Tuesday, 28 June 2011

Ciao, Baby - Unless You Have An NVQ in Retail Skills. Or In Working For An MP.

If Greg says, "Ciao" to any more constituents, I may have to see if the local Mafia can spare a horse's head.

Constituents keep phoning back after they've spoken to him, to ask me if we have a new member of staff.

"Your boss employing even more bloody foreigners now, is he?" says Mr Beales. "Keeping British jobs for British people, that's what he should be doing."

"No, he isn't," I say, which is a neatly dual-purpose answer. "And, anyway, we are part of the EU, don't forget."

"There you go," says Mr Beales. "Exactly what I'm talking about.  Isn't that where those girls in your London office are from?"

"Well, yes," I say. "France and Spain. Though let's not forget that you and I are also from the EU. Technically."

This leads to Mr Beales indulging in a long rant about how he's not prepared to be grouped in with "all those frogs and Romanian gypsies" while I inspect my tan in my handbag mirror. It looks even worse in the magnifying side.

"So, the short and long of it is that our MP - here in Northwick - doesn't think a Brit's up to the job, then?" he says. "Even though they can at least speak the bloody lingo?"

"I think you'll find that Mr Sinclair's Westminster staff speak perfect English," I say.

I'm tempted to add, "unlike you," but decide I'd probably better not.

"It's the accent, though, ain't it?" says Mr B. "That's the real problem."

Indisputably, on the basis of his.

When he finally gets to the point of his original phone call, it turns out that he wants to discuss something he's read in today's Daily Telegraph. My workload would be halved if its journalists went on strike.

"Sick of these buggers moaning about tax breaks for married couples," he says.

"Because?" I say.

You have to pretend to take an interest, after all. It's part of demonstrating listening skills.

"Well, if they want to be treated the same as the rest of us who are married, then there's a simple answer, isn't there?"

Mr B pauses, presumably to allow me to guess, but I've just taken a mouthful of my sandwich, so I just grunt in a vaguely encouraging tone.

"Get - bloody - married. Simple as that, seeing as anyone can do it these days."

It's so unnerving whenever Mr Beales seems to have a point.

Having made this one, he finally rings off; and it's a relief when the rest of the day's calls prove to be about nothing more contentious than metal thefts.

"I should do that for a living," says Max, when I mention it while he's cooking tea. "It's more of a growth area than bloody retail, isn't it? Thornton's closing branches, and then there's Jane Norman, and Habitat, too. I'll never get another job in a shop."

I'm starting to think he'd be more cheerful if he spent his days watching Jeremy Kyle, rather than rolling news.

"Oh, don't be silly," I say. "With all your years of experience, of course you will."

"Not without a stupid NVQ," says Max. "Turns out that's what the bloke who got my job had. He'd only worked in a shop for a few months, but the boss was so impressed with him having a qualification in retail skills, I didn't stand a chance."

"What, even though you've got other, higher professional qualifications, and more than twenty years in the game?"

I am starting to feel a bit sick now.

"Yes," says Max. "So I'm on the bloody scrap heap, seeing as I didn't keep notes of what I did while I was at work every day, and no-one gave me any marks for them. I thought it was better to concentrate on actually doing the job."

"Ah," I say.

So did I.

Now I'd better go and check if they're offering an NVQ in working for an MP. I might mention it to Greg, too. It's bound to be more useful than conversational Italian - unless he met any Mafioso while he was in Venice. I bet they could guarantee our jobs.

Sunday, 26 June 2011

Molly And The Tango* Factory, With Apologies To Willy Wonka - And To Anyone Who Has To Look At Me.

"Good God," says Max, when he finally gets up and staggers downstairs. "What the hell have you been doing?"

"Nothing," I say. "I am just sitting here on the sofa, enjoying the peace and quiet, and reading my book. In an all-too-brief, intellectual interlude - before you and Josh insist on watching the bloody Grand Prix yet again."

Max glares at me, as I make a very convincing "nee-aw, nee-aw" sound. It's something that never ceases to amuse me, though I think Max is tiring of it. Maybe that's why he decides to get his own back.

"Yes, very funny," he says, in a tone that implies that it's anything but. "So, why so cheerful this morning, Mol? Haven't you looked in a mirror yet?

"No," I say. "Why? Is my hair sticking up or something?"

"It's more the colour of your face," says Max.

Talk about unkind. I know I look a bit wrecked when I haven't got any make-up on, but even so. Long-serving wives have feelings, too.

As do mothers of teenage boys - not that that seems to occur to Josh, who walks into the sitting room; takes one look at me; and then starts laughing. So hard he almost hyperventilates.

"Holy shit," he says, once he's able to breathe again. "There's an Oompa Loompa on the sofa."

For a split second, I have no idea what he's talking about, until I remember what an Oompa Loompa looks like - and that I applied my new fake tan before I went to bed last night.

I rush to a mirror and stare at my reflection in disbelief. Oh, my God.

"Can you read me the instructions?" I say to Josh, as I hand him the can.

"It says 'spray evenly onto exfoliated skin'," he says. "Did you do that, Mum?"

"Ye-es," I say.

It's partly true. I did the spraying bit, though it's tricky to cover every angle by yourself. I may have forgotten the exfoliation.

Josh rolls his eyes, and carries on reading:

"Then you're supposed to rub it in."

"Ah," I say. "Oh. That may be why my legs look a bit streaky."

"Massive understatement," says Max, whose opinion I don't recall asking for. "Did you actually read any of the instructions?"

"I couldn't," I say. "They're so small I couldn't make them out, not even with my reading glasses on. I should sue the company for breach of the Equality Act."

"Personal injury might be more appropriate."

Max is really enjoying himself now. I wish I'd never mentioned Formula One.

