Did it…

Friday 31 January 2020

Another January draws to a close, but this is no ordinary opening slog of dark and dreary endurance. It is one where, just as I pause to proudly cheer “I did it!”, I find myself bowled with joy because my eldest really and truly ‘did it’! She went and got herself that University offer…

I did Dry January! Today I reach the end of a 31 day alcohol-holiday for my body. Tough times at first – bottles of white wine gleaming like exotic jewels of temptation on the supermarket shelves. Turning the key in the lock after a late night rehearsal but not relaxing with a glass of whisky… it all felt very dull. Was it worth the perseverance… absolutely!! From the middle of the month, I rediscovered a natural tiredness and slept like a baby most nights. And today, as I prepare to wave goodbye to total abstinence, my skin is clear, my stomach settled and water, how I crave H20, seems far more refreshing than … anything. Above all however, I have fallen a little bit in love with my clearer, fresher mind. This old brain won’t ever revive the glorious romps of my 20s, I know that, but without doubt, it is sharper and speedier this month than in the previous 5 years. Alcohol, yes it was difficult to give up, but for me, giving up fog-free thinking … now that will be impossible. I think my drinking habits are reformed for ever…eek!

Today also marks ‘done it’ for my course of antibiotics. My finger still looks pretty awful but it is usable again. I can write once more. I can turn on light switches. I can rummage for keys on my bag. And, ‘Hallelujah’ I can at long last, return to playing my oboe. So I have ‘done’ rehearsals again this week – hip hip hooray!

And it doesn’t quite end there. This is Friday, which means that I ‘do’ a run! It’s a gruelling and windswept ordeal tonight, but my run buddy drags me around the muddy course. By the end, my mood is high … and it is about to go stratospheric. I am just collapsing into my car when the mobile rings, it’s my eldest,

“Mum, I’ve got an offer!!!”

Happiness, pride, relief, incredulity, all these emotions and more flood the system. So much hard work, so much stress, so much waiting, … but suddenly it all seems worth it. My girl, against all the odds, has ‘done it’, and she edges ever closer to her medicine dreams. I am completely over the moon. Forget your fizz and cocktails … this feels like a high that will never end.

So I bid you a fond farewell January 2020 … possibly the best January ever!!

When the seagulls …

Saturday 25 January 2020

“When the seagulls follow the trawler it is because they think sardines will be thrown into the sea,”  (Eric Cantona 1995)

I awake to the news that Twenty-five years have passed since Cantona launched himself into the crowd at Selhurst Park” What a story that was! Opinions raged at the time, and still do today, about the jaw-dropping incident and its legacy for football. But one fact is indisputable. Following the kick, that quote and his subsequent return to Manchester United, Eric Cantona secured his place as a legend at Old Trafford.

I am, nominally these days, a Manchester United supporter. In 1995 however things were very different. It was the height of the ‘ABU’ (Anyone But United) era, and the relentless vitriol directed at my home-town team had stirred the tribalism in my veins to a fever pitch. I was a young teacher in Leeds and it seemed that there was no place in the land that Manchester United hatred was stronger. My housemate referred to us as ‘SCUM’. The Saturday night streets regularly echoed to a chorus of ridiculously offensive football chants about the Munich Air Disaster. It was vile and it had transformed me into an obsessive fan. I was glued to radio commentaries. I was encylopedic on fixtures, league positions and transfers. I paced the kitchen like a restless panther on match days. I begged my brothers for a loan of their season tickets. And in the centre of all of this … was Eric. Transferred from Leeds to United in 1992, the charismatic Frenchman had quickly become the talisman. The footballing magician who turned Alex Ferguson’s squad from a good team … into a great team.

So the Kung-Fu kick, and the (fully-deserved) ban were tense times. The seagull’s quote, uttered at a press conference when his custodial sentence, was replaced by community service, left me non- plussed. The 1995 title slipped away and, if media reports were to be believed, it seemed that Eric would too. However, he did return, it’s alleged in response to a piece of managerial brilliance by Alex Ferguson. Whatever the reason, he strutted back onto the Old Trafford turf, lead the team to the 1996 title and the rest, as they say, is history.

I love to read about Eric, I loved the Ken Loach film ‘Looking for Eric’ and a couple of years ago Small Boy and I got to see Eric! The occasion was a Soccer Aid Match at Old Trafford…

Oh Soccer Aid – another occasion when I tried to compensate Small Boy for the daily penance of living in a house of females. We saw the match advertised on the TV and spontaneously bought tickets. We asked loads of other people to come along but got no takers and so, one soggy Spring afternoon, we set off by ourselves. I was pretty nervous and justifiably so, for we were innocents abroad. The traffic, as we approached the ‘Theatre of Dreams’ , was indescribable and eventually we abandoned our car on a dodgy side street, paying some shadowy figure £10 to the privilege of parking on his drive.

