Tuesday, 31 August 2010

Shoes, Mortification and Some Rather Surprising Insecurities.

It's been a peculiar day, though not because of the constituents, or even The Boss. He's still not speaking to me, even though he should be thanking his lucky stars that I am so much more competent than Liz Truss MP's caseworker.

What a monumental cock-up that was! If you're going to panic that a constituent may be unhinged after they contact you a few times asking for a surgery appointment, you're going to burn-out pretty quickly in this job.

Anyway, it's not Andrew, but Johnny who starts acting out of character.

He thanks me for the photos that he requested in his last email - the ones of various, unspecified parts of my anatomy.

"I wasn't exactly expecting pictures of your foot, elbow and knee," he says. "Though they were all very attractive."

Then he asks whether the sandal I am wearing in the foot photo is a "dancing shoe" and says that he had to go to a ball at the British Embassy at the weekend. He mentions that dancing with his wife was nothing like the time he danced with me all those years ago. Apparently he has been using that experience as a private fantasy for years, together with memories of what happened next. He doesn't specify what for, exactly - and I don't ask.

I'm a bit embarrassed by all this flattery, and don't really know what to say. I get so flustered that I end up telling him that Max and I always avoid dancing together, as people mock us because of the height difference. Johnny's reply comes back immediately:

"How tall is Max?"

He doesn't usually ask anything at all about Max, and I don't volunteer anything either. Some warped sense of propriety. Anyway, I reply:

"Six foot two."

"Bloody hell, woman," Johnny says. "Shit."

"What's the matter?"

"I don't know how I'm going to live up to that."

Is this really Johnny Hunter talking? Go-getting, super-executive Johnny, who spends half his life ordering me to "keep up" via email? It's rather satisfying to hear him express a bit of insecurity. Though I am a bit worried about how short he must be to panic so much about Max's height.

I must check my old photos when I get home. I don't remember Johnny seeming short when we were at school together - but then no-one's shorter than me. And we were lying down most of the time after the disco.....

I do hope he hasn't got short man's syndrome. I'm sure that's why Dad talks about his sex-life so unrelentingly. Talking of whom, I get another email this evening. The text is brief, as usual:

"I'm sending you these photos so you will understand why I had to come back to Thailand."

I think we already know the reason for that, actually - even without the clue afforded by the Thai Bride's name. Oh God. I really, really don't want to open the three picture attachments. F*ck knows what I'm going to find. Probably gynaecological shots. I make Josh open them instead, while I stand behind him, peering through my fingers at the computer screen. (Does this make me an irresponsible mother?)

"Mum, what are you on about?" Josh says. "No naked women at all." Does he have to sound so disappointed?

Photo number one is of Dad, who appears to have grown a very dodgy-looking moustache, and is kitted out in what must be new clothes. He looks like a pub landlord. Where on earth did he get those slip-on shoes, for Godsake? And is that really a medallion he has round his neck? Forget the pub landlord analogy - he looks more like an ageing Jason King. But with an even greater fondness for Grecian 2000.

Photo number two is of a bunch of unidentified old Thai people, and number three shows four young Thai children. There is no sign of the Thai Bride in any of the pictures, either clothed or unclothed.

"What is this?" I ask Josh.

"Probably Grandad's new family," says Josh. "The ones he's keeping with your inheritance. And where the hell did he get those f*cking horrible shoes?"

I need to discuss this with someone. But who? Dinah's already furious with Dad; Max is getting pretty fed up with my family's dramas, and I can hardly chat to Mum about what her ex-husband is up to. She'll probably decide that marrying him was a sign of very early onset pre-senile dementia and make an emergency call to her GP.

Josh still thinks it's funny, and Connie refuses to look at the photos, because she doesn't believe that Josh and I aren't trying to trick her into looking at more pictures of semi-clad Thai totty.

"I am still mortified," she says. "Most people have cuddly grand-dads. But not cuddly in a pervy way."

I shall have to write it all down in my diary and bear the burden alone. I should be getting used to this, as the last ten days have been pretty lonely, now I come to think of it. I almost wish The Boss was speaking to me. No, what am I saying? Thank heavens for small mercies. Just hope Johnny doesn't turn out to be one.

Monday, 30 August 2010

A Barbecued Microcosm of The Labour Party, and a Mis-Interpretation of the Omens.

It's Joan's famous Bank Holiday Labour Party Barbecue this afternoon. Max and I are going, though I am a bit nervous about what's going to happen when The Boss discovers that I have ignored his ban on socialising with Party staff - because someone's bound to tell him. He usually appoints a spy in circumstances like these.

Now I'm starting to sound as mad as he is, but that's what happens when you work for someone like Andrew. Neuroses are contagious - as if I didn't have quite enough of my own, mainly around a lack of sex and what seems to be an increasing over-abundance of facial hair.

Even if The Boss doesn't find out, I can't say I'm looking forward to seeing all the local councillors again, after Friday's events, but I can't wriggle out of going now. Joan's Party barbecue is a tradition, and anyway, I like her, and most of the Party staff, so I'm not going to let them down. They're always the ones who rescue me when a constituent goes berserk, too - so risking Andrew's further disapproval seems a small price to pay for ongoing protection.

It's stopped raining by the time Max and I eventually arrive at Joan's, so I take that as a good omen.  It's my fault we're late, as I kept changing my mind about what to wear. Labour Party events are a sartorial challenge, as there is no accepted dress code whatsoever. That's mainly because Northwick Labour Party has a class divide wider than my mother-in-law's arse.

On the sunny side of Joan's garden sit most of the town and county councillors, together with those middle-class activists who names crop up on every committee from the Northwick Preservation Society to the Mental Health Trust, and who are all school governors. These are the members of the various local Party dynasties, their fingers - or rather relatives - in every pie. Jimmy Barton is there too, with his wife, Peggy. He winks at me as I walk past.

On the other side, in the shade, sit those Party members who live on Northwick's council estates, or who are union reps - and who are therefore deemed to have their finger on the pulse of the core vote. Far fewer members of this group have managed to become councillors, and although those that have interact slightly more comfortably with the elite squad than do the rest, you can still sense the mutual distrust. And probably dislike.

Over the last few years, a third group has been on the rise. The young, university-educated Party activists, who stand by the drinks table, as their legs don't tire as easily as those of the rest of us. They are largely devotees of David Miliband, and have an understanding of political theory, demographics and voting intentions that puts the rest of us to shame. I'm a bit doubtful about how much real-life experience they bring to their policy analysis, but there's no doubt that their voices are becoming more and more influential - at least partly because their overt personal ambition scares the hell out of The Boss and the other old-timers.

Despite the fact that we know everyone, Greg and I usually spend these events on the periphery of any group we try to join  - probably because we are equally distrusted by all of them. I'm sure that working for the MP means that we are seen as snobs by some, and as halfwits who know nothing about politics by others. Poor old Max is treated as even more irrelevant than we are.

"Molly! Max! Over here!" It's Greg, who is sitting in no-man's land in the middle of the garden, with some of the regional Party staff that I particularly like. Thank God. Max and I are just about to join them and start the serious business of drinking, when there is another late arrival. The Boss. Bloody hell - that's the one thing I wasn't expecting.

I am so pleased that he must have come to his senses, that I smile at him, but he ignores me and makes a rather wobbly beeline for the county councillors and the rest of the elite squad. Kissy, kissy, kissy. It's horrible to watch. Andrew still hasn't mastered the art of planting his lips on women's cheeks, rather than aiming for their lips, though no-one seems to object today.

Why do women like The Boss so much? They all start giggling, and pay him rapt attention while he holds forth about the merits of Neil Young. I notice Jimmy Barton seems less than pleased to see Andrew, though, which is rather gratifying.

"Where's the bloody beer, then?" Andrew shouts, at no-one in particular.

"Didn't you bring your own?" says Jimmy. "Thought you'd have brought a case of the stuff, with the portcullis on it. Though I suppose times are hard for MPs now, thanks to IPSA."

The Boss doesn't find this amusing in the slightest, but he deserves it. He always ignores instructions to "bring a bottle," except when he donates bottles of House of Commons whisky to constituency fetes and raffles. It's as if social norms don't apply to him at all. Mind you, it doesn't look as if he needs any more alcohol today, as he's staggering pretty well already. I can't bear to watch him any longer, so I change places with Max. Now my back is to Andrew, which is a great improvement.

After we've eaten what probably represents Iceland's entire stock of frozen beef-burgers - consumed with varying degrees of enthusiasm - it's time for a game of cricket. Not poncy cricket, but Labour Party cricket, which normally turns into rounders quite quickly.

"Come on, Andrew - let's see the old semi-pro in action!" says Greg, but The Boss declines. He obviously doesn't want to spoil his mythological sporting status. Given what happens next, he'd probably have done better to make a fool of himself during the match. There is a squeal, then Jimmy's wife Peggy stands up and glares at The Boss.

"That's enough," she says. "Come on, Jimmy - we're going." Jimmy looks puzzled but does as he's told.   The Boss shouts after them:

"Some women have no bloody sense of humour."

I go to run after Jimmy and Peggy, but Greg stops me.

"Leave it alone, Mol," he says. "Best not to draw any more attention to it than necessary."

"What happened?" I say.

"I'm not sure, but when I went to the loo a bit earlier, Peggy was in there."

"What, and you walked in on her?"

"No, but when she came out, she said, 'Your boss really is a shit.' I asked her why, and she said that he was coming on to her, and driving her mad."

"Oh, for God's sake," I say. "So is that why she's gone home?"

"I should think so," says Greg. "Though it'd have been better if he'd gone instead. Any suggestions as to what we do now? He's not going to get any better behaved if he carries on drinking."

"I don't know," I say. "Unless we go home ourselves, before anything else happens. We could always leave him to take responsibility for his own actions for once."

"What a novel concept," says Greg. "But not really an option. Next suggestion?"

I don't answer as, at that moment, we are saved by the bell. Or rather, by the return of the rain. Thank God. It's so heavy, that everyone decides it's time to go - even The Boss. It seems I may have misjudged what constitutes a good omen - sometimes rainfall is exactly what is needed. Gene Kelly knew what he was talking about.

