Life lesson

English: An image of a Common goldfish
English: An image of a Common goldfish (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

We are now pet-free family again. The second of our goldfish has recently swum off and passed onto that great pond in the sky. My husband and I didn’t want fish in the first place. My husband and I didn’t want any pet at all. The reason we ended up with two pets in the first place is down to my nephew. He, being a typical teenage boy, thought it was hilarious to get my daughters to ask us for a pet. “Go and ask your Mum and Dad for a dog,” he whispered to them at a family gathering. He obviously isn’t very good at whispering because I heard him. “I heard that,” I remonstrated with him. However, he didn’t care, he just found it even more funny – teenage boys, who’d have them?

The girls came ran across to us, all big smiles and giggles. “Can we have a dog?” they chimed in unison. “No,” my husband and I replied, also in perfect unison. “Why not?” Are you going to walk it, feed it, and pick up its poo?” “Yuck, no!” “Well, neither are we.” “What about a cat?” my nephew shouted, “or a rabbit or a guinea pig…” “That’s quite enough of that,” I shouted back but it was too late. The idea of having a pet had taken hold and my girls were not about to be shaken off so lightly.

We spent the next fifteen minutes discussing the kind of pet they could have. They didn’t want a dog or a cat or a rabbit or a guinea pig. In fact, they didn’t want a mammal, bird, reptile or amphibian. They wanted fish. Goldfish to be precise – one each. Now, this didn’t seem so bad. Two goldfish I could cope with. They didn’t need walking or grooming, and cleaning out and feeding seemed pretty straight forward. So goldfish we got – Rosie and Spooky Spoon (one of my daughters has had an obsession with this character since she was about three. I’m not sure why. If you don’t know who Spooky Spoon is try an internet search. I can guarantee you will also have no idea why she likes this character so much).

Rosie and Spooky settled in well and my daughters’ interest in them lasted all of about half a day. Then it was left to me to feed and clean the damn things so it was a very good job we didn’t get a dog. Then, a couple of months ago, Rosie became ill.

Rosie the goldfish was perfectly fine and healthy until I cleaned out her tank. Shortly afterwards I noticed she was not her normal fishy self. Instead of doing lap after lap Mo Farrah style around her tank, she was huddled at the bottom of it. I fed her later on that day and she totally ignored her food. Rosie was no better the next day or the next, and I started to feel guilty. After all, she was OK before I had cleaned her tank. By the fourth day she was floating around the top of the tank, and I thought she’d died. I peered nervously into the bowl and saw, to my surprise and relief that her gills were still moving. Rosie was still taking in oxygen, and I admired her tenacity and desire for life.

This was the day my daughter realised the severity of the situation. “Will she die?” she asked, and what could I say? I thought it best to be honest with her, and told her I thought Rosie probably would die but I couldn’t be sure. There was a chance she might recover. She started to sob as if her heart would break into many, many small pieces. I held her close and felt her wet, salty tears on my face. I felt totally helpless. How could I explain to a five year old the finality of death? How could I answer her many questions? I cried myself. For my daughter’s loss of innocence as from today death was no longer an abstract concept for her; it was a reality. I also cried for Rosie.

The following days saw no improvement in Rosie’s condition. I began to wish she would hurry-up and get on with it. I didn’t like to think of her suffering, and my daughter was beginning to harbour hopes that her fish would recover. And then, to my surprise, Rosie did recover. She started feeding again and swimming around and around her tank. Once again, I admired her lust for life. She may only be tiny but Rosie was a fighter. My daughter was delighted with her fish’s recovery and fixed me with a five-year old stare that said, “Yeah, what do you know Mum?”

Rosie’s miracle recovery lasted a fortnight. Then she became ill again and slipped off to fishy heaven. I dried my daughter’s tears again and told her that Rosie had been happy with us and had a great life swimming around her bowl (pretty pathetic, I know, but what else could I say?). My daughter was confused about what would happen to Rosie now she had died. “Can we just keep her in the bowl?” she asked. I explained to her kindly and best I could about bodies decomposing. She didn’t want to bury her in the garden as she might stand on her when playing outside. In the end we settled on ‘Daddy taking her back to the shop as they have a special place for dead fishes.’ As you can see, we were clutching at straws by this point.

