Monday, September 28, 2009

The Dog and the Y-fronts

It was March sometime in the early nineties at the end of a long cold winter and we had cabin fever. Anyone who has gone through an Ontario winter knows that there comes a time when all the slipping around on the frozen grey slush, and the biting morning cold that freezes your hair and the endless layering of woollens addles your brain a bit, giving a green light to things that wouldn’t seem such good ideas at any other time. Well, that’s what I’m blaming it on.

There were four of us there, toasty warm in the living room of our friends house; one of those houses where everything happened, and we were bored. We’d watched three movies, eaten a lot of popcorn and by three in the afternoon we were drawing straws for who’d brave the cold and hike out to the video shop. This process wasn’t easy because we’d been drinking since before noon. As the only girl there, and as a soft foreigner, I claimed immunity- my poor British bones would surely freeze out there in the outdoors. I was adding the final touches to my argument when, reaching down between the cushions of the soft sofa, I pulled out a large pair of Y-fronts. After the initial laughter and disgust, we laid them out on the floor while we explored possibilities about where on earth they’d come from- a near impossible task considering this was, as I said, one of those houses where everything happened.

I don’t know where the idea came from, but suddenly the alcohol and boredom peaked and before any of us knew what we were doing, ‘the house where everything happened’s dog, a huge lolling Lab/Rottweiler cross was wearing the Y-fronts, a neat hole cut for her tail. We were still wiping the tears of laughter from our faces when the doorbell rang, and as my friend, D signed for a parcel, the dog, knowing it was being laughed at, made a run for it.

As it turns out, Canadians are far faster at pulling on boots and mittens than drunken English girls are and I’d only just got myself kitted up for the chase by the time one of my friends returned, dog in one hand, Y-fronts in the other. He’d found her in the local park, dressed in her Y-fronts trying to get-it-on with a guide dog. It wasn’t one of our prouder moments.

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

The Big Red Bus

Although the Big Red Bus that showed up for my son, A’s preschool outing yesterday was neither big nor red, it caused a frenzy of excitement among the preschoolers who clambered aboard wide-eyed and, in the case of my baby S who was strapped to my front in a sling, panting like a puppy. She’s earned the nickname Rocket-Dog from me lately because she chases balls, licks up floor-crumbs, chews everything and pants when excited.

The kids didn’t care about the fact that the bus wasn’t a British double-decker, but the parents were disappointed. The kids also didn’t care for the pre-recorded narration that was telling them about opium dens in China Town, whore houses down by the water and gallows in Market Square, instead they pressed their little noses against the windows, waved to strangers, squabbled with each other, and in A’s case, not quite tall enough to see out of the window properly he sung Old MacDonald over and over for the entire 45minutes. Five minutes into the ride there was an unpleasant eruption from S’s bum- which I remind you was strapped to my chest- so I sat in the stench listening to ‘ee-eye, ee-eye oh’ and thought about double-decker buses to escape.

When I was a teenager, we caught the bus to school every day. It was a double-decker, but not red like in London- blue and cream and in order to have any street cred at all, you had to sit in the dirty smoke-filled upstairs. Even upstairs, segregation was in full swing- the further back you sat, the cooler you were and if you actually got the back seat, you were pretty much in charge. I wasn’t in charge.

The buses drove fast on the narrow Birmingham roads and you learned how to hold on to avoid death round corners, how to lean in a certain way when the bus came to an abrupt halt and how to manage your heavy school-bag without knocking fellow passenger senseless.
I loved those buses.

A few years later when we started going out at night we’d sip our cans of larger on the way to Town, smoking cigarettes- one of the safe places where our parents would never catch us. At 2am, soggy half-eaten-bag of chips clutched drunkenly in one hand, the last bus home would be filled with similarly drunken club-goers and things were never dull- chip wars, people snogging, fist-fights, undercover police, people getting stoned…..I even got pepper-sprayed once, caught in the middle of two sloppily drunken lads fighting over some bog-boobed-girl. It’s been years now. Long ago we graduated from the bus to taxis, then stopped clubbing, traded that in for nappy-changes and night-feeds and the vomit-comet seems a lifetime ago.

