‘Eat your ice-cream, Erica,’ …. Holidays (1).

20 04 2013

It’s hard work blending families, getting to know one another, realising the full extent of what you’ve done and navigating all of the unexpected pitfalls that come your way. Pitfalls such as friends, or, I should say, people you thought were your friends. The ones who whisper, when you’re out of earshot, ‘Where does your mum sleep, Ella?’ Remember – we weren’t ‘out’. Just two women who had separated from their partners and begun sharing a house. Whatever you might think of that, it’s the way it was. And friends were the biggest surprise. A couple of close ones told me to be careful or I could lose my kids. They also thought it was okay for me to keep their secrets (that bed in the front room actually being slept in by the husband; secret business plans; mental health issues) but not to keep mine. There were, of course, the friends who saw nothing at all unusual in what we were doing and as a result disagreed heartily with us keeping it quiet. And then the real surprises – the people we’d never really ‘clicked’ with before, coming out in support and ending up being the kinds of friends you’re glad to have. Thank you to those friends. It meant a lot.

So … after all that … we needed a holiday. We ended up having two the first year – one to a nuns’ retreat on the Isle of Wight (interesting, that one, but good and happy) and one to Estartit in Spain. Seven of us went on both of these trips because my ex came as well. Do you think that’s odd? It didn’t feel so at the time. It felt perfectly normal, especially when his new partner joined us for a few days at the nuns’ house. 

What do I remember about these two holidays in that first, heady year of change? Well … they were happy, as I’ve said, and I remember that Vinnie had to sleep in an unusually long bed during the first holiday … and the showers were strange and a man nearby brought us some fresh mackerel he’d caught … and, oh … all sorts of things. Close by was a decidedly posh hotel, so we had to be on our mettle. Four loud, funny, obnoxious and occasionally foul-mouthed kids did not typify the clientele.

For Estartit we booked a cheap townhouse with shared pool. The weather had its moments, it being September, and the place was nice. But I have two overriding memories, both involving Ella. 

The first was her sudden desire to make a new friend. As the outside area was shared, she’d spotted her prey early on – a Spanish girl about the same age who appeared to have no brothers or sisters. Ella had a phrase book and practised from it for hours. Eventually, armed with the Spanish for ‘Would you like to play a game?’ or some such phrase, she plucked up the courage to go over and speak. We waited with baited breath for the result. She returned much sooner than expected.

Jen: What did she say?

Ella: No.

Bless … And when I say ‘prey’ I’m being unfair. Ella was just ten and it was in the days before she became the more precocious version of herself. We were both proud of her for trying and both could see something she couldn’t, that it was most likely just embarrassment and lack of language on the other girl’s part that made her say no. I suggested that Ella persist, but she’d been bitten.   

The other memory is definitely more characteristic of Miss Precocious, and for me, hugely funny. We were sitting round a table in a small restaurant. All of the other tables were occupied, so we must have presented as an interesting group – one man, two women, four children, chattering away in English … loudly. 

Everything was fine until the dessert. The kids all chose ice-cream because it was always so spectacular. They were pretty quiet for a while, until we noticed that Ella had decided to ‘perform’. 

Ella: Eat your ith-cream, Erica.

Yes. Ella has suddenly developed a lisp.

Ella: Eat it, Erica! Eat your ith-cream. 

Erica, unsurprisingly, finds this funny, and so can’t eat her ice-cream.

Ella: Eat it! It’th nith.

I find it funny. It’s the kind of thing that sets me off.

Ella: What’th wrong with your ith-cream? It’th very nith! 

Erica and Max’s dad is finding this funny. As are Max and Vinnie.

Ella: Dethpite what they thay, ith-cream ith very good for you.

The people on the other tables noticed, probably because of five people’s uncontrollable mirth. I say ‘five’, because, of course, Ella had never been more serious in her life. But Jen, well … Jen finds things like this difficult. Having Ella ‘perform’ was one thing, but having the eyes of the restaurant on us was quite another. She put down her napkin and got up.

Jen: I’m going to the loo.

Ella, being the only one who can speak, is concerned.

Ella: What’th up Mum? Ith thomething wrong?