"Not an option," says Josh, continuing to read the back of the can. "Not when it's Mum's own fault. It clearly states: 'Not for use on the face'."

I think he can tell from mine that that's the first I've heard of that.

No wonder the packaging was geared to the teenage market. No-one else would be able to read it, without a magnifying glass. (Which I haven't been able to find, since Connie used it to set light to some bark chippings, and nearly burned the whole house down.)

I spend the next two hours scrubbing at my skin, but it seems that exfoliation only works if you do it before you apply the tan; and Max is no help at all. Or not unless you consider the offer of a sheet of sandpaper helpful - which I don't.

At least now he's turned the TV on, and he and Josh have settled down to watch cars go round in circles, so I shouldn't have to listen to them singing this anymore. It's beginning to get boring now.

*Tango - fizzy orange drink that I used to love when I was a child. I like it much less now, thanks both to Peter Hain, and to Josh asking me if I've been tangoed. Repeatedly. That's getting boring too.

Friday, 24 June 2011

Left Out Of The Loop, In More Ways Than One.

Huh. I'm not surprised scorned women decide to get their own back on the men in their lives. Miss Randall should be let off with a caution. It was obviously a crime of passion.

Her sister comes in to see The Boss during this morning's surgery, to ask for his support, but when Andrew hears what Miss R did to her unfaithful husband's possessions, he doesn't seem quite sure if he wants to give it. He's probably too busy wondering what Trish would do to his, if she ever caught him cheating.

He gets over this unusual bout of introspection pretty quickly, though, and is back to his usual self by the time we show the last constituent out.

"Thought I'd take Vicky out for lunch today, Molly," he says. "To thank her for covering for Greg while he's been on holiday. Her help has been invaluable."

There's no answer to that, so I don't attempt one.

"You're probably too busy to join us, aren't you?" he continues. "What with all the surgery letters to do?"

"Yes," I say. Or that's what I say out loud, anyway. I say considerably more under my breath.

I'm still feeling unwanted and unappreciated while I eat my sandwich, but then I check my emails, and find this:

Hi, Molly,
Was great to see you again after so long. Got your email address from the Steering Group administrator - said I wanted to check if you could help out with our funding application, but really wanted to know if you fancy meeting up for a drink sometime?
Patrick x

Bloody hell. I'm so surprised I have to read the email twice. I'm quite flattered, too - until I realise that Patrick probably only wants to show me how a professional pours a drink.

I'm still cringing at that memory, when Johnny phones. It's all happening today.

"Still no dates confirmed for my next trip to the UK," he says. "So God knows when we'll manage to have sex."

"No change there, then," I say. Unwisely, as it turns out.

"Well, when did you last have any?" says Johnny.

I am outraged. You can't ask your mistress that, even if she is only virtual.

"When did you?" I say, before I realise I don't want to know.

"Good point," says Johnny, neatly side-stepping the issue. He'd make a far better politician than The Boss.

There's a rather uncomfortable pause after that, while we both try to re-group. We're much better at conducting this so-called bloody romance by email than by phone.

"Have you had your invitation to the Northwick Grammar reunion yet?" says Johnny. "I was thinking we could go if I can fly back that week."

"What, together?" I say. "Don't you think people might wonder what we'd done with our actual spouses if we tried to pull a stunt like that?"

"Shouldn't think so," says Johnny. "They'd probably assume we got married once we left school. Seeing as they all knew about that business behind the Science Block."

That's news to me. Seeing as I certainly didn't tell them.

"On the basis of that sort of thing," I say, "they'd probably assume you married Jemima, not me."

"You might be right about that," says Johnny, rather too enthusiastically for my liking. "I wonder if she's going to go?"

God. That's it, isn't it? Johnny's never shown the slightest interest in school reunions - until he just happens to hear from good old Jemima Fuck. So now I've got a husband I don't trust an inch, and a so-called lover who's no better. Bloody brilliant. Well done, Molly.

I can't decide how to get my revenge. Though I'm sure if I give it enough thought, I'll come up with something. Failing that, I might know a constituent who could give me advice.

Tuesday, 21 June 2011

How To Forget Friends And Make An Idiot Of Yourself In The Name Of Refreshment.

Talk about how the other half live. There's Greg, living it up with Jess in Venice, and then there's me, stuck here listening to a one-sided conversation about dog poo.

I don't think Vicky's finding standing in for Greg as easy as she anticipated, or not in terms of setting priorities, anyway. She spends most of the morning in conversation with Miss Harpenden, leaving me to deal with everyone else.

So, when the phone rings again, straight after she gets back from lunch, I wait for her to answer it. It's about time she did some work.

"Oh, hello, Miss Harpenden," she says. "How are you now? Oh, really? You trod in another one? Yes, I know."

I raise my eyebrows, but Vicky doesn't take any notice.

"Oh, I know," she says, again. She sounds exactly like Sybil from Fawlty Towers. "I know just how you feel. It's awful. Some dog owners are so irresponsible."

They may be,  but I do wish Vicky would hurry up and get off the phone. She knows I'm waiting to brief her on what needs to be done this afternoon while I'm away from the office, and I'm going to be late if I don't leave soon.

"I've got to go," I mouth at her, while pointing at my watch. Then I make one of those "wrap it up" gestures, but you'd swear Vicky's suddenly lost her sight. It's probably hysterical blindness, from over-exposure to Miss H. Unless it's Toxocariasis.

In the end, I have to write a note listing everything that needs to be done, prop it on Vicky's desk, and hope for the best. I don't want to make a bad impression by being late for my first meeting of the Northwick Debt Advice Service Steering Group. My outfit will probably achieve that all by itself.

I'm still amazed to have been invited to attend in my own right, and not just to represent The Boss. Maybe the Chairman's had a sneaky look at my bank statements, and wants to use me as a test case. I certainly look like a pauper compared to everyone else who's there.

