are quite clearly the ring leader.

Ella: What? I’m not the ling reader!

She runs across the road to the toy department store.

Ring leader … ling reader … who cares? Somehow, that lady’s shame was avenged. It didn’t matter if the others heard, or understood. It mattered that we heard and we understood,because we could laugh at Ella’s mistake, and get rid of the pent-up shame and embarrassment the kids’ behaviour had caused us. From that point, we have always laughed at the children. Rightly or wrongly, we have never held back from a good old belly laugh on occasions of their (within reason) misfortune. It helped us get through those early years, and still does.





Bedtime and bogeys

22 03 2013

The boys had to share a room for a while. They each had bunk beds, placed at opposite sides of the room. Bedtime was eight o’clock and that usually signalled ‘our’ time – knackered, in front of the television. We may have been joined by the girls for an hour, or they chose to be in their rooms. Either way, once the boys were in bed, peace reigned.

Or did it?

They never want to go to bed, so Vinnie does a deal.

Vinnie: If we have to go to bed, can we have a story tape?

Jen: Yes. You can put it on yourself, can’t you?

Vinnie: Yep.

He runs upstairs.

From downstairs, we soon hear the low hum of Postman Pat. The thing is, once they are in bed, as long as we think it is Postman Pat, it doesn’t matter. And when that low hum continues after 10 pm, we still think nothing of it, because we are, quite frankly, poor excuses for mothers … until … 

From upstairs.

One or other boy, usually Max: Aargh! You f*****g b**ta*d!

Carol gets up and goes to the bottom of the stairs.

Carol: What’s going on?!

Silence.

Carol: Who was swearing?

Silence. Then a bit of muffled, but high-pitched, giggling.

Carol: I’ll ask one more time. Who was it?

Max appears at the top of the stairs, looking aggrieved.

Max: You know Vinnie, yeah? Well he won’t shut up! He won’t let me get to sleep.

He rubs his eyes, as if so very, very tired.

Carol: From what I could hear, neither of you were trying that hard to sleep. Vinnie!

A slightly sheepish Vinnie appears. It’s important at this point to describe what they look like. Vinnie is dressed in ill-matched pyjama top and bottoms, with his dressing gown on over these. This garment has seen better times; the sleeves have been chewed by John, the dog, so hang in tatters and holes around his wrists. His thick curly hair is sitting astride his head, rather than on it.

Max, however, is wearing some newly-acquired ‘boy’s’ pyjamas, most definitely indicative of a move away from women’s clothing. With his dressing gown belt tied firmly around his small waist, he puts one in mind of Noel Coward. Vinnie is more Jim Royle. 

Carol: I’m giving you one warning. Go to bed, the pair of you, and go to sleep. 

Max: Aren’t you going to tell him off?

Carol: Bed!

She fixes a stare on them. They sigh heavily and turn to go.

Carol: Just a minute … where did you get language like that from?

Max stops.

Max: You.

He runs.

 

Of the two boys, Vinnie was more in need of night time reassurance. At first, this was sweet, and cute. He’d come into our room in the early hours, saying he’d had a bad dream. Jen would let him into the bed on her side, which meant she would move into the middle. Bless.

Until the fifth time it happened, by which time I was sick of how the extra weight in the bed caused me to roll towards the middle, which was no longer cute, or sweet. Also, of the two boys, it was Vinnie that had the night-time bladder problem and yes, you’ve guessed it, a line had to be drawn after he’d peed in our bed. With us in it.

Carol: Vinnie, I’ve got an idea.

Vinnie looks at her, all ears.

Carol: How about, the next time you have a bad dream, I buy it off you?

Vinnie looks at Carol, not sure how to respond.

Carol: It works with warts. If someone sells their wart, the person buying it has it by the next day, and the person selling it has it no longer!

Vinnie: How much?

Carol: Twenty pence.

Vinnie thinks about this. Twenty pence is a considerable amount of money for a boy who has none.

Vinnie: Okay.

Carol: Good. If you feel you have to come in tonight, I’ll have twenty pence ready and I’ll buy that dream off you.

Vinnie: Do you want my wart as well?

Carol: No, I don’t want your wart.

Anyway, it worked. He made about £1.20 and then lost interest.

 

We’ve never been too bothered about bedroom decor. They can do what they like – it’s only walls. And really, what’s the worst thing that can happen? A few badly drawn doodles that will be decorated over later? 

When Max got his own room, Vinnie wanted his bunk bed moved away from the window side. As we pulled it away from the wall, Jen said: ‘What are they?’

I looked. She was squinting at a mass of brownish-grey marks on the wall.

