Day 246

Level 2 Chi Kung.

I made a key error last night. Katie was all ready to toddle peacefully off to bed, when I foolishly said ‘Yes, because the sooner you go to sleep the sooner you’ll wake up and it will be your birthday.’ Big mistake. She then became so excited that it was another couple of hours before she finally went off. So it was pretty late by the time it was safe for me to do the tiptoeing around, hiding presents and threading golden string all around the house. Finally, I tied the end of the string to her bed and attached the note: ‘Follow the golden string, to find five special things’. I have learnt from experience to put the number of presents on the note, as last year, when I didn’t do this, one of the gifts remained undiscovered (in the linen cupboard) for several days.

Katie was keen to get back to school as it is customary for children to give out small bags of sweets on their birthday. They are only allowed to do this if they bring enough for everyone, and this has gradually become such a thing that most supermarkets sell packs of 30 tiny bags of Haribo for a couple of pounds. Katie came home very upset last week, because it was Ethan’s birthday and, though he brought in 30 packets, he gave two packets to Stella, and Katie missed out. She had therefore decided to take in only 29 packets, and not give one to Ethan, but I persuaded her to take 30, on the grounds that her teacher, Mrs Lucas, wouldn’t let her give them out unless there were enough for everyone. I also suggested that Ethan might have done it by accident and she might feel differently about giving him sweets if, for example, he apologised or even looked sad at missing out. She thought this was unlikely! When I collected her in the afternoon, I was eager to hear how her day had gone.

J: Hello my love! Did you have a good day?
K: [subdued] Yes.
J: Did you give out the sweets?
K: [in tones of outrage] As soon as I opened the bag of sweets, Ethan ran up, snatched two bags of sweets and ran off. Then there weren’t enough and BOBBY [a poor wee boy who Katie likes and feels sorry for] missed out. Then it was ok because Bobby found a packet on the floor so he got them but they turned out to have fallen out of Taylor’s pocket, so Bobby and Taylor were fighting and it was horrible. I told Mrs Lucas what had happened and she called Ethan over and he admitted taking two but said he had taken an extra one for his sibling and it was too late because he had already put them in his school bag. So Mrs Lucas told Taylor and Bobby that they had to share.

I am now thinking that young Ethan might be a bit of a brat! And Mrs bloody Lucas wouldn’t recognise a teaching opportunity if it bit her on the ankle. If this had happened at Montessori, the whole class would have had a discussion about what happened and Ethan would have been encouraged to think about the consequences of his selfishness. Whereas what have the kids learned now – ‘get in early and snatch what you can’?

Katie and I discussed what we might be able to do to fix things a bit, focusing not on Ethan, but on the victims. In the end we decided that we would take in a chocolate egg each for Bobby and Taylor when school goes back next week.

Day 245

Level 2 Chi Kung.

Katie has had a persistent, and slowly worsening, cough all week. Leading up to the day of the party, I had some anxious moments wondering what the hell I would do if she was too ill to go to school on Wednesday, given that seven sets of parents were expecting me to pick their kids up from school. No matter how clear one is in the invitation about the need to RSVP by email or text, there are always one or two who just say ‘Oh yeah’ at the school gate, leaving you with no way to contact them. In the end, I think Katie stayed on top of it by sheer will but, after a long exciting party and then several hours tearing around the house with Elias (his mum’s flight was delayed), I wasn’t surprised when, having toddled off to bed quite happily, she reappeared an hour later to say that she felt dreadful, oh and by the way, ‘the family bathroom is COVERED in vomit’.

I took the latter with a grain of salt which, in hindsight, turned out to be a mistake. By the time I comforted Katie and got her back into bed, at least an hour must have passed before I investigated the bathroom. This turned out to be enough time for the ’emissions’, which had sprayed all over the door and the outside of the toilet bowl, to set like concrete. Oh joy. Nick, with the perfect timing shared by all members of his gender, came upstairs just as I finished cleaning up.

