We come to England each summer, the kids and I, to get away from the scorching hot summer of the Gulf; the summer that stops the children from being able to play outside and leaves us little choice but to spend three months sucking air-conditioned air into our lungs in shopping-mall play areas, or roasting like boil-in-the-bag meals in the boiling-hot sea.
So we come to England where the children can reconnect with their granny, run about in the garden and breathe fresh air. Well, that’s the theory anyway.
But we’ve been here a week now and the number of hours spent running in the garden has, so far, been zero. It’s been raining cats and dogs. That’s phrase I never use in Dubai but it’s the only way to sum up the amount of water that’s fallen out of the sky onto my mum’s garden this week.
Even the children – and this is saying a lot – are fed up with it. They’ve been throwing themselves around the house moaning, ‘What are we going to do today? I’m so bored’ while I’ve been shivering in my fleece and wondering how many times a day I can ask Mum to put the heating on.
But there has been one silver lining in all this: Playmobil. DS is massively into Playmobil, those indestructible, plastic German toys that I had myself in the 1970s.
Despite Playmobil being incredibly expensive in Dubai (think remortgage the 5-bed villa to buy a Playmobil house), we have a few pieces there. I bought them in England and smuggled them over as part of my 30kg EK baggage allowance last May. But now we’re here and it’s raining, it’s fair season on the Playmobil. All I can say is, thank heavens for eBay.
‘Tis the season for beauty treatments – at least it is for someone like me who doesn’t bother with too much in the way of regular salon treatments unless there’s a holiday looming.
And there’s nothing like looking down the barrel of a day at a waterpark followed by a night away followed by five weeks in the beauty wasteland that is the UK to make me book a bit of pre-trip threading, waxing, shaping and polishing.
But, for me, beauty treatments, unless they involve foot or back massage, are more about endurance than pleasure. Endurance because they’re down-time that can’t be used for anything more productive than making small-talk with a therapist who’s heard it all before. How many times a day, seriously, does she listen to housewives pretending to care where she’s from and how long she’s been here?
Anyway, I digress. So, given the amount of primping and preening that needs to take place this week, I’ve divided it into a couple of manageable appointments that won’t send me screaming into the desert. One for waxing and eyebrows (in and out in 12 mins), and one for pedicure (with an in-chair back massage thrown in – how else can I bear it? In and out in 30 mins).
And today was the waxing appointment. So, there I am, lying on the table, flabby 43-year-old legs bare to the electric light, and the therapist barks ‘Backside’ and gives me that little slap that we all know means, ‘roll over, fattie’. I do, and then I remember that the salon I’m using used to offer cellulite treatments. Thinking about my return from England, where I will be drinking my body weight in red wine, mainlining farm-made Victoria sponge cake, celebrating beer o’clock at 11.30am and gorging on all sorts of pub food, I ask if they still offer it.
‘Nooo, madam,’ she says in that terribly apologetic Filipina way that suggests she may break into tears at the thought of disappointing me, ‘but…’
She pauses and I hold my breath. She’s staring at my backside and thighs as she speaks and, for an insane minute, I wonder if she going to say: ‘But you don’t need it, ma’am!’ We’d both know it wasn’t true – goodness, I’ve seen my butt in the mirror – but the lie would be a kindness that I’d appreciate.
So I wait… and then she continues: ‘But… we offer it in our Barsha salon,’ she says. ‘Very near. I give you the number.’
It’s around this time of year that the mums at my children’s school fall into two camps: those sticking with the school for another year, and those playing their annual game of school hopscotch i.e. switching to a new school.
It’s a curious division: while those staying wouldn’t dream of telling those how to live their lives, those leaving appear to have no issue droning on and on about how rubbish the existing school is, how weak the extra-curricular activities are, how inexperienced the teachers are and what a waste of money the whole thing is (I suspect because Archie didn’t get into swim squad). All this despite the fact that those to whom they’re speaking have just made the decision to invest heavily in another year’s tuition.
Obviously some people have good reasons to take their children out of a school – their child isn’t doing well, is being bullied, the commute is too long… maybe even the fees are too high. These reasons I understand.
But then there’s a whole gaggle of other mums, and these are generally the ones who’ll collar you at the classroom door and rage bitterly about how terrible the current school is. As I stand there, smiling politely in the face of such rudeness, I amuse myself by deciding which of the following categories each of these lovely ladies best fits:
The teacher-followers: The most understandable category. When some of the best teachers from your existing school all leave to set up a new school, it’s only natural, I suppose, to cling to what you know.
