Archive for March 2011
Take six women, mix liberally with Chardonnay, Shiraz and a plate of gooey blue cheese and crackers; sprinkle in some of the hottest new book releases – and try to stop the women talking about schools. This was the challenge facing me last night as I launched a new book club at Desperate Housewife Towers.
I’ve been a member of two book clubs in the past. I stuck with the first for several years, even seeing it through a depressing spot of competitive dinner-party-cooking (“Ladies, tonight we have a gastronomic five-course menu paired with fine wines – and, oh crumbs, did I remember to buy the books?”), but ultimately, it fell apart for me when one of the ladies brought in The Bible and started bibbing on about how we should all read it. I gave her a couple of chances to cease and desist but she never did, so that was the end of that.
More recently, I left a book club after I realised it should really have been named the “JESS School Mums Wine Club”. The wine bit I understood (and participated in as fully as possible), but the JESS School Mums Club bit started to really grate as, frankly, I wasn’t there to talk about the social problems of other people’s children. When I fell pregnant with DS, I leapt at the chance to extract myself as painlessly as possible, claiming tiredness and an inability to drink wine. Both of which were, of course, true.
But now DS is two, I’m starting to get my life back, to some degree at least. The horse-riding and yoga are just the start. In recent months I’ve been itching to have adult conversations about books with intelligent women who at least don’t wear clothes that list to one side as small children have tugged hard on their hemlines all day.
And so last night we gathered in my garden, refreshments close at hand, and dived into the pile of books we’d each brought; to me, a pile of unread books looks as juicy and tempting as a pile of donuts and I just can’t wait to devour them all; to immerse myself in them; lap them up and drown in them.
It was fabulous to talk about books with women who read books and care about books; we managed not to talk (too much) about schools and the conversation was as good as the stilton with apricots.
But, this morning, as I glimpsed the two titles I’d taken out to read this month and the cold light of morning hit, I realised with sadness that my days of devouring four or five books a week are long gone. I’ll be lucky to have finished the first half of one book by the next meeting… the mind’s willing… but the days, they just aren’t long enough.
It was DS’s birthday yesterday. We didn’t make a big thing of it aside from getting DS up early enough in the morning to see DH before he left the house at 7.10am. I packed the birthday boy off to nursery with a box of homemade cupcakes, and he had three presents to open after school, which provoked squeals of “Oh! Wow!”
For myself, I bought a bunch of lilies and poured a little glass of rosé before dinner (though that had more to do with the kind of day I’d had, actually). The party’s on Saturday, when granny’s in town.
A child’s second birthday – like the first – is a funny one. I think it’s the last birthday that’s more about the mother than the child. The memory of giving birth or, in my case, of curling up for the spinal, being sliced open fully conscious and having DS squelched out before enduring 40 minutes of agonising stitches (“We’re having some problems with our spinals,” said the anaesthetist) – is still quite raw for me, while DS doesn’t really know why he’s taking cupcakes to school, getting squishy kisses and being given new toys.
Likewise, the few days after his birth evoke powerful memories of lying in a stiflingly hot hospital room, sleep-deprived and with my boobs exploding, looking out at the rain and the lightning over Burj Al Arab (no, I wasn’t Al Qasr, I was in Medcare but, amazingly, that was my view) and wondering how you change boy nappies.
I think it was two years ago today that my friend K turned up at the hospital with a skinny cappuccino and it was the nicest present I’ve ever had.
I’d intended to spend the night before DS’s birthday in quiet contemplation in the bath, remembering how I felt the night before he was born. But, as it happened, I was on my feet baking and icing the cakes, wrapping presents, making packed lunches and packing school bags till 10.30pm and, by then, all I wanted was my bed. Such is life as a mother; no time for dreaming.
Happy Birthday, DS.
At some point, and quite possibly under the influence of more than a glass of wine, I signed up for a clutch of private yoga lessons.
In theory, it’s a good idea: I spend much of my time slouched at my desk, either working or micro-managing our lives on the internet and, since turning 40, I’ve been waking up with stiff and aching joints. Yoga would be the ideal complement to my cycling (and, um, horse-riding), no?
So, this morning I opened the door to find my new yoga instructor standing there, mat under his arm, looking remarkably younger and more handsome than I’d ever imagined he would (my last experience with yoga – about 12 years ago – involved an instructor as old as the hills, who looked as you might imagine God to look, and farted every time he bent over).
As we faced each other in the morning sunshine of the garden, the birds singing and a fresh breeze fanning our faces, I explained that I was a beginner.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “You can’t do entire stretch, no problem. Just do your 100 per cent; just what’s 100 per cent for you, even if hands not reach the floor.”
