Summer Holiday 2020

Saturday 29 August 2020

This week STA Travel go out of business. I raise a nostalgic cup of coffee to them, recalling the thrilling day, long ago in 1989, when I bought my ‘round the world ticket‘ from their Euston Road store. With a smile, I recall having to write the cheque out three times! It was the largest purchase I’d even made and, faced with such a vast array of digits, I found it a challenge to get the decimal point into the correct place. STA, to me synonymous with youth, adventure and exploration. Furthermore, this 2020 week rolls onto Saturday, which heralds the start of the Tour de France in the gloriously vibrant city of Nice. This is the scene of a more recent grown-up holiday, and with happy memories of travels and foreign lands at every turn, I’m struggling a little to reflect favourably on a Summer spend mostly in my own back garden…

Yes what a strange 6 weeks for this self-confessed travel lover! I did learn, if not to like, at least to tolerate gardening itself. I planted flowers and tidied up paths. I staggered around with huge sacks of bark and ferried broken old fences and bag, upon bag of rubble to the tip. Without question however, the outdoor highlight was the inspired rebirth of Small Boy’s football goal … as a net for games of tennis … with our beach bat set! Now that actually was a lot of fun. To be fair, when you live with a child as inventive as Small Boy, fun can be found in the most unexpected scenarios…

Yes, here he is in 2016. About a year after we bought the footie net, we found our boy, finally despairing of finding any players in the ‘house of girls’, out in the garden having a kick about with many of the finest professionals of the day, including Ronaldo and Neuer! Whilst the print out faces catch the eye, I think my favourite feature is the garden rake playing the part of Neuer’s goalkeeper arms.

So it would be wrong to deny some very fond memories of the sunnier days of July and August. Garden games, garden reading, the occasional cheeky garden cocktail. More importantly, everyone so far safe and well. But there is no escaping the fact that I’ve found the lack of variety incredibly difficult. For July and August, I could easily substitute April and May. When did Spring become Summer? When did work really stop? (For the dramas of school results and school re-opening have certainly kept me chained to my work emails on a daily basis.) I love being part of a seasonal nation and Summer for me should distinguish itself with adventure, travel and new experiences. Instead I gear myself up to roll into a socially distanced Autumn wondering if we will even notice the summertide departure.

Well I guess the sunny days will lessen. So here’s hoping that Small Boy has some ideas for livening up ‘lounge life’….

A Level Results Day

Thursday 13 August 2020

It is A level results day. I haven’t slept. I am up at six. Pacing the house. Hoovering for no reason. Depositing half-drunk cups of coffee in several rooms. By the time my eldest disappears to her room, to view the 8 am grades, I am on the edge of bursting into tears.  Everything goes very, very quiet …until,

Mum, can you come here please?”

And then I do cry. My girl has the grades she needs. After four years of unbelievable slog, barriers and hurdles one of my children is off to Medical School. It is so fantastic. It is almost impossible to take in.

2020 will be marked in educational annals as the Covid exam year; when exams were cancelled and pupils were given calculated grades. It has caused a national uproar, centred on the disparity between the standardisation of state and private school results. I expect the chapters of this year’s grade awards still have further pages to turn. But as the story of our marathon to Medical School reaches its end, I can say with some surety that if you want to experience first-hand the battle to break into an elite circle from the outside and even just to be allowed your entitlement to ambition, tell the world that you want to become a doctor!

Even though it has been daunting, and at times demoralising, I don’t want to put anyone off.  I would do it all again in a breath. For this single mum, even without the final outcome, the whole experience has been an unforgettable rite of passage. Transporting me from life as a parent of a child, to becoming a parent of an amazing young adult, unique person and great friend. We have shared so much, and this includes laughter and fun as well as the tears and moments of despair. I have learned far more from my inspirational girl than I might ever hope to have taught her. It really has been some of the best of times…

Re-living the Journey – just for the record!

Initial reactions

Mid way through Year 10, my eldest took herself to an event for ‘Young Doctors‘ at Manchester Uni. She skipped back through the door, waving a sutured banana, utterly sold on the idea of a career in medicine. By the December of Year 11, her drive and determination were beginning to take my breath away. I offered to test her for mocks and instead ended up being educated by her, on the wonders of Biology and Chemistry. She clearly was the real deal and I started to tell others of her plans. My niece was super excited and bombarded us with helpful sites and advice. Everyone else, clearly thought we were deluded,

“Medicine! Isn’t that incredibly difficult?”

“Don’t you need really high grades?

That’s so hard to get into! Can she really stand out?”

The message seemed clear; that Medical school was ‘not for people like us‘. And to my shame, as I confess in my first ever blog post, I retreated into this world of self doubt. Fortunately, teachers, teachers at a local comprehensive school, did not. They recognised the talents and efforts of my unstoppable girl, and rewarded her with praise, encouragement and a ‘smash the glass-ceiling‘ attitude. In August 2018, she collected a stellar set of GCSE results, moved onto sixth form college and joined the ‘Medical Group’.

