Monday 3 October 2011

Worst mother in the world

We are on our way to school. Dusty has perked up enough to opt to come with us. I always feel Monday mornings are fresh slates. Wipe clean the poor performance of the previous week, tackle afresh the undone items on the To Do List. With this in mind, and no story tape in the cassette player, I commence my Monday Morning Lecture.

'I wish we had Mrs Jenkins for English,' Lily has made the mistake of remarking. 

‘If you want to get into the top class, you’re going to have to put in more work, darling. That’s what the girls in the top class do. You can’t just get away with doing the bare minimum if you’re not really understanding the work. I know it’s boring, but as you get older, you’ll find that you have to use more and more play time to study.’


‘You know I’ve spent about £100 on all these study books for you like So You Really Want to Learn History, but you haven’t actually looked at them. We’re going to have to structure some time in at the weekends. If you’ve been learning something like history or geography in school and you don’t quite understand it, you can come home and read over it again. That’s what we bought the books for.’

I’m talking into a void.

‘I don’t know how to try and help you organise your time and do the things you have to do without speaking. If I could trust you were doing these things without me having to talk you through them, then I wouldn’t bother. For example, your oboe. You do your practice at school, don’t you?’


‘So I don’t have to say, do your practice, do I?’


‘But your music theory, for example? Did you do any of that last week.’

She looks at her lap. ‘No.’

‘So you see, then I feel I have to go through everything with you to remind you to do it.’


How does one do this? Or does one just not do it, like the other boarding-school mothers? I knew I wasn’t cut out to be a boarding-school mother. They send their darlings off so they don’t have to be involved. Franny was telling me about one boy at Max’s school whose trunk came back this term unopened, with all his summer term clothes mouldering inside. But I’m a hands-on mother, not a hands-off one. Though I can quite see it's frustrating for Lily, who is surrounded by boarders doing their own thing, free of parental control, while I’m forever checking up on her.

‘The thing is,’ I ponder out loud, ‘I wonder if it makes any difference whether I say anything or not. Whether I spend all this time priming you and you go off and do exactly what you were going to do anyway.’


I resist moving on to ‘etre’ and ‘avoir’ and switch on the radio to fill the void.

We pull up outside the Manor as the girls are running into chapel. Lily's chin is jutting forward and her eyes are narrowed. She is staring out of the windscreen, rooted to her seat.

‘You’re going to be late for chapel,’ I say quietly.

She gets out of the car and walks off without a backward glance. I open my door and call to her. She turns back.

‘So you’re just going to walk off like that, are you?’

With her jaw still set like concrete, she starts to back away.  

‘Well I hope for your sake I don’t get killed in a car crash on the way home.’

She looks me coolly in the eye. Then she turns on her heel and walks into chapel.

Oh God, oh God! Can I blame this on the menopause? Mothers aren’t meant to say things like that. As soon as she learns the words ‘emotional blackmail’ I am sunk.

Back at home, Cass calls. I tell her about this morning’s stand-off.

‘I just can’t help it,’ I say. ‘I can’t be like all the other boarding-school mothers, who pack their children off and don’t ever ask about their work beyond reading their reports - and some don’t even bother to do that.’

‘That’s me!’ says Cass. ‘I just love out of sight, out of mind. But then I get pissed off when nobody’s on the case with their music and they end up not being able to play anything and give up.’

‘So what’s the answer?’ I ask. A balance, I suppose. My problem is I’m inconsistent in my on-the-caseness. We’ll have a lazy weekend getting on fine, and then on Monday morning I'll get a surge of guilt that we haven’t achieved anything and jump into Tiger Mother mode. I’m a Tiger Mother in sheep’s clothing. Or more like a Jack Russell Mother in sloth's clothing.

‘It depends on how badly they’re doing,’ Cass is saying. ‘If they’re doing all right, then that’s all right, isn’t it?’

‘I suppose so. She is doing all right. It’s just when I find out she’s been doing French for three years and she’s never heard of the verb ‘etre’ or how to decline it or conjugate it or whatever you do with it, I feel I have to step in. I’m getting like my father. Just as we were settling down to Dr Who, he'd switch off the television and say, “Spell parallelogram!”’

‘Hang on,’ says Cass. ‘I must have a pee, and I’m not one of those people who can pee while I'm talking, you’ll be glad to hear.’

‘Am I going to have to listen?’ I enquire.

There is nothing but a muffled silence, thankfully.

‘OK, I’m back,’ says Cass a couple of minutes later. ‘And I’ve washed my hands, you’ll be glad to hear. Well, I’ve just spent half an hour ranting at the electrician with a huge smear of Toblerone up the side of my face.’

‘He probably didn’t realise it was Toblerone,’ I say.

‘Exactly,’ she says.

‘How do you know it was Toblerone?’

‘I licked it.’

‘Lucky it was Toblerone.’

‘I knew it would be as soon as I felt it,’ she explains. ‘But it’s terrible, Tilly is always saying, “Mum, how come you have this inability to notice when you have milk on your chin?” and I don’t know. Surely you’d feel milk dribbling down your chin, but I don’t any more.’

‘Snap!’ I say. ‘It’s one of those things like smeared foundation that you don’t think is going to happen until you’re 80, but in fact the finer senses go at 50, along with your eyesight.’

‘I thought it was just me,’ says Cass. ‘Well, I must go. I’ve done fuck all today.’


But we're about to turn it around! We arrange to meet this evening for wine and a whine at hers. I’m going to take along my Thai ingredients and we’re going to try out recipes for our pop-up!


Cass's house is in builder upheaval, so I cook Thai green chicken curry in the unlit scullery on an electric ring using Thai Taste Green Curry Paste, which is marvellous. Unlike a packet of crisps, which consists of 7 crisps rattling around in a monster bag, the tiny Thai Taste Tardis pot is crammed with a polythene bag twice the size of the pot, jam-full of paste.

Use own made-up recipe substituting red pepper for Thai aubergine and finest Italian olive oil for Thai rice bran oil. Fry the sliced red pepper, then bung everything in and simmer. Can't go wrong with coconut milk and curry paste.

'Mmm, this is delicious,' says Cass, stifling a yawn.

'What time did you get up this morning?' I ask.

'Bloody early.'

'What time?'

'8 o'clock.'

'That's not early.'

'It's bloody early for a childless woman - you get to an age when your children have flown the nest and you think you can have a lie-in and that's just the age when you decide to get some chickens and maybe some pigs.'

We work out space and numbers and decide we can feed 50 people at £30 a head, making £1,500! Once word spreads and we're popping up once a week we'll be rich!

'Food doesn't cost much,' says Cass, 'and I'll do homemade bread rolls. They love those. They can bring their own wine and we'll do a no corkage special for the first night. How are we going to advertise it?'

'We can do it all by email and word of mouth. It'll go viral. We'll be inundated!'

We don't quite get around to discussing menus or dates or themes or how to take payment, but that will all fall into place once the builders have gone.

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