Lockdown week 1: Bingo!

Sunday 29 March 2020

The weekend comes to a close with a family game of Bingo, on Zoom!

Zoom Zoom Zoom, suddenly everybody is talking about Zoom! The video conferencing platform, designed for the world of business, appears to have become the vehicle of choice for people searching for way to keep in contact, without leaving home. My brother arranges for the entire family to hook up to Zoom as a boost for mum. This lovely lady has accepted her corona sentence, of indoor solitude for 12 weeks, but isolation is not her natural state. No, better adjectives for my mum would be outgoing, sparkling, fun -loving and mischievous. In consequence, she finds the prospect of 3 months on her own daunting, to say the least. Let’s hope face time can soften the blow!

Bingo is pencilled in for the weekend. The teens and I experiment by calling mum mid-week for a practice. It’s a good job we do. I am a bit of a luddite anyway, and go round in circles, stuck in a meeting with myself for about 20 minutes! When we finally make contact, there is much excitement, which descends into hilarity as mum cannot figure out how to leave the meeting and, long after she has bid us ‘farewell’ and pottered off to make her tea, can be heard clattering around in the kitchen. I realise that it’s the most laughter we have shared for quite a while. And laughter is great medicine!

As Sunday dawns, we set out on a quest to have all out jobs done by 7 pm, the appointed Bingo -hour. We start with shopping, for us, for mum and for one of her friends. My mother’s list is much more exotic than our staples, with its poached beetroot, ginger tea and ripe avocados. And that probably explains why we waste so much time searching the half empty shelves for her ‘Partridge sachets‘, which eventually turn out to be a predictive text version of ‘Porridge‘! On the eerily quiet roads of a Covid-ruled world, however, we make up time on the drive to mum’s house, where we enact a contactless swap in the porch; groceries for bingo cards! Pausing only to wave through the window, we hasten home to complete the rest of our chores.

By 7pm, the car is cleaned, the house spruced, work emails sent, a roast dinner enjoyed … and it is ‘Eyes Down ! We ‘zoom‘ in from the North, South , East and West of our green and pleasant land. The Bingo set was my Dad’s and I believe dates back to the early 1960s. Bingo is the way we finish our annual family Christmas party every year without fail and so we all know the rules, the calls, the ‘clickety clicks‘, the ‘two little ducks‘! It is the perfect way for us all to launch an era of virtual connection in these strange times. For us Bingo is familiar, Bingo is fun, Bingo is family ….

Is it only a week?

Thursday 26 March 2020

At 8 pm tonight we stand at our doorways with our neighbour to ‘Clap the Carers’. And we do clap! We loudly applaud and cheer the magnificent NHS workers who have heroically battled the spiralling number of UK corona virus cases on the front line. They have seen unthinkable sights and suffering, risked their own lives and sacrificed time with their own families for each of us and our country. They are indeed the most critical of all the workers in a society that usually values other more highly. In a world that has transformed itself in a matter of days, this now seems obvious. It is a moment to unite behind a better set of values, but how long will it last?

The life I was living one week ago now seems as a distant memory. Go back two weeks and I start to feel as though I am currently living in a dream. We are now not allowed out of the house except to work, shop or enjoy one daily run. My mum and my middle child are not allowed out at all, for the next 12 weeks. All school trips are cancelled. School exams cancelled. Concerts cancelled. Sport cancelled. Pubs are closed. Non-essential shops are closed. Galleries closed. Restaurants closed. Essentially any life outside of work and home is over for the next few weeks for us all.

Some parts of it are quite nice. I now have a job that actually finishes at 5 pm each day, instead of invading my evenings. I go running with two of my children, instead of by myself. My eldest, suddenly free from exam stress, bustles about shopping, cleaning and cooking meals. She buys board games and new packages for the Wii. She makes plans to redesign the garden. She even signs up for the NHS Army of Volunteers… did I not mention that my girl is unstoppable! Prom-dress Daughter is redecorating her bedroom and the bathroom. All three help each other with school work. We definitely feel like an even stronger family unit and some commentators speak of closer community bonds in the wider world. But of this, I am more sceptical.

