Mums, daughters and retail therapy!

Saturday 19 February 2022

Nipping neatly onto a train in the brief lull between Storm Dudley and Storm Eunice, my Eldest pops home for the weekend.

Hip hip hooray – let’s shop until we drop!

We may open our weekend curtains to thick snowfall. Our first taxi may be a no-show. But we are undaunted. Buttoned up to the nines, gripping umbrelllas for dear life and sprayed by countless cars, we slosh off to the bus stop.

One double-decker ride and a Manchester Metrolink later we step out into the city centre. Our mission? Sprucing up Spring wardrobes … and having a fabulous time! I am happy to report that Cottonopolis does not disappoint. After three glorious hours, we sink into comfy seats for a well earned coffee, brandishing impressive numbers of bags and purchases. Jeans, bargain-jumpers, ‘going-out’ tops, shoes…and we both feel great.

So here’s the question? They call it retail ‘therapy’ but… is shopping actually good for you?

Marie Claire report that it is, in their 2018 article, Shopping is actually good for your mental health and science proves it, and they cite a rather complex survey carried out by The Journal of Consumer Affairs, which examines the role of shopping for those battling with the very serious challenge of grief. For many of us, heading out to splash some cash, will be for more trivial reasons, however, there is definitely commonly a notion of self-care: cheering yourself up, deciding to treat yourself or just to brighten yourself up by have something new to wear. And there are plenty of studies that support the notion that a shopping spree will do just that and lift our mood for various reasons: distraction, social interaction, feeling ‘in control’ and feeling satisfaction at having saved up for a purchase are just a few discussed in WebMD’s article, Is Retail Therapy for Real?

A day of flexing the credit card is, some suggest, also great way to strengthen the mother-daughter bond, for whilst shopping with toddlers is surely a trauma most parents are only too keen to forget, trips out with your offspring, as they emerge into early teen years can be really enjoyable. A great context to allow some time together and to acknowledge burgeoning independence, as your children now start to take control over what they want to wear. Does it work for the teenagers because they like the fact that you are paying and for parents because, if you are like me, clothing choices are ones we tend to feel pretty relaxed about? I am not sure; but I would concur with, Parenthub who observe that,

This struggle for independence can be fraught with conflict and stress, yet interestingly our results indicate that the shopping environment is a safe place to express this independence.”

It can, of course, be expensive and in our household this simply meant that we only went occasionally. But I reckon that this in turn made our retail adventures seem extra special and times to be excitedly anticipated and cherished.

Whatever the ins and outs, we have certainly had a lovely time today. I do smile as I compare the very different brands we have purchased. Mine bear the distinct hall-marks of established British high street stalwarts, whereas my Eldest has made a bee-line for fresher, trendier more current labels. That aside, it as been a jointly successful day and, as my ‘bargain jumper’ was such a steal, there is even some money left for a cheeky cocktail or two which is a definite “Woohoo and cheers all round…”

Crowd surfing passengers to the loo…

Monday 14 February 2022

First TransPennine Express and the industry regulator The Office of Rail and Road… have jointly commissioned this research to find out how satisfied you were with the handling of a complaint you made to First TransPennine Express…”

The message lands in my email inbox, at the start of the month. Keen to have a say on this occasion, I fill out their suggested questionnaire promptly. When, 2 weeks later I’ve heard nothing, I decide instead to share the complaint-in-question in this week’s blog. Back to November we go …

The occasion was Prom-dress daughter’s weekend trip home from the Scottish capital which coincided with Storm Arwen hitting the British Isles. And Arwen caused travel carnage. The train schedule was a catalogue of disruption and delay, so we were surprised when my daughter’s return journey was not amongst them and found ourselves setting to Piccadilly as planned.

On platform 14, we descended together … into a scene of utter chaos. Because this was one operational service in a deluge of cancellations, everyone wanted to be on it! Crowds were seething in all directions in the sort of numbers you see when Old Trafford empties out. But unlike the end of a large sporting fixture, when experienced marshals and police manage the crowds with authority, there were no rail staff to be seen.

