Saturday, 18 October 2014

The ghost in the machine

     She dreamt of you last night. She dreamt of you as though you were real.  She dreamt you were together, in full three dimensional form, no longer just words on screens, occasionally enlivened with punctuation. Or not.

     She dreamt you existed beyond 140 character limits, beyond a concentrated distillation of thoughts into a carefully selected choice of words. Or even a badly chosen phrase that wounds and bruises. She dreamt you in full. She dreamt she heard your voice, beyond the little she already knows. She dreamt that you and she spent time together, just in one another’s presence, revelling in the simple pleasure of harmony.

      She dreamt that promises were fulfilled. She dreamt that the months of patient waiting were over. She dreamt that the typed words that insinuated themselves inside her head, from your screen to hers, were true. She dreamt that your feelings were what she read, not what she experienced. She dreamt that you were real.

     And then the dream was over. You’re not real. You are the cursor on the screen that blinks and flashes. You are the facebook status update. You are the twitter notification, the text that arrives too late, the email recipient who never replies. You are the caress of an unsolicited compliment. You are the warmth of admiration. You are the glow of unexpected praise. You are the gentle kiss of consideration.   You are the slap of indignant denial. You are the sting of unworthiness. You are the whiplash of deliberate and intentional cruelty. You are the rebuke, the slap down, the withdrawal of contact, and the ignored plea for comfort and consolation.

     You are real only in the screens she sees. You are real only online, real only in her phone, real only on her television.

     You are not real. But she dreams you are. You are not real. But she wishes you were. You are not real. But she needs you to be. But you are not real. You are the ghost in the machine.

Thursday, 9 October 2014

To catch a leaf

Build your coffin of balsa wood
Spend all that you earn
When you go, you are gone for good
Never to return

  Have you ever read ‘Rivals’ by Jilly Cooper? Stop sneering. Jilly Cooper is a literary genius, and I will shoot anyone who says otherwise. She gets dismissed as a writer of bonkbusters, but her books are so much more than that. They’re clever, funny, touching, romantic, puntastic escapism. In my dreams, I live in Rutshire, riding horses and lounging about in front of apple log open fires. It also helps that a lot of her books feature maps at the front. Being an aficionado of cartography, just wave an Ordnance Survey map at me to fondle, and take me, I’m yours, you tempting little peddler of map porn…

     Oh yeah, sorry, Rivals. Right. In one scene in the book, our heroine Taggie O’Hara (bit wet, but we’ll forgive her) gets Rupert Campbell-Black's children to catch falling leaves to give to him so that he’ll have thirty happy days in November. I’d not heard of this as a superstition before, but apparently it is A Thing. Like picking up a penny for good luck, catching a falling leaf is lucky/good luck/full of good bodes.

     I forgot all about this until two years ago, one grim autumnal afternoon, tugging two reluctant and whiny Blondies home. It was drizzling, it was windy, the sky was dark. There was low level pushing and shoving going on, a fair bit of sibling kvetching and deliberately winding each other up. Then, to cap it all off neatly, large, brown, wet leaf fell from a nearby horse chestnut tree, got caught by the wind, and wrapped itself around The Boy’s scowling visage.

     And The Girl HOOTED. Of course she did. Har har, annoying brother, you’re cold, wet, and have just been slapped by a leaf, allow me to point and laugh to make the situation so very much worse.   But, in one of those lightning flash moments of parenting genius that makes you so impressed with your brain that you’d snog yourself if you could, I said ‘WOAH! The Boy!!! You are going to be so lucky! That leaf was meant for you!!!’

     The Boy was intrigued, so I explained further, and what should have been a fairly miserable ten minute trudge home became instead a giggly race back and forwards, hither and yon, darting all over the pavements and verges, trying to catch leaves before they hit the ground.

     Try it. Seriously. It is so much harder than you expect it to be. Partly because it’s unpredictable – you never know when a leaf will sail past, but also because leaves being so light, they tantalisingly fly past your face, only to sail twenty feet to the left in a gust of wind. It’s fab exercise, leaves you breathless, and makes you laugh. A bit like the best kind of lover.