On account of the 24 hour rule, it was clear that Katie wouldn’t be going to school today, so I let her sleep in and then ran her a nice warm bath. Once she was ensconced in a onesie and warm robe, we decided to make the best of having a day together by trying out some of her presents. First up was a neat game where you have a few seconds to look at a card depicting a scene from a Roald Dahl story, then your opponent rolls a die to determine which question to ask you about the card. Very good for visual memory. We played that for a while, then Katie was keen to try out a painting kit based on Egyptian wall art, which looked like great fun. She seemed to be flagging a bit after that, so I snuggled her up on the sofa and we spent the rest of the afternoon making pom poms. A nice cosy day.

Day 244

Level 2 Chi Kung.

Woke with a sense of needing to gird my loins ready for Katie’s birthday party this afternoon. In the past, Nick and I have done all parties jointly, but last year I had winter vomiting bug or some such, and Nick was obliged to do Katie’s party on his own. So this year he claimed precedent and suggested I should basically man (or woman) up and fly solo. Unlike previous parties, which have taken place on Sunday afternoon and involved parents dropping the little guests off, this year it was an after-school affair, and I was collecting the guests directly from school. This had the advantage that it would avoid the usually inevitable waiting around for the disorganised late-comers, but the disadvantage that I would be shepherding 8 unruly 7 year olds through the traffic. Previous years some of the kids arrived at the restaurant so hyper that they were a bit of a hazard, so this year I arranged the party for 4pm, leaving 40 minutes during which I could essentially run them on the heath like the overly-energetic little puppies they truly are.

Sadly late-comers are a slippery and tenacious bunch and, arriving at school to collect the children, I was told that Bobby’s uncle had already taken him home, because his mum wanted him to come home and change before the party. I collected the rest and began doing my cat-herding thing to get them safely across a succession of busy roads and on to the heath. They had a fabulous time, chasing each other around on the grass and getting rid of some of that pent up energy. Got them to the restaurant for 4pm, got everyone’s hands washed, paper chef’s hats and aprons on… 4:20 and still no Bobby. Finally told the staff we shouldn’t wait any longer and they bought down dough and toppings and started the children off on making their own pizzas. It’s a simple enough idea but the kids absolutely love it and slots are booked up far in advance. It was interesting to note more of the kids using olives and pepperoni, though no one would go near the mushrooms. Weird – mushrooms were a sought-after treat when I was that age. Bobby finally arrived, and the staff were lovely, bustling him into an apron and helping him get his dough pressed out. Unfortunately, of all the kids, Bobby probably needed the run on the heath most…

Once the masterpieces had gone off to the oven, the children devoured hot dough balls with butter (bizarre) then there came that awkward hiatus when there is nothing really to do but wait for the pizzas to come back. Nature abhors a vacuum, and Clara and Sophie quickly discovered that, if they sucked squash up into their straws, they could then blow it across the table at Bobby. For some reason, it is not the done thing over here to open presents at kids’ parties – fancy gift bags are handed over and then opened later at home. This always seems weird to me, and very disappointing for children who have chosen, or even made, their gifts or cards themselves, but when in Rome and all that – so I generally go with the flow. But today there were no other parents present and hey, I was desperate. So, to stop a full-on food fight breaking out, I announced ‘Presents! It’s time to open the presents!’ By the time the majority of the presents had been pried out of their elaborate wrapping, the pizzas had arrived. Yay! There was another break in proceedings after pizzas had been devoured, and before ice cream could be served, so Katie and I agreed that we would break with tradition again and give out the party bags (which, thank heavens, included colour changing felt pens). ‘Everyone decorate your hat!’ In the end, the ice cream took so long to arrive that parents began to arrive first, so at least there was no awful moment to wonder if some parent had decided that they would, on balance, prefer not to have junior back!

Sinniqua had texted earlier in the day to ask if I could keep Elias for a bit after the party, as she wouldn’t be back from Finland until about 6:30. It wasn’t a problem as Elias is no trouble and I knew Katie would love having someone come home to play after the party. It did cause a bit of a rebellion amongst the other kids though, several of whom were quite aggrieved: ‘If there is a party AND a play date, why aren’t we invited?’ and their parents looked hopeful, but there was no way I was sticking my neck through that noose …

Day 243

Level 2 Chi Kung.

