Thursday, 1 November 2012

Temper, Temper

In what is possibly his most famous poem, Philip Larkin wrote...

They fuck you up, your mum and dad.
They may not mean to, but they do.
They fill you with the faults they had 
And add some extra, just for you.

I've thought about these words often since becoming a father. I think my job is to not let this happen but then real life intervenes and my best intentions are steamrollered by the heat of the moment.

Before you read on, please be assured that this is not some startling revelation that will have you dialling Childline. Just a somewhat banal snapshot of family life that I'm sure most of you will recognise.

Last night was Halloween. As we do every year, one of us takes the girls out guising whilst the other waits in for the doorbell to ring so as to be regaled with awful songs and even worse jokes. (Just an aside for any non-Scots. We don't do trick-or-treat. We have a much older tradition where the kids all dress up and go round the neighbourhood knocking on doors and doing "turns" in exchange for sweets or nuts or fruit or, sometimes, cash! If you don't want to be visited, you don't put a jack o' lantern out.) The girls came back with bulging sacks of loot. Most of it made of sugar. There were cakes, hundreds of sweets and a couple of huge, nasty-looking iced biscuits. One of our friends had given them each a home made toffee apple.

These toffee apples were the cause of a family-wide disagreement this evening in which an idle comment made by Helen had been taken and lovingly nurtured by Lulu. She had cared for the comment, watered it, fed it and kept it warm until it had finally grown into a magnificent sweeping

The Promise was along the lines of agreeing that she could eat her toffee apple after school. Of course when it had been uttered the utterer was not remembering that Lulu was going to friend's house for tea and would only be coming home just before bed time.

Whilst I drove her home, I had the Promise explained to me. Frankly I can't be arsed with toffee apples so I am unaware that they take about ten hours to eat. And anyway Helen had promised so of course I agreed that she could have it.

When we get home Sorrel is dancing to music. She dances with all the grace of a table falling down a concrete stairwell. Lulu, however, decided that this looked like an excellent game and joined in. Although she embellished the game by insisting that she don her leotard and dancing shoes. Whereupon Sorrel burst into tears and insisted that she too should be thus accoutred.

I, meanwhile, am running a bath and declaring that, once it's full they must come and get into it.

The toffee apple is forgotten. Dancing is go!

The problem, however is that dancing takes time to do. Eating a toffee apple also takes time to do. There really isn't that much time. The supplementary problem is that, having had one nice thing (tea at a friend's house) Lulu has managed to wangle two more treats. A tertiary problem is also floating around: namely that Helen is working overnight and has to leave at 8.30. Deadline.

We have to get them into the bath and then to bed.

What happens next in terms of the order of events and the precise way in which things unravel is unclear. There is some business that features me the key thrust of which is the sudden and irritable withdrawal of the toffee apple and the end of the dancing. Both of the children take my lead, skip any sort of incremental build up and become hysterical. We respond in kind with raised voices. I am issuing stentorian threats that sound like an angry, panicky foghorn that is about to flush bags of sweets down the toilet. Words like "last chance" and "unacceptable behaviour" and "disgraceful display" pepper the air.

The girls are beyond upset. They are keening like a pair of wet-faced banshees. Helen, to her credit, reins herself in first. I retreat downstairs where I quickly feel the hot flush of guilt at how badly I have handled things.

Here's the thing. I have a temper and my temper is profoundly bound up with the depression that I have suffered with for most of my life. I would like - as far as I am able - to spare my daughters from being the sort of person I am, in this respect at least. But Larkin is right. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, we show the worst of ourselves and demonstrate behaviour to our children that is not the behaviour we would wish to see from them. That we do it because we have failed to teach them, in this instance, that plans change and that we as adults are sometimes fallible is so ironic as to be almost funny...were it not so bloody sad.

Ultimately we are not just rearing our kids. We are also struggling to rear ourselves. And I know what I'd like to be when I grow up: calmer.

(Things were not left like this. We all calmed down and big cuddles were had before stories were read and we tucked them up in bed. I've just looked in on them and their smooth, untroubled faces as they sleep leave me hopeful that I may not have entirely ruined their childhoods. Yet.)