     Obviously, it’s quite season specific. Not many falling leaves in May, whatever darling buds are being shaken by rough winds.  But it’s been a failsafe way of cheering up The Blondies on gloomy afternoon school runs when I’m out of ideas. On good days, we compare our haul, and tot up how many good days we’ve harvested. On bad days, we end up chasing up and down the driveway for hours at a time, Blondies reluctant to go into the house until they’ve caught at least one leaf. Those are the days when I curse my flashes of parenting genius.

Always to thine own self be true
Not to fools like me
Who’ll change their mind
For the sake of rhyming schemes

     Because it’s bollocks. Don’t put your faith in superstitions, prayers, songs, poetry, writers, or anything else that starts life in the mind of another person. People are contrary, contradictory, changeable. Don’t rely on ideas or ideology to guide you. Think for yourself. Make your own decisions, and never ascribe good or bad occurrences to anything other than pure coincidence. Things happen. Make the best of what you have. That’s what I thought I’d taught my children.

Au revoir joi, bonjour tristesse
Good times come and they go
Life owes nobody happiness
Only pain and sorrow

     And I had cause to curse my flash of parenting genius again last week. After the events of Tuesday and Wednesday, having dropped The Girl off at Infants, The Boy and I were making our way across the treelined playground when his attention was caught by a leaf flashing by in a tailspin. He leapt forward to grab it, missed, and hissed ‘Dammit!’ like a nine year old Jack Bauer.

     And that of course was it. He refused, point blank, to go into school until he’d caught a falling leaf to ensure that the rest of his day was going to be good. After five minutes, despite an absolute sodding blizzard of leaves tempting us with their unpredictable and confusing journeys to the asphalt, we were leafless. Checking the time, I realised we weren’t just a bit behind, but on the verge of ‘go-to-the-office-to-make-sure-you’re-on-the-register-and-that’s-a-playtime-detention-for-you-young—tardy-fella-me-lad’ LATE.

     In yet another lightning flash of parenting genius so amazing I’m thinking of taking myself out for dinner to wine, dine, and possibly 69 me, I ripped a leaf of the nearest sycamore tree, handed it to The Boy and said ‘Here. A leaf. It’ll be a good day.’

     ‘MUUUUUUU-HUH-HUM!!!’ That doesn’t count! You just took it off a tree!’

     ‘You make your own luck in this life, The Boy. So there. Make it a good day.’

     Superstitions are the thief of responsibility. When things go wrong, it’s not the fault of some bearded sky fairy, or because you broke a mirror six years and 364 days ago. It’ll be a bad decision, yours or theirs, the weather, an accident, a coincidence. Have faith, by all means (I don’t). But don’t let that absolve you of your own responsibility for making yourself happy.

So don’t rely on the starry skies
Screw the universe
You ought to try

To life your life on earth

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Take my hand

     Here is my hand.

     And mine, with my heart in't

     The problem with The Girl being like me is that when we have a disagreement, it becomes a standoff. There can only ever be two losers. Food, clothes, toys, bedtimes… - you name it, we will face one another, and neither of us will back down. So when I do manage to achieve a victory, however small, it becomes a source of immense pride and satisfaction. To date, I have managed one victory. In six years. Getting her to hold my hand.

     Remember the toddler years? The hourly daily battle of wills you have? Every weekday, at half past eight, and three o’clock: ‘You need to hold my hand.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’ ‘Hold. My. Hand.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’ ‘HOLD. MY.’ ‘NAAAAAAAOOOOOWWWWW.’ Exhausting. Painful. Public. After several months of squirming and twisting, trying to free herself from my grasp, The Girl decided to focus her energies on more entertaining methods of thwarting peace and quiet, and meekly submitted to holding my hand whenever we walked anywhere.