The press and social media platforms soon shift their attention to criticism and blame of anyone and everything that moves. A nation are told to ‘stay at home’ and then lambasted by the press for for ‘stocking up’ on food and provisions. A nation mends their ways and starts popping out to the local store to just ‘get what they need’ and social media screams abuse at them for not ‘staying at home’. The PM advises us to get out in the fresh air and on a sunny weekend that is what families do. They head for mountains and beaches and unfortunately for them, so does everyone else and the over-opinionated demand a ‘lock down’ or ‘fines’ for the sinners.

And I say … it has only been a week everyone! People have been asked to adapt and change their lives beyond recognition in a week. We are trying, most places I need to go to look like ghost towns, but it is confusing and scary and we don’t get it all exactly right all the time. We worry about jobs, about money, about loved ones, about an unseen enemy. I see ventilators on the news and I am dragged back to the horrors of Prom-dress daughter’s last hospitalisation for asthma. Wouldn’t it be nicer if we just all remembered to ‘Be kind’ – wasn’t that our national pledge earlier in 2020? Educate and remind gently. Support and explain. Really look out for each other and help each other to make sense of a rapidly changing and terrifying situation.

Hey, even if I am in not a dream, I certainly fear am too much of a dreamer . Good luck everyone. Keep safe and well …

School’s out …

Saturday 21 March 2020

Schools close this week for the foreseeable future. I know that I shall really miss the teenagers I work with Monday to Friday. They bring joy, hope and optimism for the future and at the moment that is exactly what we all need…

Friday is a highly emotional day at work. We say a sad and sudden farewell to a stunned set of school leavers. It is so much earlier than planned for this set of young people, who find their rite of passage: their final weeks together, their examination season, their prom swept away by the corona virus tidal wave. The final assembly of 2020 is incredibly moving and incredibly tearful, as we all come to terms with the reality that these amazing pupils, we were expecting to work with for 3 more months, are leaving our school community today and not coming back. At least proceedings end on a humorous note. The Head of Year is presented with a pack of toilet rolls and some dried pasta. We laugh. We laugh together. We laugh out loud. And for a fleeting moment, in this whirlwind week, life feels almost normal again.

As I drive home however the panic, the sense of unease, the disbelief begin to take hold again. Confirmed cases of the virus in the UK have rocketed and pubs, cafes, theatres and concert halls are ordered to close from tomorrow. I switch off the car radio and complete my journey in grim silence.

Back at base, Small Boy has done just one day at home and the great buffoon has already managed to lose two basketballs ‘over the hedge’ and into our elderly neighbours’ garden. I send them a note of apology and my mobile number in case they need anything. In terms of supplies for us, I am hopeful that the family cupboards and bathroom will soon be fully stocked again for, after a long wait, tonight is the night that I have a supermarket delivery scheduled.

Just before 9pm, my groceries arrive. This was the only slot left one week ago when I booked it and my order includes … toilet rolls! It is salvation. I am excited. I am relieved. I am … soon in floods of tears as, not only toilet rolls are missing, roughly two thirds of my items are not included in the crates. The thought of another horrendous battle at the supermarket tomorrow looms and it is simply soul-destroying. Every morning I’ve been this week, pre-work (7:15am) and again every evening post-work (6:30pm) in a fruitless quest for bathroom essentials. At the end of a stressful, sleepless week, at the end of such a strange and sad day, it is just too much.

But it’s not only at work that I learn about life and kindness, determination and drive from young people. I have my own brigade of brilliant bambini at home too. My eldest makes me an emergency cuppa, takes the crumpled shopping list from my hands and tells me that she will sort it all out. And the next morning she does. It maybe Saturday, but at 7am I hear the front door close and the car engine start up. And by 8:30am she is back. She has queued and crusaded courageously around the crazed Tesco aisles. No toilet rolls, of course, and an eclectic mix of groceries but to me, blinking back tears, it looks like manna from heaven.