Sunday, 29 August 2010

A Rescue Mission in the Middle of the Night, and News of an Oddly-Appropriate Name

Max and I are knackered when we finally get back from Connie's. No sooner has he said, "I am never moving Connie again," than he falls asleep. Not for long, though. The phone rings at 4:00am. Poor old Max has to join Robbie's dad in a rescue mission. Honestly, you couldn't make it up.

It turns out that the much-hyped beach "house" is actually a beach hut. Where staying overnight is prohibited. Josh and the others had unwisely dug an enormous fire pit late at night, which eventually got a bit out of control and caught the attention of the guy who supervises the car park. He went to investigate, and was wholly unamused to find eight teenage boys stacked on top of each other in the tiny hut.

Apparently most of the boys were sound asleep, despite the cramped conditions - but they weren't well-hidden, as their feet were sticking out of the doorway. The supervisor ordered them to leave immediately, but they were all far too drunk to drive. Hence the calls to the parental emergency services.

Josh seems to have sobered up a bit by the time Max brings him home, although his relief at being rescued appears to be based solely on having thus escaped from Robbie's snoring, which he says prevented him from getting any sleep.

"Join the bloody club," says Max.

"Well, it's not my fault," says Josh. "I was still awake when the supervisor arrived, but I was stuck under Jim and Robbie, and couldn't wriggle out. Otherwise, I'd have slept on the bloody beach. Robbie's snoring's almost as bad as Dad's"

"I'd shut up about my snoring, if I were you," says Max.

"Sorry, Dad - I'm just tired. It's been a stressful night."  Josh yawns, and sets both me and Max off too.

"Stressful? I think you ought to count your lucky stars I got rid of the supervisor before it got light," says Max. "If he'd seen that giant sand phallus you lot built, you'd have been in even more trouble."

"So how big was this beach house?" I ask Max.

"About six foot by six foot," says Max. "For Chrissake. They need their heads testing."

"Being so cramped made my broken arm a bit sore," says Josh - who never knows when to shut up.

"It's not broken," says Max. "Or not yet, it isn't. But it could be arranged if you ever pull any more stunts like that. I'm going back to bed."

That sounds like a damned good idea to me, too - so I follow suit, but we seem doomed not to get any sleep this weekend. As soon as we've both snuggled back down - temporarily united by our despair at Josh's latest shambolic adventure, my mobile starts beeping. I can't ignore it - not now Connie's no longer at home. It could be her. Instant panic. Now what's happened?

I blunder around looking for my glasses. It's such a drag not being able to read texts without them. When I can finally see, I realise that the text is from Dinah. Oh, the relief - but even that's only momentary. The message says,

"Oh. My. God. Guess what the Thai Bride's name is?"

"What is it now?" Max's voice is muffled by the pillow he's pulled over his head.

"Dinah," I say. "She wants us to guess what the Thai Bride's name is."

"Yung-Fuk," says Max. I text this suggestion to Dinah.

"It's a great guess, but it's not the one," she replies. "Was that one of Max's? Try again." Who does she think she is? Bloody Roy Walker?

"Dinah, I can't be bothered with playing Catchphrase. It's the middle of the night. Just TELL ME!"

"Porn!" is her reply. "Though you probably don't spell it exactly like that."

Christ almighty. I'm about to tell Max, when he lets out an enormous snore. It's like a flashback. I've had quite enough of that this week. In fact, I've had quite enough of this week, full stop.

Saturday, 28 August 2010

The Return of the Testosterone Imbalance, and Connie's Incompetence at Packing.

Connie and the other interns have found a house, and are moving in this weekend - so it's back to testosterone hell for me as, once she's gone, I shall again be the only woman in the house. No doubt this will cause a dramatic increase in facial hair, and I shall soon be fairground material. I bet good old Kate doesn't have a single stray hair. She's probably been waxed from head to foot, and has a shiny beacon of a botoxed forehead.

Of course, Max and I have been nominated to "help" Connie with the move. Josh has escaped being drafted in, though - as he has gone off to the coast with the boys, to stay at Robbie's parents' beach house. I am trying not to think about the fact that, if David and Susie hadn't been using their holiday cottage, Max and I could have been chilling out there this weekend. Instead, here we are trying to fit what seems like enough stuff to equip three houses into the car.

To add insult to injury, Connie must be the world's most useless packer. She made Max pick up loads of boxes from the supermarket, but God knows why he bothered - she only seems to have used about ten of them, into which she has packed the most random selection of stuff I have ever seen. There is half a ton of make-up loosely scattered inside saucepans and bowls, and her pot plants have been nestled inside her jumpers. There's soil everywhere.

If Connie had taken her time, she might have made a better job of it, but she seemed incapable of any activity while Big Brother was on, and didn't even start packing until about 11:00pm last night. The result is that the bulk of her belongings are in bags. Not bin bags - which would have been embarrassing enough - but bloody carrier bags. Hundreds of them. And Connie is even worse at unloading than she is at packing. When we get to the new house, she stands next to the car, "directing" us - until Max notices and suggests she might like to join in when she's ready.

I start counting how many trips Max and I make to and from the house, but give up fairly quickly. Why is it always impossible to park anywhere near a student house on moving-in day? (Well, actually, I know the answer to this - it's because no student can ever get it together to obtain a parking permit in time for their poor parents to use it during the process of acting like beasts of burden.)

Connie carries only two carrier bags on each of the very few trips she makes. I have seen more dynamic slugs. Then she takes a bag of food into the kitchen, and that is the last we see of her - though we're so busy that we don't miss her for about an hour, at which point we find her sitting at the kichen table with the other interns, all having a really good chat. It's almost 8:00pm now - and the car is still full of stuff.

When I mention this, Connie says that she and the others think it would be nice to go for a drink to get to know each other. She asks Max to lock up when we've finished unloading and to post her keys through the door. A brief hug and a kiss, and off she goes - before I have even started weeping. I cry whenever we take Connie back - but she always stays dry-eyed. You'd think she'd at least pretend to be a bit sad, but she never does. She's just ecstatic to escape from life with Josh. I suppose I can't really blame her.

At least she'll only be about an hour away from us during the coming year - instead of at the opposite side of the country, as has been the case for the previous two years - but it still seems like a very long way to me. The sofa in the shared living room looks comfortable, though. If I ever need to escape, I shall be able to come and visit!

In fact, I'm rather tempted to tell Max to leave me here - but I suppose that's not really an option. I shall be needed at home, to prevent Josh from turning Connie's bedroom into a gym-cum-games room. (I'm pretty sure that Max has sneakily approved this proposal already, though he denies it.) If Max gets made redundant, or I snap and give in my notice, we'll need that room to rent out to a lodger. The latter of these two options currently seems the most likely.

Friday, 27 August 2010

Thank God It's Friday (Evening).

Gah. Only one more week of Recess to go, thank God - though a week's going to feel like a year if The Boss keeps me in Coventry for much longer. Metaphorically-speaking, of course. The real Coventry must be a whole lot more fun than Northwick is at the moment.

Greg has to do today's surgery as Andrew makes it quite clear that I'm not welcome, so I am left to the mail and the phones instead. This results in me spending the morning fending off all the usual suspects, including Mr Beales who is still going on about the policeman that he ran over. He is determined that the officer should be disciplined for not wearing a high-visibility jacket before he "jumped out" in front of Mr Beales' speeding car.

It's all I can do not to put the phone down on him when he insists that there would have been no problems with his speeding, if there hadn't been a strategically-placed policeman hiding in bushes for the sole purpose of catching him doing it. If the policeman had known Mr Beales, then a suicidal act such as this might have been understandable - I'd consider jumping in front of a speeding car rather than have to listen to that man. He is so wearing - what on earth must it be like to be married to him?

I suppose it's unlikely that Mr Beales would ever be capable of giving his wife the silent treatment, though - unlike Max, who is still communicating only in monosyllables. It's a good job that David has said that we can't borrow his holiday cottage this weekend, because he and Susie are using it. They'll probably have more fun in it than Max and I would have done, given how things are with us. We've never really been into arguing-and-making-up sex, more's the pity.

After lunch, Greg asks me to cover a meeting with some of the local councillors, as he doesn't feel he's up to managing what is a potentially tricky situation. Andrew glares at me when I tell Greg that I'll do it, but he doesn't actually forbid me to attend. Unfortunately.

Jimmy Barton, Leader of Northwick Council, has requested the meeting to complain that The Boss is poaching cases that local councillors should be dealing with. He brings several councillors with him to back him up.

The meeting starts badly, as Andrew's first response to Jimmy's complaint is that, if councillors did their jobs properly, then constituents wouldn't approach their MP in the first place. This goes down about as well as you'd expect.

Then he makes matters worse by saying that the whole problem is that, since the corruption scandals in local politics some years ago, we can't attract any decent candidates to stand for election anymore. I don't know if The Boss doesn't notice the expression on Jimmy's face, or whether he doesn't care - but he looks set to carry on like this for the rest of the meeting. If I don't do something.

In the end, I can't bear it, and interrupt:

"I'm sure what Andrew means is that perhaps we need to have better communication between this office and local councillors," I say. "And maybe there's a training issue for new councillors?"

"Rubbish," says Andrew, quite loudly.

Jimmy looks at him, then back at me. I think it takes Jimmy a moment to work out that I am the target of The Boss' hostile statement - but then his expression softens and he takes the olive branch.

"Well, Molly, girl," he says. "There might be a grain of truth in that. What d'you suggest?"

I am so relieved to have averted any further conflict that I launch into a series of suggestions as to what Greg and I could offer to new councillors in terms of helping them find ways to manage their caseloads.

The councillors join in, and it's all going really well until the discussion is interrupted by a loud snore. A really loud, stagy snore. All heads turn to look at Andrew, who is sitting slumped in the corner of the sofa - wide-awake, and staring at me.

"I think that's enough, Molly," he says. "We don't want to bore Jimmy and the others to death, now do we?"

I am not going to let him make me cry. I am not. I never have, and I never will. I excuse myself and leave the room. As I pass Greg, he tries to stop me to find out what is wrong, but I just shake my head and keep going. When I get outside, I stand around for a while, smoking and ordering myself to get a grip, so that I don't give Andrew the satisfaction of seeing that he has upset me. On the second cigarette, I finally start to calm down.

But then there are noises in the lobby and someone pushes open the main door, a few feet from where I am standing. Shit. They must all be leaving. And they're going to walk right past me when they do. I move towards the door, but then I hear something.