     And she still does it now, aged six. She panics if I can’t, because I’m weighed down with holding schoolbags, lunchboxes, book bags, discarded coats, apple cores, school created works of art, etc. She won’t even just hold my arm. It has to be her tiny, soft hand placed in my aged and rough mitt, my fingers enclosing hers.

     The Boy’s not the same at all. He’ll hold my hand when we cross busy roads, but beyond that, he’s never been bothered, probably because when he was a toddler I didn’t have to negotiate A roads and city traffic, and car parks and things like that. Anywhere we went, we went in the car (the joy of living in the countryside, where there are no pavements), so the question of making sure he couldn’t dart off into traffic did not arise.

     But then Tuesday happened. And for The Boy, things are never going to be quite the same.

     I knew who she was. Two sons, the eldest of whom is one of The Boy’s friends, the younger six years old, the same as The Girl. We’d spoken a few times in the playground, but the way these things work out, we had never really clicked, and become closer. Friendly enough, but we didn’t hang around and chat. Then, about 18 months ago, I noticed she was becoming paler, thinner. Her husband started doing the school run more often, she wasn’t around much. Then she started wearing a headscarf for a few months. When that came off, it was to reveal fresh new hair, regrowing. In the very British way of doing things, we observed, but ‘didn’t want to pry’. Didn’t want to seem nosy, rubbernecking. None of us said anything to each other, either. Some topics aren’t right to gossip over. Those who were friendlier with her had quieter, more thoughtful chats at hometime. The rest of us hung back, taking care to make eye contact and smile at her, hoping to let her know, wordlessly, that we didn’t know what to do, wanted to do something, but at the same time, didn’t want to add a further strain.

     Thinking about her this week, I realised I couldn’t remember seeing her at the school gates since term started. It wasn’t necessarily significant. The Boy is always one of the last out, so the Girl and I take our time on our way to pick him up. Now they’re in Year 5, a lot of children walk home by themselves in any case. I chided myself for automatically thinking negatively. But then Tuesday happened.

     The Boy has swimming last lesson on Tuesdays, thus adding to the delay in leaving school. Fifteen minutes after school had ended, he still hadn’t come out, and The Girl, clutching my hand, and doing the ‘Dying for a wee, I didn’t need to go when I was in school, but now I fear it may be about to start the trickle of humiliation’ jiggle next to me, was scornfully saying ‘Let’s just GO!’ when I spotted him, shoulders slumped, head down, slowly shuffling along the path. Irritation at his tardiness turned to annoyance. Why did he always have to be the last one out? Then I saw his face. Streaked with tears.

     ‘Have you heard, Mum?’

     ‘Heard what?’

     ‘Tom’s mum died this morning.’

     I held him as he tried to stop the tears from rising again, feeling his body shudder with the effort, his chest expanding. And all the way home, despite the fact I had my bag, his schoolbag, his lunchbox, both Blondie’s swimming bags, The Girl’s book bag to carry, he kept hold of my hand, never once letting it go.

     And I knew it wasn’t just sadness for his friend. He was struggling to cope with the realisation that bad, sad things don’t just happen on the news, or in books. Bad, sad happen in real life too. That his friend was going to grow up without his mother. And if it happened to his friend, it could happen to him, too. For the rest of the afternoon and evening, The Boy was quiet, withdrawn. A longer than normal hug at bedtime. Wednesday morning, the same. I had to go into the school office and say he ‘wasn’t feeling well’, with an exaggerated eyeroll at the secretary on the counter, who discreetly winked back.

     Then the phone call at one o’clock. ‘The Boy’s here in the office. Says he’s not well, and needs to speak to you?’ He sounded fine. When I asked him what was wrong, he said nothing was wrong, he was fine. Why then had he got the school to phone me? ‘Dunno.’ Did he want to come home? ‘No.’ Hmm.

     An hour later, another phone call. Did he want to come home this time? A tearful yes. And I knew what that first phone call was about. It wasn’t that he was feeling unwell. It wasn’t even really that he wanted to come home so much. He had just wanted to hear my voice.