Please don’t argue with him Mum!” pleaded Small Boy.

But even I knew better on this occasion. Not entirely sure if I would ever see the car again, we followed the hordes to the stadium. The atmosphere was electric and, buoyed with enthusiam, I bought Small Boy a flag. As we set off for our seats however the security guard had other ideas. With barely concealed contempt he pointed at the flag, shook his head and flicked his eyes towards…a mountain of flag sticks. All fingers and thumbs we added our pole to the pile and then, giggling slightly with our limp piece of flag cloth made our way onto the terraces. By this time, I thought ‘in for a penny…’ and we gleefully blew my hard-earned cash on overpriced junk food and unhealthy drinks. It was great… a true bit of mother-son bonding!

The match was terrific too, a fully star-studded cast of celebrities, Olympic athletes and former footballing greats and then… mid way through the second half a slightly portly but unmistakeable figure ran onto the pitch, Cantona! There was a second of stunned silence before stadium erupted with joy and emotion – I actually saw several grown men cry. We felt for that moment, fully part of the great history of our great team. So I am not condoning his actions but tonight I shall raise a can of…Becks Blue … to Eric. For the memories, for the titles, for the sparkle of magic dust … and for that Soccer Aid match for me and my boy.

“If ever there was one player, anywhere in the world, that was made for Manchester United, it was Cantona. He swaggered in, stuck his chest out, raised his head and surveyed everything as though he were asking: ‘I’m Cantona. How big are you? Are you big enough for me?’” Sir Alex Ferguson.

Look after yourself…

Friday 24 January 2019

After a busy week, Friday comes to an early end. I am too ill to make it through a full day and am sent home. I wonder if ‘looking after yourself’ is a mantra I should take more seriously?

It is probably about 6 days ago that I first start to have pains in my finger. I stick a plaster over it, but by Tuesday, the whole thing is such a swollen and angry mess that I call at the Pharmacy on the way home. ‘Infected‘, is the swift diagnosis, ‘You need to see a GP!’

Wednesday morning, at 8 am sharp, I am on that phone. I call the Doctor to be told that I can have an appointment … on 4th February! So I give up and get on with the day. It’s a super-frantic day as it happens. No break, no lunchtime, post-work training, followed by an even later meeting and then home… to fill up with petrol and set out in the gloom and fog for a 3 hour drive to Newcastle.

A final university interview for my eldest takes us to the North East and what a great part of the country it is. We check in just before 10 pm, feeling weary and jaded but the warmth of the welcome from the staff is amazing. They make us nachos. They help us with maps. They wish us lots of luck for the interview tomorrow. But even they look rather alarmed as I struggle to sign us in…my finger is now the four times its usual size!

Not much I can do about it the next day however, as my eldest runs the gauntlet of another MMI circuit. Newcastle university looks stunning in the freshness of a January morning and, as my daughter disappears into the building, I settle on a bench outside thinking how wonderful it would be to study here and how I just don’t know how to cope with another disappointed drive home if it goes badly. I want to do something to help… so I say a decade of the rosary (Catholic readers will understand!) … and then, as a wave of panic begins to take hold, I say another to calm myself down. I am just about to soothe myself with a third when another mum sits down clearly wanting to chat. Hurriedly hiding my malformed hand underneath my scarf, I put aside my prayers and launch into conversation. She is a delightful woman, (you could say heaven sent) and time passes quickly. When my eldest emerges, she is in an upbeat mood, ‘Not great, but the best I could’ve done!’ she smiles. Well that’s good enough for me! We grab some lunch and then actually sing our way back down the motorway. I am so high on relief that, for a few hours at least, I forget about the stabbing sensation in my finger.

Back home, I throw some food together, before my eldest and I set out again. She has an evening concert. It’s an all-ticket event for local dignitaries, as opposed to proud parents. So I just drop her off and although I am now feeling shattered, the pain in my finger is so miserable that I decide to be sensible and head to the Walk-in Centre. Sadly we are no longer in the North East.

“The waiting list is full”, snaps the receptionist and steers me out of the door.

Which brings me to today. I plan to fit in an early visit to the Walk-in Centre. I arrive at 7 am. There’s a huge queue. There’s a 1 hour wait and my first meeting of the day is at 8:15 am. I give up. I drive to work, whereupon one of the first-aiders, recoiling in horror at the sight of my poor, grotesque digit, firmly applies a huge blue plaster. I am starting to feel rather peculiar and queasy. At break-time I am finally sick and my boss send me home, insisting that I get myself checked out.