What about if hands only reach knees, I wondered.
Anyway it became clear, as I panted my way through the warm-up, that he simply couldn’t believe how unsupple I was. “Palms on floor”, I noticed, was amended several times to “palms on calves” and there was an embarrassing moment when I had to respond to “Lift legs as high as you can” with a rather strangled “I am.”
But, as we gently eased the creaky lady through a series of asanas, what amused me most about the lesson was my teacher’s constant instruction: “Maintain” (usually as my legs, arms or torso flopped back to the floor or my muscles trembled in protest) and “Breathing, continue.” Because sometimes I forgot.
I loved my yoga lesson, but I have to admit: It’s much harder than it looks. Who thought stretching could be so hard-core? I was due another lesson tomorrow but I’ve had to cancel because I can hardly walk now (six hours after). I just know I’m not even going to be able to get out of bed tomorrow without the help of my friend Brufen.
This is Wafi:
Look at him peeping cheekily over that 12-foot-high wall, the sweat from previous gallops still in his mane, a naughty gleam in his eye.
“A quiet horse,” I’d told the riding school three times before the instructor, let’s call her Petra, brought Wafi out for me to mount. Does he look quiet to you?
Still, there’s something about riding instructors that makes me revert to being a 15-year-old and I didn’t dare argue, especially as one look at the height of the stirrups made me realise there was no chance on earth I was going to be able to mount without assistance.
One enormous paint canister later and I was sitting in the saddle, feet in stirrups, reins in hands, and feeling quite at home. It’s like riding a bike, I thought happily, before remembering that bikes don’t have brains, personalities and desires of their own, quite like horses do.
And then we started moving. Horses certainly weren’t that bouncy back in 1986. As Wafi and I trotted in imperfect circles on the lunge rein, me with my hands on my hips (a balance test) as I flopped about like a sack of potatoes, my inner thighs and dicky knees squealing their protest, I realised a) how high up I was, b) how few muscles I had and c) how unfit I was. Wafi may have been doing the trotting but, after five minutes, I was panting for both of us (“He’s an ex-endurance horse,” said Petra helpfully. “He can go on for hours.”).
And then she unclipped the lunge rein and said, “Off you go, round the arena on your own. See if you can maintain a nice, even trot.” As I tried to impart vibes of confidence and competence through to Wafi, he trotted evenly towards the gate then stopped dead, his head nuzzling the bolt like he might undo the barrier to his elevenses with his velvet nostrils. Wild women couldn’t have dragged him away.
“He sniffs out beginners,” said Petra, probably filing her nails as she waited. “Come on, see if you can get him back on track.”
A long power struggle followed and then, when I least expected it, Wafi rolled his eyes and succumbed to my flailing. We walked a few imperfect and reluctant circles together, faster towards the gate and slower away from the gate, before calling it quits shortly before my hour was up.
“He’s not really that quiet a horse,” Petra said afterwards, as Wafi skipped back to his stable, deliberately scraping me against a brick wall en route. “If I ride him, he goes like a rocket.”
Crafty buggers, horses.
It’s been 10 years since I last sat on a horse. A terrifying fall straight onto my head, which resulted in nothing more serious than a dislocated shoulder, concussion and an incurable case of nerves, ultimately put an end to a long and unremarkable love affair with all things equine.
Anyway to cut a long story short, I’ve been dragged, kicking and screaming, back into my jodhpurs by a dear friend who thought my life needed a little shaking up and bought me, for my 40th, a voucher for a two-hour desert hack.
If you’re thinking how lovely it would be to watch the red sun set over the golden dunes from the back of a staid horse, you couldn’t be more wrong.
In this instance, “desert hack” means “take the maddest polo ponies, who haven’t been exercised in three years and who’ve been drinking rocket fuel for breakfast, out to the desert and gallop till your lungs burst out of your eyeballs, your knees snap and your thigh muscles are ripped from the bone.”
So, being the sensible mum that I am, I decided to sneak in a little riding lesson before the big day of galloping. A little refresher, if you like. And it’s tomorrow.
Good news: My jodhpurs fit. In fact, I’m proud to say they’re a little loose (boo-ha!). I’ve also still got my gorgeous leather riding boots – the ones I refused, despite the agony, to let the ambulance men cut off my shattered ankle after a nasty fall in the UK back in 1996.