Tuesday, 22 May 2012

20 Rules: The Important Stuff I Want My Kids To Know.

On Sunday, when Helen was at work, Lulu, Sorrel, and I were hanging about the house. I was reading in a desultory manner and they were playing one of those elaborate games that kids play that seem to consist more of them explaining the scenario and rules to each other than actual play. Often these games break down when a dispute arises over who's going to be which imaginary character or whether there's a baby in the game or not.

On this occasion, however, they just segued into being silly. Sorrel has a nice line in surreal humour and a gift for the ridiculous bon mot. Lulu's humour is more character based. She does accents and impressions. On this occasion she was Prince Charles trying to sell some plaice to Sorrel's imaginary friend Scravvels (who's a ladybird). You had to be there. We all ended up - well I did - with tears streaming down our faces from laughing so much.

When we'd calmed down there was a brief rare moment of stillness when we were all sat together on the sofa.

"Listen," I said, "I want you to remember this. And I want you to remember what I'm about to say because it's important."

They looked at me with big serious eyes. One pair palest of pale blue, the other golden-green.

"Never forget how to be silly," I said, "It's a rule I want you to try and stick to."

I don't know if they'll remember or, indeed, if they took me seriously at all. But it set me thinking about the rules for living that I'd like them to abide by.

I've been mulling them over but they weren't hard to to write down. So, here they are, in no particular order, 20 rules for living. The sum total of my accumulated wisdom.

1. Be kind

2. Violence is to be abhorred. If you are forced to use it by circumstances beyond your control make sure you win.

3. Boys are NOT more important or better than girls in anything. The boys who don't know this are not worth bothering with.

4. Never forget how to be silly. It doesn't do to take yourself too seriously.

5. You're lovely. Make sure you believe it and understand why. It's a lot easier to like others if you like yourself.

6. Try to remember for later what it was like to be you, now.

7. Always carry a handkerchief and a penknife.

8. Try to see yourself from the point of view of others. If you find you act like an arse make adjustments.

9. Don't be cynical. It's lazy.

10. Like everyone but be careful who you trust.

11. Don't bother hating people. Why expend the energy on them?

12. Don't lie. There's less to remember if you stick to the truth.

13. Don't waste time moaning about stuff you can't affect. Do something about the stuff you can change. There's more of the latter than you think.

14. Forgive. But don't necessarily forget.

15. Be brave. Be loyal. Be fair.

16. Never stop learning.

17. Never stop playing.

18. Treat everyone with respect. Earn it back.

19. Most things are more important than money. Nothing is more important than love.

20. Don't be disappointed by people. You're an arsehole too sometimes.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Bathtimes of Despair

All the books and articles you read about parenthood tell you that you should treasure every moment because it will pass so quickly. Or they describe with glum pleasure the horrors of sleep deprivation and having no social life. Neither of these views is realistic of course. Most people find it to be a generally agreeable experience with interludes of hilarious delight or utter despair.

Me, I'm prone to despair. I have a depressive streak running through me like the writing in a stick of rock. If you snapped me in half - something, on occasions, I might beg you to do - it would read, "kill me quick." I try, however, be a good, funny, attentive and kind Dad but on occasions my alter ego - a character I like to refer to as Flashpoint Charlie emerges, raging. Bedtime is one of the occasions that he appears.

Tired children, at the end of a long day, just need to be fed, bathed and poured into bed. 


Well actually, no. For inexplicable reasons the feeding and bathing seems to revive them to a state so far past awake that you couldn't see awake if you looked at where it used to be through the Hubble space telescope. A state akin to passing a low electric current through a box of bees. It is when they are in this state - when, conversely, I am very tired and grumpy - that they like to hide. 

Let's get something straight: they're shit at hiding. Mostly they hide under the bed covers...or the bed itself and then giggle loudly and uncontrollably. As I write this it all sounds rather sweet and endearing. But it's not. all I want to do is to have calm children who will consent to have their teeth brushed and then settle down to have some stories read to them. What I get is a squirming, uncooperative mess of girl limbs that is incapable of doing what it's told. 

The blue touchpaper is lit for me by hearing them whisper, "Hide!" conspiratorially to each other. Sometimes they try to hide when they are in the bath. Mind you I once overheard them playing hide and seek together whilst in the bath so, for them, anything is possible. 

This is often the point at which Flashpoint Charlie emerges incoherent with exasperation. His hallmark parenting technique is a sort of passive/aggressive rage that teaches the kids nothing except that it's OK to shout and that their Dad's a prat. 