They're all immaculately dressed: the (rather few) women wearing understated but ferociously chic dresses, and the men in very well-cut suits. As if that wasn't bad enough, they look as if they dress like that all the time, not just because they're attending a meeting at Shearlings' Solicitors.

I've worn my best skirt, and a jacket - but I wish black didn't fade so much. I look like a paint swatch of shades of grey, which isn't half as sophisticated as it sounds. Washed-out would be the best description.

The same thing could be said for the result of my attempt to pour myself a coffee from one of those giant steel flasks. Why don't people label them?

First I succeed in pouring myself half a cup of hot water, much to the amusement of a snooty-looking blonde woman whose name tag reads "Jacintha", and then, when I try to save face by pretending that I like to add water first - to ensure that I keep my caffeine consumption down - the next flask I pick up turns out to contain milk.

I can't even discard the revolting combination I've created and start again, because there aren't any spare cups, and there's nowhere to pour the damn thing away.

I'll just have to drink it, I suppose. Then, once I've emptied the cup, I should finally be able to pour myself an actual coffee, now that I know which flask contains what. As long as no-one moves them just to confuse me, of course. I'd better keep an eye on that Jacintha.

"Molly Bennett," comes a man's voice from directly behind me. "What the hell is that you're drinking?"

"Urgh-urm," I say, trying hard to swallow, but succeeding only in choking. Noisily. Honestly, was I behind the stable door when dignity was being handed out?

"Here, give me that cup," says the man, holding his hand out in a rather bossy fashion.

He looks oddly familiar - as far as I can tell, given that my eyes are watering. I'm not in any position to argue, anyway, not once he starts banging me on the back with his free hand.

"Okay now?" he says, once it seems as if I've stopped coughing at last. I nod, just in case I haven't.

He walks over to the window, opens it, and then tips my cup upside down. He takes no notice of the shout of "Oi!" that comes from below, shuts the window, and walks back to join me at the refreshment table.

"Buggered up the flasks, didn't you?" he says, picking up one of the offending objects and beginning to pour. He doesn't give any sign of relief when coffee comes out. He's obviously used to things doing as they're told.

Then he adds milk, passes me the cup, and looks me up and down.

"You've haven't changed a bit, Mol," he says.

I look confused in lieu of an answer but, luckily, I'm saved by the bell. Or by the snotty blonde woman, anyway. She's tapping her pen against a bottle of water that's standing on the conference table.

"I think we should probably make a start," she says. "If we've all got coffee now?"

She really doesn't need to look straight at me when she says that.

I scowl at her, and then pick a seat at random, praying that the man won't sit next to me while I still can't work out who he is. He doesn't. Instead, he walks to the head of the table, and sits down, looking very much at home.

"Welcome," he says. "Perhaps, before we start, we should all introduce ourselves. My name is Patrick Reeve, and I'm the managing partner here at Shearlings.

Holy shit. Patrick Reeve. When did he become so handsome? I can't believe it. Do all men get better-looking as they age? Life really is unfair.

Mind you, no wonder I didn't recognise him, considering what he looked like the last time I saw him. No-one should ever combine a Phil Oakey haircut with a wardrobe based on Spandau Ballet, or that's what I thought at the time, anyway. Now it seems that it may have been somewhat unwise to judge by appearances - or to assume that party animals will never pass their law degrees.

I'm so busy contemplating Patrick's semi-miraculous transformation, that I can barely take in what's being said around the table and, before I know it, the meeting's winding up - much later than was planned. God knows how Vicky's managed without me for so long.

I'm in such a panic, that I rush past Patrick without even saying, "Goodbye". Now he'll think I'm rude as well as incompetent.

Not as incompetent as Vicky, however. She's still on the phone when I get back to the office.

"I always walk in the middle of the road if I can," she says. "Dogs don't like pooing there."

Sunday, 19 June 2011

Fathers And Daughters, Or Rather, Fathers Who Need To Clarify Who Their Daughters Are.

"Molly - you awake?" says Dinah, when I answer the phone at what seems to be a particularly unearthly time of the morning.

"I am now," I say. "Thanks to you."

"You're not supposed to need as much sleep as you get older,' says Dinah, who never knows when not to add insult to injury. "And, anyway, this is important. I have to talk to you about Dad."

Bang goes my Sunday morning lie-in. I suppose I may as well admit defeat.

"I'll call you back in a minute, Dinah," I say. "When I've properly woken up."

"Well, don't leave it too long," she says. "This is an emergency."

Anyone who didn't know Dinah would take this statement literally. However, she is my sister, and therefore I don't.

I hang up, then make a cup of tea; smoke a cigarette; have an argument with Josh, who looks at me as if I am insane when I suggest he might want to get up and cook Max breakfast for Father's Day; smoke another cigarette to get over that; and finally call Dinah back.

"You took your time," she says. "What if it had been a real emergency?"

"It wasn't, though, was it?" I say. "Now tell me what the problem is."

It turns out that Dinah has discovered that Dad isn't just trying to sell his house because it's too big for him, but because he wants to buy somewhere in Thailand instead.

"And he's selling it at a knock-down price," she says.

"God," I say. Now that is worrying. If there's one thing Dad does take seriously, it's his money.

"Exactly," says Dinah, dragging on a cigarette as noisily as only she can. I don't know how she doesn't turn inside out when she sucks that hard. "So if it doesn't work out with Porn-Poon, and Dad has to come back to the UK, he won't be able to afford to buy anywhere else to live. And you know what that'll mean."

"Yes," I say, feeling very slightly sick, and trying hard not to think about that Panorama programme about care homes. "He'll want to move in with one of us."

"Unless we can have him declared insane before he sells," says Dinah. "If we could get power-of-attorney first. I'm going to drive down to see him today, and take him out for lunch. Then I can see if he really has gone mad with lust."