As the slightly delayed train pulled into the station, a lone windswept and harried guard scurried out with his flag and watched the assembled passengers surging forward to cram into the carriages. Prom-dress daughter was frozen to the spot for a moment but, colour drained from her face, also scrambled aboard and I saw her standing in a corridor near the doors.

No seat mum, but I do have a space to stand…it is completely packed!”

came the text.

My horrified eyes now scanned the rest of the train, as more and more people pushed themselves through the doors. I watched the train stutter out of the station, rammed to the rafters. Faces and bodies pressed against windows and doors. And I felt fear….

Who is in charge?” I asked the guard “It looks ridiculously crowded… is it safe?”

I was told that there were only 3 members of staff, one of whom was the driver, caring for what were clearly hundreds and hundreds of passengers.

Back into the main part of the station, I queued to report my concerns. A manager was tannoyed to come and speak to me but he swiftly waived my concerns aside and reassured me that safety was his ‘number one concern’ and that when the train was judged to be full, new passengers would be stopped from boarding.

This turned out not to be the case. At each of the 9 stops, more and more people were allowed to force their way into the carriages. My daughter sent only occasional texts, as she struggled to find the room to raise her phone to eye level. No-one could move a muscle. One of the most shocking reports was that passengers needing the toilet had to be ‘crowd surfed’ in by fellow travellers. Trainline recorded a staggering 87 crowd alerts.

And this continued for hours and hours. I contacted TransPennine. I contacted the transport police. I contacted Trainline. Everyone was concerned but no-one had a plan of action. One operator assured me that she would relay these concerns onto the train personnel and my daughter later told me that for the final 30 minutes of the journey, there were regular messages giving out an emergency number for any passengers in distress. Was that due to me… no idea!

As no-one else seemed willing or able to take control, I eventually texted

“Just get off at the next station”

My child replied,

I cant…I cant even see where the exit is anymore…”

and I no longer knew what to do to help, other than pray!

Thankfully they made it to Edinburgh but my relief has now given way to real anger and I repeat the question I asked of the guard back in Manchester

Who is in charge?”

I do not for one moment want to suggest that our trains are consistently unsafe, but they were on this occasion and it cannot have been unexpected. Storm Arwen had caused over 24 hours of train cancellations prior to this service being allowed to run. Any Tom Dick or Harry could have predicted high demand for limited seats so,

Where were the extra staff to manage this and keep people safe?”

Secondly, I was told that if the train was deemed too crowded that new passengers would not be permitted to board. Well, if 87 crowd alerts, passengers being crowd-surfed to the loo and bodies and faces pressed against windows and doors are not indicators for this… what exactly are? What further metrics are we looking for? How much more shocking do the standards have to be before anyone takes action?

Thirdly I was told that safety was a ‘number one priority’. Well, on this service no-one could budge an inch and this included the 2 train staff who were unable to move through the carriages and corridors to check on passenger well-being. So how on earth would they even have known if anyone was in distress? In my daughters cramped corridor there was an elderly lady, medically advised not to stand for long periods of time. She had to abandon her fold down seat and stand as the seating simply took up too much space.

It is unacceptable and down to a clear lack of leadership. There appeared to be no-one able to make a decision. No-one with the courage, clarity and care to stand up and say

“Enough is enough! No more people on this train. It is not safe”

Why did this not happen? Was is money; fear of compensation and refunds? I have certainly been pointed towards refunds and financial claims but I haven’t made them because I don’t want a refund. I just was assurance that this will not happen again.

I await a response from First TransPennine Express and the industry regulator The Office of Rail and Road

The best laid (birthday) plans …

Sunday 6 February 2022

February arrives, bringing birthday season to our house, as within very quick succession, my eldest waves goodbye to her teenage years and Small-boy turns sixteen.

My first-born celebrates away at Uni-land, which just leaves me to plan something momentous for my son. The first treat is his other sister, Prom-dress daughter, who pops home for the weekend and certainly raises a smile. We re-unite with a Friday Chinese and a movie before Saturday dawns; she head out to meet pals for a ‘bottomless brunch’ and my son and I spruce up the house. .. because ‘the boys’ are coming round.

Now I learned a very important ‘teenage party lesson’ several years ago when my eldest turned 18! (Coming of Age). And I am happy to share it with all fellow parents,

‘Make sure you go out for the evening!’

