Monday, 29 June 2009

say quoi?

I had the pleasure of the company of two delightful boys this week, grandsons of a friend of mine, who were on a month’s tour of Europe, visiting relatives in the UK and Ireland before returning to their home in Delhi.

The boys, eight and ten, were charming, beautiful and fluent in French and Hindi. They spoke in their mother tongue, English, with a faint Irish accent.

I met them while Snooks and I were hanging around in the foyer of a church hall where we had retreated as Snooks’ attempts to take part in the discussion inside were not being appreciated.

The boys were waiting for grandma and were instructed by her (an Irish matriarch of the old school) to entertain Snooks. “Tell him a story,” she ordered, before disappearing back into the meeting.

I looked at them in dismay. I didn’t think even I was capable of telling him a story, despite my inside knowledge of his cast of favourite characters (Daddy, Iggle Piggle, Clairebear and Barney the Dog), let alone these sleepy looking youngsters. I expected they would ignore this instruction and go back to the bored lolling they were doing when we arrived, regardless of grandmother’s wishes.

But to their great credit, within minutes, the boys came up with a game, which combined football with a bit of tickling, pulling faces and chasing. Spanning the age difference with gorgeous grace, these lovely lads engaged Snooks in play, which they let him lead but they nevertheless seemed to be enjoying.

It was a relief from the daily clattering Snooks gets from older toddlers at playgroups where anger and frustration are more in evidence than cooperation and tolerance, virtues which maybe these two year olds have not yet had time to learn.

It was also a far cry from the picture of aggression and testosterone-fuelled rebellion painted by Steve Biddulph (see oh boy!) as the natural development of young boys who have not been correctly nurtured.

As I pondered whether moving to Delhi was the key to raising happy boys (actually I asked my brother once how he had produced three such lovely children and he said he told them he loved them, every day. Delhi wasn’t mentioned) the younger of the two came over to talk to me.

"He speaks French," he announced in that marvellous matter-of-fact way children have of informing you of major events.

"Really," I answered, trying not to sound incredulous but with enough doubt in my voice to let this young fry know I was no fool.

A pair of watery green impassive eyes fixed me gently. He was obviously going to have to explain it to this mono-lingual unbeliever. He reminded me of Antoine de Saint-Exupery's Little Prince, perplexed by adults who can’t tell a drawing of a boa constrictor which has swallowed an elephant, from a drawing of a hat.

“He says balle and quoi. That means ball and what," he said, slowly and clearly.

It was true. He does say those things. Green-eyes had asked me earlier, before the games began, if Snooks could talk, assessing how best to approach grandma’s task, and I had said no, he was too young. I had clearly got it wrong.

“Well actually his cousins speak French," I said, throwing in a misleading fact, which only confirmed for him my lack of attention to my son’s linguistic development.

In fact distance in age and geography mean that unless Snooks is communicating with them telepathically, in French, he could not have picked up his cousins’ Gallic tongue.

Anyway the thing was, I wanted green eyes to be right, or at least to think he was right and so the case was closed and he ran off to tickle Snooks while wrestling the ball from him.

I was sorry when it was time to go and I had to break up the game and persuade Snooks back into the buggy for the long walk home.

“We’ll go home via the park so you can get out and run around on the grass for a bit,” I told him as I strapped him in with the aid of a sugar-free elephant-shaped banana-flavoured biscuit.

D’accord,” he replied cheerfully.

Green eyes shrugged and waved bye bye.

Monday, 22 June 2009

domestic bliss

My son is on his way to becoming every girl’s (or boy’s) dream.

As I have mentioned once or twice before he is quite extraordinarily handsome (he just walked in here in his stripy Barnacle Bill t-shirt), has an easy laugh and a good grasp of the basics of kissing.

Most teenage girls settle for far less.

But there’s more. He can add to this fine personal profile a penchant for housework and in particular a keen understanding of the workings of the washing machine and tumble dryer.

Now at first I did not encourage this. I thought it was a fad and just waited for it to pass. But then it dawned on me as I battled to keep him out of the way while I whisked baskets and baskets of washing out of one appliance and into the other, that there could be another way. I should heed that famous pearl once delivered by former Prime Minister John Major, “Better to have them inside the tent pissing out than outside pissing in.” (I'm guessing he was referring to those pesky party faithfuls who never got over his succession to That Woman - but you get my drift.)

So I changed tack and started to teach little Snooks how to feed dirty washing into the washer drum, how to wait for the conditioner to go into the drawer before shutting it, how to shut the drum door and finally how to press the ‘On’ button, just once.

I see you more experienced parents nodding. Ah yes. She will regret that. Once he knows how to do ‘On’ he will soon move on to ‘Off’ and will employ his new talent to quietly sabotage future washes, secretly halting the programme to leave all our essentials unwashed and forgotten until moments before we need them. Oh yes, I have foreseen it all.