Sitting there yesterday on the Big Red Bus (that wasn’t big or red), I smiled, thinking of a particular friend who I caught a lot of buses with when I was thirteen. It’s odd, but I think some of my best memories of her were up there on the top deck. Up there it was just the two of us and we didn’t have to be anything but ourselves. It didn't matter if we were popular or skinny or if we kissed boys yet; it didn't matter if we wore the right clothes or got good marks or got asked to the 'it' parties. We were just two best friends riding to school. Slowly, slowly over the months we moved towards the Holy Grail of the back seat. Slowly, slowly we earned the respect of the upstairs crowd and then suddenly we were there. Back seat all ours: we’d made it.

As it turned out, the back seat wasn’t that interesting. Like a lot of things you think you want when you’re that age, the mystery was broken the second we got there and realized that the shitty vinyl upholstery was slashed and the back window rattled and it was the bumpiest place in the whole bus. But just for a while it was ours, and before we moved on to the greener pastures of trying-to-get-the-seat-next-to-the-cute-boy-of-the-week, we appreciated the moment. And then we discarded it, like a lot of things you think you want when you’re that age.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Net curtains

The people over the road from us have net curtains. I've been staring at them for days now, wondering why I am so attracted to something that I dislike so much and the only conclusion that I can come to is that I am truly British.

My nationality has been in debate for a while between my husband and I, both of us shifting as new discrepancies surface. I was born on my mums and dad's bed in our house on Coronation Road- not to be mistaken for the Coronation Street. Ours was in Birmingham, halfway between London and Manchester and famous for an accent that everyone ridicules, a grotty train station, Cadbury's Chocolate and HP Sauce. It was a typical ex-council house street, with grey pebble-dashed houses with tiny uniform gardens and tight little porches with squeaking doors. But we weren't like the neighbours. We stood out you see, because my parents were 'the foreigners'. Fresh off the boat from Toronto, no really, my dad was terrified of flying so they caught the boat, their accents and weird ways of doing things confused and amused the street in the same breath.

Most of the neighbours were kind. We got hand-me-downs from Jean Smith when her kids outgrew their clothes and if mum needed to go out she would take us in. 'Uncle' George in the house opposite took us all, mum and dad included, under his wing and told stories about being in both wars; submarines and fighter planes. So my parents settled in, lived normal lives, but they didn't do things the same way as everyone else. They didn't eat the same foods, didn't cook the same way, didn't read the same papers, didn't watch the same TV and didn't go to the pub or get fish & chips on a Friday night or watch the football on a Saturday. And Mrs. Woodcroft next door was watching.

Here's where the net curtains come in. My mum started teaching antenatal classes from our home in the evenings. A group of couples would come around during early pregnancy- at that point where it would take a keen eye to notice the 'bumps'. Then every other week they would come back, the same couples, their bumps getting bigger, heavy breathing, panting even, and laughter in the lounge as someone got stuck down on her floor mat or as the occasional loud fart slipped out. And Mrs. Woodcroft was watching, which we knew because her net curtains were twitching. Then Jean Smith came up to tell my parents that the truth was out....via Mrs. Woodcroft, and the whole street knew. We were holding wife-swapping parties. And judging from the multiple pregnancies, no one was using contraception. That pretty much summed it up. If something was going on in your house, everyone knew. If something was going on in your marriage, everyone knew. If you said something odd, or cooked unusual food, or made your own bread or had wife-swapping parties....everyone knew.

Years later, when I was living in Liverpool on a street that looked exactly like Coronation Street- the TV one, I was the only one without net curtains, yet I was probably the one with the most to hide. I wasn't well- spent my days in bed or sitting in the yard chain smoking cigarettes or painting in the back room upstairs. One day, the window washer, wooden ladder flush against the glass stuck his head through my open window as I was standing in front of a canvas, paintbrush in my hand to tell me about the bloke up the road who painted amazing oils. And there was a lady down the street- wasn't sure what number- who did these intricate pencil crayon landscapes- I should check them out.
I got my gossip from the kids who I paid to weed my front garden. They told me about Mrs Biggs who always ate lunch on her own at the cafe and Mr Jenks three doors up who beat his dog after he'd had to many beers, and his wife pretended not to notice because she had her own problems. She wore a wig because all of her hair was gone.