So by 7pm, with 6 nice teenage boys happily gathered round an x-box, the table piled high with fizzy drinks and a take-away pizza menu pinned to the notice board, I grab my coat and drive into town to meet a friend for a quick bite.

‘Sorted!’ I foolishly dare to think.

For, just as I raise a first fork-full of lentil and mushroom ragout to my mouth, my mobile buzzes into life; Prom-dress daughter.

Arghh mum! Got an email to say my train to Edinburgh is cancelled tomorrow…I am so stressed. Can you pick me up?”

What.. right now?’ I ask. We compromise on a 10pm ride home and I get back to my pasta. I do actually make it through some truly, delicious desserts before the dreaded mobile flashes again. This time it is the party-boy.

Hi Mum. We’ve decided to play a bit of basketball… just letting you know so that you don’t run us over when you get back!”

‘An odd choice on a cold, wet and wild February night’ I muse, plus ‘How bad do they think my night driving is?’

But I manage to push these thoughts away and finish the rest my meal in peace. And how I cling on desperately to the memory of that civilised adult company as, having collected Prom-dress daughter, the two of us head home. And what a sight greets us…

About nine teenage boys are now on my property. Clad in sleeveless baseball tops, soaked to the skin and brandishing basketballs, they seem to fill the kitchen, with noise, laughter and limbs – it’s like a scene from a Village People confederation! What, in the name of goodness, the neighbours made of it all, I can only imagine. Behind me I hear my daughter desperately trying to suppress a giggle as the slightly sheepish troop now shuffle back into the lounge so that we can make it to the kettle.

Armed with trusty cuppas, we retreat upstairs to re-book a train journey back to Scottish Uni-land and the boys regain their swagger. The noise level rises again, so do the occasional crashes and cheers and … it actually sounds like a whole lot of fun. Some go around midnight and a few stay over but I am done and descend into a speedy slumber …

Sunday arrives and I awake to find teenage boys straightening-up my house with military zeal – who knew? Sleeping bags are tightly rolled, bedding folded and rubbish re-cycled. Someone even offers me a morning coffee. They can certainly come again! Prom-dress daughter and I bid them a brief and slightly bleary-eyed fare-well as we hit the road for …Wigan! Yes, I wave my middle child off from a bleak and windswept platform in the land of the pie-eaters.

By the time I make it home, all is quiet and, at least until next year, party season is over once more. But I’ll confess, after the dreary Lockdown years, I did enjoy seeing the house full of life and laughter again. February gatherings; they might not always go quite to plan, but may just be the perfect way to really get this new year started…

The baby massage class…

Saturday 27 February 2021

This week, a couple of friends make wobbly returns from lock down maternity leaves. Gosh how incredibly tough the last year must have been for isolated new mums! My ‘mum friends’ and toddler groups were essentials in the ‘first-time parent’ survival kit, even if this did all begin with the baby massage class …

It is true to say that I didn’t find new mother hood the easiest of times! I was exhausted, frequently frazzled and struggled to stop my Eldest from crying for, what seemed to be, the entire day! In hindsight, it was probably a desperate appeal for help from my poor daughter. Maybe, if she made enough noise, somebody capable might appear to rescue her from the clutches of the hapless amateur who had brought her into being!

Anyway, feeling pretty useless and fearful of the judgemental public gaze, I began to avoid leaving the house at all, until my Dad arrived. Sensing my dwindling confidence, he booked himself aboard the direct train from Manchester Piccadilly on a quest to get me to re-join the world. And he wasn’t taking no for an answer! He dug out the programme of post-natal classes and told me I was going. The session that week… baby massage.

Managing to leave the house on time is a true logistical challenge for any new mum and on the morning of this fateful day, it was one that I was veering dangerously close to failing. Just about time to skim read the reassuring guidance for the class; ‘all you need is a towel and your favourite oil’.

Oil, oil, oil?‘ I muttered furiously, flinging open the kitchen cupboard to survey my options. The olive oil seemed my best bet. ‘A bit more sophisticated than sunflower’ I told myself, as I zipped the flagon into my baby bag and raced out of the door.