Work experience and volunteering

The group told us of the hoops we has to jump through in terms of volunteering and work experience. When it came to finding a way through them however, we were on our own. My daughter hit the phones and found herself a volunteering post at a local care home. But clinical ‘work experience ‘…

I set out with a naive belief in the existence of a  ‘system’ to support us. We applied to countless hospital trusts and council care home. Some rejected us. Others ignored us. Many said ‘no‘ to any clinical care or patient contact. It was dead end after dead end.

Now I believe in a comprehensive system. I work in the school comprehensive system. But I don’t believe any such a system exists for medical school applicants. And if the system fails, like any mum I am going to fight for my child. In January 2019, in a growing panic about work experience, I abandoned official channels and fell upon the mercy of a doctor friend. How fantastic was this friend? I honestly cannot do them justice in words. They sorted out a placement. They provided great work experience. And they did something even more valuable than that; they invested time, care and interest. They were there, long after the work experience week, to meet up, talk through and help understand what being a doctor meant; why being a doctor was so important.

In the meantime, my daughter moved onto the UKCAT.

UKCAT

Despite a national shortage of doctors, great GCSEs, high A Level predictions, work experience and a year of volunteering are not enough for our UK medical courses. Oh no! You also have to take a medical aptitude test, prior to University application. For us it was the UKCAT.

My eldest, prepped for it herself with a bank of online questions. She ground through  practice papers on our holiday in Spain, upon our return, at her dad’s … essentially in any space she could find. The tests were gruesomely tough. But so is my girl! She fought through to emerge with flying colours. Ranked in the top 3% of entrants, she was now free to apply to the UKCAT University of her choice. Her personal statement penned, we crossed our fingers and waited for an interview.

The Interview

Without doubt, for us this was the worst experience. Scheduled in December, the exhausted end of term weeks and always an overnight stay away,  they proved a mammoth ordeal. It was to our genuine amazement that, four gruelling interview ordeals later, surviving sets of 5 or 7 stations of: group tasks, role play, ethical discussions, communication challenges and an interrogation of her personal qualities she finally got 3 offers.

Which just left the small matter of some pretty high A level grades …

A Levels 2020

We could actually see the finishing line. February mocks went really well. Parents Evening was a dream. Revision schedules were on the wall. Exam dates were on the calendar. But who could have foreseen the curve ball of all curveballs that was heading our way? Covid 19!

Schools closed, exams cancelled. Teachers to predict and rank. Awarding bodies to churn it all through statistical machinations. And a generation of Year 13 students, exiled to wait 5 long months, now powerless to influence the outcome, to learn their fate…

We were back in the hands of teachers and have them to thank for their assessments, tracking and judgements. For their trust in a talent nurtured by interest, hard work and sheer grit. A level grades emerged from the calculations, not quite as high as predicted, but more than enough.

At last, the next stage beckons …

Hair-cut!

Wednesday 5 August 202

‘Hallelujah!

After 6 months of hair-style wilderness for the females in our house, I finally secure us an appointment at the local salon. Does it feel momentous? Why yes it does! So much so in fact that I even take before and after shots. Hairdresser Nina, you are a ‘magician!

The set up at the Covid-aware salon is an impressive one. Staff have changed their working hours and shifts to create separate teams. Hand sanitiser, masks and visors are everywhere. Customers now have to hang up their own coats and the frothy coffee, with a Biscoff biscuit, is a thing of the past. Nonetheless, it is an hour of more pampering and attention than I can remember for a very long time … and Nina has surprising news!

“Your hair is in a great condition!”

Yes it is overgrown. Yes it has lost all shape. Yes with a cute animal mask I could re-invent myself as a lion. But none of that is news to anyone that knows me. My Gaelic roots ensure that I have always gallavanted through life with a signature crown of ‘crazy hair’, capable of reaching epic proportions in the wind and rain. What is less well know, however, is that my hair takes my stress. I pick it. I twirl it. I tear it. I damage it. I have been ruining my locks since high school. Some years are worse than others. A year or so after my marriage break-up, it was so patchy I actually treated myself to hair extensions to give my real hair a chance to recover. It worked brilliantly. Not only was I warded off touching my hair by the fear that the costly tresses would fall out, but it also won me over psychologically. I saw how great my hair could look if only I could mend my ways.

Hair extensions (2011)

Sadly no effect lasts forever and the ensuing decade has been one of highs and lows for the old barnet. What I was not really not expecting was that 5 months of social distancing, which I have found a real struggle, would help, But it has. The ever-supportive Nina is delighted and fusses over my curls like a proud parent. I have to conclude that although it has been decidedly dull and dreary at times, Lockdown has clearly been less stressful for this stretched single mum than our pre-Corona calendar. My hair is doubtless very grateful. I am left trying to avoid scratching my head as I try to square the circle of returning to the best parts of ‘normal’ without ramping the levels of stress right back up again …

Staycation…

Sunday 2 August 2020

What a week! Challenged to keep myself sane with no car and then the re-introduction of Lockdown across Greater Manchester?