However, on most occasions I try to keep Charlie in check. I do this by a following a series of rituals that I have evolved over several years. 

The first is making them jump. 

By a happy accident our house is constructed in such a way that the bathroom comes off a small landing just at the top of the stairs. This gives it a higher ceiling than all the other upstairs rooms so that the cold water tank can be accommodated. It also means that you can climb the stairs without being seen and then, if you lie down on your stomach on the landing you can wriggle into the bathroom undetected by the person or persons in the bath. This enables you to either spring up like a jack-in-the-box or pretend to have climbed up as though the bath were perched atop a high pinnacle...and to fall down again.

Once in the bathroom we can engage in a game of "Buttons, Butterflies or Bees" in which I adopt the persona of a homely Lancastrian woman who is uncommonly interested in their preferences from the short and bizarre series of choices she offers them. "So, loveys, which do you like best: hay, straw...or fish? Hands, feet...or spam?"

Finally, it's time to get out of the bath. They hate this and will do almost anything to prolong bathtime. Even when the water has gone cold. For months this was a major flashpoint that would end in tantrums and hysterics on their part and shouting on mine. 

Once, with an utterly appalling lack of judgment and at a point of deep despair I said to them, "If you don't get out of the bath right now.....I'll die!" It felt to me as though it would be a blessed relief - at least I'd get to lie down somewhere quiet. To her great credit Lulu retorted, in a tone that was terrifyingly reminiscent of her mother, " Don't be ridiculous. You're not going to die if we don't get out of the bath!" I was forced to concede that it was ridiculous and, thankfully, normal service was restored.

Shortly after that I hit on a discovery. If I could get them to stand up I could simply lift them out of the bath, wrap them in their towels and no fuss would be made. I tried a variety of means to trick them onto their feet until I found one that worked. It required a bit of training and some occasional elaboration but it still serves nearly 18 months after I invented it. 

What I do is this. Whilst they are in the bath I usually sit on the toilet lid and chat to them. When I think they've been in for long enough, I spring to my feet and shout, " I AM SPARTACUS!" Whereupon they spring to their feet and shout, "NO! I'M SPARTACUS!" and I lift them out of the bath. 


Of course what wasn't simple was explaining slavery and the slave revolt to a four year old and a six year old. But that's for another time.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

I've got a bike you can ride it if you like...

Here's the news: two weeks ago Lulu learnt to ride a bike. It's a milestone in any child's life and ranks alongside first words, first steps and learning to read as one of the key achievements of childhood.

It's been a bit of a long haul to be honest. Both Helen and I use bikes to get about all the time. But Lulu, despite showing early promise, has been a reluctant cyclist.

She started well. We got her a balance bike when she was two. It was a wooden two-wheeled affair that looked like a it had been bike-jacked from a midget Victorian gentleman flower-seller. She loved her balance bike and would race off on it lifting both feet off the ground to coast on two wheels down startlingly steep hills.

When she was three we bought her a proper bike. The advice was, given her excellent use of the balance bike, to not bother with stabilisers because she'd not want or need them.

People who say things like this don't have children. Well, they don't have my children anyway. Lulu is susceptible to peer pressure and at the time time of the arrival of her lovely new pink bike she had a best friend who lived a few doors down who did have stabilisers. So she insisted on having them too.

Of course the friend did away with hers about 6 weeks later whilst Lulu found the weird jolting, rocking experience delivered by stabilisers utterly terrifying and became convinced that if she stopped using them she would FALL OFF. Which, clearly, would hurt.

The upshot was that from the age of three to the age of seven she could barely sit on a bike without weeping fearfully, mourning in advance all the skin that she would scrape off when I allowed the bike to VICIOUSLY THROW HER TO THE TARMAC.

We came to the stage where she would set up a lose/lose conversation that went along these lines:
She: (tearfully) Everyone in my class at school can ride a bike except me!
Me: (Really gently) Well why don't you learn? I'll help you.
She: (appalled and angry) NO! I HATE MY BIKE!! BIKES ARE STUPID!!
She: everyone in my class can ride a bike except me....

At which point I would beat myself insensible with a track pump.

Finally Helen took it upon herself to teach her. In a display of patience that convinced me that she must have been self medicating with powerful tranquillisers she cajoled and coaxed our daughter back into the saddle. And eventually, a little at a time she managed to get Lulu to cycle a few yards by herself.