‘Oh no, have we got damp?’ I said, concerned. Jen was touching them, and suddenly pulled away.

‘The little sod,’ she said, holding one up to me in disgust. It was a bogey.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 





A style that’s all your own …

20 03 2013

Our house has seen an interesting variety of dress codes over the years. From Erica’s novelty hats to Max‘s penchant for Disney dresses, the early days gave us an eclectic mix of sartorial style.

Let’s take Max.

Max was never going to be a boy’s boy. When his dad and I bought Erica her first Barbie doll, Max requisitioned it. We tried again and, again, he took the doll and made her his own. He wasn’t too interested in the Barbie accessories, mind. It was the hair. Max could often be found holding Barbie by her ankles and swinging her around with his gaze fixed on her travelling hair. As a result, no Barbie in our house was permitted to wear her hair up, causing problems when he insisted on her joining him in the bath because the hair would get wet and, well, no more silky, shiny Barbie hair. Hello rust coloured wire wool.

After time, Max realised that he could get round this, and still have the pleasure of ‘flying hair’, by fashioning his own. If he put a pair of his sister’s pyjama bottoms on his head, the legs would hang down on either side, like pigtails. By swinging his head, he swung the ‘hair’ around his head. Joy. And on occasion, he would wear one of his sister’s dresses to complete the illusion. I had no problem with taking him to collect Erica from primary school with pyjama bottoms on his head and a scruffy Barbie in his hand, but the dresses usually stayed at home.

‘Your brother is Barbie Boy,’ said a boy in Erica’s class to her one day. She punched him.

It should be said here, just in case it isn’t clear, that Max was very young at this time. However, the day he got stuck climbing out of a ground floor front window and had to be rescued by a neighbour whilst wearing a Sleeping Beauty dress was his last day of Year 2.

Vinnie, on the other hand, was a dude, who insisted on button-down school shirts at the age of five so that he could wear them unbuttoned to the chest (he looked like Elvis). With a shock of brown curly hair and a very cheeky grin, it was no wonder people found his Queen period highly amusing. We eventually bought him a very, very tight pair of white satin trousers and a corduroy bomber jacket. He liked Freddie-style posturing.

Vinnie: (back arched, microphone in hand) ‘Uh, uh, uh, another one bites the desk -‘

Jen: What?

Vinnie: (stops thrusting) What?

Jen: What did you sing?

Vinnie: ‘Another one bites the desk.’ Like the song.

Jen: They’re not the words.

Vinnie: Yes they are!

Jen: No. It’s another one bites the dust.

Vinnie: (crying) No it isn’t! It’s ‘desk’.

Jen: Okay.

Erica had grown out of the hats by the time she was ten, but moved onto some very strange ensembles that defy description, to be honest. The most worrying thing was not her very own sense of style, it was her hair. Born with thick curls, it was always a battle to wash/comb it, so when I noticed that it was ‘different’ at the back, I just believed her when she said that’s how it grew. By ‘different’ I mean shorter and somehow clumpier (if that’s a word) than the rest. Why did I take her word for it? I don’t remember. Perhaps because that hair had beaten me on many occasions. It was about a year before the kids spilt the truth, that she’d been cutting her own hair at the back. Some time later, when I noticed her fringe had developed a straight line across her forehead and she denied all knowledge, I did not believe her.

For Ella, fashion and style have always been important, but she has come a long way since the thongs she insisted on wearing in Year 7. It wasn’t the thong itself that caused the problem, it was the way the top of the thong rested high above the top of the school trousers. This just didn’t seem appropriate for an 11-year-old, and after several traumatic mornings before school, we hid the thongs in the utility room. They remained in a bag, in a cupboard, for years.

One of the biggest pre-going-to-school arguments was about Vinnie’s ‘Mini-me‘ coat. He was ten and had become somewhat less concerned about his general appearance than during his Freddie days, and his favourite coat was a blue parka. This parka was just big enough for him to impress his friends by sitting down and curling his body into it to create a smaller self, a ‘Mini-me’, reminiscent of the Austin Powers character. Before long, they were all doing it. But boys get bigger and coats are designed to be worn, not curled up into. Soon, the parka was tearing, its soft lining making an appearance at regular intervals. In short, it was scruffy, and his mother bought him a new coat to replace it.