And then I got really sick and decided to end it all. The ambulance came and they wrapped my wrists in tight bandages and walked me barefoot into the street and I remember that there were neighbours coming outside to watch so I closed my eyes. Later one of the kids told me that the woman opposite had taken photos through a crack in her net curtains just in case it made the newspapers, which it didn't because I didn't do it properly. They watched, they talked, they took photos on extreme occasions, but- and this is the thing- they were there. When my kitten got lost everyone helped push notes through doors and I got cheers when he turned up safe and well. When I got a boyfriend, the street was happy because now I'd got someone to look after me. And on New Years Eve 2000, we all tumbled out into the road and pulled fire-crackers and ate cake and poured each other shots and it didn't matter who did what or ate what or who smoked, or who had little strips of scars down her arm because we were all just there, in that moment and I was a part of something. I bought net curtains the next week, a sign that I no longer had anything to hide.

It's a decade later and the people across the street have net curtains which you don't see much around here -with their lacy edges and sticky dust. I think I miss them. I can't stop staring because I'm wondering if there is someone behind them watching the street as it spills it's secrets.

Thursday, September 3, 2009

The Animals came in Two by Two

I’ve had this bizarre song stuck in my head for the last two days that goes something like, “The animals came in two-by-two hurrah, hurrah, the animals came in two-by-two hurrah hurrah, the animals came in two-by-two the elephant and the kangaroo” blah-dee-dah-dee-blah. It got me thinking about a whole bunch of stuff including the Christmas when we found out the truth about Santa, or as we called him, Father Christmas.

It started simply with a kitten 'Kola' who came down from friends of ours on the train with my mum. She growled and hissed all the way, and we should have sent her straight back because it was definitely a sign. She wasn't an awful cat, but she knew what she wanted, she knew what she didn't and the years of child-inflicted-abuse at the hands of my brother and I pushed her towards her ratty latter years when we all had to refer to her as 'The Duchess' and she'd only eat warmed chicken breast. But I mean, what cat wants to be stuffed into baby clothes- which is what I did to her and seeing as my brother was into chemistry, God only knows what she suffered at his hands.

Next came the chickens. The people who'd lived in our house before us had kept chickens and there was this empty coup at the back of our long garden, just begging to be filled. So soon, Slow-Coach, Quick Quick, Tabitha, Oscar, Olivia and Cecelia joined us. My brother and I would rush outside every morning to check for fresh eggs though this novelty wore off, of course, when it came to mucking out the stinking coup or rubbing ointment onto the rear of the poor lassie at the bottom of the pecking order. But we loved them nonetheless, which should be taken into account when it comes to their rather sinister ending.

I think the next to arrive was the gerbils, Hustle, Bustle and Nustle, though it could have been the rats Fudge and Toffee. These two crews didn't mix as I found out once, when I foolishly thought that they might all be friends. Nustle was never the same and although no one else who was present agrees, that day convinced me that rats could smile. Finally came my brothers snake, Natty. It wasn't very big, not much more then a fancy shoelace but it was a snake- which was pretty exotic for grey-old-eighties-Birmingham and it had a special tank with a warming light and a water bowl and some rocks to sunbathe on.

It's only now, that I am a mum and have bills to pay that I fully appreciate the potentially astronomical cost of Christmas. We grew up on a tight budget and my brother and I were used to getting just one gift each from our parents plus stockings from Father Christmas but as we all know, it's the stockings that get you, and I can picture my poor mum shifting pennies around to try to make sure we had all those little stockinged treats, a book, a chocolate bar, some stripey socks.....And now that I am a mum, now that I know that Father Christmas isn't real and that it's the stockings that get you, I have some sympathy thinking back to the pained look on my mum's face a week before Christmas when I came home from sewing class with stockings for Kola, Hustle, Bustle, Nustle, Fudge, Toffee and Natty the snake. I'd stitched them all with love- to the great amusement of our Home Economics teacher who probably had an idea what my poor mum was in for.

