I bought myself a new coat yesterday. It is warm, intact and it is clean and, because I want it to stay that way, it is pink. Another unexpected benefit of being a Mother Of Boys.
So, I went to hang up my pristine pink affair and found, to my horror, that there were no hooks left. Each and every hook in our house (and believe me there are many) has been filled with the following:
• Waterproofs (only they’re probably not entirely and the zip is bound to be broken. And we’ll only find this out as we are rushing out of the house)
• Winter coats (permanently filthy and, more often than not, damp. And if by some miracle, the rest of the coat isn’t, there will definitely be a handful of sodden sand in the pocket)
• School coats (in theory to be kept clean and only worn when on official business. In practice often used as substitutes for the above when it’s discovered they’re wet)
• Sundry other coats which we appear to have accumulated – rarely worn, probably ripped and really should be relegated to recycling
While I was writing MOB Rule I stumbled across this quote:
‘Definition of a sweater: an item of clothing worn by a son when his mother is chilly’
Well, I am substituting sweater with coat. Because in our house, despite the multitude of outside garments we appear to possess, getting the boys to put one on is akin to my going on a diet. Not worth the effort and unlikely to end in success.
‘Get your coats boys,’ I say, ‘we’re going for a walk!’
‘But it’s not raining,’ they retort, ‘we won’t get wet!’
‘No, not now it isn’t, but it might do later…’
‘But I’ve checked the weather online – it’s going to be dry all day.’
‘The forecast’s not always right you know… and anyway, you might get cold.’
‘It’s not cold,’ they reply, ‘in fact we’re burning!’
‘Of course you are – it’s warm inside the house but once you’re out…’
‘But mum,’ they say strutting in shorts and T-shirts, ‘we’re we’re mammals, we’re warm blooded – not like you, you’re… cold blooded!’
Guess that makes me a snake then, or maybe a cod.
‘Suit yourselves,’ I give up, slithering my ‘gills’ into my gloves. ‘On your heads be it.’
We head outside.
That day the weather forecast got it right. And to their loud satisfaction they remained bone dry. Last weekend, however, they got it wrong.
We are half way along the coast when the skies decide to dump their sodden contents onto our heads. The boys put up their hoodies but they do little to help. One by one, they sidle up to me and my rucsac.
‘Mum,’ they shout over the howling gale, ‘muuum… did you bring my coat?’
‘Might have,’ I dangle, delving into my pre-packed bag. They grab their garments and even zip them up. Cold blooded I may be, cold hearted I’m not.
‘Muuuum! He hit me!’
‘But muuuuum… he punched me!’
‘Well, he hit me first!’
‘Only ‘cos he used a rude word’
‘Yeah, but only ‘cos he called me a BAD name’
‘Because he nearly sat on my arm…’
‘Only because he sat too close to me on MY sofa!’
‘Yeah, but he was whispering… and breathing… and ‘stuff’.’
This is, very obviously, a fictional scenario. In our house this Christmas, the boys will play beautifully together all the time, respecting each other’s needs and encouraging each other to shine. Err… ahem.
There are nearly two years between my brother and I. Two years and at least two universes. Because we are totally and blatantly and irritatingly different.
When I was eight, my parents bought a ramshackle pair of gable-ends in the wilds of Scotland and set about restoring the water mill to its former glory. This would’ve been a fantastic idea, had it not been for the fact that the building work required us to live on site in a caravan (a ‘built for two, occasionally three’-type van, not a swanky modern mobile home) for over 12 months. And even this would not have been so bad had it not meant me sharing a bedroom (I use the term loosely) with my BROTHER.
I had the top bunk in our 4 foot wide cubicle. To reach the chemical loo on the other side of the paper-thin wall, I had to slither past my brother (still sleeping) on the bottom bunk. Only he wasn’t. The minute he’d hear me begin to clamber out of bed, he’d stick out an innocent leg, dramatically impeding my drop to the floor. Then, whilst I was still recovering, he’d leap out of bed himself, race round the corner and commandeer the loo for his morning pee. ‘Muuuuum!’ I’d shriek, racing after him and banging, furious, on the door, ‘Muuuuum… he won’t let me go to the loo!’ My mother, six feet away on a pull down bed, would sigh, and pull the blankets over her head.
And so the day, and indeed the years, continued.
He liked computers, I liked horses.
He liked being inside, I liked being out.
He didn’t like my friends and I didn’t like his.
If he was into this, then I was into that.
We had absolutely nothing in common and we made sure that the world knew about our differences. Horrid Henry and his side’kick’ had nothing on us.