My daughter didn’t want another fish and we were glad. So many people had said, “just get her another one” but I didn’t agree. I mean, what sort of life lesson does that teach a child? – everything is easily replaceable; even life. So we were left with just one fish.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, Spooky Spoon became ill. It too hung onto, wrestled with and fought for its life with a passion I could only admire. When Spooky died I braced myself for having the same conversation, tears and sadness with my other daughter. However, twins they may be but they are unlike in every way. When I told her that her fish had died, she looked sad for a moment then went back to watching television. I’m not sure if I should be glad or saddened by this.



Nature v nurture

Holding Hands
Holding Hands (Photo credit: WolfS♡ul)

On the school run home yesterday, one of my daughters announced that she had a boyfriend. Once my heart had stopped palpating and I was able to speak, I asked her what she meant by a boyfriend. My other daughter said, “that’s what someone else called him – her boyfriend.” I breathed a sigh of relief. My five year old hadn’t been holding hands and kissing some young pup, it was just a case of some other child teasing and taunting her. “What’s this boy’s name?” I asked, keen to make note of the child who may become a future beau. She told me and I decided to surreptitiously check out this young man.

I didn’t have long to wait. This morning, whilst lining up in the playground, my daughter pointed him out to me. She shouted “hello” to him but he wasn’t looking in her direction and didn’t hear her. My daughter didn’t mind. She just turned around and started chatting to a little girl standing in the line behind her.

I discreetly watched this young man and decided that I wasn’t sure I liked what I saw. He was, quite frankly, a show-off and not the sort of young man I wanted either of my daughters bringing home for tea thank you very much. Suddenly, this boy saw my daughter. If I thought he was showing-off before this had nothing on his behaviour after he spotted her. I actually saw it wind-up not just one notch but several. His clowning around became more exaggerated and his voice became louder. However, for all his efforts, my daughter didn’t see him. She was too busy chatting to the little girl from her class.

Did this stop the young libertine? Of course not, he just became more showy-offy and louder still. To be honest, I didn’t think this was possible but he obviously had his eye set on his prize and wasn’t going to let it go without a fight. Eventually he realised his actions were to naught and went off to speak to his mum. I say him point in my daughter’s direction and heard his mum reply to his little impassioned cries that my daughter looked “very nice.” I shook my head in utter disbelief and wondered how it was that, as young as he was, this five year old boy knew that to get the girl you have to impress her.  Some life lessons, it seems, don’t have to be learnt.

Why read?

Books (Photo credit: henry…)

As a child, if you’re lucky, your parents will buy you books, take you to the library and, most importantly, read to you. There is nothing more comforting, cherished and precious than curling up on a loved one’s knee and listening to them tell you a story. When you start school your love of story-telling is magnified as you not only get to hear wonderful, enchanting tales, but you learn to read yourself. Suddenly, those funny squiggles and marks start to make sense and you are no longer reliant on others. You can enjoy a book any time you like. You just open the pages, dive in, immerse yourself in another world and lose yourself completely. With reading comes writing, and another door is opened for you. You now not only understand the funny squiggles and marks but you can make them yourself. You can create your own worlds, your own heroes, and your own “happily ever after”.

When you hit adolescence, you wave farewell to children’s literature and move onto the serious stuff – adult, literary classics. These books are part of the syllabus for good reason. They’re damn good stories. They’re filled with amazing plots, fantastic characters and have well and truly stood the test of time. However, the enjoyment of reading this rich body of literature is replaced with the teaching of literature. The two may sound the same but they are not. “Read a chapter and discuss, read a chapter and discuss, describe, tell, explain, compare and contrast…” Yawn, yawn, snore, snore… It’s enough to switch the most avid bookworm off and it did.

I can honestly say that, throughout the two years I was studying for my ‘O’ level English literature exam, there was only one book that I enjoyed; one book that I lost myself completely in. This shouldn’t have happened. The books I studied should have hooked me, reeled me in and made me fall in love with them. They were great books but the teaching of them left an awful lot to be desired. Educators seemed to have forgotten that writers don’t write for their work to be analysed, critiqued and dissected. They write as they have a story to tell and they hope that someone, somewhere, will derive pleasure from it. If you don’t allow someone to enjoy a story in its entirety in the first place, you can’t expect them to get excited and become inspired over it.