Fortune, oh how it smiled on me as I rattled up the hill! My daughter actually fell asleep in the buggy! I arrived at the local community centre in a rare moment of calm and was able to nod and smile at other participants. A tranquillity that was, alas, to be sadly short-lived! The class began and with reluctant dread I woke my sleeping child and transferred her to the towel. She was already beginning to squirm.

Time for the oil ladies,” beamed the session leader

The other mums, reached for their bags and brought out dainty phials of … jasmine or lavender oil and my heart actually stopped for a moment.

As the woman next to me rubbed a few drops of beautifully scented lotion in to her hands and then began to expertly massage her child’s tiny feet, I hoped no-one was looking as I fumbled a litre of cooking fat out of my bag, trying to half hide it under my coat. The cursed olive oil gushed from the bottle like a torrent, coating my hands and arms right up to my elbows. In growing panic, I slathered it onto my Eldest and she was quickly gleaming from top to toe, like a basted turkey ready for a roast in the oven! Understandably, she was not impressed. As other infants, cooed and gurgled with contentment, I saw her mouth open and heard her screams beginning to fill the room. I tried to intervene and pick her up but, by now, she was a slippery as an eel and I fumbled about powerless to prevent her building up to a full crescendo. It was a living nightmare.

My mind went utterly blank, my throat too dry to speak… until I remembered the towel. I just about held it together long enough to wipe us both free of grease, return my daughter to the buggy, stuff all my belongings underneath and head for the exit. It was then I felt the tears begin to well.

Out in the cool corridor however, my Eldest immediately drifted off to sleep again. And in the sudden peace, I had the chance to gather my thoughts. Pretty silly to go home when I had got this far… and I’d have to face my Dad! Gulping back a sorry sob, I realised that it was time to be brave. I took lots of deep breaths, dried my eyes, gave my cheeks time to calm from a mortified puce back to an acceptable pink and slipped back in. We swerved the rest of massage and just sat quietly at the back of the hall. But we stayed for coffee and cake at the end. And that was the start; the start of mum friends! A supportive circle of also-new parents, for trips to toddler groups, play dates and eventually nights out .

Did any of them even notice my massage mayhem? I am not sure that they did, because, poised or fraught as any of us may have looked to each-other, I realise that we were all just pre-occupied with our own version of new-mother hell on most of those early days! The challenge of navigating parenthood for the first time, united us and the companionship would be a life-support mechanism to see us through both joyful and tough times with laughter, empathy and … plenty of alcohol!

As for baby massage, well there I had learned my lesson. When, in later years, the class popped up on the schedule for Prom-dress daughter and Small Boy, I made sure we had other plans…

Is it time for a 5 year plan?

21 February 2021

It’s a funny old half term and it all start with this Monday morning call.

Am I speaking to the one and only Becky ….”

Yes, one very confident, chirpy cold caller! And life insurance broking is his game. Whilst I choose not to invest in any of the deals, he does make me stop and think about the insurance I do have. I root out my policy to find that it covers me for a bizarre number of years, with a seemingly random sum of money. It is clearly no longer fit for purpose and needlessly pricey. As I start to research alternatives however, I hit a brick wall of indecision…because making a wise choice depends on where I see myself and the teens in the next 5 or 10 or 15 years . And I just do not know. A lot can change in 5 years…

Here I am 5 years ago. It’s my birthday 2016. I am coupled up, dressed up and out for the evening!

Fast forward 5 short years to my recent 2021 Birthday and here I am, single, sitting in my lounge and Locked Down with a take-out curry!

Who could have known quite how different life would be? And the next quinquennial, promises to be no less dramatic in terms of change. No more teens, no more mortage, no need to work as many hours, no need to live in this corner of the North-west. It is difficult to know how to even start thinking about it all.

It has been a year when I have grown accustomed to living; day to day, tier to tier, Bojo press conference to inevitable U-turn! But if I thought I could run away and hide behind the covid curtains for a bit longer, I was mistaken. Half term also brings necessary negotiations with tree surgeons and roofers. Thinking through some fairly substantial financial decisions keeps bringing me resolutely back to the same daunting, dithering ground. Because, ‘How much to pay?‘ and ‘How much to do?‘ are all balanced by looking ahead to how much longer I expect to be here.