When I was 30 I had my first son. My brother had had a daughter the year before. Suddenly my brother and I had something in common. No longer did he live on planet mathematics whilst I languished on a humanities’ star; now, to our amazement, we inhabited the same world of nappies, bottles and too little sleep. For the first time, we could empathise with each other, could see where we were coming from, respect our rights and wrongs. We started, albeit very belatedly, to get along.
So this Christmas day, my mother (whom I realise, equally belatedly, must either have been a saint or astonishingly unaware) will smile when I sit calmly next to my brother, chatting pleasantly to him about this and that, and I, in turn, will smile too. Because I will know that my boys – no doubt kicking each other under the table – will not continue their sibling squabbling forever. If history, and my maths are anything to go by, I’ve only got another 22 years or so to go. I’ll raise a glass of festive cheer to that.
‘Why are you doing that?’ asks a friend.
‘Doing what?’ I reply, looking round.
‘That…’ she points at my bread and butter assembly line, ‘Making sandwiches for the boys.’
I shrug. ‘Because… I… err…’ I hesitate, lost. ‘Because that’s what I always do.’
‘Oh,’ she says, non-committal. ‘Right.’
I scratch my head, and cut some more cheese.
Later on that evening, after I’ve put the boys to bed (as I always do), I think about what my friend had said. Or, rather, what she hadn’t said. And what she hadn’t said, stuck.
Why was I making sandwiches for the boys? Why was I preparing their packed lunch?
At 8, 10 and 11 years old they are capable – more than capable – of wielding a knife and opening the fridge. True, their choice of filling might more often than not be jam instead of my healthier combination of cucumber and cheese, but, who knows, my years of five-a-day indoctrination might just rub off. And anyway the odd jam sandwich won’t kill them.
So, I have to ask myself, why am I doing for them what they could do for themselves?
When the boys were little, and I had three tots under four, just getting through the day was cause for celebration. With the Forces FOB weekly (if not three-monthly) commuting, I was to all intents and purposes a single mum and survival and sanity were top of my list of daily goals. Anything else – at that stage – was an extravagant extra.
So my days were executed with military precision: clothing was applied swiftly according to the weather, meals were despatched with conveyor-belt regularity and bedtimes were a predictable pattern of bath, book and bed. Deviation from routine would result in chaos, not to mention my missing the Archers, which was substantially more serious. But now, as time has passed, and the boys have progressed from toddler to tweenager, I have, perhaps, failed to take that important step back. Failed to get off that young-mum treadmill of ‘getting through the day’, failed to take time to reflect on what I’m doing with, and for, the boys and why.
The FOB, still weekly commuting and therefore with the benefit of seeing the daily routine with a Friday-fresh pair of eyes, is much better than me at spotting opportunities for the boys to do things for themselves.
‘Does he really need his teeth brushing?’ he asks as I stand over a pyjama’d Feisty Fellow. I cough, guiltily, and hand the brush over to my no-longer-baby boy.
‘I’m sure you can tie your own laces!’ he says to his middle son as I bend double to tackle Binary’s Boy’s trainers. I straighten up, rub my back, and middle son quickly crouches down.
‘You can sort your school bag out yourself, can’t you?’ he encourages now-at-secondary-school Sensible Son. ‘’Course I can,’ responds our eldest, ‘but you try telling that to mum!’
Eyes increasingly opened, I try, try to give our sons the all-important opportunities to encourage independence, to invest in their future as competent men.
The other night I stood in the kitchen staring at the stove.
‘Right, who’s up for making supper instead of me tonight?’
Four pairs of eyes, engrossed in a particularly amusing episode of Top Gear swivel briefly in my direction.
‘Ummm… errr…’ stutters the FOB, his arm draped cosily round Feisty Fellow. The other two shuffle their bottoms a little nervously.
‘Budge up,’ I say to my boys plonking my bottom on the sofa. ‘Let’s see how long it takes for your stomachs to encourage your independence.’
September is a busy month in the Evans’ household. Not only do we, like the rest of Britain, dive bomb Clarks to stock up on last-possible-moment school shoes, but we also celebrate two boy birthdays and an ‘incidental’ wedding anniversary – though the later is frequently subsumed amidst a frenzy of home-spun birthday parties, cake and presents.
With the benefit of hindsight, we should have spaced our ‘life events’ more strategically, spreading the planning and parties over the darker, more unexciting months of the year. However, as ever, twas not thus, and so September is a month of more-than-usual chaos. Christmas ‘spirit’ has a lot to answer for.
Binary Boy’s birthday is the first big event. This year middle son is 10. As always, the party planning begins way back when, at the beginning of August, if not substantially before.
‘I want a sports party this year, mum,’ he says, popping into the kitchen in his goalie padded pants.