"Wasn't that awful?" says a vaguely familiar voice.

"God, yes," says another. "That poor girl. He made her look a complete prat. I'm bloody glad I don't have to work for him."

Nothing for it but to face them anyway. I'll have to do it sometime, after all. I take hold of the door and say "Excuse me," to Jimmy, who looks startled, then moves out of my way. The other councillors turn to face me and smile rather too sympathetically - like those hushed-voice counsellor types who always annoy me so much when I encounter them at meetings of the Mental Health Trust.

"Good to see you all," I say, as I walk away. "Look forward to seeing you at Joan's barbecue."

Then I go back to work. It is a very good thing that The Boss is still not speaking to me, as I am not speaking to him either. Not now. I bet this isn't how International Directors of Global Oil Companies treat their staff. And they probably speak to their wives as well. Thursday week can't come soon enough, as far as I'm concerned.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

Juvenile Behaviour and a Change in Perspective.

Max still isn't speaking to me this morning, though I'm not entirely sure how he's managed to cast me in the wrong on this one. I stick my tongue out at him as he leaves the house, and am rewarded with a reproving glance from Connie and an outrageous "how juvenile" comment from Josh.

I somehow resist the temptation to explain exactly why the frosty atmosphere is entirely down to Max, and stomp off to work instead - where I am greeted by Greg, who informs me that he is on a diet. Apparently he came to this realisation while he was watching "How to Look Good Naked" last night - which he has re-titled "Help Me, Gok - I've Eaten Too Much." He starts doing sit-ups while I make the coffee, but has to give up as soon as The Boss arrives.

Andrew greets Greg and ignores me completely. So that's still the way it is, then. Marvellous. Luckily, there are plenty of phone calls to deal with, so the silent treatment proves rather ineffective. The self-styled ruler of the Channel Islands phones up again, still demanding recognition by the British Government, though I have no idea why he has selected The Boss to be his emissary in this matter.

I put him through to Andrew as a small act of revenge. This backfires, as Andrew's sulking becomes even more conspicuous afterwards. Luckily, he has a full diary of completely unimportant appointments scheduled for this afternoon, so he leaves just after lunch.

His absence enables Greg to give me back all the cases that Andrew handed over to him earlier. My cases. I offer to let Greg keep them, but he just says,

"Mol, don't be stupid. And I'm really sorry he's being such a total idiot. I'm not encouraging him - but what can I do?"

"Oh, I don't know," I say. "Have you tried telling him that you don't believe in his ridiculous conspiracy theory either?"

"Yes," says Greg. "But he just said that I needed to step out from under your malign influence. Could we get him sectioned, do you think?"

"Doubt it," I say. "Not with how long it takes to get anyone bloody sectioned around here. Look at this!"

I pass Greg the latest letter from Angie Harrod. "It's about Sadie. Again."

"I thought she was going to be sectioned on Monday," says Greg.

"She was. Angie says she thinks that someone tipped Sadie off that they were coming. God knows who, though. Angie found her hiding up a tree after the team had given up and gone away again. And she was naked."

"Oh, for f*cksake," says Greg.

"I know. It'll take months to re-arrange, with so many people's diaries involved. Well, weeks anyway."

"Well, what the hell are we going to do in the meantime?" Greg says. "The neighbours are going to lynch her if she puts out any more poisoned sweets to entice their kids."

"Maybe we could ask The Boss what he suggests, when he gets back. Seeing as I'm so incompetent," I say.

"Oh, don't be bloody daft," says Greg. "You must be able to think of something better than that."

"I haven't got a clue, though we could always take a tip from Sadie and poison our sandwiches. If we left them lying around in a tempting fashion -"

"God, maybe Andrew's right to be paranoid," says Greg. I throw Andrew's Russian fedora at him, and we settle down to work.

So at least Greg's talking to me. And so is Johnny, or rather, he's emailing me, anyway. He is back in Moscow now, but wants me to recommend a hotel in Northwick for the Thursday after next. In the meantime, he wants more photos of my arse. And of any other parts of my anatomy that I think would be of interest. I'm not entirely sure what he means by this, but I'm sure I'll think of something.

It occurs to me that, if Johnny simply wanted to get laid, or to have some variety in his sex-life, he has a world of opportunity out there. He is away more than he's at home, stays alone in luxury hotels, and earns a bloody fortune. He could afford the most expensive call girls, and he probably has lots of young and ambitious female staff who wouldn't be averse to his attentions either.

Given the inexplicable effect that even the Boss' rather pathetic semblance of power has on almost every female he encounters, Johnny must have his pick of women, probably much younger and more attractive than me. So why on earth is he prepared to fly over here just to see me? Maybe he isn't the total shit I often assume he must be.......  I'd better start doing some sit-ups, too. With any luck I will need to look good naked in less than a fortnight.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Silence Is Not Golden. And Other F*ckwittery.

Aargh, men. Have had about enough of them today. First it is The Boss' turn to infuriate me. We have a stand-up row about his attitude to the Party staff, when I ask him if he is going to Joan's summer barbecue.

"No, I am bloody well not," he says. "And neither are you."

"What?" I say. "What on earth are you talking about?"

"They are all out to get me, and I've told you before, I do not like you socialising with them. If you knew where your loyalties lay, I wouldn't have to tell you in the first place."

I actually do a double-take to see if Andrew is joking. He doesn't seem to be, if his heightened colour is anything to go by.

"Oh, for goodness' sake, Andrew - get a grip," I say. "The Party staff are the people with a vested interest in supporting you. They are not spies, no matter how many John LeCarre novels you may have read."

He says nothing, just glares at me. So I continue. (I have always had a problem with knowing when to stop flogging a dead horse.)

"But, if you keep on like this, you'll make them your enemies. And I don't want to encourage your paranoia, or make my working life any more difficult than it has to be - so I am going to the barbecue. And if you had any sense, you'd come too - and thank everyone there for all their hard work on your behalf."

Nothing. No response. Or not to me, anyway. The Boss turns to Greg.

"I think I'll do the morning briefing with you today, Gregory," he says. "Even though it isn't your turn."

I find The Boss' disapproval funny for the first couple of hours, but it's wearing pretty thin now. He doesn't speak to me for the rest of the day. In fact, he doesn't even refer to me in that "tell Molly something" way that he usually falls back on when he's in a mood. He just behaves as if he can't even see me. To make matters even worse, when I take a call for him, and try to pass the phone over, he doesn't respond until Greg says,

"Andrew, Molly has a call for you."

Then he rips the phone out of my hand, so I have to sit looking at the back of his arse - which he parks on my desk - until he has finished blathering. I wish he'd go and sit in the Oprah Room instead of hanging around in the main office. At least then I could put his calls through to the extension, and could get on with something useful myself - not to mention that I wouldn't have to look at his backside. Even that has a sulky expression.

God knows how long he's going to keep it up this time. Last time I questioned one of his neuroses, he didn't speak to me for a week. It wouldn't be so bad if it wasn't bloody Recess. As it is, I can't get away from what feels like a very loud silence indeed for the rest of the afternoon.

I'm so pleased to get home that, once I arrive, I just want to stay there but, instead, we have to go for drinks at Max's boss' house. This is never the most exciting way to spend an evening, but it all goes fine, until the conversation turns to the subject of travel cock-ups.

Colin tells a couple of (rather tedious) stories about trains he's missed, and someone else bangs on about the "trauma" of being stuck in Spain on an extended holiday during the volcanic ash situation. Then Colin says,

"None of that's as bad as Max's classic in Germany, is it, Max?"

"Oh God, no-one wants to hear about that again," says Max.

I therefore assume that Colin's referring to Max's alleged inability to recall the name of his hotel - but he isn't. It turns out Max had another little problem while he was on his business trip. He and a colleague were apparently travelling back to their hotel from somewhere, late at night, and managed to miss their stop. The full story becomes clear only in stages.

"Fancy not only missing your stop and riding to the end of the line, but actually ending up parked somewhere overnight," says Colin, nearly wetting himself laughing. "What idiots!"

I look at Max, who avoids looking back, so I turn to Colin, one eyebrow raised.

"Parked somewhere overnight?" I say, very clearly and slowly.

"Well, no - they nearly were. If Kate hadn't managed to flirt with the driver, they would have been. As it was, good old Kate persuaded him to reverse the train all the way back to the last station, and to let them off there, so they could get a taxi."

"Good old Kate, indeed," I say. "And who is Kate, just out of interest?"

"Oh, she works at one of the other branches," says Colin.

"I see," I say. "She must have been very persuasive."

I think everyone's realised that this is not going well by now, so there is a mad flurry of trying-to-change-the-subject-itis. I pull myself together and think I do a pretty good job, for a while, at least. Even Max seems visibly more relaxed, until we get in the cab to go home. He gets pretty tense again during the journey - probably due to the atmosphere. I am obviously much less fun than good old Kate was on that bloody train.

"What the hell's the matter with you?" he says. Max always works on the principle of "attack is the best form of defence." It never succeeds, but then he also finds learning from experience rather challenging.

"What do you think?" I say.

"I don't know," he says. "Is it something to do with that Kate thing?"

"What - the Kate I have never heard of, and who apparently proved so distracting while you two were the only passengers on a late-night train, that you actually managed to miss the bloody terminus?" My voice is rising. "Why on earth would I be upset about that?"

"Oh, for goodness' sake," says Max. Then he stops speaking to me, and stomps off to bed as soon as we get home.

Two men in a mood with me in one day. Not even counting the usual suspects. Looks like the rest of the week is going to be pretty quiet in terms of conversation. If I keep this up, I'll be well on the way to achieving my ambition to become a hermit.

Tuesday, 24 August 2010

Conflicting Interests All Over The Place

It's one of those days. First Mr Meeurghn phones, screeching about one of his neighbours picking on him. When I enquire a little further, it seems as if the neighbour objected to Mr Meeurghn ordering him to help carry a stereo and sofa up the stairs to Mr M's flat. Mr Meeurghn has no concept of the notion of asking someone nicely.

Now he says he can't go outside without the neighbour looking at him as if he wants to kill him.

"You write him and tell him," he yells.

"Tell him what?" I want to go home already. And it's only 10:30am.

"You tell him be nice to me, because I am refugee," says Mr Meeurghn.