There is certainly a lot of advice out there for those of us facing the prospect of ’empty nesting’. Indeed the Citizens Advice reports finding “a huge demand – nearly half its enquiries” – from the 50-plus age group, for whom the main issues were pensions, mortgages, wills and life insurance. I have to be honest though, at the heart of my unease is the fact that I’d never expected to be facing these choices and ‘resetting the life plan’ as a single person. Without a partner to bounce ideas off and help me to frame a way of thinking about it all, I’ll confess to feeling absolutely terrified. So I start smaller. Next week I have an appointment with a, Independent Financial Adviser to talk… about me. Not stereo-types, not ‘typical case studies’ for my age group, just me. And I feel calmer. It was clearly time to stop avoiding the issue, I am a long way from a plan at the moment, but getting some facts hearing some options, doing my homework…none of that can hurt…

Middle Aged Mum Fashion …

Saturday 13 February 2021

It is a day that all starts innocently enough…

Buoyed by birthday money, Small Boy is updating his wardrobe. My lovely son has his own style and very definite ideas about clothes. Yes, alas, the halcyon days of kitting him out for the season with a trip to Sports Direct, and still having change from a £50 note, are very much a distant memory. Today, I reluctantly concede, as a disappointing generational stereotype, to committing that cardinal parental-sin of looking a little startled by some of his choices. I find myself rightly subjected to a volley of indignation,

“What mum?’

Why are you looking like that mum?

I can only hold up my hands in apology,

“Oh just ignore me. What do I know anyway? Look at the state of my dowdy outfit!”

And it is true. I guess you could blame lockdown but my current style is beyond frumpy and dull; it more or less says ‘given up on life.’ With my own birthday just around the corner, my shopping-mad offspring sense an opportunity,

Mum – why not let us pick some new clothes for your birthday?

I decide to agree. Yes, it could be fun to spruce up my ‘look’. In fact, I actually start to feel quite excited. Until that is I see Small Boy rapidly typing this into his search engine,

Middle aged mum fashion”

ARGHHHHHHH! There it is! Out in the open. Not ‘sassy mum‘ not ‘sophisticated mum.’ Oh no! It’s the double edged sword of style derision for me, mumsy and … middle aged! Now, of course, at a personal level, I am only too aware of my advancing years. But hearing it from someone else, now that is a very different matter. Because it means that, if I did dare to think or hope that I was fooling the rest of you about being quite this old… I was sadly mistaken!

Middle-aged. Gosh what is it about that word? Well firstly, for those of you still in your thirties or forties, I bring glad tidings! The Huffington Post, claims that Middle Age does not actually start until you turn 53. But, as I read their entertaining article ‘40 signs you are Middles Aged’ , I’ll confess that I could have ticked off several indicators from list in my mid-forties! And I think this is the issue. It isn’t a particular age that you reach, it is a gradual realisation that you are no longer young, with life stretching endlessly before you as a blank canvas of opportunity. Some of your mental speed has gone. Some of your fresh-faced bloom has gone. Time, well that has well and truly gone. And, in place of all that youthful hope and energy, comes, for many of us, the judgemental misery of ‘taking stock’. In the grimmer works of Josh Cohen in the Guardian,

The middle-aged person is liable to look in the mirror and see someone who could have done better, who has failed to fulfil their hopes and ideals.”

Cohen’s article, ‘Why is midlife such a lonely time? addresses serious concerns about the impact of a culture of consumerism and competition on our mental health, a climate which has resulted in loneliness affecting 1 in 7 of those in the 45 – 54 age group. And it is certainly true that on my lower days, I can sit in a meeting with younger colleagues, or wander around a trendy dimly-lit clothes stores, feeling a little bit invisible and isolated from the world. As I prepare to wave a second teen off to University this Autumn, I can wonder where, or even if, I fit into society any more. I can find myself asking the question ‘What exactly have you done with your life?’

But, the truth is, I am very definitely not alone in this! Lisa Stein’s article for Scientific American, ‘Midlife Misery: Is there Happiness After the 40s?‘ find that a bit of a ‘blah’ is universal and all completely normal in your 40s and 50s. Even better, it does not last forever.