I joined in and we got her to cycle between the two of us steadily increasing the distance.

We made no fuss about it and didn't scold when the session might last only a few minutes.

Then, one day, I suggested that we took the bike to the park. She agreed but insisted that I had to wheel it all the way there. We arrived and she managed a few small trips between Helen and me as before.

"Why don't you try going a bit further," I said. "I'll run alongside you just in case."

So I started off holding onto the back of her seat for a few yards and then I let go. I ran alongside her. "You're doing it," I told her, "You're doing really well."

She rode for 10 seconds. 15 and then 20 seconds. And then after half a minute she put the brakes on, coasted gracefully to a halt, dismounted, let the bike fall to the floor.

"That was really weird," she declared firmly. "I am NOT doing THAT again."

She has not ridden since.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Party, Party, Party

It's the first birthday of this blog and I've astonished myself by still being here. A year ago today I felt compelled to write a warning to myself and others about the risks of holding your child's birthday party in your own home.

At the time I feared that my sentimental attachment to my children would lead me into repeating my foolhardy mistake. But no. My lovely wife is made of sterner stuff and this year we held Lulu's seventh birthday party at a trampoline centre.

It's an industrial party machine that most parents claimed never to have been to, but on arrival several suddenly recalled having parties there themselves 30 years ago. So these people are experts. Although the jukebox in the trampoline room was decidedly odd. I was trying to imagine the children's party at which it was appropriate to play the first Portishead album or indeed anything by Leftfield.

However, it was all fine. We under catered on purpose. Largely because I object to having tiny sandwiches for tea for most of the following week. We used paper plates so we could just clear up into bin bags and not have to wash up. We didn't plan any games, we just left them to bounce for an hour. Then we fed them and afterwards were driven out as the staff pointedly swept the floor around us. MUCH better than last year.

Lulu particularly impressed me by staying calm and not wigging out about having to wait until we got home to open her presents. She also made a point of speaking to everyone there and if anyone seemed to be getting left out of the games she went and got them and gently persuaded them to join in.

She was charming.

And when present-opening time finally did arrive it was Sorrel's turn to impress by showing interest in what had been received but not weeping at the injustice of receiving nothing herself - something she's done a lot of recently.

Helen was working on the following day and each of the girls had another party to go to. Naturally they were on opposite sides of the town and at slightly different but overlapping times.

So Lulu was collected by some friends whose daughter was going to the same party and we arranged that I would pick her up from them after the party Sorrel was attending

In the car on the way back from Lulu's friend's house the girls compare party bags. Lulu expresses disappointment that Sorrel has cake whilst she does not.

"That's OK Lulu," says her sister, "You can have it."

If that's not surprising enough then when they get home they agree to tip the contents of their respective bags onto the table and share everything out equally.

I'm stunned, but delighted by this display of mutual generosity.  Everything goes into the sweetie jar and we agree on what can be eaten now. A small packet of sweets each. They go off to play. When they leave the room I find in my pocket a further packet of sweets that Sorrel had won in pass-the-parcel. I place it on the kitchen counter.

About ten minutes later it has gone.

"Girls!" I call, "Where is the packet of sweets that was on the counter?"

They make the most hopeless display of innocence I've ever seen. Over-protesting their ignorance of the packet of Gold Bears (I hadn't named the sweets); failing to meet my eye; trying really hard not to smile; Sorrel forgetting to wipe away the one sweet that had inexplicably stuck to her face.

"I want those sweets back here by the time I count to ten", I say. "ONE...."

Lulu's shoulders slump. "We can't," she sighs, "We ate them." And then brightening, "It was Sorrel's idea!"

Sorrel bursts into tears, goes over to the bin, gets out the empty sweetie wrapper and brings it to me, her head hung in shame as her tears drip onto the floor.

I explain, in a very serious tone, how disappointed I am in them both and how unacceptable it is to take things without asking. It's also unnecessary: I almost certainly would have given them the sweets if they'd asked.

Sorrel is very contrite. But Lulu makes one last stab at deflecting the bad feelings overwhelming her.

"WELL, IT'S YOUR FAULT!" She yells in my face.

I pick her up and carry her into the sitting room and close the door - just as I remember my father doing to me if my behaviour ever crossed the line.

"You are seven," I tell her, "That's old enough to know the difference between right and wrong. And what you have done is clearly wrong. I don't care whose fault you think it is. You know you've done the wrong thing and I want you to apologise for it."