This time I resolve to camp out at the Walk-in Centre. When I am seen, a lovely nurse takes one look at my finger and prescribes a 7 day course of anti-biotics. With kindly concern, she also suggests that I give myself a boost with ‘multi-vitamins’, explaining that I look ‘very run-down’. It stops me in my tracks. It’s a blink-back-the-tears moment. For a second I feel that, busy as she is, this woman notices that I don’t just need ‘fixing’ I need a little bit of care too, and that’s pretty rare in the life of a parent. Thinking hard, I do recall my Ex, back in the mid-90s, once driving from Liverpool to Manchester with cough medicine, because I sounded a bit croaky on the phone. But that’s over 20 years ago! Quite a long time to spend looking after everyone else, rather than ever feeling looked after myself!

So I do treat myself to a tub of ‘multi-vits with iron’ and turn optimistically homewards, contemplating ways to take better care of my own health and well-being. I don’t make it into the house however before getting a call from Small Boy’s school, announcing that he has been sick and needs collecting. A text from my eldest flashes across the screen, reminding me that we have a friend staying tonight. And, as I eventually do turn the key in the lock, Prom-dress Daughter appears claiming to have ‘tonsilitis!’

I rather fear that, like most parents, ‘looking after myself‘ is just going to have to wait … hopefully not for another 20 years!!

The Guardian Crossword

Saturday 18 January 2019

Well what d’you know! Dry January Day 18 and I find that I can actually do some of the cryptic crossword. Are my brain cells re-awakening?

Reading the newspaper, just once a week, was one of last year’s New Year Resolutions. I thought it was a brilliant idea. My eldest was starting to think about University interviews, Prom-dress Daughter’s English teacher had recommended it. Small Boy always seemed genuinely engaged with the world and gifted with a brain that hears something once and never forgets it … I actually thought he would enjoy it.

“Let’s all choose one article to read each week and discuss them over mealtimes.”

I was heard to suggest, like some middle class twerp. The teens were unanimous in their response,

“No Mum. We won’t be doing that!”

And true to their word, they never did. Oh I lie actually. There was one, and only one, occasion when the newspaper did get opened. That was the day when Small Boy and I had an epic row. I eventually flounced tearfully out of the house. Upon my return, I found my son, who knew that he had really upset me, sitting in the lounge eagerly leafing through the Saturday Guardian and greeting my appearance with a peace offering of,

“This is a very interesting newspaper Mum!”

That incident aside, it was so rare for the supplements and reviews to even make it out of their (compostable) wrapping, that by mid-February I decided to save myself a weekly £3.20 and shelved the plan.

This New Year however I stayed with friends who do take a daily paper. I read a few articles and … more importantly … rediscovered the cryptic crossword! Now that was a trip down memory lane. My lovely mum taught me how to tackle the challenge of the ‘non-simple’ crossword setters, many years ago. On our long summer holidays, at the family caravan in Wales, we’d sit together over the crossword every morning. And each year, by the time the days began to shorten and the August sun take an autumnal turn, we’d both be pretty nifty at the thing. Not so at New Year 2020 alas. I was totally rubbish and managed about one clue (a pitiful anagram), over the course of several days!

Nonetheless, today, as I push my trolley past the kiosk at the supermarket, I decide that I will resurrect my Saturday Guardian resolution. Not so much for the teens this time, but for me. And this afternoon, coffee in one hand and pen in the other I sit down to pit my wits against ‘Brendan’ setter of Cryptic Crossword No. 28 033 …. and I find that I can suddenly solve a fair few clues!

Can this really be the lack of alcohol? Let’s face it, there are many things it could be, but I am claiming this one as a Dry January triumph … for two main reasons. Firstly, my brain has definitely felt clearer, sharper and less ‘foggy’ for quite a few days now. But secondly, that apart, I have felt absolutely no other benefits from my days of abstinence. My waist is no thinner and, laid low with a viscious, energy-sapping cold bug throughout most of the first month of 2020, I feel cheated of the promised boost to my health and vitality. So as I face another 13 days partying the nights away on Diet Coke and Schloer, I draw upon the motivation that my mind at least, if not my body, may be heading back someway towards its former glory.

Anyway time for me to get back to my crossword. Six more clues stand between me and a chance to win that coveted prize of the ‘Can you solve my problems?’ paperback. 1 down anyone….

Family meetings…

Sunday 12 January 2020

Small Boy slides into the kitchen, his face alight with excitement…and hope?

“Mum, can I have a corn snake for my birthday?

Well that’s a conversation stopper… at least for a moment! But we are all there. It is Sunday after all, the one day of the week when my culinary skills extend to breakfast. Prom-dress daughter breaks the silence with a simple ‘Whaaaat?’ My eldest starts Google-ing facts about corn snakes and their living habits. Small Boy waves pictures of ‘cute‘ snakes at us. I take a swig of my tea (wondering, not for the first time, why I thought Dry January was such a good idea) and soon something resembling a ‘family meeting’ is in full flow. But I think there may be a family out there that needs a meeting even more than we do today…

Although only one full week in, world events have seen 2020 explode into the annals. Australia continues to battle bush fires that have devastated the ecosystem on a terrifying scale. Tension between the USA and Iran, following the death of General Qasem Soleimani, has been intense and, at its height, the press did debate the likelihood of a third world war. In the UK however, the story that has dominated the news reels has been the decision of Harry and Meghan to ‘step back’ from their roles a senior members of the British royal family.