…by the time you are 70, if you are still physically fit, then on average you are as happy and mentally healthy as a 20-year old,”

Now I do find it all very comforting to learn that some moments of pondering, even gloom, are a common reaction to middle agedness. But seventy… now that is a bit too long to wait. I turn back to Small Boy’s screen. Do you know what – those middle aged mums are rocking the fashions! Time to place a few orders and embrace the mid-life, before that is over too …

Birthday blues

Sunday 7 February 2021

The balloons and banners in the lounge look cheerful enough, as the February calendar counts down to our ‘double-birthday’ week. But, for the first time since Small Boy surfaced in the birthing pool, 15 years ago, only one of the birthday duo is here to celebrate. My eldest marks the start of her final teenage year away from home at Uni.

We send packages. We write cards. We even manage a cake. My daughter face-times around noon, a picture of smiles to show off her gifts and take us on a guided tour of the decorated student kitchen. But as her lovely face fades from the screen, the mood falls a little flat and blue for the rest of us. I think it is the first day, since she headed off to Higher Education in the Autumn, that being three and not four just doesn’t feel right; just doesn’t feel as good; just feels a little sad.

Birthdays! Family landmarks indeed, with long shared and much loved traditions. Maybe that’s why they stir the emotions like no other day in the 365. I do remember, in the first year after I lost my father, it was actually not his birthday when I wobbled, but mine. The arrival of my special day with no card from my dad, no flamboyant ink-penned message, no familiar voice on the phone, it was a moment to feel his loss more deeply than at other times.

A year ago, my home was being invaded by 18 years olds, with bottles and music, shrieks and laughter. 10 years ago it was: birthday sleep-overs, soft-play centres, roller-rinks, pass the parcel and pinatas. 45 years ago, ‘murder in the dark’, cake, jelly and my elder brother bring hauled out for burying his face in the crisp bowl! Yes we did it all and thank goodness we did! Because the years do go quickly and there is no turning the clock back. I’ll pull myself together in a moment, but for the next half hour I think it’s okay to think back and miss all of it … quite a lot …

….

An extra day!

Saturday 29 February 2020

Leap-year day! I make myself a strong morning cuppa and sit down with a stack of mail to contemplate the day ahead. It’s mostly junk. I tip out the contents of an Asthma Lottery envelope, fully expecting some ‘extra raffle tickets’ to fall out. But it’s a letter. I am a winner. Blimey … I am quite a big winner. I read and re-read the letter in disbelief. I scrabble through the papers looking for the cheque. Can it be true? Prom-dress daughter reads the letter for a second opinion. She thinks it is. The two of us start to jump around the lounge, then three of us and then four. What a great start to the day!

Now I do feel the need to clarify. When I say a big win, it’s only big in relation to our usual £25 triumphs. I am not about to give up the day job… even for a day! However it is a big enough win for the Asthma Lottery to ask if they can use my name in publicity and, to my great amusement, to offer the services of a ‘model’ to represent me visually!

You’d think that would be the highlight of the day, but it is not. That comes at precisely 2:15 pm. Small Boy is off into town, to buy crickets and sand from the petshop … and then to head onto a date! But I am not ferrying him around the unique logistics of this trip. My eldest is! Yes, I have finally managed to fund car insurance for my lovely girl, who passed her test many months ago. There’s no denying that it is a hefty financial hit, but today, as the two of them set off with a bundle of car keys, and for the first time in 10 years, I don’t, it feels worth every penny!

I actually don’t know what to do with myself at first. My afternoon suddenly has a full extra hour of peace and quiet and pleasing myself. It’s unheard of. It’s unnerving. It’s magical and it’s not to be wasted. I am heading out too today. In an hour and a half I am setting off to Yorkshire, for a meal and a night at ‘The Opera’. Do you know what. I am going to get ready, properly ready. Hair washed and straightened ready. Full face of make-up ready. Lotion and perfume ready. Matching earring ready! Try out more than one outfit ready!