Bad news: My riding hat. The last time I wore it, it took the brunt of 60+kgs slamming down on concrete from great height and at reasonable speed. If I’d wondered how long I’d had it, all my questions were answered when I looked inside and saw a) the padding disintegrating in a crumbly mess and b) the kiddie cartoon that said “Kids’ Own riding hat”.
Good news: I’d thought ahead and bought a new one after the fall. But, my, how riding hats change. The new one – with tag still dangling – has no peak; it looks a little like a soup tureen. If I rack my alcohol-sodden brains, I think I remember someone saying it’s safer.
So I tried it on, adjusted the straps and thought, it’s not that comfy; it doesn’t fit right and those straps really poke into my face. Later, I thought I’d better sort it out as it’s an early start tomorrow, and…
…it really helps if you put these things on the right way round.
Wish me luck on the horse.
Occasionally, when I find myself in the vicinity of Festival City, I shop at Marks & Spencer’s. As I said once before, I quite like their bikinis, which, for some reason, flatter my figure. And I also – like the late Princess Diana – tend to buy my pants there. But there’s something fishy about M&S sizing. Bear with me while I explain.
In the M&S clothing department, I can fit into a size 8-10 depending on the cut. Of course I’m not really a size 8-10; it’s just that M&S changed their sizing a couple of years ago to flatter us giggly blondes into thinking we’re smaller than we are. We all know that a size 8-10 in M&S equates to a 10-12 in the real world, don’t we?
But the point is that, in M&S clothes, I’m an 8-10. And then I go to the pants section and, blow me down with a feather, I have to buy size 14 pants. And even those dig into my hips, creating unsightly bulges under skirts and dresses. Not only do those bulges distress me, but so does the fact that I’m stepping into pants with a “size 14” printed on them every morning. Trust me: not good for morale.
And that, for me, is the Great M&S Paradox. So what causes it? Do they use different models to cut the clothes and pants? Haven’t they got a corporate tape measure?
And what do their other customers make of it? The “average” woman in the UK said to be a size 16+. So, if I’m buying size 14 pants when I’m really a 10-12, what on earth is the “average” woman in the UK wearing? Pillowcases with leg holes?
Part of my real job involves writing things about Dubai, which, in this part of the world, is not without its risk. If you don’t believe me, I refer you to the case of senior Reuters correspondent Ulf Laessing, who was yesterday given 24 hours to leave Saudi Arabia after authorities disagreed with the way in which he’d reported on protests.
Although, of course, my work is hardly as risky as that, I’ve had a fair few nights when I’ve lain awake worrying about getting “the knock at the door”; the policeman waiting with cuffs to take me either to jail or straight to the airport.
Don’t laugh – it happens.
Today, then, imagine my terror as I sat bashing the computer keys when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, the olive-green uniform of a Dubai Police officer walk up the front path. Surely not, I thought. It can’t be.
The doorbell rang. My heart thudded.
Peeping through the bougainvillea, I could see the alarming sight of a bright yellow Civil Defence four-wheel-drive parked outside the house. My house! Living in expat suburbia as I do, this is as incongruous a sight as seeing an Eskimo on Jumeirah Beach.
I walked to the door and opened it nervously, my best “Who? Little old me?” smile frozen onto my face. The uniformed man was not to be seen, but the four-wheel-drive was still there. I walked slowly down the path, thinking, is this it? Should I get my phone? My wallet? Should I call DH?
And then it sunk in that it was not the police at all, but a Civil Defence car, with its terrifying, emergency-red flashes, and my mind leapt to DH and the children. What had happened? Were they alright? Why was Civil Defence knocking on my door?
A smiley face appeared from behind the four-wheel-drive. It was the man in uniform. He raised both hands, palms out, with a big smile and said, “Don’t worry. Nothing’s wrong.”
As my knees buckled and I tried not to vomit with relief, he continued:
“Do you know who we are? Why we’re here?”
I looked blank. My brain was having trouble catching up.
“Here’s a bag for you,” he said. “It has some nice things inside. Now sign this and print your name here.” Dare I say it, he smiled slightly flirtatiously.
And that, in case it ever happens to you, was the “National Campaign For Families Domestic Safety”. In the bag were leaflets and stickers about safety in the home – they may like to add one on the prevention of premature heart attacks in unsuspecting housewives.
My children’s birthdays come up within two weeks of each other, which means my mind, right now, is in party-planning mode. And a part of that is, of course, the cake.
My mum taught me how to bake when I was knee-high to a Shetland pony, so making the cake itself is no issue for me. But where I fail is on decoration. I’m rubbish at icing and I’m rubbish at art. Yes, I know how to make icing; I just never quite get it right.