     So we sat in the park for forty minutes, until it was time to collect The Girl. And it was a hard conversation to have. My instinct was to tell him not to worry, to reassure, to rub away the anxiety and   fear clouding his mind. But I couldn’t. Because bad, sad things do happen in real life. Because Tom and his younger brother are going to grow up without their mum. Because The Boy had realised that we are all frail, earthly beings. Because Tom’s mum died.

     And The Boy held my hand. His soft, rounded hand, nearly as big as mine. He held my hand, and I held his. Because things are never going to be quite the same again.

Tuesday, 23 September 2014

Shine on, you crazy diamond

Remember when you were young, you shone like the sun.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.
Now there’s a look in your eyes, like black holes in the sky.
Shine on, you crazy diamond.

        We can’t run away from who we are. Before The Blondies erupted onto the scene, I was a vehement supporter of nurture versus nature. Now… it’s not so clear cut. I can hope to direct them in certain ways, I can encourage or gently steer them away from things, but for the most part, their personalities were fairly strongly rooted, long before their first word or first steps. The Boy is me, in so many ways. Same sense of humour, same love of sleep, same stroppiness, same sensitivity.

      I never really thought The Girl and I had much in common. She’s a girly girl, but she’s also confident, tough, never seemingly dented by people around her. Plonk her in any new situation and she’s off and running. I’ve long wondered where her confidence comes from, and enviously hoped some of it would rub off on me. Not a hope in hell. We are chalk and cheese. In personality, looks, and temperament. Or so I thought.

     I suppose I didn’t want to see it. It’s not something I like about myself. It makes me an absolute fecking nightmare to deal with at times, as those closest to me would quietly demur to my face, whilst thinking ‘Christ, YES.’ It’s the passion.

     The problem with me is that things tend to be all or nothing. I’m rarely halfarsed, except when it comes to housework. When I like something, I go all out, full throttle, air-punching, racing for the prize. When I’m down, it’s not just feeling a bit meh. It’s a stormtossed sea of pounding waves and angst, a little ship caught in a whirlpool and pulsing with St Elmo’s Fire. You’d think that the years of beige might have knocked it out of me. In fact, it seems to have made it worse, as though all the years of not feeling anything just dammed it up, and now it’s burst forth like Bardabunga, all the more stronger and uncontrollable because it was suppressed for so long.

     That’s my excuse, anyway. And The Girl has it too. There’s no middle ground in her life. She’s either twirling around like a fairy with a pet unicorn that farts glitter onto rainbows over waterfalls, or she’s a vengeful banshee, shrieking and hurling death and destruction on an unsuspecting, undeserving, and unprepared world.

     It’s a problem. Because I know how much I annoy people with the extremes of my personality. And um… now I understand why. The Girl doesn’t get the best of me, as a person. It’s hard for me to admit, but it’s true. I should be better with her than I am. I should be able to anticipate the oncoming storm and make the necessary preparations. But I don’t. Because I don’t want to see it. I don’t want to admit it. I don’t want to concede that the thing I like least about myself has been passed on to my daughter.

     And there’s more than that. Being passionate about things means you’re forever disappointed by those around you, when they don’t seem to share your enthusiasm. When you put as much of yourself into something as The Girl and I do, it matters. We care about it, about how people react. And when people shrug, or don’t seem interested, or ignore it, it stings. And in my case, it turns inward, it reinforces a sense that I am that unworthy creature I always believed myself to be, and I retreat into an inner storm. I put up a wall between myself and the world, aloof, distant, wary, unwilling to engage, until something new comes along and the dark clouds pass.

    That’s me, though. The Girl is not such a tender and easily bruised character. More robust, self-assured, and positive than I could ever hope to be, she’ll shout down the world if it disagrees with her. I hope she stays that way. I hope she doesn’t start to take it personally when people aren’t as enthusiastic and excited about things as she is. I hope she continues to be herself, to love things with brio, to hurl herself into life and care only for her own opinions. Diamonds are formed under intense heat and pressure, and when the rough edges are taken off, they shine for the world to see. Shine on, you crazy diamond. You’re as beautiful as you feel.