When I was a kid, my brother got the Scorcher comic every week, and one of the strips was ‘Billy’s Boots‘. These were old, scruffy boots from a different era that Billy had found and which, when he wore them, helped him to score amazing goals. When his grandmother threw them away and presented him with a spanking new (Seventies-style) pair for Christmas, he was distraught, and searched the bins for his old boots. Vinnie’s ‘Mini-me’ coat was like those boots. It conferred on him a sense of being, personality and performance. In it, he felt like the entertainer, and would sneak it on before you could say ‘Get that rag off and put your new one on.’ One day, I did say that, not wishing his mum to be exasperated yet again by his choice of outerwear. I might as well have just told him that both dogs had died. He became hysterical as we each pulled at Mini-me. I won the battle, but it’s one I wish I hadn’t started.

Today, the biggest problem with Vinnie is that his trousers have real difficulty staying up. No amount of ‘Did you know that fashion started on Death Row?’ will persuade him to hide his pants. Mind you, I can’t talk. It’s so difficult to get a good, old-fashioned pair of jeans that actually travel up over the hip that there’s many a time I’ve shown more of my backside than I’d planned.

And yes, they don’t let me forget it.





You’ve made your bed, now lie on it.

20 03 2013

The girls asked us not to ‘come out’. It wouldn’t just be embarrassing, it would be the end of their lives. They would be beaten up and bullied, forever ostracised. The boys weren’t too bothered, and never have been, but as I’ve said, they were younger. 

I didn’t mind keeping it quiet. It didn’t bother me that I wasn’t going to be shouting my mouth off about my new relationship. People close to us knew about it, and that’s all that mattered. Some people close to us did not approve, and that had been a big shock, so we became two women whose marriages had broken up and who decided that an affordable solution would be for all of us to share a house. In our defence, this wasn’t untrue. It just left out something rather significant.

When you’re in a ‘normal’ relationship, things pass you by. You don’t notice how women, when suddenly single, are viewed by others. A newly-divorced mum from the school playground once told  me that another divorcee had warned her about her new identity: ‘You’re single again, and the others will think you’re after their husbands.’ 

Nobody could accuse either Jen or I of being after anyone’s husband, but the husbands themselves certainly took a fresh interest. As for single dads, it was shocking how blind they could be to what was very obvious to many people. There we were, always together, always close, living in the same house, etc, etc. You didn’t have to be a Mastermind champion to make an educated guess about our situation, if you were at all interested. But I remember clearly having to lie to a rather persistent dad about Jen having a boyfriend who worked away. His poor little face fell at this news, but that didn’t stop him from telling me to tell her that he was a nice guy … as if he and I were in on the plot together. ‘Yeah, I’ll tell her. Of course I’ll tell her,’ I said, before fixing him with a steely ‘Shut your door on the way out’ look (I’m good at that one). 

The boys didn’t seem too concerned at having two mums, but they did know it was a bit of a secret. Oh, the power. I took six-year-old Vinnie to the optician one afternoon and in the dark lab, he was asked to relax back into the chair so that the optician could lean in and check his eyes.

‘is this how you lay back on the bed with Mum, Carol?’ Vinnie asked in the darkness. I was momentarily stuck for words. In fact I don’t think I recovered at all, just spluttered something, grateful that nobody could see me. Vinnie thought it was hilarious. He still does. 

Over time, things settled down and we were experiencing the same issues as any other family: moody children; hormones; the infamous ‘Year 8 child’; dodgy friends; homework dramas, and so on … Before long, we’d forgotten there was anything unusual about us. After all, we’d both doubled our child responsibilities, so there wasn’t time to gaze upon our respective navels. And over time, the children themselves settled into a way of life that they accepted. Having said that, we were still two families, two sets of likeness, two lots of family DNA.

It was never going to be straightforward.





Flip-reverse-it!

19 03 2013

How do you bring children from two families together in a new home? How do you help them come to terms with this new set-up? How do you make them feel that they each belong?

You don’t. They do it themselves.

We tried to talk to the girls, we tried to thaw out the lingering mistrust each had of their ‘stepmother’. And we held onto our boys, probably because their lack of years meant less disapproval. But … we weren’t that good at it, actually. Our miserable inability to convince the girls that life wasn’t that bad became clear the day Ella took a kitchen knife and threatened to stab herself. On the surface, this was because she’d wanted to get her hair cut and her mother had refused. Of course, it was nothing to do with the sudden whim of a precocious child pushing the envelope because she ‘could’. It was the manifestation of the despair caused by our actions, the tearing apart of our families, the willful destruction of all they had held dear.

This is how it went:

Me: Don’t be silly. You’re not going to stab yourself.

Ella: (holding the pointy end of the knife towards her chest) I am!!!

Me: Okay … if you must. But that’s my knife, and I’d rather you did it with one of your own.

Ella: How can I? I don’t have one! Mum’s left them all at the old house!

Me: So you’ll have to wait until you can go to the old house. Meanwhile, you’re not using mine.