Power-of-attorney? Is she serious? Dad might be acting like an idiot, but it's up to him what he does with his house - as long as he doesn't want to live with me. And I'm pretty sure he's not mad, either - or not technically, anyway.

If he is, then he's no more so than all those other men of his age who seem to keep Pattaya in business. (I can think of a number of words that would apply to that demographic, but "mad" isn't one of them.)

"Well?" says Dinah. "What do you think?"

"I don't know," I say.

"For God's sake, Molly."

Honestly, Dinah's so impatient. She never takes time to consider anything. A bit like Dad, now I come to think of it.

"Stop being such a ditherer," she says. "I'll report back later tonight, once I've seen how he is - and then we can make a plan."

So that's something for me to look forward to - which is more than can be said for Max, unless Josh gets up before the shops are shut. I've been telling him to buy a Father's Day card for weeks, but he hasn't taken a blind bit of notice.

"Couldn't you have bought one for me, Mum?" he says, when he finally drags himself downstairs. "When you were buying yours?"

"No," I say. "If I can buy cards for both my father figures, I'd have thought you could afford the only one that you have to get."

I almost add, "thanks to the sheer effort of will that I have made to remain married to your father so that you don't have to buy more than one," but I don't. Talk about restraint.

Not that Josh notices my internal struggle. He's too busy looking at the envelope that he's just spotted on the mantelpiece.

"Who's that from?" he says, picking it up and reading it. "To Max Bennett. Not to be opened until June 19th."

"It's from Connie," I say. "Don't you recognise your sister's handwriting?"

"No," says Josh. "She only ever sends me texts. Shit, has she actually posted a Father's Day card? The bloody creep."

There's nothing like sibling rivalry for motivating a teenager. Josh throws on some clothes, rushes out of the house and returns an hour or so later bearing a card (unsigned); a bottle of Max's favourite wine (unopened); and a box set of the Die Hard films on DVD.

Then he insists that he and Max must watch all the films tonight, in a father-son bonding session. It's not quite clear whether I am invited to join in or not, which is probably a good thing as, by the time I've phoned Ted to wish him a happy Father's Day, the first film has already started; and then Dinah calls again.

It's time for the promised update on Dad.

"Mad as a hatter," she says. "I took him to the pub. And you should have seen how he behaved."

I don't say anything. There's not usually much point. Dinah doesn't ever need encouragement to continue to the bitter end.

"We were sitting having a drink, and then a group of people about Dad's age sat down at the next table," she says. "I'm sure he'd never met them before. Anyway, he leaned over to them and said, out of nowhere, 'Don't worry. This isn't my girlfriend, it's my daughter.' "

"What?" I say. "Had they asked? Or given him a funny look, or something?"

"No," says Dinah. "But after that, he kept saying it to everyone who came into the pub. It was as if he'd been sensitised to people thinking he's dating someone much younger than him."

"Well, he probably has, given what people must say when they see him with Porn-Poon," I say. "Not that you're anything like as young as her."

I haven't entirely forgiven Dinah for that jibe about needing less sleep as you get older yet.

"Don't try and make him sound rational," she says. "Not when the next thing he did was to get out all his photos of Porn-Poon and show them to everyone - while saying, 'Now this is my girlfriend.'"

I'm so shocked that now I can't face phoning Dad to check if my Father's Day card arrived. And Dinah seems to think I've agreed to find out tomorrow how one does go about getting power-of-attorney.

Friday, 17 June 2011

A Rather Less Than Poetic, But Nevertheless Indisputable Display of Synchronicity.

God, being in love makes people annoying, doesn't it? Greg is really getting on my nerves.

"Jess says she can come away with me next week," he says. "She's managed to get the time off work - isn't that a stroke of luck?"

"I thought she was a poet," I say. "So I didn't think time off would be a problem."

"Yes, but don't forget she has massage clients too," says Greg.

I had forgotten that. No wonder he likes Jess so much.

Now he's got a very far-away look in his eye, so I decide to go and have a cigarette. There's only so much I can take of other people's sex-lives, without the need for nicotine.

I smoke as slowly as I can, and then stop off in the Labour Party office to chat to Joan, but Greg's still thinking about Jess by the time that I get back.

"It was synchronicity," he says. "Me meeting Jess, you know."

"Humph," I say.

No-one wants to be reminded of Sting when they're trying to avoid the thought of other people's sex lives.

"Don't you believe in synchronicity?" says Greg.

"No," I say - which proves to be a big mistake, but not one that becomes obvious immediately.

Things are unusually quiet for the rest of the morning, mainly because The Boss is still in London for this week's Friday sitting of the House. He doesn't get back here until just before the start of surgery - which quickly becomes quite demanding, despite the fact that all the usual suspects seem to be away on holiday.

I don't recognise any of the people who've booked appointments - for a change - but most of them want to talk about the Government's NHS and welfare reforms. At length, as you can imagine.

The Boss looks quite relieved when Miss Ventnor decides to buck the trend: she's got a thing about light pollution.

"City dwellers are being deprived of the pleasure to be had from seeing the stars," she says. To The Boss - she doesn't seem to have noticed me. Maybe she only sees properly in the dark.

"I agree," says Andrew. "It's a terrible shame. There's nothing like a starry sky."

He's looking pretty starry-eyed himself. Miss V isn't what you'd describe as unattractive.

She's also quite poetic, especially on the subject of wildlife and what birds and animals suffer as  result of becoming confused between day and night. Andrew's nodding his head so much in agreement that I'm sure I can hear his vertebrae cracking.

The mutual love-in takes so long that, by the time The Boss has agreed to join the campaign against light pollution and I have shown Miss Ventnor out - and ushered in Mrs Jackson to take her place - we're running even later than usual.