Monday, 22 September 2014

Repeat to fade

I must go down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by;
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

          Let’s get one thing straight. I don’t always cry in churches, ok? Not always. Just, erm… a fair bit. It’s not my fault (it is).  

     The exception to the rule is Salthouse. Salthouse has never made me cry. It’s not the most beautiful church in Norfolk; it’s not the grandest, or the most significant. But I had as close to a religious experience as a confirmed, dyed in the wool atheist is ever likely to have in St Nicholas church and from that day on… ‘my heart has left it’s dwelling place, and can return no more.’ It will always be special to me.

     ‘The crude graffiti, representing ships…’   It made me laugh when I first read it all those years ago, and it’s still making me laugh now. You can hear the tone of disapproval, see the pursed lips, the bridge of the nose pinched between thumb and forefinger as the writer is forced to admit that, yes, horrifyingly, some utter wretches (choirboys, doubtless) desecrated this sacred, hallowed place with   GRAFFITI. Utterly despicable. How could they, what kind of child, down with this sort of thing, careful now, etc. That guidebook was written in 1953, but you still see that kind of attitude around now.

     Not me. Never me. For one thing, although, yes, some of it is fairly basic and simplistic depictions of ships, some of it is incredibly intricate, and must have taken hours and hours of painstaking effort. Look at that. The detail is just phenomenal.

     And even the simpler carvings have a beauty all of their own. This one is my favourite. I can almost see the horizon behind it as it sets out on a voyage, leaving land far behind.

     But it’s not just what it is; it’s what it tells us too. Like the guidebook says, Salthouse was quite different, back then. Now it’s separated from the sea by marshes. But once it was a major trading port, with a wide channel that saw tall ships sail. This little village was once rich, important, it mattered. How many people set sail from here, looking back to shore? For how many people was Salthouse the last place they saw? For how many people was the tower of St Nicholas a marker, both of departure and arrival?

     Then, slowly, the Mayne Channel silted up over the centuries, trade moved on, Salthouse didn’t. Sic transit Gloria mundi... And left Salthouse behind, poor, plain, obscure. When the Victorians and Edwardians descended on Norfolk for seaside holidays, they stayed further down the coast, at Cromer and Overstrand. They didn’t venture that little bit further to a desolate little village, huddled around a green.

     And it stayed that way for a long time. Even as far back as twenty years ago, it was still very little, a dot on the map, a place to drive through, rather than to, for most people. But now, it’s very different. North Norfolk has been tweeified beyond belief, and at weekends, the village is a veritable showroom of black 4x4s, parked nose to tail around the green and up the narrow lanes. Women in skinny jeans and pristine Hunter wellies accompany men in waxed jackets and tweed caps, taking over the pub and café. These new incomers come not to trade, nor to worship, but to be seen. They don’t delve further. They wax lyrical about how perfect it is, how untouched, how unmarked by time, but they don't see what is around them.

      Because if they were to venture just a little further along, up Grouts Lane, to the church of St Nicholas, they may find something that makes them question history as they were taught it at school. That it’s not just an inevitable, chronological roll call of kings and queens, of armies, of governments. That lots of monuments and statues can be very impressive, but beauty can be found in something as simple as a few lines.

      And those simple few lines represent something real. Maybe they were drawn by villagers, hoping for a loved one to return. Maybe they were drawn by sailors, ahead of a new sea voyage, or maybe they were drawn as thanks for a safe one, maybe some of it is choirboys after all… But it’s a marker, a reminder of people and places, of events unfolding, unfurling, and people we will never know or understand. Even just initials and dates are a reminder of those in whose footsteps we follow, who in turn were following the people who came before them.