So, as an extraordinary week comes to an end and we stumble through the days as if in a bewildered dream, I feel proud and privileged to live and work with the teenage population. They light the gloom with hope …

Life in the time of corona…

Tuesday 17 March 2020

Gosh, corona virus, where to start?

As covid 19 takes a grim grip of the UK, a dark cloud of anxiety seems to spread across our skies. Our enemy is hidden but unstoppable, swiftly and silently seeping everywhere and bringing consequences, as yet unknown. And it leaves me shellshocked.

I am sure that I will get used to it, but events have moved so rapidly in recent days that I am not there yet. A week ago in my household, we were just merrily washing our hands to a chorus of ‘Happy Birthday!‘s, and feeling pretty invincible. Today I drove to work along an empty motorway. My mum has been told to isolate herself for several months. I have difficult decisions to make about when and how to withdraw Prom dress daughter, a severe asthmatic, from the life she currently leads. Every event on my calendar has been wiped out. Supermarket shelves are bare. At work and at home, I am surrounded by anxious teenagers caught up in a suddenly chaotic and uncertain examination system. I see at least four frightened colleagues sent home and I try to timetable over the cracks …

It feels as if the world I know and understand is simply shutting down. And no-one I know has even begun to feel ill yet. So who knows what happens next. I am used to feeling stressed. I am used to feeling overwhelmed. I am used to feeling sad. I am just not used to feeling quite this scared …

No time … for a change?

Saturday 7 March 2020

Tomorrow is International Women’s Day and, in celebration, Parkrun are on the radio this morning, encouraging women to join them this weekend. It is true that this national running organisation does attract female members, indeed they make up 52% of the registration. The sadder statistic however is that, whilst they constitute over half of those who have signed up, women make up only 44% of actual participants in the weekly 5K. Of the 1.8 million registered on Parkrun, 650 000 women have yet to take part. I wonder how many men too have signed up but not taken that significant step of actually standing on the starting line. It seems such a shame, because running can be wonderful for the heart and soul. There will doubtless be many reasons behind this but one issue I have pondered recently is the value of the timing chip. Do we really need to record times and ranks and aim to ‘beat personal bests’ every time we pull on our running shoes? Does competition actually motivate people to take part in sport and exercise or does it just put up more barriers? Does a list just reinforce the fear that you are ‘not as good’ as everyone else? Is it time to ditch the Garmin and try ‘no times’ for a change?

I am no anti-competition zealot, in fact I am quite the opposite at a personal level. I recall coming ‘second in category‘ once in a Parkrun and immediately spending the next few weeks running to the point of vomiting, in an attempt to come ‘first’. On one 10K, I broke the 55 minute barrier and was so thrilled that I worked my finishing time into the next computer password-change at work! My worry however is that I am not the target audience for the latest national fitness campaign. I have always been pretty active: a child gymnast, a school long jump champion, a uni netball player, a regular (before I became a single parent) at aerobics, yoga and even adult ballet! I don’t need running to get active. I choose my trainers to keep up a decent level of fitness because running is friendly, free, flexible… and has never involved childcare .

The people the government needs to reach are the half of women and the third of men who are not active enough for good health. In their 2020 report, Health Matters, Public Health England outline the significant benefits of exercise for our physical and mental well-being. They also explore the difficulties for adults not engaged in sport and activity. These are varied and, in some cases, complex but most barriers are internal ones and I find their fear that exercise is ‘not for people like me‘ a little heart breaking. Would those battling to find the confidence to move to a more active life really be helped by a timing chip? Competition, yes it is great if you are a competitor. But if you’re not? If you are the name at the foot of the list how does that feel?

I once took the kids to Parkrun. Two were fine, but Prom-dress daughter got in a panic about the number of people in front of us compared to the dwindling amount behind.

What if I am last?” she whispered tearfully.

I really don’t care if we are last ” I encouraged her in reply “In fact I will be proud. We are out here running and keeping fit and that’s what really matters.”