My ‘O’ level exception was a book I had been given to read over the summer holidays. I didn’t want to read it. It’s not that I didn’t want to read. It’s just that I didn’t want to read this book. After being made to read about a spoilt, whiney American brat looking after a pony and despotic pigs, I really wasn’t in the mood for another literature great. Three weeks into the summer break, I decided that I had to, at the very least, make a start on this book. I figured that if I could just read a couple of chapters it would be an achievement. I remember sitting down at my parents’ dining table and slowly turning to the first page in trepidation. OK, perhaps one chapter would be enough to keep Mr. James happy.

I read the first chapter, and the next, and the next. I read all day and well into the night. I just couldn’t put it down. This book was the most amazing thing my fifteen year old self had ever read. It had everything in it: racism, class prejudice, sexual assault and rape, a single-working parent, drug addiction, mental health issues and feral children. The following day I didn’t leave my room. Like an anchorite, I shut myself away from civilisation and shunned all human contact. All I wanted to do was read. All I could think about was reading. I had to read. I was filled with such a longing and hunger to do so. I devoured word after word, gobbled-up page after page, and gorged on chapter after chapter but I still was left wanting more. I was never sated.

I finished this epic feast on the third day but, instead of feeling full and content, I was left with that hollow, empty feeling that you sometimes get when you finish a book that has really touched your soul. This feeling starts when you get to the last few chapters. When you realise that this fantastically wonderful experience is about to end. You slow down your reading and, try and eke out every word to put off the inevitable but it doesn’t work. It never works. Your journey comes to its unavoidable end and you are left wanting so much more.

I returned to school, in September, and for the first time in a long while was itching to discuss a book. I couldn’t wait for my first English class. I couldn’t wait to discuss, describe, tell, explain and, compare and contrast. Mr. James stood in front of the board and asked who had read the book over the summer. My hand shot into the air like a rocket into space. It stood tall and proud like a sentry on duty. I looked around the room eager to see the other girls’ faces brimming with excitement and bursting to share their experiences too. I expected their faces to be a mirror image of mine.

Instead I saw, to my horror, that my arm was friendless. Out of a class of thirty girls, in Year Five top set English, I was the only one who had read it. Even the teacher’s pets, ‘grade ‘A’ students’, and geeks hadn’t bothered. I didn’t see faces brimming and bursting with excitement. I saw twenty-nine faces look at me incredulously. This look soon turned to laughter and taunts of “swot!” Even my friends joined in. I was incensed and enraged by their attitude. How dare they dismiss the greatest thing I had ever read so casually? How dare they have not given this book a chance? Who did they think they were? I shouted and spluttered out the only response I could think of; the only thing that was fitting for such an enormous transgression. I yelled, “But have you read this book? Have you?”

The good, the bad and the downright snotty

English: Waveland, MS, September 30, 2005 -- F...
English: Waveland, MS, September 30, 2005 — FEMA/EPA Hazardous Materials Team clean up environmental health hazard. Members of a EPA/FEMA Hazardous Materials team, remove rotten meat from an elementary school freezer that lost power during Hurricane Katrina. Photo by John Fleck/FEMA (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last Saturday started off so well. I had just finished reading Owen McCafferty’s version of J.P. Miller’s Days of Wine and Roses. What a great play! Not only a great play, but an inspirational one too. I have had this idea for a character buzzing around in my head for some time now. This character is fully formed. She has a distinct personality, a past and a future. She even has somewhere to live. What she doesn’t (or didn’t) have is a purpose. She had no direction or destiny. She just wandered around my mind from time to time bugging me to do something with her. “Go away!” I’d mutter, “I really don’t know what to do with you.” But now I did. Now, everything had become clear thanks to reading this play. And I was itching, itching, itching to start writing but I couldn’t – not just yet anyway.

The reason I couldn’t start hammering away on the keyboard immediately was that the house was a tip. Not your average ‘I haven’t tidied up for a few days’ tip, but a complete and utter council rubbish tip one. The sort that sends you ducking for cover with every knock on the door just in case it is one of those very prim and proper cleaning ladies from one of those ‘God, you are a total slattern how dare you even show your face in public?’ reality TV shows. I should have tidied up during the week but I knew my girls were going to stay at my parents’ on Saturday night so decided that I might as well leave all the cleaning until then and blitz the house. But now I wanted to write. And now leaving the cleaning didn’t seem such a good idea. I really didn’t want to clean but, at the risk of having Environmental Health knocking down my door in a dawn raid, I thought it best I did.