She put the knife back. There’s something about ‘possession’ a nine-year-old understands.

It wasn’t all bad. Just when we were wondering how all this was going to pan out (not us, the kids) we became aware of a pattern. All four went to the same primary school and would arrive home together. As the weather improved, they would all four enter by the front door and, all four, disappear out of the back door into the garden. We would watch through the kitchen window, suddenly redundant, as they climbed onto the trampoline and began the daily ritual of the ‘game’, in which they would pretend to be … well … children … with different names and different lives. Ella was boss and dictated activities, most of which involved elaborate jumps and ‘act outs’. Each child had to get into the middle when it was their turn to be the focus, and for Vinnie, this involved devising new acrobatics. So was the Flip Reverse It born. Don’t expect me to describe it. If I asked him to help me out with that one today, I still wouldn’t get it. Suffice to say – I could never have done it myself.

Actually, that brings me to my own trampoline activity. It was limited, and involved climbing on and lying in the middle, whilst the children jumped around me. The aim was to make me bounce as high as possible, completely at the mercy of wherever they landed. I’m not a small person, so presented a challenge to this aim. Children love a challenge, especially if it results in the focus of that challenge begging to get off and suffering an electric shock in the process.

As the girls got older, the trampoline lost its usefulness (unless as a mass seating area for the thirteenth birthday parties). The boys, however, continued to play on it until they, too, lost interest.

Some years later, the trampoline had to go. It had fallen into rusty misuse and we needed to smarten the garden up for a remortgage valuation. I tried to cut the metal bits so that I could get them into the car and take them to the tip, but found this difficult. I called on the boys for help, not really believing they’d fare any better. How wrong I was. The next day, I transported several neat pieces of metal and canvas to the tip, each prepared by our boys.

Resonance?





Not an easy start …

17 03 2013

Suddenly having step-children is not simple. That’s all I’ll say on the matter. Except that it’s even less simple when the older step-children (one each) are so embarrassed by the fact that their mother has become a lesbian that when you go to pick them up from primary school they ignore you, walk down the road so that you follow in the car like a kerb crawler, and get in only when out of sight of their friends. The oldest is Ella, nine going on nineteen. ‘Do you love my mum?’ she said to me when we broke the news. I said absolutely, I do, but somehow I wasn’t so sure she believed me.

Second oldest is my daughter, Erica. She added to Ella’s discomfort by wearing her trademark novelty hats – each day a different one from her selection – although they did come together in a mutual discomfort over their respective mothers.

The boys, Max and Vinnie, were quite young, six and five respectively. Two more different boys you could not wish to meet, but being so young, they didn’t ‘get’ the scandal we’d caused. They didn’t ‘get’ it for quite a while.

As for scandal, well, you’d have thought we’d killed someone and planted the body in the primary school pond. We lived in a village, you see, in the south of England. We had a friend who said at the time that you couldn’t do things like this in a village. According to her, if you want to be a lesbian, you have to go to London. My partner pointed out to her that there were already three same-sex couples in our village, and they were the ones we knew about. She had to wind her neck in after that, but I suspect she went on an immediate fact-finding mission in order to disprove the theory. I don’t know what she found out as she hasn’t mentioned our relationship since, not in ten years. We don’t see her very often.

My partner, by the way, is Jen. She’s lovely, and a bit of a saint. You’ll find out why during this blog.

I’m Carol. I guess it helps to know that.

The following posts will describe events and incidents that have taken place in our household over the years. As I said in the previous post, I think we’re normal. I’ll leave you to decide if you agree.





Back to the beginning –

17 03 2013

This is the story of a blended family. There are four children, two dogs, two octogenarians and us. By ‘us’, I mean myself and my partner, and we are both women.

I look at young, childless couples and I think how their lives will change when they have children. I look at young couples with one child and I think how their lives will change when they have their second, or third, or fourth. I look at families with one dog and think how they might manage with two. I look at families with four children and two dogs and wonder how they’d cope if Gran and Grandad came to stay. I think about that family and I wonder how that family would look if both parents were women. And I find myself here, at the start …. it’s my family …. What on earth was I thinking?

In the beginning it was a whirl of romance, adjustment, prejudice, shock and joy. I won’t go into the details but rest assured that both dads are okay and see their kids all the time. That’s about the the only ‘given’. Other than that, there is absolutely nothing else that we can predict in this household and nothing we can take for granted. Ten years on, nothing has changed. Sometimes I feel as if we are living in a social experiment that is being televised without our permission: a cross between Big Brother and The Truman Show. And yet, despite all this, I think we are normal.

I think we are the most normal family on earth.