The Boss doesn't seem worried, though. Mrs J's even more attractive than her predecessor.

"I'm sure you didn't agree with Ken Clarke about sentencing, or degrees of rape, did you, Mr Sinclair?" she says.

"No, indeed I didn't," says Andrew, right on cue.

"Well, then," says Mrs J. "What are you going to do to protect the women of Northwick - and to stop the Council's plans to turn some of the street-lights off?"

"If you'll just excuse me," I say. "I have an urgent call to make. You'll be able to manage this without me, won't you, Andrew?"

I don't wait for an answer, as I pick up my notes and beat a retreat.

Andrew's still not talking to me by the time we leave the office this evening, but I don't care. Sometimes it's healthy for MPs to decide where they stand on issues all by themselves.

"That was a bit cruel of you, Mol," says Max, when I tell him about it. "You know Andrew always gets himself in a muddle with this sort of thing."

I'm about to defend myself, when there's an almighty crack from overhead, and the kitchen light goes out.

"Good God," I say. "What the hell was that?"

"The bloody lightbulb exploded again," says Max. "That's the third one that's done it in the last few weeks."

I start sweeping the glass up off the floor, but Max has just finished putting the food onto our plates, so he tells me to leave the mess until after we've eaten.

"Took me ages to cook this," he says, "so I don't want it to get cold. Eating's the priority, not clearing up."

I agree with him, until I take my first mouthful, and bite down on a shard of glass.

I may need to re-think my position on synchronicity. And on lighting.

Tuesday, 14 June 2011

The Dangers Of Too Much Time On One's Hands; And Of A Missing Sense Of Proportion

Honestly, take a screen away from a teenager and they don't know what to do with themselves. Josh is bored out of his mind.

"Do not look at the TV - at all - while I'm at work today," I say to him, when I take his breakfast upstairs to where he's lying prone in bed. "And don't even think about playing computer games."

"That's stupid," says Josh. "It can't do me any harm."

"Yes, it can," I say. "Read this, if you don't believe me."

I try to pass him the information sheet we got from the hospital. The one that warns people who have suffered a head injury about all the things they mustn't do in the first few days afterwards.

"I don't need to read it," says Josh. "You're just making it up, because you think I should be reading books."

"You can't do that either," says Max, taking the leaflet from me, and scanning its contents. "Bloody hell, Mol - look at this!"

He points to the second page, which carries an advert for a firm of litigators, urging victims of accidents to contact them to see if they can claim compensation. Josh is rather taken with the idea.

"Might pay for my clothes," he says. "And my watch - have you seen the state of that? It's been smashed to bits."

"I'll take some photos of you when your mother's at work," says Max. "And your damaged clothes and stuff. I might even wander down Park Street and take pictures of those drain covers while I'm at it."

"I think you'd do better to report the damn things to prevent anyone else having an accident," I say, but no-one's listening to me. Josh and Max are both too busy deciding what evidence they'll need to produce in court. They've got far too much free time on their hands.

Not that they'll admit anything of the sort if Josh does put in a claim for compensation: I know exactly who's going to end up dealing with all the correspondence that that will involve. And that person's name won't begin with a J, or end in an X. There's bound to be a Y in it, though.

On that cheerful note, I decide it's time to go to work, but I'm still really irritable by the time I get there. It must be some sort of weird reaction that I have to stress.

While an emergency is happening, I'm as cool as a cucumber but, afterwards, I'm like a bear with a sore head. Or like Josh, now I come to think of it.

"How's Josh?" says Greg, as if reading my mind. "Still in pain?"

"Yes," I say. "And also being one."

I feel a bit guilty as soon as I've said this out loud. Have I forgotten how frantic I was on the way to A&E already? Or how relieved I was that Josh wasn't the patient wearing the neck collar? I really need to get a grip.

"He should sue the Highways Department," says Greg. "Or whoever owns those drains."

"Oh, don't you start," I say. "You sound like Max. I'm sure he's turning into a usual suspect since he lost his job. I'm just worrying about Josh, and what the after-effects of his head injury might be. That's as much as I can cope with at the moment. Anything else would be too much."

"Like this bloody hay fever," says Greg, who never learns. "It's really getting me down, you know."

Vicky rolls her eyes, while I go into my office, and shut the door harder than is strictly necessary. Then I pick up the phone, and call home.

"Max," I say, when he finally answers. "When you've taken those photos of Josh's injuries, can you email them over to me?"

"Yes," says Max. "But why? Are you going to contact someone high up about his accident?"

"No," I say. "But I am going to use them to give someone lower down a sense of proportion."

I feel so much better once I've shown the photos to Greg. And, apparently, so does he.

There's no mention of his hay fever for the rest of the day, which is a big relief - until Mrs Watts phones and mentions her brain tumour, that is. Now I feel like a right drama queen. Does everything always have to be relative?

Sunday, 12 June 2011

The Relative Importance Of Germaine Greer, Budget Cuts And Designer Clothes. Oh, And Of Life Itself.

So now Josh seems to have become a direct victim of the cuts. And I am sick of spending weekends in A&E.

"Do you have to go out tonight?" I say to him, as he leaves the house last night. "It's always on Saturday nights that you seem to get beaten up on your way home from the pub."

"I know," says Josh, gloomily. "That's why I'm not going there. I'm going round to Robbie's instead - on my new bike."

I get a sinking feeling I decide to ignore. I'd never make an elementary mistake like that at work.

"Kiss your mother before you go," I say.

"Can't," says Josh. "According to Germaine Greer, that would be teaching me to flirt with you."

"I think she was only referring to little girls kissing their fathers," I say.

"Then she was being sexist, too," says Josh. "As well as an idiot."