‘A sports party?’ I reply, ‘That sounds like fun.’
‘Yeah… play some football, maybe rounders and then can we have sausages on sticks?’ Ahh, it’s that fascination with all-things-flame again.
I nod. ‘Sounds good. And what about if it’s wet?’
‘It won’t rain, mum,’ he states.
I stare at him. ‘But we live in North Devon…’ He’s already gone.
The heavens open as the guests arrive and it continues to bucket down for the next two and a half hours.
‘Come inside,’ I usher guest one, ‘you can play some pool, there’s Geomag… and Lego. We’ll stay in the house for the first half of the party and then maybe head outside later on. At least that way,’ I explain to his under-umbrella mum, ‘they’ll only be soaked through for some of the time!’ She mumbles her good luck and races to the car.
‘Inside’ last approximately 12 minutes. The 11 boys, hyped up by the prospect of a party and end-of- first-week-back exhaustion, are letting off steam. In my sitting room.
‘Right,’ I shriek, ‘everyone out!’
‘Yeayyyyy!’ they yelp as one. They put on their trainers, some sensibly don wellies, and race to the field where the football awaits.
Half an hour later. I stoop, dripping, under a too-small tarpaulin, dishing out incinerated sausages from a barbeque bucket. One by one the boys join me, in varying states of saturation, to grab a vaguely ‘hot’ dog and an ever-so-slightly-soggy corn on the cob.
‘This is the best food ever!’ enthuses one polite, presumably famished, lad. ‘Can I have another hot dog please, they are delicious!’ I eye the blackened meat with disbelief and hand him a bun.
Eventually Binary Boy bounds up for his fill of food. I look up from my bucket.
‘With ketchup or with… urgh!’ I stop, mid-service. ‘What on earth happened to you?’
He looks down at himself, grins. ‘What? Oh, you mean the mud? I err… fell in there!’ He gestures towards the duck pond on the other side of the field. ‘Well, technically,’ he clarifies, ‘I didn’t actually fall in. I was rescuing Tom who got stuck in the mud. Oh, and then Dick had to help, and Harry did too…’ Three swamp monsters suddenly materialise at his side.
‘It was awesome!’ they shout excitedly. ‘This is the best party ever!’
‘I’m not sure your parents will entirely agree when they see the state of your clothes…’ I mutter, before popping another sausage in a roll, with a dollop of ketchup and a slightly worried smile.
Tomorrow is Feisty Fellow’s birthday. And he’s asked for a ‘den party’ which must be ‘absolutely outside’, complete (of course) with sausages on sticks. So am I prepared this time, with a wet weather plan? Of course not.
For this time I know exactly what to do. The moment the rain comes (and it’s not looking good), I will incinerate the sausages on the barbeque bucket, dip the sweetcorn in water and instruct the boys to head for the pond. Where they will wallow like pigs in clover… and mud.
Last week we escaped to Spain. In a move most unbefitting of the ‘plan at least 6 months ahead’ people both the FOB and I are, we double-clicked on Easy Jet and winged our way to some summer sun.
For four whole days I did not wear a wetsuit, for four whole days we had meals outside, for four whole days the boys washed in sea water and didn’t see a shower. The FOB read a paper, I read a book and, due to the presence of a 24/7 pool, I suspect the boys (don’t tell their teachers) didn’t read a word. We fried prawns in garlic on the barbie, and ate them to an accompaniment of persistent cicadas, grazed on never-tried tapas in a side-street café, gorged on slices of giant water melon, oozing pips and pink juice. With the odd obligatory glass of Rioja for good measure, our much needed mini-break was complete.
Thus it was that we arrived at Alicante airport on Sunday evening revitalised, brown and – in two out of three boy cases – barefoot. (Their only footwear had been ‘mislaid’ at the bottom of a particularly stomach-churning slide in Acqualandia water park that day… but that’s another story, for another blog.) Loaded with assortment of hand luggage only, we made our way through scanners, security and into departures. I grabbed a bench, near the queue for the plane, and we sank gratefully onto our seats and waited to be called.
‘Aged between 31 and 65?’ chirped a voice suddenly at my elbow.
‘Pardon?’ I said.
‘Aged between 31 and 65,’ repeated the voice, ‘just a few quick questions… now, then… married?’ The Voice thrust a survey in front of our faces.
‘Err, yes,’ replied the FOB, for want of a better answer.
‘Good,’ squeaked the Voice again, ‘And how many children?’
‘Thr…’ began the FOB. I interrupted.
‘Sorry,’ I said, ‘but what is this for?’