I sometimes long for just a small part of the vast influence that Mr Meeurghn believes me to possess. I know who I'd use it on first - but that is just wishful thinking. In the absence of any meaningful super-powers, I spend ages trying to tell him that it is really up to him to improve his relationship with his neighbour, but he loses his temper and slams the phone down on me. I can't say I'm sorry.

Greg says, "He's on our list for the next DIY CRB check. Once bloody Recess is over."

I don't think we need to go and spy on Mr Meeurghn to know that he is a total nutter - not since the letter from the Home Office - but I suppose we could check out whether his neighbour looks like a reasonable person or not, just in case Mr M is telling the truth for once. You have to try to keep an open mind, after all. Though that's sometimes a bit of a tall order.

Then John Fuk-Yue phones. He tells me - for the umpteenth time - that the hospital have got his diagnosis wrong: that he has epilepsy, and not a personality disorder. He says that he needs an urgent meeting with me to discuss this in person, as he has to look into someone's eyes to trust them. I don't say that the problem with this idea is that I don't trust him, but I do agree to write to his doctor and express John's extreme disquiet.

"Remind me of the name of your GP?" I say. I can't remember everything off the top of my head, but John takes this as a personal affront.

"I've told you before," he says. "How many bloody times? I don't have a normal GP. I have that bastard that was allocated to me."

"Ah, yes - now I remember. Tell me again what reason they gave for that?"

"That I was too dangerous to be seen by anyone outside the secure medical centre," he says. "And all because I accidentally punched that nurse."

I take the name of the doctor, and agree to fax my letter to speed things up. I am instructed to include a long list of the specific symptoms which John believes signify epilepsy, and I am to point out that if he did have a personality disorder, his self-medication of paracetamol and alcohol wouldn't work. For Godsake - is everyone going to think they have the right to tell me how to do my job today?

I'm almost embarrassed to send the stupid letter, but John scares me more than a loss of dignity does, so I type it up quickly and fax it straight through. Half an hour later, I get a phone call from the medical centre. Doctor Granger would like to have an off-the-record conversation with me. I hate these - they are never good news.

"About our mutual acquaintance, Mr Fuk-Yue," he says. "If that's what he's still calling himself this week?"

"Yes," I say. "He hasn't changed his name for a while now."

"Well, you mentioned that he'd asked for a meeting with you. I'm phoning to tell you that I think that would be most inadvisable."

"Why's that?" I ask, though I have a horrible feeling that I already know the answer.

"Because he is an extremely dangerous, manipulative individual," says Doctor Granger. "You are aware of the special arrangements for his medical care?"

"Ye-es," I say. "He told me there was a misunderstanding when he punched a nurse by accident."

"Regrettably, there was a lot more to it than that, my dear. Suffice to say that, despite the guards at this facility, I myself will not see Mr Fuk-Yue without wearing a stab vest. I strongly advise that neither you nor your MP meet with him without security  - under any circumstances."

"Oh dear, I don't think Mr Sinclair will be happy about that. He refuses to have security, and doesn't believe that anyone should be denied access to their MP. Or to the MP's staff."

"Is Mr Sinclair there? I think I need to speak to him myself," says Dr Granger. God, he's masterful. I'd be quite turned on, if I wasn't so stressed. He reminds me of Johnny, apart from the Scottish accent. Or even Max, when he took control of the Josh situation yesterday. What is going on with my hormones?

The Boss is out of the office, trying to smooth over the situation with the St Helen's Road residents, so Dr Granger tells me to ask Andrew to call him when he comes back. I'm not very optimistic about the likely result of their conversation - realistically, as it turns out.

The Boss goes nuts when I explain what the GP wants. He yells at me, then phones Dr Granger and tells him that he has never had a problem with a constituent being violent, and that that is because of the way that he speaks to them - "soothingly and with respect."

I can only assume that Dr Granger demurs, because then Andrew says, "Unlike some people," in a rather offensive way.

There follows a lengthy argument, and then Andrew slams out of the office, glaring at me as he passes. I wait a few minutes, and then phone Dr Granger myself.

"I'm sorry to bother you, Doctor - but I just wanted to thank you for your efforts to ensure my safety, and to apologise for Mr Sinclair's manner," I say. "He is under rather a lot of pressure today."

"Between you and me, lassie, I'd say he's not under enough pressure. The man needs a reality check. How many times have you been threatened or assaulted?" he asks.

"Um, quite a few," I say. "But then I see constituents rather more often than Mr Sinclair does."

"Exactly the point I made to him, before he hung up," says Dr Granger. "You be careful, my dear. And do not see that man alone."

Considering that John likes to "just pop in", and has frequently been found hanging around in the one corner of the lobby that is not visible from the security door, I'm not at all sure how I'm going to manage to avoid this. But it is nice to know that someone cares.

Greg decides to add John to the DIY CRB list before we go home. In the process of noting down the address, he realises that John lives in the same street as Mr Meeurghn. How did I miss that?

"Great," says Greg. "We can kill two birds with one stone and check 'em both out at the same time."

"That's if they haven't killed each other first," I say.

This leads to the uncomfortable realisation that, if Mr Meeurghn's neighbour is John Fuk-Yue, then Mr M may actually have a valid reason for his paranoia, for once in his life. And I am smack in the middle of a conflict of interest. That'll teach me to gloat about Andrew's cock-up with the St Helen's Road Hostel.

Mind you, I suppose that if Mr M and John did kill each other, that'd be two less scary people to contend with on a regular basis. Or maybe I could suggest that The Boss offers to arbitrate and pays them both a home visit. Then we'd soon see how effective his supposedly soothing voice really is.

I'd better not mention this idea to Greg. He's so cross with The Boss that he'd probably set up that appointment straight away. I wouldn't mind paying Dr Granger a home visit, though. I really need to get a grip on my hormones.

Monday, 23 August 2010

Why MPs Are Not Supposed To Interfere In Planning Issues. Or Anything Else, For That Matter.

I need to book The Boss on to some sort of refresher course to clarify what MPs are supposed to get involved with, and what they shouldn't touch with a bargepole. In fact a beginner's course would do: given that he's never taken any notice of the guidance. He gets bitten firmly on the arse today, though - Greg and I haven't had so much fun for ages.

Andrew gets to the post before I do, and spends most of the morning at my desk reading the predominantly loony letters. Then he calls me into my own office, and says,

"Molly, we need to do something to close these damned stupid cases."

"I couldn't agree more, Andrew. How do you propose we do it? Seeing as you always ignore my suggestions."

"What suggestions?"

"Well, when I tell the usual suspects that there's nothing further we can do for them, and then they phone you or the girls at Westminster to complain about me, maybe you could try actually backing me up. For once," I say, but he's not listening.

"Oh, bugger it." Andrew is trying to access his email. As usual, he thinks that the remote Parliamentary system has been created for the sole purpose of making his life difficult. As if he ever answers his emails anyway. He thumps the side of the monitor and says,

"Get me the PDVN* on the phone. I'm going to get this piece of crap sorted once and for all."

I can't be bothered to argue, so I make the call, and when I get an automated message asking for my contact details and promising to phone me back, I give Andrew's name instead of mine. I am not going to sit through three hours of watching the PC being remotely controlled by a help-desk person, all because The Boss can't bear to wait more than a second for anything that he wants. (He's just like Josh.)

Tying Andrew to the desk (even if only metaphorically-speaking) will have the added benefits of distracting him from interfering with our work, and giving someone else the dubious pleasure of listening to him ranting. By the time he's confused the hell out of PICT* with his Luddite version of what's wrong, it'll take them hours to work out that there actually isn't a problem at all. Apart from his lack of patience.

The plan works a dream, and when Andrew's still stuck in front of the computer at lunchtime, Greg and I decide we might as well make the most of it, so we consign our packed lunches to their inevitable fate, and do a runner to the pub.

In hindsight, this may not have been a wise decision. Not because we get drunk - we don't - but because when we come back, The Boss has abandoned his attempt to sort out the unbroken email system and has become dangerously bored.

"Some people coming in to see me in a minute, Molly," he says. "Bring 'em up when they get here. I'm going to eat my sandwiches in the Oprah Room." His sandwiches? God almighty. That Tupperware box belongs to Greg's mum.

"Who's coming to see you?" I say. "Your diary is clear this afternoon. Or it's supposed to be."

"Oh, we had a letter from the St Helen's Road residents in this morning's mail," says Andrew. "I phoned them up while you and Greg were AWOL, and asked them if they wanted to come in and have a chat. I've got a bit of time on my hands today, after all - and it'll save you writing a reply."

"A chat about what?" I say, but then Joan phones from reception to tell me that some constituents are waiting downstairs to see The Boss.

"I want a word, before you talk to them," I say, as I head for the corridor. "And get all that egg mayo out of your teeth before they see you. Looks like plaque."

When I show the St Helen's Road Residents Association representatives in to the Oprah Room, I go to take a seat myself, but Andrew stops me.

"Oh, I don't need you for this, Molly," he says. "It's only a friendly chat with my constituents. Just how I like it. You go and get on with all the important work we do for the hardworking families of Northwick."

He edges me out and when I turn round to argue with him, he shuts the door in my face. The damn thing nearly knocks me out. I make several extravagant two-fingered gestures at the closed door, while Greg raises an eyebrow.

"What do you reckon?" he says. "The hostel?"

"Oh, I should think so," I say. "Well, he can damn well get himself out of this one. Muppet."

Two hours later, Andrew exits the Oprah Room, each arm around a giggling middle-aged woman, while three others look at him adoringly.

"I'll just show these lovely ladies out, Molly," he says. "And then we'll write to the Head of Planning and make it quite clear that we can't have that hostel built on St Helen's Road."

"Let me tell him," says Greg, as soon as Andrew has gone.

"No, I am bloody well telling him," I say. "I deserve it after nearly getting my nose broken by that door."

"Telling him what?" says The Boss. How did he get back so quickly - and so quietly?

"That hostel -" I say.

"Yeah, ridiculous idea. What about it?"

"Well, aside from the fact that MPs aren't supposed to interfere in planning issues - as I keep telling you - have you any idea who the hostel is for?" I keep a perfectly straight face, though Greg starts laughing.

"Some bloody dodgy types," says Andrew. "The sort I wouldn't want to live next to."

"That's as maybe," I say. "But they are the clients of the Easemount HalfWay House Project. Of which you are patron - as of last month."