Perhaps you had to be there, but it was funny, despite Jen’s discomfort. What else do I remember about that holiday? Oh yes, more discomfort for Jen when it appeared I hadn’t brought enough money to the supermarket, so we had to wait while a queue formed behind us as the sour-faced checkout woman painstakingly cancelled the ‘unnecessary’ items, like chocolate biscuits and ice-lollies (we kept the beer and wine) on the cash register one-by-one. And speaking of money, when we arrived back at Stansted Airport I was stopped by someone carrying out a ‘government survey’ and one of the questions was about how much spending money I’d taken to Estartit. £700, I told her, for just over a week. Seven hundred pounds! Who would ever have thought I’d be nostalgic for the relative cheapness of the year 2003? Seven hundred pounds?!  (Sorry to go on … but I find this unbelievable …) By 2010, seven hundred pounds would have lasted about three-and-a-half days on a holiday abroad with the six of us, and as a result, we don’t do it anymore. (The following posts will give a taste of our holidays from 2004-2010, but back to Estartit …)

It was lovely to walk along the beach front at night and watch the children’s delight in those giant elastic bands that sweep you up and dangle you, then drop you, then lift you up again. We loved their cries of joy and squeals of excitement. Every evening it was the same, and I was taken back to holidays of my own (albeit in Colwyn Bay), and the childlike joy in simple pleasures. Bless our children of six, seven, nine and ten. We could take them anywhere. 

We had no idea.


The language of washing up

7 04 2013

I once asked Jen the following question: If she or I ever hosted Come Dine With Me, what kind of entertainment would we provide? She answered in a flash: ‘We’d let them watch the kids do the washing up.’ 

Oh yes. The washing up. I could visualise the scoring. They’d sit there in that taxi, all blurry-eyed because we’d plied them with alcohol and, if I’d hosted, the comments would go something like: Tried her best, food okay, took a long time, but top rank entertainment. I give her a 7 because the entertainment was so good. If Jen hosted, the comments would go something like: amazing food, top rank entertainment. I give her a 10.

Seriously, though, Jen does do a great haddock starter. She could go on that show if she weren’t so mortified at the thought of it. But I digress …

The ‘washing up situation’ started ten years ago. In the beginning, we tried to be fair. The girls were old enough to start doing a bit, although I had a hard time convincing Ella that washing up did not consist of holding items, one by one, under a running tap. They learned as time went on, and this became an after dinner job, so that some kind of routine was established. When Max turned seven, he joined the team, and so, after another year, did Vinnie. 

If you’d been around at that time and saw how they ‘negotiated their roles’, and if you are a liberal-minded do-gooder who only thinks the best of the world, you’d probably say it was a valuable exercise in learning about democracy, turn-taking and individuality. We didn’t see it like that. We viewed the atomic explosion that characterised ‘doing the kitchen’ as something we might be able to change if we intervened. We were wrong, so shut the door on them and left them to it.

And that’s how things continued. We would eat, clear the table, get them all in the kitchen and shut the door. We became used to the screams, hurls of abuse and loud banging noises. One night, a friend was in the lounge, chatting away to us when suddenly he stopped as if listening to something. We didn’t know what had caught his attention until we realised it was the usual background noise. ‘Are they all right, Carol?’ our friend asked. ‘Yeah, sure!’ I said, ‘they’re just doing the washing up.’

We learned early on that children brought together in the way ours had been make their own rules about how to proceed. Much like the stories I heard recently about hierarchy on the school bus (Year 9 at the back, Year 8 in the middle, Year 7 at the front), our four developed their own hierarchy, and this was regularly played out during the washing up.

We moved house after three years. We found a house that was detached, but cheapish, and, best of all, set apart from its neighbours. The benefit of this was, and still is, that nobody has to put up with the swearing. The downside is that the kitchen, where the ‘washing up’ is still done, serves also as a kind of sitting room, especially in the winter. This means it is not so easy to shut the door on them and leave them to it. It also means that the whole event has provided entertainment for guests on many an occasion. Jen’s late grandfather, for instance, used it to suss out each child’s tactic – Vinnie’s penchant for walking around the kitchen with a tea towel across his shoulder, or Vinnie’s habit of disappearing to the toilet for ‘a long ‘job’ as soon as the tap was turned on, for instance. Funny how it’s usually Vinnie …

But onlookers make assumptions. The periods of inactivity by one or other member of this kitchen team could be misleading. I made the mistake one night of questioning it:

Carol: Why are you just standing there, Erica, when those two are getting on with it?

Erica: There’ s nothing for me to do yet.

Carol: There’s loads to do. Max and Ella are hard at it, and where’s Vinnie?

Erica: Yes. I’m waiting to do my job.

Carol: Why? Why don’t you just help Max and Ella dry up?

Erica: Because I’m putting away. 

Carol: But if you help with the drying up now, they can help you with the putting away. Where is Vinnie?

Ella: He’ll be in the loo.

Erica: You don’t understand, Mum. We each have our jobs. We do our jobs.

Carol: But that’s stupid. I don’t understand why you can’t all do what needs doing at the same time and make the whole thing about five times quicker.

Erica: Because we each have our own jobs, Mum. We have a system and it works.