On that probably indisputable note, off he rides, into the sunset. Thank God he's never seen Greer's Beautiful Boy book. I can only imagine what he'd say about that.

All this talk of flirting makes me wonder whether Max will still be awake after Wallander has finished. He looks pretty alert, so I decide it's safe to wait until the programme's over, before making any flirtatious moves. This proves to be ill-advised.

We've just gone to bed, and I'm about to commence a preliminary manoeuvre, when the doorbell starts to ring. It doesn't stop until I get downstairs and open the door.

"Mrs Bennett?" says Robbie. "I don't want you to panic -"

Only a teenager would think that that would have the desired effect.

"What's happened?" I say, as clearly as I can, given that my chest doesn't seem to be expanding quite enough to let in any air.

"Josh has had a bit of an accident," says Robbie, glancing sideways down the street. "But - "

I don't wait for the rest of the sentence. I run into the road and look for Josh. There's no sign of him, anywhere.

"Where is he?" I say to Robbie, who looks very pale, now I come to think of it.

"At the hospital," he says.

Oh. Right. Thank God for that. If Josh has managed to cycle to the hospital, he can't be too badly injured, can he? I calm down slightly, and take the deepest breath I've managed since opening the door.

"I've brought his bike back for him," says Robbie, freaking me out all over again.

"So how the hell did he get to the hospital?" I say.

"Um," says Robbie. "Well, someone called an ambulance."

"Was he knocked out?" says Max, who's walking down the stairs, while doing his flies up at the same time.

"Yes," says Robbie. "And he was bleeding quite a lot, too."

I have no idea what happens to Robbie after that. Or to Josh's bike. I just grab the car keys and my handbag, push past him, and run towards the car. Max isn't far behind.

The journey to the hospital seems to take forever, even though we're going so fast. Max is driving, and for once, I don't say anything about his white van man approach to roundabouts. I'd be quite happy for him to drive straight across the damn things if it got me to my son any quicker.

You can tell how scared we both are, because we don't actually speak to each other at all.

"Our son's been brought in by ambulance," says Max to the receptionist in A&E. "Joshua Bennett. He fell off his bike."

"Oh, yes," she says, without needing to look anything up at all - so now I'm really terrified. "Through those doors, and second left."

As we rush along the corridor, a door opens up ahead, and a nurse wheels a bed across our path and into another room. I'm pretty sure that Max also notices that there's a patient in it, covered in drips and wearing a neck collar, though he doesn't mention it.

"Where's Josh Bennett?" he says to a passing doctor, who doesn't seem to hear, so Max repeats the question at the top of his voice.

"He's in here," comes a voice from behind a half-drawn curtain, and there, slumped on a trolley but thankfully not wearing a neck collar, is Josh. Or, at least, I think it's Josh. His head is so swathed in bandages, and his face so cut up, that I can hardly tell.

He gives me an apologetic look out of the one eye that isn't covered by the bandage, as the nurse says,

"Oh, we got that done just in time - didn't we, Josh?"

Josh murmurs in agreement, and then the nurse continues:

"He begged us to clean him up before you saw him."

"This is cleaned up?" says Max, giving me a sidelong glance.

I know exactly what he means. Josh is absolutely covered in blood. I bend over to kiss him on the cheek, but then realise that this isn't going to be as easy as it sounds, so I take his hand and squeeze it, instead.

"Ow," says Josh, at which point I spot the cuts and grazes on his hands.

"What the hell happened?" says Max. "Have you been drinking?"

"No," says Josh. "It was the surface of the road. I hit a sunken drain cover on Park Street, which jerked the wheel round, and then I couldn't get control of the bike, because I hit another row of drains straight afterwards. The last thing I remember is thinking, 'Oh, shit,' and heading over the handlebars."

"Bloody hell," says Max. "I know the drain covers you mean. They feel really bad, even in the car. And they've had yellow markings round them for months, so they should have been repaired by now."

He pauses while the nurse takes Josh's blood pressure, then carries on:

"I bet it's down to this government's sodding budget cuts."

Honestly, sometimes Max sounds just like a usual suspect. The only cut I'm worried about right now is the one that's still bleeding through Josh's bandages.

"Never mind that," I say. "How do you feel, Josh? Are you okay?"

"No," he says. "Look at this blood all over my new Stussy shirt, and on my shoes and jeans. How am I going to get that out?"

Honestly, talk about the warped priorities of the male of the species. First Max rants on about government policy; and then Josh is more worried about clothing than his injuries.

Mind you, I'm a bit worried about the cuts myself, on second thoughts. Maybe they might account for why the hospital seems so reluctant to x-ray Josh's head - unless they've decided there's no brain inside it to be damaged.

Friday, 10 June 2011

An Experience Vicky Needed Like A Hole In The Head, And One That Greg Really Deserved.

"So have you missed me this week?" says The Boss, when he arrives this morning.

There's an uncomfortable silence while Greg and I try to work out if he's joking or not.

"After having me around to help out during Recess, I mean," says Andrew, as if to clarify.

"Oh," says Greg, at the same time as I say, "Ah."

This seems to be all that is required, so I make a run for it into the kitchen, where I spend as long as possible washing up and making coffee.

Which turns out to be a mistake as, by the time I get back to my office, I can't see my desk for the debris Andrew has piled on top of it, though I do note the mysterious disappearance of my sandwich.

"Where's my lunch gone?" I say, walking back out into the outer office, but The Boss pretends not to hear. He's busy inspecting his phone.

"Got my phone fixed, then, did you?" he says. "What was wrong with it, anyway?"

"Um," I say, glaring at Greg, who is pulling one of those I'll kill you if you tell him faces. The one where he juts out his chin, and makes his eyes look as if they're popping out of their sockets.

"Well?" says Andrew. "Why did that lead keep coming out of the receiver every time I picked it up?"