Her face crumples as she realises that I am not only right but also that I obviously still love her regardless. She flings her arms around me and buries her head in my shoulder and sobs her "Sorries" into my now soggy neck.

Parties: they're no fun until someone cries.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

A Haircut To Remember

Parenthood provides many challenges and many surprises, not least of which is what your kids will - and will not  - put up with. I am taken aback therefore to find that Sorrel, having noisily refused to go to her dance class on Saturday morning is prepared to come to the barbers with me and to sit quietly whilst I get my hair cut.

I get my hair cut by a Turkish barber not far from the house. I've been going there since we moved to this part of town two and a half years ago. He knows me pretty well by now in the way that two men who spend half an hour saying nothing in each others company on the first Saturday of each month. 

The appearance of a well-known client accompanied by a blond angel child sparks an unusual degree of animation in my barber.

"Hello young lady! Are you having your hair cut today?"

Ever the flirt, Sorrel, shakes her head demurely and hops up on one of the benches with her book to wait.

As my hair is being cut I can see her looking at the pictures in the book she has brought with. Occasionally she glances up to see what I look like and to pass comment. The barber solicitously stops cutting whenever she speaks so I can hear her.

The sight of her sitting there reminds me of the time my father took me for a hair cut when I was about eight. I had long hair and he wasn't paying attention to what was happening. He was a GP in the age when they were paid rather less handsomely and still had to get up to visit well-known hypochondriacs in the middle of the night. Understandably he saw this trip as a rare opportunity to read the paper and smoke a contemplative pipe. Having received instructions to give me "a trim" I watched in horror as the barber gave me a fierce short back and sides. I was shy with grown-ups I didn't know too well and so I said nothing as my blond, curly hair tumbled to the floor. I gazed beseechingly at my Father's reflection but all I could see of him was a broadsheet with legs under a fragrant pall of smoke.

Today, however, I'm having my coarse grey hair cut in a similar fashion but this time through choice. And as it falls down the front of the black hairdressers bib I'm wearing I reflect on how much more grey there is every month. Catching Sorrel smiling at me in the mirror another, more recent memory pops up.

Sorrel has always been a dreadful sleeper and I can count on one hand the number of nights in the last four years that she has not disturbed us. Since she came out of her cot however the disturbance is not so great as she usually stumbles through and sneaks into our bed in the small hours.

So I am a little surprised one night about eighteen months ago to be woken by quiet weeping. I go though to her and find that she's been sick. This is a kid with long curly hair who likes to sleep on her back....

It is a scene of utter horror. Her hair is full of vomit. I lift her out of bed and carry her into the bathroom. Under the strong lights the true state of affairs becomes clear. We had eaten pineapple for tea and the sick is sticky and fibrous. She's thrown up but not immediately woken and has rolled on it so that it is thoroughly matted in.

The only option I can see is to use the shower attachment to rinse it out. By this time she's more awake and is becoming understandably distressed by her predicament. She hates the shower too so the crying becomes louder. I get her our of her pyjamas and start showering her. It's just not effective and now she's screaming.

Helen wakes and comes through. I explain the situation. We don't really have a choice: I have to cut the vomit out of her hair.

I have to take a moment here to describe Sorrel's hair. Lulu, her Mum, her Granny and her Aunt and her Cousin all have identical rich, thick, chocolate brown hair shot through with strands of copper and honey. Sorrel on the other hand has silky-fine blond hair with beautiful relaxed curls at the ends. We've never cut it so it's still technically her baby hair. It's also down to the middle of her back. She has golden eyes, little cubby cheeks and a rosebud of a mouth. She is unspeakably cute. But the hair? The hair is gorgeous.

So Helen sits on the toilet lid in her dressing gown helpfully weeping as I take the scissors and administer a severe bob to the equally tearful child.

When it's done she looks alarmingly different. But at least she's calmer. Helen however is visibly grief-stricken but she's holding it together for the child. I give Sorrel a final wipe down and Helen takes her off to sleep with us in our bed. I start to clear up the mess of hair and sick on the bathroom floor but as I do I hear Helen calling softly from next door. I pop my hear round the door and she says, "Do you think you could find a lock of her hair for me to keep?"

It's a small request but given the attempted rinsing it's hard to tell which strands are tainted and which escaped being chucked up on.