And, as for making the icing into creative things that resemble cars, princesses or Hannah Montana – well, you can forget that idea right now. I’ll be lucky to get my icing neatly onto the top of the cake without any extra complications.
So, for the past couple of years (since DD was big enough to notice that her cake looked a bit messy, really) I’ve ordered from a popular cake supplier in Dubai. When I first started ordering from them, your average cake cost about Dhs 300 to Dhs 350 – doesn’t sound a lot in Dubai terms but, when you put it into sterling, I guess the best part of £50 for a kids’ cake isn’t really cheap. But we’ve had some lovely creations like this one, which was for DD’s 4th birthday:
So today I logged on to the website to look for ideas for DS’s cake, and the first one I clicked on was a ‘Cars’ one – for the handsome price of Dhs 1,600 (£290), though it was discounted to Dhs 1,450 (£263) in the sale. Thankfully I’d just been reading a blog post by a journalist in England who was ranting about those “mad parents who spend £500 on a kids’ party” so I had my sensible hat on. I mean, really: £290 for a kids’ cake?
You could fly to Sri Lanka for that!
And then I went on to Amazon, where I managed to order a personalised (!) Thomas the Tank Engine “cake-topper”, for £5.99. I’ll bake DS’s cake myself and stick the topper on top of my crummy icing and no-one (except you, if you’re invited) shall be any the wiser.
(And there’ll be £284.01 more in the handbag fund.)
Instead of jetting off to Australia sans children like my dear friend TwinsMummy, I spent the weekend absorbing the auras of authors Tony-Man And Boy-Parsons, Louise-Whatever You Love-Doughty and Marina-A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Lewycka courtesy of the Emirates Airline International Literature Festival.
It was a deal I’d previously arranged with DH when he suggested I might like a night away from my Housewifely responsibilities, aka a night of precious solitude in a Dubai hotel.
Although that’s not an offer to be sniffed at (think: spa treatment, room service dinner, glass of wine, good book in bed, no children to wake me at 6am), if DH was offering to look after the children without me, I knew exactly what I wanted: Unlimited access to the fiction workshops at the Literature Festival.
So, while DH played Lego, splashed in the baby pool and spoon-fed pesto pasta into DS’s mouth all weekend, I got to lap up the wisdom of people who’ve “made it” in my chosen career, and to hope that a bit of their brilliance rubbed off on my jumper on the way out.
I had two hours with each author, and learned something from each of them. What was most inspiring, though, was hearing them talk about their own failings. Tony Parsons – an author who admits to getting seven-figure book deals – is paranoid his superstar agent will forget who he is; Louise Doughty – author of the slightly bossy “how to” A Novel in a Year – admitted it actually took three years to write her last novel; and Marina Lewycka, a talented writer who was first published at 57 years old, showed us how littered with mistakes some of her early work was.
Each one of them gave me a little glimmer of hope that one day it could be me standing up there with my seven-figure publishing deal, my string of bestsellers and my movie rights, telling wannabe writers how it’s done.
If it happened, I’d be ever so nice to them, really I would.
I’m starting to think about DS’s second birthday. Unlike last year, when I dashed off a cake as a last-minute thought, there’s actually going to be a party. A small one, involving a handful of his little mates from nursery and the park. For them, I’ll do popcorn, Wotsits, fruit, cupcakes, drinks – nothing major as it’s only 3 to 5pm – not a proper tea – and littluns never eat party food anyway.
But the adults… that’s a whole different ball game, no? I was thinking jugs of Pimm’s, bubbly, canapés, some mini lime cheesecakes… I ran the idea past DH at 6 o’clock this morning.
“Why do you always serve bubbles?” he asked, somewhat grumpily. Before I had a chance to reply, he was off again: “Just because you like it doesn’t mean you have to serve it all the time. People don’t expect it… it’s a kids’ party!”
You can tell he hasn’t been to many kids’ parties, can’t you?
“The mums like it,” I said, defensively. “It always goes down well.”
“Ridiculous,” he snorted. “It’s not your birthday; it’s DS’s party. We’re not the “Pleasure Dome” of Dubai, serving bubbly every time a bunch of women come over.”
(Clearly, he hasn’t been to many of my play dates, either…)
“Are you saying I can’t get in a few bottles of Jacob’s Creek sparkling rosé? Dhs 50 a bottle?” I asked (it may be a little more, but I was trying to make my case).
“Yes,” he said. “Yes, I am saying that.”
I have to admit at this point I was a little stunned. Silent, in fact. Crumbs, it would have to be just the Pimm’s.
“If you’re going to do it,” he said, “at least get some proper champagne.”