      And maybe, these new visitors might realise that time isn’t a straight line, stretching from that year to this, but a spiral that bends, and loops, and keeps moving, but also curves around itself. People and places rise, fall, then sometimes rise again, just like Salthouse has. That it’s popular now precisely because it fell into obscurity for so long, and is now so unspoilt. History repeats itself… repeat to fade.  

     And who knows what the future holds for it? Who knows how fashions will change, where the crowds will move on to next, when this new channel will seal up, leaving Salthouse in obscurity again? But what won’t change are the church, it's ships, and the sea.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Every grain of sand

     We seem to have hit upon the perfect compromise this holiday. the three Blondies love the beach. I hate the beach. I like sitting in cafes and peoplewatching. They hate sitting in cafes and peoplewatching.

     So what's tended to happen is that they establish a base camp on the beach, and I set up a command post in the nearest cafe or bar, commandeering a table for four. They spend their day getting sandy (sorry, brief pause whilst I retch, discreetly), and I spend my day peoplewatching, twatty blogging, and arsing about on twitter.

     Yesterday was a bit different. We went down to the port for the first time, and being the nosy cow, that I am, I decided to poke about in the absolutely HIDEOUS Iglesia Nuestra Señora de Loreto (Church of Our Lady of Loreto). Trust me, it's um... it's very there. Because of Xabia's history of fishing and sea trade, it was designed to look like a boat, cresting a wave from the outside.

     No, me neither.

     There were a few things I liked about the church. The attempt at graffiti on an outside buttress that some horrified parishoner had tried to deface (Xabia suffered terribly in the Spanish Civil War, as it was then a small, but strategically very important fishing village)

     The cloisters (look at the wall on the right. I LOVE the idea of priests shooting some hoops after a Confirmation).

     The ceiling of the interior of the church, designed to look like the hull of a boat (apologies for crapness of the photo, I would have lain down on the floor to get a better shot, but there were Other People there, already wondering what the hell I was doing).

     But mostly, I just wandered around, trying to make sense of it all, feeling more than a little overwhelmed.I don't go inside Catholic churches very often, and I'd forgotten what an assault on the senses it can be. The recordings of mass, played on a constant loop. The scent of incense so powerful it made my head swim. The simplicity of the Capilla de la Adoracion. The statues...

     I thought it was old churches that had the emotional pull on me. I thought it was the weight of history pressing on my shoulders. I thought it was that sense of being in limbo, between now and then. Certainly, some of it is still. But it's more than that. It's the people. The couple who crept into the church after me, and were praying quietly in a pew at the back. The man waiting nervously to enter the Confessional. The priest having a cigarette break and looking troubled. This.

     Can you see it? At the base of the second statue? Someone has written a prayer, folded it up, and left it there. It starts 'Oh Holy Father, I beseech thee...' Someone so desperate for help, for guidance, and solace, they left a prayer in the folds of a statue's robes. What despair did they feel to reach such a point?

     In the time of my confession,
In the hour of my deepest need.
When the pool of tears around my feet
Drown every newborn seed.
There's a dying voice within me,
Reaching out somewhere,
Toiling in the danger
And in the morals of despair

     I have no faith. Not in religion, not in other people, not even in myself. So I am forever intrigued by those who do, and the mystery of it. To offer up words of your darkest, deepest, bleakest moments, the times of your greatest need, when every second is too much. When every grain of sand runs against you. To place your future hope and faith in an an unseen, unknown, and unanswering deity. I hope they derived comfort from it. I hope the darkness passed over them without damage. I hope they found peace from the turbulence they were facing. 

     I didn't read their prayer. Too much of an intrusion into someone else's distress.  There is too much darkness in this world, too much anger, too much hurt. So I did the only thing I could, as an atheist, as a person, as one individual wanting to reach out and share the burden of a stranger. I lit a candle, I pushed back a little of the darkness. And went back out to the sunlight, to the beach, to the grains of sand.

I hear the ancient footsteps
Like the motion of the sea.
Sometimes I turn, there's someone there,
Other times it's only me.
I am hanging in the balance
Of the reality of man.
Like every sparrow falling,
Like every grain of sand.