But it wasn’t what really mattered to my daughter that day and she refused to finish. The same child ran happily around the laid back and festival feel of the Race for Life 5K and has recently completed a 6 hour Duke of Edinburgh hike. Her fear was the list and the label. Because for every top 10, others must be condemned to be in the bottom 10.

I may have stumbled across running because of single parent circumstances but now I love it. Love the oxygen in my lungs. Love the freshness in my face. Love the strength in my legs Love the calmness in my mind and lightness in my soul. Love the feeling of life and vitality. I claim there’s a ‘runner’s glow’, a joy that comes from just being out there and feeling your body move. And, whereas I have long since lost any of the toy medals you get given at the end of a ‘race’, this feeling stays for ever! And I would love to empower more people to experience it.

I did once post on a Parkrun forum the notion that this event could become the one timing-free race in the running calendar. It went down like a lead balloon (I still quake at the memory!) And probably rightly so. One very valid point, in a tide of perplexed pb-obsessed outrage, was with over 2 million runners Parkrun have clearly found a winning formula so why meddle with it. And they are right, I have absolutely no right to hi-jack their event. So perhaps instead, when I have retired and have some time, I’ll set up my own event. A strava-free zone, where ranks, times and judgement are vetoed. It’s our pace, our distance, our minds and bodies growing stronger with every step and we just ‘run because we love it’.

Becoming ‘Mum the Brave’

Mother’s Day March 2019

Happy Mother’s Day!’

In pings a cheery text from Small Boy at 7:37am British Summer Time! It is earlier than I was hoping to wake up, after a late night concert, but it does make me smile. Small Boy is in France, so probably doesn’t know that our clocks have ‘Sprung Forward’. In any case it is now a family tradition that Christmas, my Birthday and usually Mother’s Day too, start at some ungodly hour with my boy crashing enthusiastically into the bedroom with a tray of breakfast!

The girls, by contrast, are far keener on their weekend lie-ins and so it’s very quiet house that greets me, as I creep downstairs for my first cup of tea. I decide that it’s the perfect time, on this National Day of Maternal-ness, to contemplate life as a mum!

The biggest change is that parenthood, life or maybe just becoming older and grumpier has lead to me being far more… forthright at best, and … confrontational at worst. ‘Quiet‘ was always the adjective used to describe me at school and I am pretty sure I was a fairly diffident young adult too. Years ago, I recall how in a, now legendary, family incident my mum took on a grumpy ice-cream seller in Harlech, who was picking on one of the kids. It was she who defended our family honour and earned herself the title of ‘Nana the Brave‘. The name stuck for years and if ever the kids faced a tricky situation I’d advise,

‘”Try and sort it out yourself, but if that doesn’t work …. we’ll send in Nana the Brave!’

This morning, I’m struggling to remember when we last called upon my mum to sort out any such issues. She’s still there, as fearless and feisty as ever, but I think that somewhere along the line … I became Mum the Brave!‘ It is me who was likened to a ‘Tigress defending her young‘ by a teacher when I disputed her comments at Parents Evening. (Let’s gloss over the fact that I have since been banned, by all 3 kids, from speaking any more than is absolutely necessary on such occasions!) It is me who takes on any retailer, any institution or any person who thinks they can mess with us. Hey, I’ve even taken on rodents this month!

So more outspoken for sure but is this is a single mum trait? You certainly do have to tough up and find your voice to survive, and to ‘smash it’ …well that’s a whole new level of determination. Read the incredible Dame Susan Black’s story for true inspiration. Whereas my ‘Mum the Brave’ exploits usually revolve around riding to the rescue of my family, she uses her strength to flourish in her own career too and to motivate other women to do the same…and that’s something I’ve been less good at. And I know it’s my next big challenge….

But today is Mothering Sunday, Small Boy calls to tell me that he’s having a star named after me and I decide that conquering the world of work can wait for 24 hours. Today of all days it feels pretty great just to be a mum!

Stop growing for 5 minutes!

Wednesday 27 March 2019

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Look what the painters left behind last month! Our treasured pencil marks charting the kids’ heights over time. This year, they record the meteoric rise of Small Boy (AT) from the smallest to the tallest person in the house. Yes, he is now even taller than me!