Having felt too ill to bake yesterday, it was now or never for the second tier of Katie’s cake. She had specified that one layer should be chocolate and the other Victoria Sponge. I’ve never made a Victoria Sponge – I’ve never quite forgiven it for not being a real (i.e. cream) sponge! But Katie, born in this country, sees nothing wrong with it. No shortage of recipes for the benighted stuff so I went for Delia’s version. I had to make a treble mixture to get the size required. Slight panic when I discovered we were almost out of baking powder, but I managed to dredge up the baking soda / cream of tartar conversion on google. I followed the recipe exactly, adding the beaten eggs a teaspoonful at a time, sieving the flour in from a great height – all the typical (and usually unnecessary) Delia faff. The mixture looked fine, rose up nicely and went a nice colour. Given that it was a treble mixture, I wasn’t expecting it to be cooked in 25 minutes but 45 minutes came and went it was still very wobbly. Then right at the last minute, the damn thing sank in the middle. Arrrgh! No time (or inclination frankly) to make another, so once it was cooled, Nick simply cut the raised edges off. This had the advantage that we could taste the off cuts and, to my enormous surprise, it tasted great!

Day 242

Level 2 Chi Kung.

A couple of weeks ago I went to the GP, seeking, amongst other things, some ear drops. I sometimes have problems with eczema in my ears and have learned, the hard way, that it is best to sort it sooner rather later. I told the GP (not one I’d seen before) that my ear was sore and itchy and, without asking which ear, he shoved a scope in the sore ear first (making it sorer still!), then the good ear (neatly transferring any infection) and said ‘Nah, they’re fine, just a bit dry. Put some moisturiser in them.’ Well, by last night they were sore enough to make for a very disturbed night. Waking this morning, groggy, in pain and slightly deaf, I was glad to have a fairly quiet day ahead, doing some bits and pieces of tedious but essential admin. By 5:30 the lack of sleep was beginning to tell and I fell asleep several times waiting for Katie to finish art.

Day 241

Level 2 Chi Kung.

Nick off on a bike ride and I’m on morning but, shock horror, after all the tortilla making etc there was only one egg left in the fridge – so no gingerbread pancakes! Poor Dash, who had been looking forward to pancakes all week, had to make do with crumpets for breakfast.

Weeks ago, Katie presented me with a beautifully drawn design for her birthday cake, with views from several angles. To my horror, the drawing showed an elaborate two-tier construction, with the bottom layer grass green and decorated with flowers, and the top layer sky blue, decorated with butterflies. Notes to the side of the page specified that one cake should be chocolate and the other Victoria sponge, and the icing should be mint-chocolate flavoured (beats me how you get mint-choc icing sky blue). I blame Great British Bake Off! This was clearly a case for division of labour – so I agreed with Nick that I will produce the cakes and he (much more artistic and steadier of hand) will take care of the icing. To help things along, after we had finished the party bag shopping yesterday, Katie and I went to Sainsbury’s and picked up ready-roll icing in 5 different colours, some edible silver balls and (just in case of disaster) some ready-made wafer butterflies.

The next challenge was to find a chocolate cake recipe which would be palatable to the children (unlike my usual very rich Devil’s Food Cake recipe. Since I hate pale, wishy washy chocolate cake, I had difficulty thinking of what I should google: ‘not very good chocolate cake’, ‘slightly chocolatey cake’? I finally had some success with ‘children’s chocolate sponge cake’. The resulting cakes look suitably pale, so hopefully they will do the job.

Day 240

Level 2 Chi Kung.

Mr Baulch is getting seriously tired of going over the same stuff over and over and has put the hard word on Dash to practice. I have agreed with Dash that, henceforth, he will practice every evening. When, in the latter part of the lesson, Dash managed a three-finger chord, I pointed out, by way of encouragement, that Dash now knew more chords than John Lennon did when Love Me Do became a hit!  Unfortunately Dash has no idea who Lennon was, and Mr Baulch was decidedly unimpressed. Hey ho.