"Faulty adaptor," says Greg, as if his having pulled it out every time we had to leave Andrew alone in the office had nothing to do with it. (These things are justifiable, if you consider the damage an MP let loose to answer calls from constituents without supervision can cause. "Pre-emptive action" is how Greg describes it.)

Luckily, Vicky arrives at that moment, and The Boss seems so pleased to see her, that he forgets to pursue the issue of the inexplicably self-disconnecting phone lead any further.

"There'll be three of us in surgery today, Molly," he says. "Vicky's going to come in with us, to observe."

"Why?" I say, before I can stop myself.

"It'll be useful experience for her," says Andrew - as if that explains everything.

Greg seems to think it does, judging by the I told you so face he's pulling now. Unless that's his latest way to stop himself sneezing. He's only got hay fever, but you'd swear it was pneumonia at the very least, the fuss he's been making for the last few days.

He scribbles something on a piece of paper, then shoves it into my hand as I pass.

"Here's that number you wanted, Mol," he says, pulling his meaningful face. "Put it somewhere safe so you don't lose it again."

I glare at him, but open it as soon as I get back to my desk.

"Told you," it says. "Vicky's after one of our jobs now."

She might have been this morning, but I don't think she is now. Not after she encountered Mrs Watts during surgery.

That poor, poor woman. Though I do wish people wouldn't keep coming to tell us they've got holes in their heads. Anyone would think they'd got the wrong end of the stick where MPs' surgeries are concerned.

Now I'm getting distracted, which is what Fridays always do to me, and the subject of holes in the head. Where was I? Oh, yes - Mrs Watts.

Some people are astonishingly brave, aren't they? And utterly selfless, too. Mrs Watts has a brain tumour, and only has weeks to live.

She's angry, you can tell, but she controls it; or rather, she reserves her anger for things she thinks she can actually do something about. Which means that she doesn't want us to do anything at all for her, but what she does want is our help to get her nineteen-year-old daughter what she needs.

"She's pregnant, and her bloke's just buggered off," says Mrs Watts. "I need to make sure that, when the baby comes, and I go, she's not left without any money. So I want to make sure she's got all her benefits sorted out before that happens."

Vicky doesn't say a word during the ensuing conversation. She just sits there, staring at the top of Mrs Watt's head, as if trying to see the hole where the ultimately unsuccessful surgery was carried out.

Her face is unusually pale, even through all that foundation she wears, and she's chewing the side of one of her precious nails.

"You all right, Vicky?" I say, as we walk back upstairs after Mrs Watts has left.

"Of course she is," says Andrew, opening the door to the office and ushering us in with a rather excessive flourish. "Cope with anything, can't you, Vicks? We see life in all its forms here, don't we, Mol?"

"And death," I say, but Andrew can't hear me. Greg's sneezing so loudly, he's drowned my voice out completely.

"God," he says. "I hate this fucking hay fever. It must be the most miserable thing in the world."

Vicky stops halfway across the room, and stares at him for what feels like ages, before she says,

"Well, at least it's not life-threatening, is it, Greg?"

It's a very odd feeling to agree with something that Vicky says, for once.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

The Dangers of Archiving, Suspense, And Ignorance of Cockney Rhyming Slang.

Thank God Recess is over again, if only for the next six weeks. Greg and I are planning to celebrate by ceremonially burning all the draft letters that The Boss wrote to "help us out", but then Vicky throws this plan off course.

She's in a very chatty mood when she finally turns up for work. I much prefer it when she isn't.

"Molly," she says. "Look at the state of your nails. Why on earth don't you grow them - or at least get falsies?"

"Because I like to be able to pick things up properly," I say. "And I can't see the point in long nails, anyway."

Vicky looks down at hers, and wiggles her fingers to show those weird squared-off ends to their full cringe-making effect.

"There's always a point to being well-groomed," she says. "Men appreciate it, even if you don't."

I can't believe this is true of The Boss, whose own grooming habits make me look obsessed with my appearance, but I am trying not to rise to provocation, so I don't say so. Never let people like Vicky see they've got you rattled.

It's far better to be cool yet polite, and to change the subject to something more neutral. In theory, of course.

In practice, as soon as I open my mouth, Freud sneaks in and takes control:

"So, Vicky," I say. "How much longer are you staying with us as an intern? You've been here for months, so isn't the novelty wearing off by now?"

"Yes," says Greg, rather too heartily, even from the depths of the archive cupboard. "When are you leaving? Is it soon?"

I do wish he wouldn't listen in to other people's conversations; and he really should try to sound less keen for Vicky to go. If there's one thing she enjoys - other than inspecting her nails, and other people's - it's frustrating the desires of others. As far as I can tell. The Boss may have a different opinion, of course.

"Well," says Vicky. "I am a bit disappointed to still be waiting for the paid job that Andy offered me, but I spoke to him last night, and he's persuaded me to wait a teensy bit longer."

"Oh," I say. "And did he say where the budget for more staff was coming from, however long you wait? Seeing as no-one's still intending to leave, as far as I'm aware."

"Yes, Vicky," says Greg, sticking his head out of the cupboard, but almost at ceiling height, which is most unnerving. "Do tell all."

She might have done as he asked - if his bloody foot hadn't chosen that moment to slip off the shelf that it was balancing on, causing him to drop like a stone. It serves him right, but I do wish he hadn't let go of the boxes containing Adams - Edmonds in the process.

By the time I've finished putting all the files back together, and Greg has found an old ice pop in the freezer compartment and applied it to his head, Vicky's had a change of heart.

"Thinking about it, it's probably not my place to tell you what Andy has planned," she says. "I'm sure it was meant to be a private chat between the two of us."

That's as maybe, but I'm pretty sure Greg would kill her if he wasn't still feeling dizzy. He can't stand suspense.