‘Oh, it’ll just take a few minutes, a few questions and you could win A HOLIDAY! Now then… ’
But, I thought, I AM on holiday, and to be honest, was looking forward to a few moments reflecting on the last few days with my husband. Not, I thought, increasingly infuriated, answering the unsolicited questions of this intruder.
‘No thanks, we’re fine,’ I said, pretty politely for a post-Burger-King airport on a Sunday night.
The Voice turned red, then turned away.
‘Never mind,’ she flounced over her shoulder, ‘I wasn’t looking forward to talking to you with them.’ She glared pointedly at my sons who were slumped on the bench chatting quietly. ‘How on earth,’ she sulked, ‘do you cope with three boys?’
I coughed. I spluttered. My maternal hackles rose.
‘Cope? Cope?! I, I, I… I love having my boys!’ I exploded loudly, for the benefit of the Voice, the rest of the departure lounge but mostly for my much maligned sons. And then I watched, open-mouthed and fuming, as she scuttled off to foist herself upon other unsuspecting tourists.
Half an hour later and we’d boarded the plane. And the smoke was merely coming out of my ears in small whisps now.
Sensible Son and Binary Boy settled down next to their dad, discussing the physics of flight before snuggling down to sleep. Feisty Fellow laid his head obediently in my lap and assumed the kip position for the duration of the flight. I stroked his salt-starched head, absent-mindedly. Would she have said the same to a mother surrounded by a glory of girls, rather than a MOB outnumbered by husband and sons? Would she have branded a MOG with the same preconceived – if inadvertent – insult? I allowed my eyes to shut, and we swooped into the sky.
So the summer holidays are here. Six looong weeks of industrial-scale eating operations, of broken Crocs and too late nights, of persuading the boys that life is viable, and can even be pleasant, without resorting to a screen.
‘What shall we do today folks?’ I ask brightly. (It is, as I say, still week 1). ‘Beach? Canoeing? Walk?’ I look outside at the clouds which are threatening rain for the first time since June. ‘I know, let’s go for a bike ride!’
This appears to be a good idea. The boys, stupefied by morning CBBC, even manage a nod.
‘Are your bikes good?’ I say to the sofa. ‘Anyone need to pump up tyres, oil… ? No? OK, right, we’re good to go.’
45 minutes later, I have packed some snacks, bottled water, found the bike pump and pumped up tyres. Binary Boy’s bike, it appears (belatedly) was not ‘good to go’.
‘Never mind,’ I say, sweating profusely from the exertions of re-inflating a flat-as-pancake tyre, ‘we’re off now.’
‘Finally!’ mutters Sensible Son. We hoist ourselves aboard.
The first 12km go well; really well. Meandering through pine forests oozing perfume, careering over bridges with rivers below, tooting through tunnels at top noisy speed. We arrive at the turnaround café and sit, munching on chocolate brownies in a smattering of rain. The FOB and I smile at one another: five and a half weeks more of this won’t be so bad.
Pit-stop over, we mount our bikes and prepare to depart.
‘It’s all downhill home from here boys!’ encourages the FOB. They yelp their approval.
‘Yes, so be careful guys – and don’t go too fast!’ I add – to their backs. Three boys, on bikes, are already out of sight. The FOB and I set off at a more appropriately middle-aged pace.
We round the corner. There is a long straight stretch of track in front of us, Sensible Son and Binary Boy are in the lead, scattering stones. Feisty Fellow peddles like Wiggins, desperately trying to keep up with the pack. ‘Wait for meeeee!’ he shrieks. And now, as I watch, he swerves unaccountably and violently to the left, before following an out-of-control trajectory into… a ditch. Sudden – silence.
‘Oh my God!’ I screech, roaring to his side, and fearing a repeat of Lesson 8 – or worse. I arrive at the ditch, hoik the bike off my son, and pull him – sopping – from what appears to be a bog. He stands on the track, fetid water cascading down his legs, mud and muck oozing from every orifice. ‘Are you OK?’ I ask him, wiping grit from his face with the sleeve of my hoodie. He nods, slightly shocked, but thankfully physically fine.
‘I’m soaking,’ he understates. I eye his top, contemplate the return journey.
‘Here, put this on!’ I say, stripping off my own T-shirt from under my hoodie. I have a distinct sensation of déjà- vue of being half-naked in a petrol station in France in Lesson 6. Today is turning into a repeat of lessons (not) learned from MOB Rule.
This emergency over, we remount our bikes. ‘Take it easy this time,’ I admonish, but they’re already off. Experiential learning is obviously not an Evans’ strength.
We round a corner once again. Sensible Son and Feisty Fellow are just visible in the distance, Binary Boy is on go-slow-cycling behind.