Let's just pause a minute here and consider what the UK was like in the eighties. Shops closed at 5pm, nothing was open on a Sunday and you ate what was in season only. Supermarket vegetable aisles were much more like a greengrocers selling what was delivered day to day without guaranteeing anything more than the absolute staples. So on Christmas Eve what a treat it was when mum came home with a Webb lettuce that we'd not seen before- a Webb lettuce so delicious that we spent the whole mealtime discussing the wonderful-deliciousness of it. I'm avoiding the obvious here- how, with such stimulating dinner-time conversation could my parents possibly have thrown in the towel on their marriage just a few short years later- but that might get me too far off topic and I'm sure you want me to get the the damn point. So after dinner I proudly pulled out the secret project that I'd been working on quietly all day while mum was out slogging her way around the pet shops: a stocking for the chickens. After all, it wasn't fair to leave them out and Father Christmas would be bringing something for them. Of course.

After all these years I can still picture the look on mum's face- the look of a struggle. She was perfectly hogtied. She probably wanted to belt me around the head and shout that Father Christmas wasn't bringing the chickens anything because he wasn't real, and even if he was, he wasn't going to bring presents for the chickens because they were farmyard food not bloody children. But she didn't, she kept her quiet panic to herself and after our ritual stocking hanging we went off quietly to bed.

Christmas morning dawned and bright and early my brother and I leaped from our beds, raced down the stairs ripping open our stocking gifts. Twenty minutes later, when the mess of paper was settling down and my sleepy parents has surfaced we inspected the pet's stockings. We found fish flakes for Natty, cat treats for Kola, millet for the gerbils, a chew toy for the rats and Webb lettuce for the chickens. Hang on...webb lettuce? My brother spearheaded the hunt and we searched through the fridge for the remains of the salad from the night before. There was none. And it was as simple as that- we'd found out the truth about Father Christmas. He was a dirty thief.

It could have been worse, as the chickens found out that summer when we ate them.

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Son of all Fears

To fully appreciate this post you should read this first
So my son, A is almost three and like most little kids, he has some fears. Like most little kids he is not scared to try to stick a wet finger into a wall socket or walk out in front of fast-moving cars and he is wary about ghosts, the dark, monsters and large dogs rushing towards him at the playground. Here's a list of his other fears:

sand on his feet
having his hair washed
his little red plastic octopus
the man who delivered the groceries that time I shopped online
and my personal favourite, the letter B

Now I 'get' most of these things- you can rationalize why each disturbs him. The octopus for instance, it's pretty ugly and whereas 'A' doesn't want to throw it out, he doesn't want to see it either so he hides it. And considering the octopus's likeness to a spider and considering my own obsessive revulsion with spiders, well, let's just say there's no happy ending when I reach under the sofa for a stray sock and am surprised by the eight-armed menace. Or when I open the fridge late at night to find it waiting for me. Or when I pull back my covers to find the octopus getting fresh with my pyjamas.

I get the beetle thing too -and sad to say my husband M and I have likely embellished that fear a bit by using 'the giant beetle' concept as a tool to get 'A' to do something when he doesn't want to. Like come in from the garden "Uh oh! There's a giant beetle coming". Or there was that time that I really needed to put 'A' off from going into a decrepit playground that he really really wanted to play in...."Quick, run, a beetle lives there!"

Even the letter B has a logical explanation. A friend gave us a DVD that helped her kids to learn the phonetic alphabet and to cut a long story short, during this animated show, a monster pops up right at the letter B, and 'A' really doesn't like it. When he begs to watch "just a little bit of TV" I only have to wave the DVD at him and he starts to freak out, begging to go to his room and play quietly. Not just play, play quietly.

The nagging worry at the back of my mind is that my own ridiculous litany of fears has been delivered genetically to this poor little guy in utero. Or maybe not- maybe he is simply a fast learner, spending his days observing my oddities. Or perhaps 'A' is just three? Consider this: one of his biggest fears at the moment is ghosts. "There's a ghosty in my room" he'll cry, trembling and quaking until I go into his room 'de-ghost' it. So today I asked him what a ghost looked like and he went out to prepare, and I reached for my camera.

Yeah, he's just three.