I'm going off it myself, too - especially when it's Johnny who's keeping me guessing. He phones mid-morning, because he wants to hear my voice for a change, or so he says.

"Guess who I heard from last night?" he asks.

"President Putin?"

I am in the middle of reading about another of Miss Harpenden's extremely hypothetical calamities, so I'm not taking the guessing business as seriously as Johnny might like.

"Jemima," he says.

Now he has my full attention.

"Jemima Fuck?" I say, before I recall that that wasn't her real name. "I mean, Jemima Tuck?"

"Yes," says Johnny. "It was such a nice surprise."

"I bet," I say, though it certainly isn't for me. Jemima's the one who "went all the way" with Johnny, when some of us never would.

"And guess what she's doing now?" he says.

For once, I'm quite happy to be asked this about an ex-schoolmate. Given that there was a rumour that Jemima traded sexual favours in return for a Wagon Wheel and a Bay City Rollers single, she's bound to have become even less successful than me, which will make a very nice change indeed.

"I don't know," I say. "What?"

I can't wait to hear the answer. I've never forgiven Jemima for stealing my shoes after every netball lesson, so I do hope it's something much worse than working for an MP.

"You give up easily," says Johnny. "Merchant banker."

I laugh, which doesn't seem to be what he was expecting, presumably because it turns out that his answer wasn't intended to be funny.

Josh tells me that I got my Cockney rhyming slang muddled up. Apparently Swiss banker was what I was thinking of.

Sunday, 5 June 2011

Freewheeling Through Conflict, Or How To Fall Out With Everyone In Less Than One Day.

Honestly, family life is so over-rated. It's only tea-time, and already no-one's speaking to anyone else.

"I've bought Robbie's old bike," says Josh, wheeling it into the house at lunchtime. "So now I've got wheels again."

"Oh, God," says Max, presumably envisaging further trips to A&E.

Josh glares at him, but is immediately distracted by Connie, who's still flushed with the success of her first driving lesson, which took place yesterday.

"You'll only be on two wheels," she says, "while I shall be driving around on four in no time at all. My instructor says that I'm a natural."

The rest of us glance at each other, but Josh is the only person unwise enough to actually mention Connie's surprising ability to ride a bike straight into any hedge she happens to pass.

"Ah, yes," she says. "But that was only when I rode an ordinary bike."

"With stabilisers," says Josh.

"Yeah, well," says Connie, moving swiftly on. "What about when I rode that quad bike when we went to Wales?"

That's a memory I'd prefer to forget, especially now that she's learning to drive a car. Connie rode the damn thing as if she was a possum sitting astride a charging rhino. Calling her a speed freak would be to understate the case.

"Hope I never meet her driving along the M4 when she's grown up," said the owner, and the rest of us agreed, though Connie took it as a compliment. You can't say she's not capable of positive thinking, even though she hasn't even read any self-help books as far as I know.

"I got to third gear yesterday," she says. "And I used my windscreen wipers. So who's the best driver in the family now?"

"Me," says Max.

I may be the only adult in the room who has never driven into the back of anyone at a roundabout - and definitely not twice - but I'm already regretting pointing this out.

Now Max isn't talking to me; Connie's ignoring Max and Josh; and Josh is furious with all of us: Connie because she reminded him that he didn't manage to graduate to a proper quad bike in Wales, and was only deemed safe to drive a children's go-kart; and Max and me because we've locked Robbie's old bike and won't unlock it until it has some brakes.

Apparently, we're stupid because no-one uses brakes these days.

"You should appreciate that, Dad," Josh says to Max. "Seeing as you reckon you only hit those people at the roundabouts because they hesitated, and then slammed their anchors on without any warning."

Josh seems to think that that clinches it. Judging by Max's expression, it probably does.

Friday, 3 June 2011

In Which Max Is Frozen Out Of The Jobs Market, And Designates Me As Curator Of His Past.

"Can you help me with these job applications?" says Max, as soon as I get home from work.

I'm so pleased that he's found something to apply for, that I overlook what "helping" really means. You'd think I'd learn, wouldn't you?

I seem to be surrounded by exponents of the well-disguised method of persuading others to do stuff that one doesn't feel like doing oneself - by telling idiots like me that we're "so good" at whatever unpleasant task needs to be done.

I fall for it, every time - which is why, three hours later, I'm still wrestling with online application forms, while Max is sound asleep on the sofa.

I can't understand why the hell these forms don't allow you to cut and paste information into them. It's such a waste of time, typing the same stuff over and over again, and I'm getting pretty fed up by the time I decide to wake Max up and force him to participate.

"When did you leave your last-but-one job?" I ask.

"Oh. Um. I'm not sure," he says. "When do you think I did?"

"I don't know," I say. "It was your job, not mine."

"There's no need to be like that," says Max. "I'll check tomorrow. I'm too tired now."

Huh. Random tiredness must be a sign of depression. Max is always knackered on the days when he signs on.

He gets really angry with the Jobcentre staff (who still seem to be calling people by their surname only, despite my having written to them to complain after Josh's experience); and he gets even more infuriated by the total irrelevance of the jobs that they suggest he should complete applications for.

"They wanted me to apply to run a frozen food factory today," he says, as we're getting ready for bed.

"What? Why?" I say. "What possible skills or experience did they think you had to do that?"

"That I occasionally eat it, I should imagine," he says. "I'm not entirely sure what skills some of them bring to their jobs."

He falls asleep again, almost as soon as he says this, while I lie awake and fret. So much for my early night.

Now I'm back downstairs, eating gherkins, and wondering what on earth I could do if I didn't work for The Boss. I don't even know what box to tick for "occupation"on surveys, seeing as MP's dogsbody is never listed on any of them.

I usually opt for "psychiatric nurse." That seems to be the closest I can get.