When we got to the Age Exchange for our customary post-guitar pit-stop (ginger snaps, jam sandwiches with the crusts cut off and pineapple juice for Dash, a red berry tea for me) I decided to use it as a learning opportunity. I asked Dash if he wanted me to order as usual, or if he felt he’d up to ordering and paying by himself, while I found us a table. He said he’d like to do it himself, so I talked him through needing to ask what your companion (in this case me) wants, then I gave him a £20 note and went off to find a table. I was glad to find a table near enough that I could eavesdrop on the process and delighted to hear him give his order clearly and politely, saying please and thank you in all the right places. When he later wanted a second pineapple juice, I tipped the contents of my change purse out on the table and got him to count out the correct money. Now that one can’t send one’s children to the corner shop by themselves, teaching them to handle money is more of a conscious effort.

In the afternoon, I took Katie shopping to get stuff for the party bags for her birthday party on Wednesday. I don’t like to fill the party bags with sugar and e-numbers, so I am grateful that, between Tiger and the local pound shop, it is possible to get fun, or even useful, stuff for a small budget. This year, for a total budget of £3 per bag, we got for each child: 12 colour changing felt pens, a 6 colour ball point, and then, for the girls, a pair of scissors that cut paper into a fancy scrolled edge, and for the boys a beetle set in perspex. I hasten to add that the gender split was Katie’s idea, not mine! I would have happily given beetles to everyone!

Day 239

Level 2 Chi Kung.

One of Sherlock’s borrowers had asked if Sherlock could go for a sleepover last night and, since two of the children coming to the party are a little nervous of dogs, I was very happy to agree. Last week I tipped some dead pot plants out in the garden and, ever since, Sherlock has been busily tracking them down and dragging them back in through the dog door. So it felt good, after Tudor had collected him, to remove all the various dog bedding, chew toys, pieces of wood and bits of dead plant that had collected in the kitchen and give the floor a good clean. I stuffed all the bedding, toys etc in the garage. I had intended to bring everything back in this morning, but I got involved in other things, with the result that it was all still locked in the garage when Tudor brought Sherlock home at lunchtime. Poor Mr Holmes was rather discombobulated to find all trace of his residence erased! Even once I had brought his stuff in, he was desperate for cuddles and other reassurance that he is still part of the family.

Sinniqua is off to Finland for a few days to do voice overs, so she asked me earlier in the week if I could collect Elias this afternoon and keep him until 6:30 when his dad would pick him up. After-school club didn’t seem to have clocked that someone other than his parents would be picking Elias up but, after a momentary hesitation, they let me take him anyway. It will be interesting to see how the school reacts when I march off with 8 kids on Wednesday, when I collect the little guests for Katie’s party!

I’m guessing that they must have been learning about Valentine’s Day at school as, on the way home, Elias started talking about who is in love with whom in their class. Apparently Sam, Ned, Bobby and a couple of others are all in love with Stella. I can’t picture Stella – so she is either one of the new-ish ones, or she has never made it to any of Katie’s parties. I was intrigued and asked Elias why all the boys are in love with Stella.

Elias: It’s not ALL the boys, it’s just … [reels off long list]
J: So what do you think it is they like about her?
Elias: Well she looks like someone from Frozen and all the boys love Frozen.
J: Really? I would have thought Frozen was more for girls.
Elias: [shocked] No! I love Frozen!
J: Ok. So, do you love Stella?
Elias: Not really – she’s always telling me off.
J: Who do you like?
Elias: I don’t know. I quite like Olivia – because she makes me laugh.

This comes on top of the incident last week when Sam and Bobby decided to up the ante on their game of Connect Four by having a wager: if Sam won, Bobby had to tell the class that he had pooped his pants; if Bobby won, Sam had to show the class his willie. Bobby won, and much to Katie’s horrified delight, Sam honoured the bet. Sam is the same kid who got into strife for taking off his onesie at the class sleepover in December and running about naked. He obviously feels the family jewels are something to be proud of!

It’s always a pleasure to have Elias – he and Katie play together so well and, if I say, ‘Play downstairs’, he stays downstairs. It no longer takes me by surprise when the 6:30 pick up turns out to be 7:45 – I’m guessing that Finns might share this cultural characteristic with Russians maybe – so it isn’t a problem. That is, it’s not a problem for me – it can be a bit of a problem for the person picking him up. If I knew when they would arrive, I would make sure that K & E didn’t start playing a complicated game or watching a DVD just before pick up time but as it is, since I don’t know when pick-up time is going to be, I am obliged to let them go for it – which means Elias is often very reluctant to leave.