Originally, it was scheduled to be a few days of fun, as the teens, cases bulging, piled out of the house for a holiday with their ‘down south family’. After 5 intense months of solo-parenting, my calendar promised plans of hopping about for a few bright lights, late nights and fizz-fuelled reminders that sometimes to be a good mum, it is important to forget about being a mum! However, with trusty Toyota Windsor out of action, not only threatening to blow a 4 figure hole in my bank account, but also putting the brakes firmly on any road-trip plans, I call my more distant pals to cancel and gear myself up for an economical staycation.

I replan with gusto. I set up some local lunches and meetups for the second half of the week. To fill a couple of days near the start, and to save a few more pounds, I decide not to pay someone to tame the overgrown wilderness we call ‘the garden’, but to tackle it myself! Well, when I say ‘myself’ …

I do call upon one person to give me a lift to the garden centre and before I know it a team of gardening experts emerge from the ranks of friends and family to lend a hand. And I am thankful that they do; there is a lot of back breaking work. Indeed, by the time we finish, the stack of garden waste bags, appears to re-enact the final scenes of the ‘Feeding of the 5000

” …and the disciples picked up twelve basketfuls of broken pieces that were left over” (Matthew 14 v 13-21)

I have definitely earned a treat and, like a divine domino effect, as the garden is hauled into some sort of shape, I roll seamlessly into the the more social events of my stay-local week. On a sunny Thursday afternoon, I manage a Prosecco and strawberry picnic in the park. As I am dropped off, I allow myself the foolish optimism of thinking that the week is really going rather well. That same Thursday night, smiling and tipsy, I flick on the TV and the news report on the Greater Manchester Lockdown, freezes my grin and brings me crashing back to sobriety.

… from midnight tonight, people from different households will not be allowed to meet each other…” (Matthew Hancock)

Oh my goodness! For this single mum, the return to social restrictions feels like the prison door slamming shut. Saturday night restaurant plans – up in smoke. Monday lunch plans – down the drain. No-one even allowed in to help with the garden anymore! Those divine forces clearly have other plans for me this week … at least there’s gin in the cupboard …

Thanks Dad …

Thursday 29 August 2019

Today is a day when my family past and my family present reunite, joined by fond memories of one man, my wise and generous father.

It’s a nervous morning, the date of the UKCAT for my eldest, and a very early start. By 07:30 am, we have forced down a bit of breakfast, driven through Manchester’s rush hour and parked near the city-centre testing venue. As we approach the building however I am stopped in my tracks. It is the very same building that my Dad worked in, many years ago, in his days as an advertising executive. I feel a wave of optimism sweep over me. This is surely a sign!

“Pops is bound to be looking down on you today.” I hear myself telling my daughter ” It must be a good omen!”

She does attempt a brave smile, but is still looking rather green as she is registered in the exam room and I am directed to the waiting area.

Over a very welcome latte, I try to settle down to some work but my mind drifts into memories of my father. Dad didn’t set out to be any kind of advertising executive. He was a musician and also worked as a cinema manager, in the more glamorous era of regional premieres and red carpets, in the 1960s. He and mum used to tell of fun nights, early in their marriage, spent watching new releases, feet up on the seats with bottles of beer, after the cinema had closed. And then … me and my brothers came along. And it turns out that jobs with late nights and concerts and gigs, just didn’t fit with family life. So he gave it all up, took exams, retrained …and joined a catalogue firm. And I realise, with a truly humbling shock, that it must have been awful, completely soul destroying. But I never heard him complain once. Dad did it all for us.

Now I do complain … a lot. I complain about my job. I complain about not being free to play in every concert that I hear about. I complain about money. I complain about…..too blinkin’ much! Great parents have been quietly putting their families ahead of their personal hopes and dreams for time immemorial. And one of them did that all for me. The very least I can do, in honour of that memory, is to either just get on with things or take action to improve things, but whatever I decide, ditch the moaning! Feeling suddenly focused and very sure of what I do want to do, I fire up my laptop and give my full attention to polishing my presentation for that scary extra-job interview next week.

I am interrupted by my eldest, who emerges, delighted with her UKCAT results, and we head home feeling fantastic. Back at the house, Prom-dress daughter is in full flow, redesigning Small Boy’s room to better suit his new bed. Her total excavation of every drawer, box and corner of his dusty den has unearthed three Nintendo DS consoles, and the teens pounce upon these and retreat into their own nostalgia trip down memory lane. Now the notion that a DS is already a part of history does make me feel completely ancient, but today I don’t mind at all. Hey I am the old person in this house. I am the parent and proud to be so. There’s only one way for me to celebrate. I may not have a new film release but I do have Netflix. I grab a beer, get my feet up on the seats and toast the skies, “Thanks Dad!”