So there I am at three in the morning on all fours in the bathroom, picking up locks of my daughter's baby hair alternately sniffing and retching and then occasionally nodding in approval as I find one that doesn't honk of partially digested pineapple.

The things you do for love....

Sunday, 26 February 2012

Fairy strife

Last August, just before Lulu went into P2, Helen took her to John Lewis to buy new school shoes. The pair they chose were Clarks and very sensible: black Mary-Janes with a wee black bow on the front. It had escaped everyone's notice until school started that these shoes featured a secret compartment just big enough to smuggle a sufficient quantity of hash into the school to see you through the day whilst turning a small profit over the dinner break.

Fortunately the hash compartment in each shoe was already occupied by a tiny pixie. A toy one obviously. Whilst that prevented the smuggling of narcotics it did allow for a dangerous and upsetting exchange of tiny toys to go on. This swapping craze lasted a few weeks and was finally quashed when enough tears had been shed to convince every parent that it wasn't just harmless fun.

The upshot of the swapping fad was that the tiny pixies disappeared very quickly (as did some things that were very precious to Sorrel). So, yesterday I was extremely surprised and Lulu was delighted when one of the pixies turned up in the pocket of an old jacket.

It was a nothing moment in a busy event-filled Saturday. Or so I thought. This morning however this little toy became pivotal in the worst fight I have ever seen between the girls. At the crux of the disagreement sat a misunderstanding. At some point on Saturday Sorrel had asked if she could "have" the little figure. Lulu assumed she meant have as in "to look at". Sorrel thought she had been given the thing in perpetuity.

The fight had no narrative structure but it went on for the best part of an hour. Naturally there were tears but they were the least of it. There was also considerable screaming a quantity of snot plus hitting and hair-pulling. No amount of intervention from either of us helped.

I confiscated the pixie. Partly in the hope that out-of-sight is out-of-mind and partly hoping that they would round on me as a common enemy and forget their fight. No chance. The way they saw it the pixie was now being held by the court pending a decision and so they continued the passionate debate, appealing to me from time to time as though I were Solomon.

Eventually, Lulu gave up. She is older than her sister but also naturally more pragmatic whereas Sorrel possesses the misguided self-belief of Napoleon marching on Moscow. Her will is strong and her determination implacable. I remember my older sisters fighting like this but they were teenagers at the time. The younger of them once broke her sister's finger.

The girls are only six and four. At some point over the next ten years I intend to move into the shed.

Postscript: Later, Lulu and I were sitting quietly together and I said, "I can't believe the two of you had such a big fight over a teeny plastic pixie."

She looked at me in disgust and said, witheringly, "It's not a pixie, Daddy. It's a fairy. Don't you know anything?" whereupon she flounced off.

So that explains everything.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Boys Night Out

It is a sad truth of modern fatherhood that, once your first child arrives, your partner's social circle expands massively. Yours, however, contracts down to the one or two close friends who are prepared to spend a very occasional evening watching over you as you sleep draped over a table in the pub, a soft drink loosely gripped in your slack hand.

A few years down the line, though, if you play your cards right, you'll discover like-minded dads amongst the parents of your children's friends and you can all go to the pub together and curl up in one corner like a litter of puppies and sleep until closing time.

I enjoyed one such evening last night when a bunch of dads from Lulu's primary school met up for a drink. It was my intention to have a couple of pints but the couple turned swiftly into six or so and my better judgement only really kicked in when the others moved onto shorts.

The pub closed at 1am and we rolled up the hill together. I got in and began my post-pub ritual of drinking at least three pints of squash and eating half a loaf of toast in an attempt to offset the effects of the booze in the morning.

As I start in on my third slice of toast I hear a wail from upstairs and, assuming it to be Sorrel (who suffers from poor sleep and night terrors) I trudge wearily up the stairs. But it's not Sorrel. She's fast asleep in the bottom bunk whilst her sister is sat bolt upright on the top a look of absolute terror on her face, her body wracked by deep sobs.

"I had a nightmare," she declares. "And it was really scary." She bursts into tears.

I lift her down and hold her tightly. Maybe I can get her back to sleep if I can calm her down.

"What was it, sweetie?" I ask. In the past telling her dream has helped to clear it from her mind.