Day 238

Level 2 Chi Kung.

When I called last week to arrange a tour of a sixth form college we are considering for Jack, I was caught out by the head of sixth form, having deduced we were from NZ, asking if I thought we would win the world cup this year. Unfortunately, we have so little interest in sport that I couldn’t immediately guess whether he meant rugby or cricket. So I responded: ‘I’m sorry – we aren’t really interested in sport.’. There was a sharply indrawn breath on the other end of the phone, then: ‘But everyone in New Zealand loves rugby.’. Or, as Nick pointed out when I related the conversation to him that evening ‘And then there are the ones who leave!’. In spite of this inauspicious start, when we met Charlie, the head of sixth form, for the tour this morning, I immediately took to him. The school seems spacious and well-equipped and is not yet up to capacity. Our only real concern was how Jack would cope with the larger class sizes. The school is in Brockley and, since Nick had been obliged to use a half day’s leave to do the tour, we had decided to have lunch at a local restaurant after the tour. We hadn’t been able to find much in the way of restaurants (Brockley is up and coming has yet to actually arrive) so we had a sandwich at a trendy shabby-chic cafe. As we left, I spotted that the cafe next door actually looked more interesting, in particular the sign in the window advertising ‘Hot white Russians’. It was freezing cold, so, with visions of Mikhail Baryshnikov dancing in my head, I went in and ordered one to drink while we had a wander down the high street. The barista said she hadn’t made one for ages, which might explain why she proceeded to drown a single shot of espresso with a double measure of vodka, and a double measure of tia maria and the merest hint of steamed milk. She asked hesitantly if it tasted ok. It tasted bloody marvellous! – but I was half-cut by the time we got back to the car.

I had arranged to host another post-trampoline party this evening – partly to welcome Monique back from Thailand, partly just because several of the mummies seemed a bit down and I thought I would cheer everyone up. Having been given a cocktail shaker the Christmas before last, which has never been used in anger, I thought it would be fun to serve cocktails so, on the way home from our tour of the school, I got Nick to drop me off at the shops and popped into TK Maxx to see if I could find some cheap cocktail glass. I got a set of six – cheap as chips – then picked up various other bits and pieces and headed home. Catering is complicated by the fact that Estelle is dairy-intolerant and Sinniqua is a vegetarian. I am tempted to offer Estelle the allergy process. Sadly there’s no cure for vegetarianism, as far as I know. 🙂

I had already made dairy-free chocolate chip and ginger cookies during my multitasking marathon yesterday, so this afternoon I just had to make a large tortilla with bacon and a small meat-free one with mushrooms, and a couple of dozen cupcakes for the kids. And of course I needed to do some prep for the cocktails…

As sometimes happens with TK Maxx, having paid next to nothing for the cocktail glasses, I was surprised and delighted to find that they were in fact exquisitely fine Czech crystal. Really beautiful. I immediately decided that there was no way I was going to follow conventional wisdom and put the glasses in the freezer! Instead, I froze some lychees, and put the gin, lychee liqueur and lychee juice in the coldest part of the fridge. Everyone duly arrived and the lychee martinis went down a storm – for about 2 minutes until poor Monique knocked one to the floor, where the glass smashed spectacularly on the quarry tiles. She obviously felt dreadful, so I had to hide my dismay at having one of my beautiful new glasses smashed before anyone had managed more than a couple of sips out of it.

Anyway, if you want to try it, here’s the recipe, my attempt to replicate one I had at Browns. Serves 4.

1) Open a tin of lychees, remove four lychees and put them in the freezer, arranging them so that they will freeze separately.
2) Puree the remaining lychees and their juice/syrup with a stick blender and then pass through a fine sieve.
3) Chill all ingredients until guests arrive.
4) Place a frozen lychee in each glass.
5) Tip a good handful of ice into the cocktail shaker, then add
– 5 parts Hendriks gin
– 5 parts lychee juice
– 1 to 2 parts lychee liqueur.
6) Shake vigorously and pour immediately.