"Oh shit," says Andrew.

I am really going to enjoy seeing how he gets himself out of this one. It's about time I started teaching the idiots by whom I seem to be surrounded how to take responsibility for their actions.

As a result of this timely reminder not to encourage dependency in others, I shall not be responding to any more of Josh's calls to my mobile telling me that he "urgently needs" a delivery of food and drink to his bedroom. He's only got one bloody arm out of action, after all.

*PDVN - Parliamentary Data and Video Network, who used to be the people responsible for Parliamentary email, remote access to the Parliamentary Intranet etc. Now known as *PICT, which stands for Parliamentary Information and Communications Technology - but The Boss can never remember this. He isn't very adaptable to change.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

A Highly-Incompetent Ninja Pays The Price.

Oh, great. Max and I go into town, more for a wander than to shop, as we are broke until payday. We leave Connie and Josh at home, arguing desultorily about whether university is a waste of time.

Max says that maybe we should try and arrange something for next weekend, and suggests we ask David and Susie if we can borrow their holiday cottage. Just the two of us. I have no idea what brought this on, but I'm thrilled - especially as it is entirely Max's own idea, and not the result of furious hinting.

If anything is likely to result in sex, this is it. Being twenty miles away from the kids would mean there'd be no possibility of being interrupted by one of them wanting us to rule on a stupid argument.

"Phone David now," I say. "Quick, before you change your mind!"

"Why would I change my mind?" says Max.

"Oh, I don't know. But something always crops up and then we end up doing nothing," I say. Max gives me a hug and picks up his phone.

David and Susie must be out on the razzle somewhere, as David's phone goes straight to answerphone. Max is about to hang up, but after a lot of nudging from me, he leaves a message asking if we can borrow the house. Yaay! I am so happy I am almost skipping as we start to make our way home. When we come out on the other side of the underpass, Max's phone rings. God, can that be David, already?

"You what?" says Max. There is a barely discernable note of panic in his voice. "He's done what?"

I stick my head up close to his, and can just make out Connie's voice - which is pitched rather higher than usual.

"Well, don't move him," says Max. "We're almost home." He breaks into a run. I follow suit - but he's too fast for me. When I get inside the house, Josh is lying on the floor, half inside the living room and half in the hall. He looks distinctly green, and is uncharacteristically quiet. Max is examining him.

"So what happened, Con?" he says.

"He was getting really stroppy about students, so I told him to piss off and leave me alone," says Connie.

"And?" Max is not looking amused.

"Well, he wouldn't." Connie's chin is sticking out - as it always does when she feels under attack.

"You thumped me," says Josh. (Thank God for that - at least he's capable of speech.)

"Not hard! And anyway, it was your bloody fault what happened." Connie is furious.

"Look," says Max, in a very uncharacteristically assertive way, "Josh's arm is blue - so we need to get him to A&E. I'll get the car."

As he heads for the door, I say, "What d'you think he's done?"

"I think he could have broken his arm and the bone might be cutting into his blood supply."

"Oh Christ," I say, and sit down on the stairs.

"Get his coat and a blanket, and I'll bring the car round," says Max. "And you can stay here while I take him to the hospital. You'll just wind him up if you come, 'cause you look so damned worried."

Gah. I deal with stressful situations every day of the week - why does my husband think I am useless in an emergency?

"I'm coming," I say. "Connie, you can cook dinner while we're gone. I'll phone you when we know what's wrong."

I'm not sure, but I could swear Connie says, "Serves him right," as Max and I manhandle Josh to the car.

We wait for hours in A&E. Josh perks up a bit while he's waiting, but he won't tell us any more about what happened. He sits there muttering,

"Connie's just so f*cking annoying."

He finally gets to see a doctor, who orders an X-Ray, but not before he has asked Josh to explain how the accident happened. Max and I look at him expectantly. Josh says nothing, and just hangs his head.

"Go on, tell him," says Max. "We're all waiting to hear this."

"Well, it's my sister, you see," Josh says to the doctor. "She's just really, really annoying."

"And?" says the doctor.

"She wanted me to go away, so she thumped me."

"What - hard enough to break your arm?" says the doctor. "What is she, some sort of prize-fighter?"

"No-o," says Josh. "I tried to kick her back -"

"Ah," says Max. "What sort of kick, exactly?"

"Well, a roundhouse kick, of course," says Josh, the family ninja.

"So why are you here in A&E with a possibly broken arm, when you were the one who kicked your sister?" says the doctor.

"I missed," says Josh. Very quietly. I'll give the doctor his due, he didn't laugh out loud. Though I'm pretty sure he sniggered.

We finally get home really late. Josh's arm is in a sling to support it. It's not broken, but very badly bruised. The doctor says he has probably temporarily damaged some of the nerves and the blood vessels have been affected, hence the attractive blue colour. Connie gives him a big hug, which makes him wince, and then she says,

"How did you tell them you did it, bro?"

"Told 'em I bloody well kicked you," says Josh.

"And that you missed and fell over - onto your own arm?" says Connie. She's enjoying this far too much - but then so am I.

"I suppose so," says Josh. "Now can you get me a drink? You're going to have to wait on me until my arm's better. I'd better phone you on my mobile whenever I need something."

That wipes the smile off Connie's face pretty effectively. And mine, once it occurs to me that we can't possibly leave these two alone while we have a dirty weekend. They'd probably murder each other, through incompetence, if nothing else. Bang goes my chance of rejuvenating my sex-life. I do wish I'd seen Josh's flying kick, though. Funniest thing that's happened all week.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

Fault Lines Opening Up All Around

It's time to talk to Josh about what next. This takes far less time than Max and I anticipate. Josh says he is not going back to school to re-sit his A-levels, nor is he going to go to the local FE college to do so.

"It's not as if I even want to go to university," he says. "I'm not cut out for academic crap, I have no patience with stupid teachers, and anyway you and Dad can't afford it. Plus I don't want all that debt."

Connie is infuriated, and keeps saying,"Crap? Crap?" while I try to reassure Josh that, however broke Max and I might be, we'd still manage it somehow, just like we've done for Connie. This sets Connie off again about why she has had to spend all summer working, just to raise the money she needs for next year.

Max keeps completely quiet throughout the whole discussion and all of a sudden it feels like the girls against the boys, or the university-educated against those who are of the University of Life school of thought.

It's not as if I'm actually in favour of everyone going to university anyway, despite what the boys may think. When I was at university, I was amongst only 6% of the population who went, and although I'm not suggesting that that was fair, I do seriously doubt that there's been a 44% increase in the number of truly academic kids who will either enjoy or get the best out of studying.

I'm not at all in favour of this stupid 50% target for university attendance as a result - I'd rather we also valued the contributions of engineers, carpenters and other skilled tradesmen. If Josh wanted to learn a trade skill, it is entirely possible that he might find this both more satisfying and lucrative than getting what could easily be - knowing Josh's lack of tolerance for academia - a poor degree in a made-up subject; after which he'd have to spend years trying to pay off his loans, while probably delivering pizzas for a living.

And yes, I know that was a non-PC thing to say, but I don't care. It's not as if sending so many more kids to university seems to have increased social mobility. No bloody wonder, when you take into account tuition fees and student loans. I am absolutely positive that they put off bright kids from poorer backgrounds, who are often quite terrified by the prospect of debt, in my experience.

I'm still cross about the reply I got from the Secretary of State when I wrote to him about this. In it, he claimed that no-one was that debt-averse these days, as everyone had mortgages. I wanted to suggest he ask his poorer constituents exactly how many of them had mortgages before he started jumping to conclusions like that, but I wimped out. He wasn't going to "get" it, no matter how many times I tried to explain to him - any more than most MPs would, especially those who make it to a seat in Cabinet.

If there's one thing I've learned over the years, it's that the concept of being broke is a very moveable feast. For some people it means not being able to afford a second holiday, or to buy the Mulberry handbag they've fallen in love with, while for others it means that they've cleaned out all their pockets, searched down the back of the sofa, and still can't come up with enough money for a pint of milk. It's those in the latter group who are freaked out by even a hundred pounds of debt, let alone tens of thousands of pounds.

Anyway, getting back to the 50% target: my old college tutor occasionally takes me out to dinner, and spends the entire time moaning about how his smallest seminar group comprises 25 students, when there used to be a 3:1 ratio of students to staff in the good old days. He also says that he now has to teach to the lowest common denominator in the class - much to his frustration and that of the brighter members of the group.

In fact, he reckons that half of his students can't even spell when they arrive, and he rants on for hours about why the hell they've chosen to study English Literature, if they're so unfamiliar with the written word. Josh was once given detention for pointing out his English teacher's poor spelling, which she had clearly demonstrated in a short passage she had written on the board, so I find this all too easy to believe. (She's a friend of Annoying Ellen's, so spelling probably comes low down on her list of priorities, certainly behind getting laid and shoving coke up her nose.)

I'm getting sidetracked, and sounding like Mr Beales again - though hopefully slightly more rational. Back to the Bennett household. When I tell Josh that I think that academic study is not the be-all and end-all, and that we'll support him in whatever he decides to do, Connie goes ballistic, and reminds me that she still has another two years at university to go. Honestly, it's like walking on eggshells around here - or across the San Andreas fault.

In the end, the whole conversation becomes impossible to continue while both kids are in the same room. I am wriggling like a fish on a line, and Josh seems to take pity on me. He goes upstairs to indulge in hideous X-Box violence, probably virtually murdering a posse of sisters, or university students - while Connie stays downstairs with Max and me, looking through details of houses to rent.

She starts her internship next month, so time's getting short for her to sign the contracts on somewhere to live. Back in the Spring, Connie was one of only five interns - chosen from an international field of candidates - to be awarded a paid internship at a world-renowned research centre for the next academic year.

That's where her ability has got her, but now hard cash is coming into the equation. The interns have agreed to share a house, if they can find one in time - but whereas the others only seem worried about whether the houses have Sky or Virginmedia, and whether they're near a pub and a gym, Connie is desperately worried about how she's going to pay the deposit and first month's rent.

"Mum," she says. "Do you think I'm wasting my time with all this study, then?"

"No, of course I don't, Con," I say. "I am very proud of you."

"So why is it right for me, but a waste of time for Josh?" she says. "It's not as if he's stupid. Though he is a tosser. He did score two points higher than me on that bloody Big Intelligence Test, after all."