I’ve had a great day working at home, and am actually feeling more on top of my workload than usual, when Small Boy bursts through the door. I am astounded by how ravenous he is. He simply can’t stop eating! As he pauses for breath, having polished off two bowls of cereal, a bag of nuts and raisins and some left over sticky toffee pudding, we chat about his upcoming school trip – singing in Eurodysney with the school choir.

“Any chance of some new black trousers for the concert, Mum?” he asks.

Glancing at his school uniform I can see what he means. His trousers, new at Christmas, are now hovering in a distinctly ‘half-mast’ fashion above his ankles. I decide I don’t want the Eurodysney crowd thinking that he’s turned up to audition for the part of Oliver Twist and add ‘school trousers’ to m Thursday after-work shopping list.

Can you just stop growing for 5 minutes!” I shout in mock-exasperation.

Small Boy grins and twirls me around the kitchen, before racing back outside to his basketball hoop. And I am left all alone in the kitchen, rooted to the spot. I’m not thinking about work anymore, because all I am thinking is that he won’t stop growing. None of them will. And soon life is going to start changing for us, in really significant ways. My eldest is already planning visits to Uni Open Days and into my head flashes an image of the day when we head out as a family of 4 to drop her off and return as a family of 3…it makes me feel utterly panic-stricken. A momentary desire to stop time and freeze it right here and now, with us all together in this happy little bubble is palpable. But of course that can’t happen and I actually wouldn’t want it to. It’s the start of the exciting future, freedom and independence I dream of for my kids and a reality all parents have to face at some point. I’m just not at all sure it’s one I’ll be smashing with any kind of dignity and without an awful lot of tissues ….

Hallelujah!!

Saturday 23 March 2019

What a mad and magnificently musical-March it has been! This week alone, I have performed in 2 concerts and the kids have been in 3. We have careered all over the Northwest, discovering new venues, such as Manchester’s classy Stoller Hall, as well as playing in familiar favourites. We have been offered tea, wine and even, on one occasion, chips! It’s been exhausting, exhilarating and exciting…it’s how to do life!

Tonight was an explosion of joy and sound, playing for a local Choral society who took on every major choral work of the 20th Century. It was truly stirring, if a tad lengthy. (The woodwind section actually took a book out on what time it would finish!) Emotional for me too, listening to the haunting Pie Jesu, which I played at Dad’s funeral and playing in extracts from the Dream of Gerontius, the source of the quote on his headstone “Farewell, but not forever…”

I am winding down, with a well earned G&T, when a worrying thought pops into my head, What am I going to do when it’s all over? The musical mayhem, I’ve juggled since January, comes to a glorious end next Saturday with the mighty Mahler 5. Will I be able to cope as I scale back to one weekly rehearsal and a less hectic life? Then I remember that we have, GCSEs , Uni Open days, Work Experience for both girls and Summer Sun to plan for and fit in …something tells me it’s not going to quieten down at all! Well Hallelujah…

There’s a rat in my kitchen!

Tuesday 19 March 2019
Another new skill is added to my repertoire – this time, it’s pest control !!

It’s after 10 pm as I reach home from tonight’s rehearsal. I am pretty hungry and tired, but all thoughts of food and sleep are cast aside as I espy a parcel on my bookcase. My SparkPod Ultrasonic Pest Repeller has arrived – hip hip hooray!!

The girls are convinced that we have mice in the loft, following a few nights of ‘strange scratching’ noises. Now I do try to take most things on …but rodents are my limit. So I shot straight online to locate a skilled mouse remover, whereupon I came across the world of ultrasonic solutions to pest problems! They had absolutely rave reviews and so I was enticed to give home remedy one chance to succeed before I call in the pros!