These proportions make for a proper strong cocktail with a real kick – it was a bit too much for Monique. The mummies yummed it down though. The original Browns version also included a sour green apple liqueur but I haven’t been able to find any I like the look of. For me, it would benefit from just a tiny bit more sharpness though. So next time, if I still can’t get the apple liqueur, I might add just a squeeze of lime or lemon.

Meanwhile the children had a great time. Katie led them on a torch-lit ‘forest walk’ in the back garden, then they used the special effects app on Katie’s phone to make movies of each other teleporting, shooting lasers out of their eyes etc.

Day 237

Level 2 Chi Kung.

I have often wondered as to the origins of my strong empathy for, and fascination with, Jewish people. I’m not Jewish and I’m sorry to say that, although I had a couple of Jewish colleagues in the NHS and later in the Civil Service, I haven’t ever had a Jewish friend (other than on FB that is). I think I am atypical of my generation of New Zealanders, who mostly seem to harbour a vague disapproval of Jews and Jewishness, currently justified by a dislike of Israeli foreign policy but which I suspect began as a kind of illogical hangover of their dislike of the US. Listening to the wonderful Judith Kerr (author of The Tiger Who Came to Tea, the Mog books and When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit) being interviewed on Radio 4, I finally began to understand. Such positivity, such resilience – Kerr, and the many other Jewish people I’ve read about and heard speak, embody all the qualities I most admire and aspire to.

And now for something completely different…

Having briefly felt bad about it, men, being men, quickly moved on to spinning their inability to multi-task from a disability into a strategic advantage (‘It’s not a bug – it’s a feature. Honest’). Very annoying. Likewise, the assumption that, now that boys tend to do less well in exams than girls, it must be because the exams are somehow biased against them and that this must be remedied. Whereas when girls did less well, it was considered the natural order of things, requiring no further investigation, let alone action.

I was thinking about the multi-tasking issue this afternoon, while simultaneously staggering around the kitchen, yelling at the dog, and whimpering in pain. When Katie and I got home from school, I suggested that she get on with her cello practice while I cooked dinner. She fetched her cello and sat down at the bottom of the stairs and started practicing. I closed the kitchen door, to prevent Sherlock from accessing the laundry baskets in the entrance hall. Now, normally Katie practices quite happily by herself for 20 minutes or so, and then calls me in and does a short performance for me. For some reason today, she seemed to want a bit more attention, so, while I prepared roast chicken with roast potatoes and kumara, carrots and broccoli, boiled new potatoes ready for tomorrow’s tortilla, and did laundry, she called through the closed door every few minutes, something along the lines of ‘Hey Mummy, what did you think of that glissando’. Although I was conscious of edging towards overwhelm, all went well until I was bending down to de-fluff the bottom trap of the tumble dryer. At which point Sherlock tried to stick his tongue in my mouth, and I, jerking away in shock and horror, cracked my skull on the bloody worktop. So, I readily admit that my tendency to do five things at once occasionally results in missing ingredients, concussion or the verbal abuse of inappropriately-affectionate companion animals. However the alternative would be for my family to choose between eating and wearing clean clothes. Before dismissing multi-tasking as fundamentally inefficient, as is now popular, consider the example of my beloved husband, a mono-tasker if ever I met one. Early in our relationship, I suggested that he took a turn at cooking. He agreed, and, four hours later, I was presented with a small mound of (really delicious) lasagne, all alone on a large and otherwise empty dinner plate. There was no salad or vegetable, because that would have required him to do two things at once. Unfortunately for me, we had a deal where, whichever person cooked, the other person cleaned up. Of course when I cooked, Nick generally had to wash two plates, two knives, two forks and maybe a serving spoon. Whereas I was faced with a kitchen that looked as if it had been painted with ragout, in which every piece of cooking equipment I owned was dirty (still haven’t worked out what he used the lemon squeezer for). Because clearing up as he went along would have involved, you guessed it, doing two things at once!

Reader I married him. And, 27 years later, I am delighted to report that he can now successfully cook a meal with more than one part – and stack the dishwasher at the same time!