The friend-followers: Here you have a clique of mums led by a Queen Bee. Queen Bee says she’s moving schools, another follows suit and, before you know it, the whole group has talked themselves into a frenzy of “needing” to get their darlings out of that “hellhole”. I doubt half of them even know why they’re moving. (That reminds me, has anyone read The Hive by Gill Hornby?)
The Grass-is-greeners: With more new schools opening than I’ve got handbags, this is perhaps the most common group. It’s boredom – plain and simple. They’ve been at the school for a while. It used to be the newest and shiniest school on the block but now there’s an even newer and shinier school that’s not just a kitten’s whisker closer to home, it’s offering after-school horse-riding and an intergalactic space programme for the Infants. Bye, ladies! Happy horse-riding – until the next new school pops up – I hear that’s offering hot-air ballooning and a cultural exchange on Mars, by the way…
The show-offs: You can usually spot this group by the weight of their diamonds. Fully paid-up members of the Carat Club, their move is determined solely by the cost of the new school’s fees. As everyone else gasps in genuine horror – the amount quoted for a three-year-old to “learn through play” for four hours a day could keep a small European country afloat for a year – they wave their jewelled fingers in the air (causing their drivers to jump to attention) and drawl, “Well, y’know… nothing but the best for Archie…”
It was DD’s summer concert today. I have to say, I dragged myself to it with about as much enthusiasm as I would, say, drive to the dentist: six classes worth of scratchy violin solos songs and poetry? Four or five songs per class? And a three-song finale by the choir?
There was a rumour it lasted two hours.
But, I’m pleased to say my doubts were proved wrong. The concert was excellent. The children did incredibly well, the music was catchy, and we were in and out within an hour.
The best bit, for me, though, was opportunity to play a game of classmate shopping. Next year, the children of DD’s year will mixed into new classes and, for the first time, I had a chance to critically evaluate her potential new friends – and their parents.
‘I’m just trying to imagine who might be in DD’s class next year,’ I whispered to my friend A as we applauded yet another piano solo. A little girl stood up and confidently announced what she’d be playing next.
‘Let me guess,’ said A. ‘You’d pick her.’
I looked around for the parents – you could tell who they were for, while ‘Angel’ was playing, they were the only ones with a rapt smile on their face and two iPads in the air.
And one thing I’ve learned in my five years at that school is this: if the kids in the class are important, it’s the parents who are even more important.
It’s them with whom you’ll have to do ‘class coffees’ for the next two years; it’s they whom you’re going to see at the classroom door every day; they with whom you’re going to have to go for end-of-term drinks; and, of course, they whose children you’re going to have to invite into your home for birthday parties and play dates.
In terms of class changes, the kids are supremely adaptable. It’s we mums who worry.
‘Yes,’ I said to A. ‘That girl (and her parents) look perfect.’
Now how to make it happen? If only the teachers accepted bribes…
Mid to late June is a funny time for mums in Dubai. School pick-up in the sweltering heat, as I mentioned here, requires the stamina of a carthorse, the endurance of Duracell battery and the patience of a saint but, beyond that, as the end of the year approaches, the children are tired and the mums are tired. Everyone needs a break.
And now, with the summer holidays so near I can smell the coconut scent of the sunscreen I won’t be needing in England, I picture myself crawling on bloodied hands and knees towards the finishing line of what is the marathon of the school year, and something strange happens: time warps.
I don’t mean to sound like Dr Who, but it really does warp.
The school year, which, in September, stretched out before us, an endless and, to be honest, quite tiresome ocean of homework, spelling tests, mental maths tests and packed lunches, concertinas up in the strangest way: now, with just 10 school days left, just as we should be sliding gracefully towards a gin & tonic on board our Emirates flight home, there are suddenly too many things to fit into the remaining two weeks.
In the space of 10 school days, I have two end-of-year concerts, two moving-up meetings, two mums’ nights out, the school ball, two mums’ coffee mornings, a shop full of leaving cards to buy, thoughtful end-of-term presents to buy and wrap, two school trips to remember (disposable lunches, PE kits and water bottles-on-a-string), next year’s name tags to order and still, of course, ten packed lunches to still to think about.
Oh, and did I mention: I have work to do as well? (How my laugh tinkles.)
I am, as I said, dragging myself towards the finishing line but – and here’s another quirk of the universe – even as I do so, I dread the last day of term. Why? Because it’ll mean the children are off school for nine and a half weeks.
And we all know what that means… on second thoughts, roll on September.