And here it is! Feeling quite giddy with excitement, I rip open the packaging … oh goody there are three of them but yikes ….they are plug in devices and I don’t think there’s a socket in my loft! Undeterred, even though it’s now close to 11pm, I turn the garage upside down to find my extension lead and am teetering up the stairs, with a SparkPod repeller under my chin and a chair (to stand on) in one hand and the extension lead in the other, when Prom Dress Daughter potters out. She shares my delight and upon hearing that they also deter spiders, whisks the device away and plugs it happily into her own room! ‘Never mind‘ I think smugly, ‘I have 2 more!

Sensibly I decide to leave the chair and extension lead in the bedroom that leads to the loft before popping back downstairs to get devices 2 and 3 and now I do hit an unstoppable barrier. In that bedroom, sleeping soundly like an angel is my eldest daughter! I do come to my senses and realise that I do need to resume this escapade tomorrow. Prom Dress daughter and I cheer ourselves up by plugging all three devices into various sockets around the house before I pack her off to bed and direct myself to the kitchen for a snack that’s now almost a midnight feast.

‘Til tomorrow rodents…

Bruising Times!

Friday 15 March 2019

It’s been a bruising week quite literally for me. My right foot is a black and bloody mess after an electric till fell upon it, corner-first, on Monday. My trusty Toyota, Windsor, has a nasty bump after a collision with another car on Tuesday. And on Thursday, in a hurried attempt to beautify myself ahead of Saturday night, I managed to get hair dye in my eye and have spent today observing the world through, a ghastly combination of, one green and one very red eye! Like most of us, what I have been observing are the latest rounds of Brexit votes and they really do look brutal! My scrapes this week have really painful but I know that they will heal or be repaired before too long. The bruises of Brexit…I’m not so sure…

I’ll admit, I wish that the referendum had never happened, but it did and so I have thought about how I will cope. I have looked into the impact of Brexit for my family, but it’s an uncertain picture. Many advisory sites concentrate on changes to holiday travel and Euro-Sterling exchange rates, but I’m not losing any sleep over those. They seem inconvenient but solvable issues. Economic experts anticipate price rises and shortages, and I find these much more worrying, but again I am used to financial pressure and having to think about costs and logistics all of the time, so I think that my household will adapt. What has been a shock has been the emotional drama of this saga and the disintegration of relationships within Westminster as well as between MPs and the rest of the nation. I am struck by how horribly apt the media’s analogy with divorce, which I found highly irritating at first, has proved to be.

Most of the debate is focused upon our economic prosperity, but I hypothesis that, akin to the messy financial decisions in a divorce, if we approach these negotiations with our game face on, our research done and our data ready, it will eventually sort itself out. It’s the emotional scars that will be so much harder to repair, as indeed they are in any marriage breakdown. How do we rebuild trust in our political leaders both within the House of Commons and outside, when through a colossal failure of leadership, they have neglected to engage and communicate with many of the key stakeholders in these hugely important decisions, seemingly because … it’s too much like hard work? Teresa May signalled this, with her decision to call a General Election in 2017. ‘Yes, Teresa, it would have been easier to bludgeon through you own vision of Brexit with a majority, but finding the best solution isn’t always about finding the easiest solution!’ A golden rule of leadership is that to effect real change, you need to ‘take people with you ‘. It’s time consuming, it requires you to listen as well as speak, it requires patience and flexibility, but … it’ the only way!

Teresa May’s approach has done the reverse and, in consequence, she has lost the loyalty and support of even her own MPs. Look at Parliament, torn apart, divided, fracturing and rocking with instability before our eyes. Will it ever be the same again? Even more significantly, I can see no evidence of engagement and debate with the wider public. The despair and the sense of betrayal and dis-empowerment that led to so many voting to leave the EU in the first place, have we addressed this? The uncomfortable debate about immigration and society’s view of the UK multi-racial population, have we had this debate? I am not sure that we have and I worry, far more than I do about having a few less Euros to my pound, that it is a ticking time bomb.

So how will I prepare for Brexit… I think I’ll just know that I have the resilience to survive it economically! How will I try to keep smashing life as a single parent? By trying really hard to communicate with, listen to and engage all family members in the tricky and sometimes difficult conversations that can only make us stronger….that’s possibly far easier said than done!