Friday, 29 August 2014

This charming woman

     Have you ever read Finn Family Moomintroll? A lot of people remember it from the stopmotion animation that was on the BBC in the 70s/80s, but the books are much better, if my memory isn't as inaccurate as I suspect it to be. I've long suspected that children's books aren't simply just stories, but guidebooks for malleable minds. Introducing us to the darker side of life. The bad people. Including the Grokes. Here's how the Groke is described when she first appears:

     She was not particularly big and didn't look dangerous, either, but you felt she was terribly evil and would wait for ever. Nobody plucked up enough courage to attack. She sat there for a while, and then slid away into the darkness. But where she was sitting, the ground had been frozen!'

     You know one, don't you? Someone who sucks the joy out of everything. Makes you explain a bad joke so thoroughly that there's nothing funny left in it. A jobsworth, a killjoy, a moodkiller. The woman who... was one. She is happily out of my life now, and I don't have a vacancy for another. But of course, you still come across Grokes in everyday life. In shops, in the school playground, in cafes. They used to piss me right off. Then I remembered how my younger self used to deal with them.

     I charmed them.

     Yes, I am aware you know me, I'm a rantprone sweary kickarse blogger. 'Charming' is not a word often applied to me, other than sarcastically. But I do have charm muscles that I flex every now and then. Just to keep them in working order.

     It started in middle school. Somehow, for some reason, I became the designated spokesperson for my group of friends. If we wanted to do something we shouldn't really have been allowed to do, like rehearse in the music room at lunchtime, or do our classwork in the library, I was always the one who had to ask the teacher. Always. One day in Year 6 I had a mini tantrum. 'Why do I always have to be the one to ask? Why can't one of you do it?' Immediately there was a chorus of 'Because grown ups love you! They think you're polite and have nice manner!'


     'Yes! All our mums love you. You even got Miss Tudge (the truly terrifying violin teacher) to open the instrument room. AND she smiled at you.'

     There was a brief pause as we shared a collective shudder at the flashbulb memory of Miss Tudge's rictus grin splitting her face apart like the Kraken at the end of Clash of the Titans (the Harryhausen one, not the 'Titans will clash' one), then I shrugged and beetled off to ask Mrs Dartnell if we could get the netball posts out at lunchtime.

     But it's true. The carrot generally is more effective than the stick. These days, when I encounter a Groke, I could charm the birds from the trees.  As you can imagine, it's fairly terrifying. I overseason everything with pleases, thank yous and smiles. I am apologetic, I do a headtilt of coyness. Worst of all, I make eye contact. LOTS of eye contact, which is hugely unsettling for any Groke. If they try to avoid looking at me, I adopt an even coyer posture (sometimes giving myself a crick in the neck in the process), so they can't do anything but look at me. It makes it nigh on impossible for them to maintain their Grokelike deneanour.

     It is also a hell of a lot of fun. Having lunch two days ago at one of our favourite restaurants on the beach, we encountered Spain's grumpiest waitress. She was surly, curt, magnificently arsy (I admit to having a great deal of respect for anyone whose arsiness rivals mine. I know how much work it takes). She slammed menus down, threw placemats at us, and clattered our drinks down with such vehemence that our table became a veritable wetland. Alistair rolled his eyes and looked annoyed. I smiled. This was going to be a challenge. And FUN.

     I broke her spirit. Of course I did. I deployed every weapon in my arsenal and watched the thaw begin with a muttered 'de nada' (literally 'it's nothing', you're welcome). Plates were lowered into place, rather than flung. Meltiness came when she smiled at me as I paid the bill, and said 'gracias'. And finally, finally, as The Girl and I bopped out of La Siesta, the waitress formerly known as Groke put a hand on The Girl's golden curls and, exclaiming '¡Que guappa!' handed her and The Boy two Chupa Chups lollipops.

     Trust me, I'm a twatty blogger. Charm works like a... charm.