"Well, Con - I don't know," I say. "Max, you explain it."

There's no reply. Max has dozed off. Honestly, how can you sleep with family fault lines opening up in every direction? That's obviously a skill gleaned via the University of Life.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Divorced From Reality, In More WaysThan One.

I need a holiday. My fuse is growing shorter by the minute  - I do like the occasional oxymoron - and surgeries are proving more and more challenging. Today's is particularly aggravating. First up is Martin Brooks, banging on about having been the original fourth Beatle and wanting The Boss to have another go at getting the monies he insists he's been cheated out of.

He's brought an old tape recorder with him and wants me to plug it in so we can hear him in concert with John, Paul, and George. When I say that we really don't have time, he starts singing Hey Jude, very badly indeed. I am tempted to suggest he forms a band with Igor and goes on a nationwide tour, which would kill two very annoying birds with one stone, but luckily Andrew's in a better mood than I am and manages to get Martin out, without us actually having promised to do anything - for a change.

Then it's on to housing - so Andrew does his usual thing of promising constituents that we'll get their situations sorted, when the chances of that diminish daily, along with the housing stock. Travellers appear to be the scapegoat of choice today. Richard Levison - he of the refined tastes and the skin-afflicted fiancee - has this to say about a family who have just been moved out of a flat on his estate into a three-bedroomed house:

"They're travellers, so why do they need a bloody council house? I thought the whole point was to go travelling. Explain that!"

Andrew has a go at answering, and for once, doesn't try and pass the buck to me. I think he can see that I am barely clinging on to my self-control since Martin's hideous singing demonstration.

Then it's divorce and all its ugly, child-damaging fallout. First is Paul Taylor, who is still desperate to get regular access to his daughter. He has spent every penny he has, and a lot of his bank's money too, on trying to get the courts to enforce his right to access - all without any real success. His ex-wife just complies with the order for a couple of weeks, and then starts messing about again - the child is unwell, or there is an important family celebration planned, or it's just "inconvenient."

Paul is reaching the end of his tether, and I can see a time approaching when he will just decide that it has all become too painful, and that he'd be better off giving up and hoping he can explain it to his daughter when she reaches an age at which she can make her own decisions. Meanwhile, he pays the maintenance regularly, and can't keep a girlfriend for five minutes, because he is becoming so eaten up with frustration that his ex-wife's behaviour has become his only topic of conversation. Of course, the real irony is that it was Paul's wife who had the affair which led to the breakdown of the marriage.

Compare that to Mike and Penny Templar. The bloody creeps. Mike ran off with Penny, leaving his wife and three young children. Penny is, of course, at least fifteen years younger than the previous model, and obviously had ambitions to become a WAG, if her dress sense is anything to go by. They come in at least once a month, despite the fact that Penny also phones me weekly - always to complain about the amount of money Mike is expected to pay in maintenance for his children.

She's looking oddly smug today, and the reason soon becomes clear. She is pregnant.

"So now the CSA'll have to agree to reduce the amount Mike has to pay that grasping bitch," she says. "Won't they?"

"Well, they do have a formula they work to, which takes account of the number of children a parent is responsible for," I say.

"Damn the formula, that'll hardly reduce it at all," says Penny. "We need a much bigger slice taken off. We'll have to move, fit out a nursery, and we really need a holiday too."

"Well, I'm sure your husband wants to be sure that all his children are well-cared-for," I say. I look at Mike Templar, urging him to say the right thing. Just for once. He wimps out as usual, and looks down, fiddling with his shirt cuffs.

"Well, you need to explain to them that his new family is the most important thing," says Penny. "That bloody woman needs to get a job. I mean, I won't be able to work once the little 'un is born."

I am counting to ten in my head, slowly. It doesn't work - I still want to punch Penny. God knows how I manage not to. It hasn't even occurred to her how she'll feel if Mike trades her in next, and she becomes the one relying on his payments to feed and clothe her child.

I have to have two cigarettes in a row, once surgery is over. It's a shame Paul and Mike didn't get into conversation in the waiting area - I'm pretty sure Paul would have thumped both the Templars if they'd started moaning to him about maintenance.

In the afternoon, there are a hell of a lot of letters to get through. I can see why some MPs are reluctant to do surgeries. If you only allow constituents to contact you by letter or email, half your casework is done already - as long as the letter is comprehensible. Staff just have to send it off to the relevant ministry or agency with a covering letter asking for comments.

Phone calls and surgery appointments are totally different. Summarising constituents' garbled complaints becomes like one of those old-fashioned exercises we used to be given in English Language classes - where first we had to demonstrate our comprehension skills, and then precis the passage. Some constituents manage to scramble or obscure the details of their cases so thoroughly that it can take me half an hour's head-scratching just to make enough sense of the complaint to even stand a chance of explaining it to anyone else. And that's when the cases aren't bonkers in the first place.

My head hurts by the time I've finished, but then I get a brief email from Johnny, via his Blackberry. He says he's in Scotland with the family, so can't email me as much as usual, but that he has a solution to Josh's under-achievement: bring back grammar schools.

"It worked for us," he says. I'm inclined to agree, though more on the basis of my classmates' experiences than my own. I'm not at all sure that Johnny would have got where he is today, had he gone to Josh's school. I am  definitely turning into a Tory. I'd be eaten alive if I spoke up in support of grammar schools at GC* - even though I'd be arguing that they seemed a bit more bloody effective at ensuring social mobility than Northwick High is likely to prove for Josh.

Mind you, I'm probably only a failure because I am, after all, an insecure, maladjusted child from a broken home - which is why I am still fantasising about punching Mike and Penny Templar, even though Johnny wants me to imagine something entirely different. I know Paul McCartney probably meant well when he wrote Hey Jude, but if he'd punched John Lennon, it might have been more effective.

*GC - General Committee Meeting of the Constituency Labour Party, as usual.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

A Belated Summary of Josh's Very Bad Day.

It's A-level results day. Josh has been up all night worrying, and he looks very twitchy when I see him before I go to work. I think it's just occurred to him that Robbie and the others may have been being economical with the truth when they told him that they weren't doing any work for their exams, as apparently they weren't half as stressed as he was when he spoke to them late last night. I kept telling him that they were talking bullshit and that of course they were studying at least some of the time, but Josh never listens to me. Idiot.

I make him promise to phone me at work as soon as he gets his results. He nods, but doesn't say anything. I'm not used to Josh not having a witty response at the ready, so it's very unnerving. I really wish it wasn't seen to be so uncool to work hard and to succeed at state schools, especially for boys.

Mind you, Connie had a really hard time at school, too. After her first year, we had to formally request that she not be given any more "Awards for Achievement" in class, just so she wouldn't get bullied every time it happened. It's mad, isn't it? Although I do remember thinking that she might not have got so many certificates, if her spelling hadn't been so vastly superior to that of many of her teachers.

Anyway, I'm so busy fretting about Josh when I get to work that my concentration is shot, so I have to reverse my usual prioritising system and deal with the usual suspects' non-issues first, instead of last as is my usual practice. I figure that, if I screw up before I hear from Josh, at least it won't actually matter much, seeing as US* cases are either imaginary or totally ludicrous anyway.

Greg really isn't helping, though. He keeps winding me up, saying that I am a failure as a parent, and that    Josh is going to end up as a Neet*, who'll still be living off me when he's thirty. Considering that Greg is almost thirty himself, and still lives with his mummy, I'm not amused. Wearing Armani ties does not signify independence in my opinion.

Every time the phone rings, I think it's Josh - when of course it's always Miss Bloody Chambers. She almost breaks the sound barrier today.

"British Gas, " she screams. "I sent you a copy of the bill - what have you done about that overcharge?"

"If you stop shouting at me, I'll be able to tell you," I say.

"I'm not shouting," she says. Not now she isn't, thank God.

"Right, then - look at your copy of the bill," I say. "That £13.48 that you said was an overcharge?"

"It is an overcharge. How many times do I bloody well have to tell you people?" Her volume's increasing again. Godsake. I take a deep breath, then say,

"It is not an overcharge. It is a credit."

"What do you mean?" Up another few decibels. Where are the HSE* when you need them?

"They've given you some money back," I say. "That's why it says 'credit' on the bill. Okay?"

"Well, why the hell didn't they say so?" she shrieks, and slams the phone down.

If I had the time, I'd learn voodoo and spend every evening sticking pins into effigies of that bloody woman. But it seems she hasn't even finished yet - the phone rings again.

"Yes?" I say, cautiously.


"I'm sorry, what did you say?" Is Miss Chambers playing sound games now? Full volume, then whispering?

"Mum." It's Josh. A very quiet Josh. Oh God.

"How did you do, darling?" My voice is so bright and brittle, it even manages to annoy me.


"What do you mean, crap? It can't all be bad, can it?"

"Well, I got a D in Film Studies," says Josh, as if that is meaningless. Which it could be - what exactly is Film Studies?

"Oh, well - that's not a terribly important subject, is it?" I say. "How did you do in the other two?"

"Two U's," says Josh. "Bye, Mum. And sorry."

Oh my God. I try phoning Josh back, but he doesn't answer, so I text Robbie:

"Hi Robbie - is Josh with you? And how did you do in your A-levels?"

Robbie's reply comes straight back:

"Hello, Mrs B. Josh went home - had a headache. I got two A's and a C :-)"

I have absolutely no idea what I am going to say to Josh when I get home. It's not that I think university is a guarantee of success - I'm living proof that that's not the case, after all -  but there are no bloody jobs for under-25s, and no-one's going to be offering apprenticeships in this economic climate. I suppose he could always become a stand-up, but I don't think he's going to appreciate that suggestion at the moment.

I walk very, very slowly all the way home, and when I finally get there, am very tempted to turn around and head off to Sainsburys or something - anything rather than to have to go inside. But Connie's obviously been on look-out, and spots me. She opens the front door before I can make my escape. She is beaming.

"Mum, Josh failed almost everything. What a muppet!"

Honestly, if there were exams in sibling rivalry, both my kids would have doctorates. Now I have to find a way to convince Josh that there is more to life than academic success - without making Connie feel that  I don't value her achievements in that field. Bloody hell - sometimes parenting is much closer to the practice of politics than is generally appreciated.