Carol: No it doesn’t because you’re standing around doing nothing.

Erica: Yes! But I’ll be putting away in a minute. And Vinnie will do sides and table.

Carol: Why can’t Vinnie dry up? 

Erica: Because you can’t dry up if you’re doing sides and table, and you can’t put away if you’re doing washing or drying.

Carol: So what determines who washes?

Erica: Whoever did the dishwasher.

Carol: I don’t get it. 

Erica: (sighs heavily. This is such hard work) if you do the dishwasher, you don’t wash. You can dry, or put away, but you don’t do sides and table because you only do that if you don’t do the dishwasher.

Carol: So what’s Vinnie’s job tonight? And where is he? (shouts) Vinnie!!

Erica: He’s doing sides and table.

Carol: Because he did the dishwasher?

Erica: (sighs again) No! You only do sides and table if you didn’t do the dishwasher. 

Carol: But if he’s not here washing or drying, he’s getting away with half a job.

Ella: I owed him half a job from that time I had to go out straight after dinner.

Carol: Do you keep some kind of tally, or what?

Max turns round.

Max: Mum. We’ve got a system, and it works. Leave us alone.

Carol: But it takes you nearly an hour to do what I could do in ten minutes! I want to watch the TV in peace!

Erica: (finally beginning to ‘put away’) You couldn’t do this job in ten minutes, Mum. You just couldn’t.

Carol: I could.

Erica: You could if you’d cooked, but Jen’s cooked.

She had a point. Jen and I are very different when it comes to preparing food and the kids have mixed feelings about who is cooking. If it’s me (because I do, occasionally, cook dinner) they’re happy that there won’t be much washing up (as I’ll have done most of it whilst cooking,) and if Jen has cooked, they know that there will be a big washing up job (because she tends to leave it), but at least they’ll have had some decent food.

We’re ten years down the line in this relationship/blended family/Waltons/Texas Chainsaw Massacre thing. The rules are still the same. Did I mention that the exchange described above happened about two weeks ago? (And Vinnie is probably still in the loo …)

Learning Japanese

2 04 2013

Jen’s got a wicked sense of humour. We do laugh at the same things (I guess that’s one of the reasons we’re a couple), but I swear my ability to laugh at the world around me has developed under Jen’s influence. Was it her idea to teach the children Japanese or mine?

Jen: We’ve been learning Japanese. Do you want to hear some?

All four of them: Okay/all right/Japanese?/Why?

Jen: Okay … so … first of all, this is how you say ‘Have you got the time, please?’

Carol: Hon-da-pan-a-so-neek. You must also make sure you tap your wrist as you say it, so that the person you’re asking knows you’re asking for the time, and not something else that sounds like Hon-da-pan-a-so-neek.

Jen nods as the kids repeat this, each tapping their wrists as they do.

Jen: If you want to know where the toilets are, you need to say toy-o-taaaaa. Like that, with the emphasis on the aaaaaa.

They repeat it, dutifully.

Carol: And if you want to say ‘sorry’, it’s mit-soob-eesh-i.

All four of them: Mit-soob-eeshi-i.

Jen: And ‘thank you’ is min-olt-aaaa.

All four of them: Min-olt-aaaa. That’s so cool. We can speak Japanese!

Erica (puzzled) They sound a bit like cars …

Jen: We’ll keep updating you as we learn more.

And then it was forgotten. We moved on to something else, probably Max’s teacher’s despair at my inability to get him to school on time (during one particularly good period, she sent me a ‘Well done’ postcard home.) Or Erica’s boyfriend, Jim. The one she’d never met (she was 10). Or perhaps the phone rang, and Ella answered it. We’d know if it was a call centre because she’d put on an accent and say ‘Hallo?’ over and over again.

So, it was some time later that the kids asked us for another Japanese lesson.

Jen: Oh yeah!

She is laughing now. The kids are puzzled.

Carol: Tell them.

Ella: Tell us what?

Jen: Do you remember the words we taught you?

All four of them (quite proud, as a matter of fact) Yeah!

Jen: Say them out loud.

All four of them: (tapping their wrists) Hon-da-pan-a-so-neek.

Jen: Now say it quicker.

All four of them: Honda Panasonic.

The penny is dropping. They try out one or two more.

Ella/Erica: Toyota.

Erica: Mitsubishi. I told you they sounded like cars.

Max: You were tricking us!

We laugh, because it’s funny.

Jen/Carol: Yeah!

Ella: Oh my god!

Carol: What?

Ella: We’ve told our friends. We’ve been giving them lessons!

They are not happy. Oh no, they are so not happy.


But we thought it was hilarious.