I am not a major ‘royalist’ but I do have a theory on the national fascination with The Windsors. To my mind, it stems from them being family. They do things that our familes do: they marry, they have babies, they get their first jobs, they celebrate landmark birthdays. The difference is that they do much of it publicly, with the ceremonial glamour and style that wealth and privilege afford. And in this light they become a family we all watch, discuss and debate (and because we all understand families, we all have something to say.) Is it a step to far to suggest that, for centuries, we have had our very own brand of the Kardashians in residence at Buckingham Palace?

More seriously, if we look back to the abdication of Edward 7th, less than 100 years ago, we see how rapidly the royal family have since adapted, reflecting the changing views of society on the family and other issues. Their role, in signalling acceptance of today’s more varied family unit is a really important one for me. The Queen, who has (nominally) ruled our land for 67 years, should also be admired for allowing the younger royals freedom to branch out and work on issue close to their own hearts. Princess Dianna shaking hands with an AIDS patient in the 1980s, Prince Harry more recently speaking out on mental health, both illustrate the power of the younger generation to challenge prejudice, to remove stigma and to make progress. Elizabeth 2nd is a true matriarch and I am sure she will be able to steer the family through their current dilemma, (which appears to be, an admittedly complex twist, on the age old problem of one son deciding that he doesn’t want to ‘join the family business’). In her long reign, the Queen must have dealt with far greater quandaries.

Could she spare some advice for me on the issue of the corn snake I wonder? My eldest announces that they ‘eat mice’. Prom-dress Daughter says ‘no way!’ I venture to ask if ‘any reptiles are vegetarians?’ Small Boy agrees to look into it and we head off to make some enquiries about non-mice-eating pets at the local pet store….

Dry January!

Saturday 4 January 2020

Last year, my January resolution was ‘No Man-uary.‘ Not the greatest of challenges I have to confess, as the first 31 days of 2019 did not often call upon me to beat a trail of eligible suitors from the door! So for 2020, I have taken on a much sterner test, ‘Dry January’

‘Dry January’ is not a new concept, indeed the first campaign, by Alcohol Concern, occurred in January 2013 and gathered momentum, as adults rallied to recover from the huge Christmas hangover. On our shores alone last year, the British Liver Trust report that approximately 1 in 10 of the drinking population signed up to a ‘Dry January’. And the phenomenon, of giving your body a 31-day holiday from booze, has spread globally too. Alcohol Change estimate that around 20 percent of downloads for its Dryanuary-tracking app are outside the U.K.

Yet I had previously thought it a ludicrous notion.

‘January is bleak enough‘; ‘Parenthood is tough enough’; ‘I don’t drink that much anyway?’; ‘Isn’t a daily glass of red wine good for your health?

were all reasons I’d used to opt-out. I reassured myself that I could do it if I wanted to, it was simply that I’d chosen not to join in. But this year, as I gaze upon the mountain of spent bottles in my blue bin, I decide that it is time. Time to ditch the hangover and time to see if 4-plus weeks without alcohol really do make me feel any different. Will it reduce the waistline? Will it boost my energy? Will it improve my sleep patterns? And, above all, will I be able to do it?

I have to say, I am feeling pretty determined, if only to silence the worrying chorus of incredulity coming my way as I embark upon my quest.

“I’ll believe that when I see it!” laughs Small-Boy, as I announce my resolution. “A fiver says that you will never manage it!” adds my eldest.

Even the Tesco delivery man is doubtful,

Are your sure love?” he gasps, unloading the cans of Beck’s Blue Alcohol Free Lager, “How about starting next week?”

Hey I’ve already done 4 days. I have survived our annual girls’ night out at the Theatre without a glass of fizz and I have coped with our first nose piercing (Prom-dress Daughter) revived only by a strong cuppa! I have also drawn upon my experiences of other alcohol-free episodes, such as three 9-month pregnancies without a drop of liquor. Back then, my (now Ex-) hub would brighten our evenings by purchasing lots of exotic, non-alcoholic drinks. His thinking was, if you feel like a drink, have something exciting and delicious that’s alcohol free to choose. And so that is my plan. Alcohol-free beer in week 1, to ease me into the ways of abstinence and then enjoy exploring the wonderful world of elderflower presse, ‘aqua libre’, mocktails, smoothies …

Next week, it’s true, I am back to work, but bring it on! Me and my trusty Beck’s Blue have got this….