*US - usual suspect(s) - shorthand for barking mad and a pain in the arse, as usual.
*Neet - Not in Education, Employment or Training, i.e. a write-off.
*HSE - responsible for safety in the workplace, allegedly.

Wednesday, 18 August 2010

An (Unhelpful) Meditation on the Nature of Friendship.

I am going to starve if I keep buying sandwiches for lunch. I never get to eat the damned things, as The Boss always does, either without my knowledge, or as part of an emergency diversionary tactic. Today should be different, though - as I have arranged to meet Pat for lunch. I haven't seen her for a good couple of months, or more - but I've decided to make an effort to be more sociable.

She looks well, and we spend the whole lunch hour talking nineteen to the dozen, wondering why we don't get together more often. It's only when I get back to work, and Greg asks me how it went, that I realise that Pat didn't ask me anything about my life. Not one single thing. The whole conversation was about her. Her job, her boss, her (admittedly-disastrous) love-life, her (largely-imaginary) fatigue. If we'd been set a multiple-choice test straight afterwards, I'd have scored 100% on my specialist subject: Pat's Life 2010, while she'd have been hard-pressed to answer Question One: Who Is Molly Bennett? I am nothing but a pair of ears, and I don't even merit feather-tipped earrings.

When I get home, I ask Max what he thinks about Pat.

"She's all right," he says, without any noticeable enthusiasm.

"Do you think she might be a bit self-absorbed?" I say.

"Duh, yeah," he says. "But then all your friends are. And most of your family."

God, how depressing. Am I so boring that no-one wants to ask me anything about myself? Or is it that my role in life is just to be a sounding-board for other people? I wonder what Pat would have said if I'd told her I was having a virtual affair with an International Director of a Global Oil Company. Probably that she was having an affair with Johnny's CEO, now I come to think of it. She'd feel compelled to go one better. She always does.

I'm a bit disturbed by this discovery, and it gets worse when I start thinking about my other friends. Especially the female ones. Where is the evidence for this sisterly bond we're all supposed to share? It feels more like a one-way street. I am mixing my metaphors all over the place, but then there probably isn't anyone listening anyway, so it doesn't matter. Oddly, it seems that Johnny is the only person who ever asks me how I am, and actually waits for the answer. Apart from Greg. Good God. I knew things were bad, but this bad?

And that's not even counting listening to bloody consituents' problems. Maybe I could suggest that we strike a deal when they phone up. If their problem is worse than mine, I will listen to them. If mine is worse than theirs, then they have to listen to me. Might give the usual suspects something useful to do for a change. For radical policy initiatives, look no further. I am a walking goldmine of ideas for useful changes to our public services.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

The Undeniable Difference Between an MP and the Samaritans. Oh, and a Bit of Glamour..

Oh my God. The Boss should never be allowed on a phone unsupervised. I pop out to buy a sandwich at lunchtime, and come back to find him cosily ensconced behind my desk, on the phone to someone. He's looking a bit flustered and red in the face, but when I raise my eyebrows in enquiry, he waves me away, and says, into the receiver,

"Well, I really don't know what to say."

This means that Andrew is way out of his depth - so I kick his feet off the desk and pass him a note saying, "Who is it?" He mouths back, "Mrs Saunders." God all-bloody-mighty. The last thing that poor woman needs is a conversation with The Boss, particularly when he's under the weather after an encounter with Igor. I watch, paralysed with indecision, as he says,

"So she didn't manage it this time, then?"

Oh dear. Emma Saunders must have made another suicide attempt. This must be the fourth this year. And she is not one of our numerous half-hearted attention-seekers. Emma is deadly serious. If that's not a terrible pun. We are not talking taking a few tablets and phoning for an ambulance - as happens regularly with quite a few of our usual suspects. In Emma's case, we're talking throwing herself off walkways, trying to set fire to herself, and other horrors. She's only twenty-one, and her poor parents are beside themselves with powerlessness and fear. The Boss is not the man for this job.

I try to pull the phone away from him, but he swings the chair round so that his back's to me, and then says, all too clearly:

"You do realise, don't you - that she's so determined that, ultimately, she will succeed?"

That is enough. I run into Greg's office, which is where the main "switchboard" phone is situated. I over-ride Andrew's call and cut it off. Then I crawl under Greg's desk and unplug the phone altogether.

"Hello. Hello? Molly - something's happened to the phone!" Andrew is shouting from my office.

"And to this one," I say. "I'll have to contact BT."

"But I was in the middle of an important conversation and -"

"I can handle that - on my mobile. Mrs Saunders, wasn't it? I'm calling her now. There's a sandwich for you in that carrier bag." It's my bloody sandwich, actually, but this seems a small price to pay. I sincerely hope he chokes on it.

"Take him the papers, and keep him talking," I hiss at Greg. "Emergency."

Honestly, it takes me ages to calm poor Mrs Saunders. How can someone as apparently well-meaning as The Boss be so incredibly crass? How the hell can he lack the imagination to understand what she must be going through? I can't even bear to contemplate how I would feel if it were Connie or Josh. God forbid, touch wood, and anything else that can be done to ward off such a terrible situation.

It turns out Emma's latest attempt took place while she was supposed to be being kept under special observation, so someone took their eye off the bloody ball, didn't they? For God's sake. I am furiously angry and depressed for the rest of the day. I sometimes wonder if my world view would be different if my job didn't involve regularly hearing about so much pain and misery.

Imagine being an event planner, or a play specialist - or doing any job that didn't involve dealing with people who are suffering and in distress. It would be even better if it could also avoid those who are just totally unreasonable, professional victims or neurotic whingers, come to think of it. Some days I can't envisage a wider world out there where people may actually be having a good time or are at least content with their lives. It's a good thing that neither Miss Chambers or Mr Beales phone today, as I might well have done a Steven Slater and deployed the emergency chute, after telling them what I really think of them. Though a dose of harsh reality would probably do those two a power of good - unlike Mrs Saunders.

Even when they're healthy, rich and successful, it doesn't seem to make people happy. Johnny's as miserable as sin since I said I wouldn't meet him at Heathrow. He sends me five emails today. In the fourth one, he says he feels like he did before we "met" again via Friends Reunited - old, jaded, and as if the spark is missing from his life. Ironic, seeing as he's in Moscow, where sparks are probably the last thing you'd want.

I do know what he means, though. I am feeling as if my fire has gone out again, since I decided not to meet him, and to try to damp the situation down. Life seems to have slid seamlessly back into its rut, where I wander through my life apparently unseen and unnoticed, while everyone else - including my bloody Dad - is living it up. Not that that makes any difference, as I still can't think of a good reason to go to London during Recess, so I tell Johnny that there's nothing I can do about it. His fifth email arrives just before I leave work. It says,

"Right, woman - I can't stand this any longer. If you can't get away, I shall come to you."

Good God. An International Director of a Global Oil Company, willing to cross half the world to the dot on the map that is Northwick, just to see me? Well, willing to cross most of Europe, anyway. That's still pretty impressive, given that I sometimes doubt whether Max would even bother to cross the road for the pleasure of my company.

I feel a bit dizzy and overwhelmed - though I suppose that might just be due to the chronic hyperventilation that having to cope with Andrew on a daily basis always induces. What the hell - I shall buy a copy of Glamour magazine on my way home. Sod Woman and Home. Maybe glamour's not as irrelevant to my life as I've always thought.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Brothers in Arms, Creative Darts, and Connie's Take On Statistics

Igor comes in to the office first thing. Again. He wants The Boss to get him a job as a postman, and brings bribes - sorry, I mean gifts. Three bottles of Vodka, and a fedora hat the same as his own. The Boss is vocal in his thanks for the alcohol, but seems less sure about the hat. He sneaks it onto my desk behind a pile of filing when Igor suggests they go and have "breakfast-lunch" together. I wait until Andrew thinks he's got away with it, and is about to go out of the door, then I run after him and say,

"Don't forget your hat!"

"Oh, don't worry, Molly. I'll be back to get it later." The Boss tries to walk on, but Igor's having none of it. He takes the hat from my hand, crams it onto Andrew's head, and says,

"There, my friend. Now we look like the brothers we are - in our hearts."

"You look more like the bloody Chuckle Brothers to me," says Greg, but they've already gone.

I hang out of the window to watch them walk along the street below. They look ridiculous. Igor simply because he's Igor, and The Boss because he's in his usual crumpled outfit of mismatched trousers and jacket, topped with the ludicrous hat. He seems to be trying to lag behind Igor, and keeps taking sneaky sidelong glances into the shop windows, as if to confirm what he already knows: that he looks a total prat. This is going to be a good day.

And so it proves to be. Only an average number of abusive phone-calls, just one threatening message left on the answer-phone, and less than the usual number of spam emails too. Greg and I power through our work, and even manage a game of darts at lunchtime. Greg gets a bullseye several times, so we have to replace the photo of Andrew with a new one, as his nose has been obliterated by the holes. I am more artistic than Greg, and manage to position a feather dart earring on each of Andrew's ears. They'd look great with the hat.

Now I come to think of it, Igor could prove to be a real bonus during the rest of Recess. Mid-afternoon, The Boss phones and says,

"Everything okay there?" He sounds knackered.

"Yes, thanks," I say. "Where are you? You've got that meeting here in an hour."

"Is there any way we could cancel it? I feel rather worn out and think I might work from home for the rest of the day. Igor was a bit much."

"Well, the chairman of the Mental Health Trust will no doubt be distraught to miss the sight of you in your lovely new hat," I say. "But I suppose I can cancel, if you insist."

"Do that, then," Andrew says. "If you can manage without me, that is."

"Oh, I think we can," I say."So you won't be back at all today?"

"No," says The Boss, almost in a whimper. "Bye, then. See you tomorrow."

I put the phone down and punch the air, while Greg whoops and does his version of Igor's Russian dance. This reminds me of my nightmare so I make him stop.

I actually finish work on time, and am really glad to get home. Connie arrives shortly after I do - now that she has finally grasped the concept of flexi-time, this happens more often. We sit down to watch the news together, then she says,


"Yes, Con?"

"Political question."

"Con, it's very nice of you to take an interest, but you really don't have to."

"No, I am interested. It's about these benefit fraud figures they keep quoting on the news."

"Oh, yes?"

"Well, if they know exactly how much money benefit fraud costs the taxpayer, then doesn't that mean that they must know who's committing the frauds and how much they're each getting away with?"