It’s a whole new world, and I think I could get used to it, every day, not just on this (unexpectedly lovely ) extra day…

This is Manchester …

Friday 21 February 2020

“This is Manchester, we do things differently here” (Tony Wilson)

Tony Wilson, ‘Mr Manchester’ himself, opened one of the earliest bars in the area we’ve called Manchester’s ‘Northern Quarter’ since the 1990s. It is even rumoured that he influenced the name! Whether or not that’s true I’ll never know but, after a glorious day exploring the chaotic and characterful streets of this corner of my hometown, I am very confident that he would love the place…

Our adventure starts in style with ‘Street Art‘ , a Skyliner walking tour of the Northern Quarter. I sport, sensible shoes, gloves, woolly hat and a raincoat. The weather is dismal. But the wind and rain cannot dampen our spirits as the tour guide opens our eyes to secret sights and delights on the pavements we’ve walked many times … but never really seen.

There is stunning art; huge and beautiful murals that touch the soul and stir the mind, creative mosaics that capture the iconic faces and places of our northern home and lamp posts decorated with tiny individual ‘rock-star’ bees. The absolute highlights for me, a proud Mancunian, however, are the details that link us back to our historical and industrial roots. The distinctive ceramic street signs are white on blue for the streets running East/West and blue on white for the streets running North/South, symbolising the ‘warp and weft’ of the weaving tradition in this area. Looking up, we see sculptures of exotic birds and other animals, celebrating Tib Street, once affectionately known as pet shop paradise. Looking under a doormat, we find clues to a previous Italian ice cream trade. High above the gates of old fish and fruit market are facades decorated with scenes depicting the hustle and bustle of Victorian life. Another market now houses the Craft and Design Centre. Our wonderful guide makes us look up, down and all around. How can I have missed it all …. for so many years?

Even with all these visual treats, two hours in the chill of a North West winter take their toll. Donuts and coffee, at a cafe housed in a former weaver’s cottage, followed by a sumptuous afternoon tea, are the only ways to thaw out as we prepare to re-enter the Northern Quarter of the 21st century.

It is now an area famed for its vibrant bars and eateries. Finding somewhere to imbibe is easy, but finding a ‘hidden bar’, now that is more of a challenge! And, as the darkness of evening begins to creep across the sky, it seems like the perfect way to round off our outing. Fascinated by unearthed artistic discoveries by day, thrilled by secret drinking dens by night. We make our way to our first, through a doorway disguised as a stack of wooden beer crates, into the elegance of a cool cocktail bar. Just like our walking tour, it is another eye opener!

It is also utter fun. It is light years away from my usual routine. It is the perfect end to my half term. It is Manchester …

New arrival…

Monday 17 February 2020

It’s half term week. What better feeling for a holiday than the sensation of sand between your toes? Except in our case the gritty granules on my kitchen floor come not from a dreamy white Caribbean beach but from the new vivarium in Small Boy’s room … as, his birthday present, Boris the Gecko arrives!

It’s not our first experience of the world of pets. Small Boy, in particular, absolutely loves animals. Sadly for him, I do not and as I am the only bill paying adult in the house, his dreams of owning a dog are definitely on hold until he owns his own place! I do feel guilty about it. Single parent guilt – the fear that despite every effort and sacrifice, your kids will miss out and pay the price for the marital breakdown – and so smaller animals have been our compromise. We began with gerbils, just a few months after my Ex left. Then came the guinea pig and Prom-dress daughter’s fish. Boris, however, is our first reptile.

We battle the gecko, used to warm climates of the world, and all his equipment home in the middle of Storm Dennis! Upon arrival, Small Boy starts pacing about like a nervous new father, avidly reading books and leaflets on gecko care and watching numerous youtube clips on each and every procedure. Nonetheless we soon have the vivarium set up and just face the challenge of food. Gecko’s eat live insects! The pet shop have given us a tub of crickets and a pair of plastic tweezers. How difficult can it be? Pretty darned tricky it turns out. As we attempt to lift any out, the pesky little creatures leap sky high from the tub and onto Small’s Boys bedroom floor. We make chase with our tweezers but one or two do escape to freedom before we get any into the vivarium itself. It’s a hilarious and chaotic scene but I am sure we will improve!

By contrast the gecko looks very relaxed moving around his new home. I leave my son, dusting insects with calcium, viewing online tutorials on feeding techniques and watching over his new arrival with wonderful care and concern. Welcome to the family Boris!