As much as I hate cleaning and as much as I wanted to write, I have to admit to feeling an enormous amount of satisfaction and pride at my finished results. The house sparkled and gleamed in the manner of a cleaning products advert. The same could not be said for me. It’s funny how the women in cleaning products adverts never seem to do the housework in old bleached stained trackie-bottoms and t-shirts. However, a shower in my pristine bathroom put paid to all that. But I couldn’t write just yet. Because tonight my husband and I were kid free, tonight we were young and carefree again, and tonight we were going out.

We decided to go for a couple of drinks and to a new Mexican restaurant that has opened not too far from where we live. We had a fantastic night. The food was amazing, and we reminisced about life before the kids (a parental must on the rare occasions you are without your beloved offspring) and the old Mexican restaurant that had stood on the same spot many, many years before. We had no problems getting a taxi home and were just settling down to watch about of TV before heading to bed when my mum rang. One of my daughters was ill and she wanted to come home. My other daughter was sound asleep and so my parents left her with my brother and brought number one daughter home.

Number one daughter was not very happy. Number one daughter wanted to stay at my parents’ but she also wanted her mum and dad. Number one daughter didn’t want to go to bed, she wanted to stay up and watch some old Vietnam War film that we were watching. When number one daughter finally decided she was tired and wanted to go to bed, she wanted to sleep with us as it was too lonely in her bedroom without her twin. Number one daughter then preceded to wiggle and jiggle, and cough and sneeze all night.

The following morning my mum rang again to say number two daughter was also ill. She too was bundled up in her pyjamas and carried into the house coughing and sneezing and sniffing and with a temperature. My husband was at work so I spent the day mopping brows and taking temperatures and spooning Calpol into their poorly little bodies. Obviously no writing could be done but, never mind, there was always Monday. They weren’t going to be able to go to school but I should have been able to grab a few quite moments to make a start, because the itch hadn’t gone away. It was getting stronger.

I woke on Monday feeling hot and achy and sniffley and coughy. I woke on Monday feeling like complete and utter shit. So bad, in fact, my husband had to take a day off work to look after his three poorly girls. But never mind, there was always Tuesday to start writing. Accept, there wasn’t because whatever bug the girls had picked up from school (God, these places breed germs don’t they?) it was a nasty, vicious bugger and it wasn’t intending to leave its hosts anytime soon.

This meant no writing Tuesday or Wednesday or Thursday. It took me all the time to make it out of bed let alone to a keyboard. In fact, most of the time I either curled up on the sofa and slept or crawled off back to bed with my two girls in tow. We’ve watched an awful lot of C Beebies, Disney Junior and Nick Junior this week; much more than would normally be humanly possible for me to stomach. You know you’ve had kids TV on too long when the suddenly realise this is the second time you’ve seen this episode of Mr. Bloom or Doc McStuffins today. However, I was too ill to find the children something more constructive to do, and they were too ill to do anything other than watch TV and sleep. That and watch the unseasonable snow swirl past our windows. At least we didn’t have to go out in that.

Then today, just when I was beginning to think this loathsome bug was here to stay for good, we all started to feel a little bit better. Not a lot, but there is definitely a small chink of light appearing now at the end of this snotty, coughy tunnel. Today, for the first time in nearly a week, I began to think about writing again. My inspirational itch is not back yet. I think I need to be fully recovered and fighting fit before that returns. At least, I hope so. I hope it’s not disappeared into the bin along with the hundreds of discarded tissues. Oh please don’t let it have gone. The last thing I need is my character starting to bug me again. Not in my present state anyway.

“Gym mum”

short story class
short story class (Photo credit: Susan NYC)

I have become a gymnastics mum. This is like being a “Soccer Mom” but without the cold and mud. Instead, I get a seat, a warm(ish) sports hall and the chance to write. An hour a week to just sit and write to my heart’s content. Utter bliss! I sit, shut out the world (well, hall) around me and lose myself in my story.

I’ve not only managed to start the short story I’ve wanted to write but I’ve written about three-quarters of it. For someone who has started many stories in the past, but never finished anything, this is something of an achievement. I know I’ve second, third, fourth etc. drafts to do but at least the first draft is nearly done.

I’m not sure what the other parents think as I scribble furiously away in my notebook with my pencil. But, quite frankly, I don’t care. I’ve nearly finished the first draft of a short story. I think a glass of wine is in order.