But so far, such rapprochement has brought only domestic harmony. I let him press the button; he does not put the clean washing down the toilet. I let him put it into the dryer; he does not drag the freshly laundered bedding around the garden attached to the back of his Combi.

And it does not stop there.

Just yesterday I found myself partaking in some voluntary Hoovering, partly to pick up the bits of organic-carrot-cake-made-with-oats-and-no-sugar-but-something-very-orange-which-stains-like-nothing-on-earth bar, which Snooks had spread from one room to the next, but mainly to entertain him.

You see, he is now the proud owner of his very own mini Electrolux upright, which is lovingly stored next to his cot each night where he can see it first thing the next morning ready for a new day of busy, busy, busy (if only it actually worked!) cleaning.

However, cute as it was to watch, I had to admit that he could hardly be mirroring me, as the times he has seen me use a vacuum cleaner can be counted on your one free rubber-gloved hand. The Engineer asked me once, when Snooks was about three months old, if he was afraid of the vacuum cleaner. I stumbled over the answer a bit, considered lying, and eventually answered truthfully that I had no idea.

This does not mean we have three months worth of dust on our carpets, I should add. It just means that I run away to the park during the weekly visit by the cleaner, too embarrassed to be here while she cleans around me.

So at the risk of filling Snooks’ head with any silly ideas about women’s role in life (a friend recently said how she regretted asking her three-year-old daughter what she wanted to do when she grew up, to be told “Nothing mummy, like you.”) I rummaged around in the hall cupboard and emerged with the real deal, vrooming up and down alongside him, and actually making some impact on the cake debris.

There may be a danger that Snooks could turn what many consider to be demeaning, domestic drudgery endured by women trapped in their homes with lively toddlers, into fun.

But don’t tell anyone.

Saturday, 13 June 2009

everything I told you yesterday was completely wrong

These were the words once used by a hapless press officer, back when I was a jobbing journo, after I had written several pages of news based on the information she had given me about one of the biggest stories to break in my career.

It was a moment to remember, and was bad, so bad that I burst out laughing.

In the event, the news editor and I re-wrote everything on deadline, using the new, correct information. It was a close call.

Anyway, the point is, the phrase keeps coming into my mind and has actually been quite helpful – a kind of mantra - each day I spend with the 15 month old Snooks whose knack for reinventing himself challenges the chameleon crown of even the great Madonna herself.

Just as I think I have got it – he likes bread but no butter, he can walk up stairs but not down, he has one long nap instead of two short ones – it changes.

It is exhausting and bewildering and at times embarrassing.

So it was that during our holiday these last two weeks, when I was frequently asked by the Engineer, “Does he like this?" or "Does he do that?” I could only mutter the unhelpful response, “Well he might, but then again he might not.”

I was aware that it might have appeared to someone less understanding than the Engineer, that despite spending every waking hour with him, I barely know our son at all.

But it only took a couple of days swinging around the anchor of Snooks’ moving naptime, before the Engineer got it and knew there would be no helpful answers forthcoming any time soon.

It would go something like this.

“So we should set off for the beach?” the Engineer would ask each morning.


“Even though he looks like he might fall asleep?”


“Because he might not, and then we are just sitting here waiting for something which might not happen.’


“With a tired but restless toddler cooped up in an apartment so lacking in baby-proofing we might as well just call an ambulance and have them park outside for the next fortnight?”

OK so he didn’t actually say that last bit but that was what went through my head each time we had the conversation.

Pretty soon the Engineer had rigged up a beach camp, which enabled the whole range of possible outcomes:

a) Snooks falls asleep as soon as we get there so needs a shady bed on the sand

b) Snooks is impossibly wired and so needs to run up and down the beach for hours in the scorching sun

c) Snooks has pooed unexpectedly so needs a change of clothes, a wash, a feed and a nap

d) I need to sleep while being able to see Snooks with that weird I-am-asleep-but-still-know-where-you-are mother thing.

In the evening, dining at our usual restaurant with the sea roaring below, we faced the usual parental quandary – “What will be good and nourishing for him to eat/ what will he actually eat?” settling most of the time for spaghetti Bolognese and ice cream.

In fact Snooks’ passion for grapes and cheese (which he shares with his father – can you inherit food preferences?) means where ever we are, he usually has the main food groups covered.

And then nightfall, instead of rest, brought its own heated deliberations: is he too hot wearing the mosquito repelling night shirt I insist on, can he sleep in the contraption provided by the owner which has a wooden base so hard, even the most devout monk would refuse it and can someone reach in and steal him through those shutters even though we are here in the room?

I recalled, as I lay awake listening for any evidence of the above, that the family holidays of my childhood were clearly not a relaxing experience for my mother, and I silently sympathised with her for the torture which must have been four small children in the rickety and sometimes downright dangerous old places we stayed in.

Despite all the unanswerable questions, we still managed to have a marvellous time and Snooks returned to England a slightly stronger, somewhat blonder boy who runs headlong into crashing waves.

The shifting sands of Snook-time eventually forced us all to do exactly what you should do on holiday, to let go.