‘Well done for biking sensibly!’ I say catching him up. He looks at me mournfully and points to his tyre. It is, once again, flat as a proverbial. I look at the tyre, I look at the FOB. We are miles from anywhere and this puncture requires substantially more than our sticking plaster pump.
‘Sensible Son and I will bike on to the nearest cycle hire and see if they’re open,’ says the ever-practical FOB. ‘It’s only about 3km up the road.’ In the absence of other options, I nod my approval.
‘We’ll keep moving to meet you,’ I say, ‘hop off and push your bike, Binary Boy.’ He hops off, attempts to push the rubber-bound tyre. Fails. I sigh.
‘You ride my bike – carefully,’ I say, as he clambers aboard and wobbles off. I bend low to grab his handlebars, and thus we limp on.
Two hours later we are home.
The cycle hire saviour arrives in the form of a teenage lad bearing a smile, a spanner and the ability to replace an inner tube in five minutes flat. The RAC has a lot to learn from the Tarka Trail SOS crew.
Feisty Fellow completes the bike ride without further ado, and is verging on ‘merely moist’ as we puff up the drive. ‘Do I have to have a wash, mum? I’m actually quite dry!’ I shoot him The Look and he scampers to the shower.
I, meanwhile, am struggling to stand upright: muscles protesting painfully from pushing a too-small-bike and frozen forever from a lack of clothing layers.
So, all in all, it’s been a good day.
‘What are we doing tomorrow mum?’ asks Feisty Fellow as I kiss him goodnight.
I roll my eyes and rub my back. ‘Nothing, absolutely nothing,’ I say, heading, at half eight, for Radox and bed. There are times when I can understand the US obsession with kids’ summer camps.
I had a lovely chat with a lady in Morrisons last week. For nigh on quarter of an hour we discussed friends (‘I saw x the other day, isn’t she doing well?’), work (‘Have you finished the renovations – I hear the house is looking lovely!’) and family (‘And how are the kids doing? You must be so proud!’). Supermarket catch-up over, she turned to leave. ‘Do send my regards to that husband of yours,’ she shouted over her shoulder, ‘I haven’t seen Chris in ages.’
Chris? My husband?!
‘Err, but… umm…’ I splutter at her back, but she’s already out of earshot. ‘Chris isn’t my husband,’ I whisper, ‘Chris is my dad.’
Since the Morrisons mistaken identity experience I have reflected on the fact that I appear to have morphed into my mother. According to research, it’s in your mid-30s that you look most like your parents, so, OK, I’m something of a late starter, but I have to – a tiny bit reluctantly – admit that the scientists seem to have a point.
Reluctantly because, like most of my female friends, I spent the majority of my childhood, and all of my adolescence, determined that I would never, EVER turn into my mum. I would NEVER pick up my kids from school wearing – ugh – gardening gear, I would NEVER squint at a remotely technical object and say – too loudly- ‘how does this thing work?’, I would NEVER make my children wear ‘sensible shoes’ instead of bunion-inducing patent leather pointies.
And the list of ‘never evers’ went on, and on. No, I would not be buying a wreck and spending years renovating it, only to move on just as soon as it was finished. I would not be starting up my own business which meant working all hours, and especially not with a husband who worked mainly away. And I would not be filling the house with strangers for the sake of ‘the business’ so that us kids could only use the garden when they weren’t in it. No indeed, I absolutely would not.
But I did, didn’t I? I have, we have, done all of the above.
Not only, it seems, do I look like my mum, but I also appear to have inherited much of her approach towards living life.
And as we up-sticks and move to Devon whilst our just-painted walls are still wet, as we embark on our new business venture (‘But the weekly commuting FOB’s very hands on when he’s home!’), as I skid through the school gates wearing gardening gloves and wellies, I realise that not only is history repeating itself, but that we are – quite probably – paving the way for another generation of mini-me’s.
‘I think I might run a hotel when I’m grown up, mum,’ announces Binary Boy as we reap the benefits of a left-over corporate lunch. He has not reached the ‘never ever’ adolescent age yet, and I think his enthusiasm for a career in hospitality may have more to do with the chocolate brownie he’s eating, than a desire to serve, but still. Still. The foundations may be being laid now for future choice.
And is following in your parents’ footsteps a bad thing? Probably – hopefully – not. I have, as a ‘morphed-into-my-mother’ never been happier.
As a MOB however, there is one thing I can guarantee.
The boys may – in their dotage – look like me, and they may even decide to do as I have done, but they will never – presumably – be mistaken for their mum. And if they’re mistaken for their dad? Well, call me a bit biased, but that won’t be so bad.