"Er - I have no idea. I've never thought of it like that before." I say. Good point. How do they know?

"Well, either they know about it, in which case why don't they just do something about it - and tax fraud too - or they don't know. In which case they must just be guessing and pretending they aren't. Mustn't they?" Sometimes it takes Connie's highly-literal brain to see what normal people's don't.

But I'm too relaxed after today to be capable of deep thought. Or even the shallow kind.

"Well, then they must be guessing, Con. After all, they've pretty much had to do that about the size of the population for the last God knows how many years."

"Well, they shouldn't present it as fact, then - should they?" says Connie. "They should call it a guesstimate."

I must get her a copy of that brilliant old book on how to lie with statistics. In case she ever wants to go into politics.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Left Outside The Gangmaster's Circle Of Trust.

Dinah phones first thing. I wake from a nightmare in which The Boss is trying to kiss me repeatedly, while whirling me round the office to the accompaniment of a crazed Russian band, all of whom look like Igor. Despite the horror of this scenario, my heart sinks when I pick up the phone, and Dinah says,

"Do you know where Dad is?"

"Um, no," I say. "I phoned him last night but got the answer-phone."

"God, that bloody thing," Dinah drags on what probably isn't her first cigarette of the day, and continues, "I wish he'd bloody well take Stepmother Mark III's name off the message, don't you? It's three years out of date, for Chrissake."

"Well, yes, but Dinah, you just woke me up. And anyway, she's only Stepmother Mark II to you. Can I make a cuppa and phone you back?" By this, I mean can I make three cups of tea, have a couple of cigarettes and brace myself to talk to you? - but Dinah's unstoppable once she starts.

"Shut up, Molly! Just listen, I'll only be a minute. Are you sure Dad hasn't gone somewhere?"

I have a slight sinking feeling, but I am trying to ignore it.

"Yes, well, - no, but where would he go?" Don't mention Thailand. Don't mention Thailand. "Why do you think he's gone somewhere?"

"Because one of my mates just phoned me and asked me why Dad's car has been parked outside the railway station  for the last few days."

"Christ," I say.

"D'you think he's dead?" says Dinah.

"Don't be daft. We'd have heard."

"We're always the last to know anything about that man," says Dinah. "Tell you what: you ask everyone on your mum's side of the family, and I'll ask on my mum's side, and then we'll try his neighbours if all else fails." Why would either of our mothers know anything? Neither of them has been married to him for ages. But then, what about what Mum said yesterday? Christ, and double Christ.

"Okay, speak to you later." Unless I can think of a really good excuse. What is Dad up to?

I make the tea, and sit mulling over what to do next. No point asking Mum, and idiot brother Robin won't know, seeing as Ted's his dad. I shall just do nothing. That's usually the only option where Dad's concerned.

The afternoon passes in a mad, exciting whirl of washing, ironing, moving piles of unanswered letters aimlessly from surface to another, and keeping Josh and Connie apart. I wonder at what age they'll finally grow out of tormenting each other? Well, actually, I wonder when Josh will grow out of tormenting Connie, and she'll grow out of saying that she wishes that he would just go and die?

Eventually, she gets fed up of him flicking through the TV channels and saying, "Con - look! Look, look, look!" every few minutes, while she is trying to read. She stamps off upstairs, taking her laptop with her, while yelling,

"Mum, tell that moron Josh that I don't give a flying f*ck about watching Dirty Sanchez, stupid Cribs, or Pimp My bloody Ride, and get him to leave - me - alone!"

Ten minutes later, she comes running back downstairs, slams her laptop onto my lap - sending the Sunday paper flying everywhere - and says, "Mum! Mum! Look! Look!"

"Pack it in, Connie," I say. "It isn't funny when Josh does that 'look, look' thing, as well you know."

"Just look," she says, pointing at the screen. "An email from Grandad."


"He's back in Thailand!" Connie's eyes look fit to pop out.

"He's what?" Oh, my God. "Why did he email you and not me?"

"Read it," Connie says. I do. I wish I hadn't.

Dear Connie
It's your Grandad here. I'm back in Thailand. I haven't told your mother as, when I told her about my last trip, she called me Gary Glitter, and I'm in no mood for sarcasm. I'll send you a postcard and see you when I get home. It's hot.
Love from Grandad. 

It's only been two weeks since he got back to the UK, for Godsake! I light a cigarette in preparation for the inevitable stress that imparting this latest piece of information to Dinah will cause - but then my phone rings. Dinah has beaten me to it.

"He's only gone back to bloody Thailand already," she shrieks. "Can you believe it? Mum told me. She said he'd asked her not to tell me as I wouldn't approve. Damn right I don't. Led by the dick - at his age!"

She pauses for breath, then goes on:

"Fancy not telling your daughters! The man's unbelievable."

"I know," I say. "He's just emailed Connie. Apparently he's upset I called him Gary Glitter."

"I thought you were a model of restraint, sis. I'm going to get drunk. I suggest you do the same."

Do you know, for once, Dinah might be right. I am going to hit the Gin. Hard. Probably while playing "Do You Wanna Be In My Gang?" Although Dinah and I seem to have been excluded from that particular invitation. We're probably too old.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Mother Scissorhands

Honestly, sometimes I wonder about my mother. Today, during my visit, she insists on showing me what seem to be hundreds of items of clothing she has bought in the sales. They're all okay - if you like that sort of thing - until you look closely. That's when it becomes apparent that Mother Scissorhands has been at work, which is never good news.

Mum has altered every single thing that she has bought. Which would be fine, had she any sewing skills whatsoever - but she doesn't know one end of a sewing machine from another.  Her maternal contribution to my housekeeping skills was to offer to teach me how to re-spoke a bicycle wheel. I declined, and haven't regretted my decision so far.

I blame feminism. All those bra-burning and consciousness-raising mothers were all very well, but they didn't actually teach their daughters anything that would be useful in day to day life, except how to make your breasts droop more quickly than necessary. This is why I would starve to death if Max didn't cook; and if my grandmother hadn't taught me to sew, I'd be walking around with the hems of all my clothes dragging along the floor.

Anyway, back to the scissors. Mum has, in the space of the last fortnight, cut the sleeves off a beautiful top and two dresses; another dress has been deprived of its skirt and turned into a blouse, and the waistband has been chopped off at least three pairs of trousers. Farhi trousers. Not Primark. She seems to have forgotten my Nan's instruction to always assume that you are going to be run over by a bus when deciding what to wear in the mornings. I know Nan was referring to clean underwear, but Mum isn't going to look too refined when someone spots the fraying, hacked edges of everything she's wearing either.

"God knows why she buys any of these clothes, if she doesn't like them as they are," says Ted, before returning to his paper.

"They were bargains," says Mum. There's a whole debate possible on what constitutes a bargain, but that's for another time.

"I'd hide all the scissors in the house, if I were you, Ted," I say. I still haven't got over the childhood trauma of Mum giving my hair what she promised would be a trim, but which resulted in eighty per cent of it ending up on the floor. Then I was forced to parade the most lopsided hairstyle ever seen on a child - much to the amusement of my entire class. The woman doesn't know when to stop.

It all started with newspapers - the scissor-wielding obsession, I mean. Mum began by cutting out the odd article, usually about a food or activity that had been found to be somehow detrimental to health. Then the whole thing spiralled until it was completely out of control. Every drawer in the house is full of newspaper cuttings, which are so faded that now they're virtually illegible.

Even when you could still read them, it was pointless to do so - as, for every article praising the cholesterol-minimising effects of margarine, there were others which hyped the health benefits of butter. Those which cited the optimum dosages for health-giving vitamins had to be off-set against those advising that vitamin supplementation was inadvisable, and that a healthy, balanced diet was the only way to go. And so on, and so on.

Mind you, Mum does look good, and has far more energy than me - so maybe all that health information has paid off. I suppose she's not entirely bonkers, though the emerging table situation does cast further doubt on her sanity.

Over the last year or so, she has begun buying small tables. Loads of them, all only just big enough to hold a single cup and saucer - and with legs that stick out so far that they are an accident waiting to happen. I trip over two during today's visit alone. The tables are like Triffids, lurking wherever you least expect one, and threatening to overtake the numerous chests of drawers containing the cuttings archive.

Every time idiot brother Robin goes to visit, he phones me afterwards to say,

"It's getting more like a bloody nursing home round there every time I go. What the f*ck are all those tables about?" (Robin is the Buddhist practitioner of compassion, in case you had forgotten - but he can be horribly accurate.)

Anyway, after I've stared in disbelief at Mum's latest "alterations" and righted a couple of overturned tables, she makes us a cup of tea and places our cups on some more tables. I try to move my table nearer to my chair, catch its leg in the rug, and tip this one over too.

When I've cleaned up the spilt tea, we're finally settled for "a nice chat." Ted promptly falls asleep, which means that Mum can ask me how Dad is. I do wish she wouldn't. I've always hated being asked how the other parent is. You never know what the right answer is supposed to be: fine, or totally miserable since they divorced you and married someone else? Questions about Dad are even more uncomfortable an experience since the Gary Glitter incident, as I doubt Mum'll see the funny side of that.

"I hear your Dad's back in Thailand," she says.

"What? He's only just come back." How does she even know he's been? Did I tell her? "How did you know? And what d'you mean, back?"

Mum looks flustered.

"Oh, I must have got the wrong end of the stick," she says. "I thought someone mentioned he'd gone recently, but maybe it was a while ago now. I do get terribly confused these days."

It's a good recovery, I'll give her that - but then she's as sharp as a tack, or even scissors, table mania notwithstanding. Before I can point out that there's nothing wrong with her memory, she has changed the subject.

"And how's dear Josh?" she says. "Do you think he's done okay with in his exams?"

"Only if they are giving A Levels away with packs of playing cards," I say - which is uncomfortable to admit, but at least the change of direction allows me to avoid telling Mum about the virtually naked Thai girl. That might make her think of other uses for her scissors. In fact, I might borrow them myself if Dad ever sends me any more photos like the last lot.

As I walk home, with a large brown envelope containing some cuttings Mum thinks might contain useful information, I find that I am still thinking about what she said about Dad. There's something about the certainty with which she said "back in Thailand" that makes me think there is more to this than meets the eye. I shall phone Dad when I get home, as I can definitely hear an unpleasantly familiar tune in my head.