"There was a whale shark with yellow checkerboard eyes and black pins for teeth. He wanted to eat me and he was swimming through the floorboards," she reveals between sobs.


There's no way she's going back into her own bed I decide so, as I'm still eating toast, I take her down stairs and make her a mug of warm milk. Soon it's 2am and we're sat chatting and giggling. It's then that I remember that Helen is starting a run of overnight shifts the following night and she'll need to lie in as late as possible in order to get some sleep in the bank. I'm going to be getting up with the girls in about four hours time.

I carry her back upstairs and slide her into my bed with her mother. And then I go and check on her sister. Sorrel too is sitting bolt upright in bed. But she's not crying. She's looking at me impishly and smiling. She knows it's the middle of the night and here I am not just awake but dressed. It's so exciting.

"I had a nightmare?" she offers.

"No you didn't," I tell her.

"Can I sleep in your bed?" she asks. I can't allow this. She's perfectly capable of ripping Helen out of her deep sleep to ask something like, "Why are legs?" or "What colour is toast?"

"No lovely. You can't. You'll wake up mummy and it's important that she gets enough sleep tonight."

I try to think quickly but I'm still pretty pissed. "Do you want me to come in with you?" I hear myself say.

I should say at this point that, like many parents we often play musical beds in the middle of the night. So if both girls come into our bed I usually decamp to the bottom bunk. This would be fine except the bunks are 6 foot long and I'm 6'5" so every time I roll over I bang my head or painfully jam my feet between the bars at the other end of the bed. But sharing with a restless four year old? This is a stunningly poor idea.

And I'm right. Four hours later I finally give up the uneven struggle and get up. I've been poked, jabbed, kicked, shouted at, and made to get up and go and fetch a drink. At one point I was awakened by a searing pain as she skillfully back-heeled my gonads in an unsophisticated attempt at a DIY castration.

Amazingly I feel ok. Clearly in an attic somewhere there's a hideous Dorian Grey style portrait of me.

Downstairs the girls help me make scones for breakfast and then - thank God - go off and play beautifully together (an increasingly rare occurrence) whilst I stare vacantly at the tablecloth. When Helen gets up four hours later she stumbles into the kitchen, groans and says, "I've had too much sleep. I'm knackered."

Friday, 6 January 2012


About a year after she was born Lulu started to get a series of nasty ear infections involving evil-smelling goop the consistency of melted fudge flowing from her left ear. This went on until the spring before she started school. Neither of us could bear the thought of her new classmates deciding she "smelt funny". So we became rather more assertive with our GP and a whole series of tests and visits resulted culminating in a CT scan which revealed she had a cholesteatoma.

A cholesteatoma is a deposit of cholesterol and dead cells in the ear which, if left unchecked, can destroy the hearing and ultimately grow into the cranial cavity and cause brain damage. Or worse.

Obviously it would have to be removed. There are two choices. The first option, as I understand it, involves scooping the whole affair out with a sharpened spoon. This leaves a big cavity behind which has to be cleaned out very regularly for the rest of the patient's life. You're encouraged to shelve your swimming career too. The second option is riskier and involves a series of three or four more delicate operations about a year apart. The risk is that damage could be caused to the facial nerve during one of these causing facial palsy. The upside is that once you're done you can swim and surf and never take your ear to the hospital again.

On the basis that we trust doctors and that we'd like our daughters to have as wide a range of options open go them as possible, we went for the second choice.

Having had a grommet fitted a few months earlier, Lulu was very relaxed about the operation. Her chief anxiety was whether one of us would be able to stay in the hospital with her and, once we'd established that we could, whom she was going to chose. Her primary concern seemed to be that the one she didn't chose would be upset. I took her to one side.

"Look, the important thing is that you feel safe and happy. Take whichever one of us will help you feel that way in hospital. If you chose Mummy I really won't be upset."

She welled up. "But I'll really miss you if you're not there," she wailed.

"If I was six and going into hospital I'd want my Mum there," I said. "Most kids would."

"Oh Daddy," she sighed, "When Mummy and Sorrel aren't here you're my favourite."

On the day, she and Helen have to be there at eight so they leave in a cab at 7.15. I'm struggling to hold it together - all the risks playing through my head. My perfect little girl is sat right here right now and shortly she's going to be taken away and may come back to me changed for ever. Sorrel is howling for less abstract reasons: Mummy will be away for a day and a night and she's being left with "stupid, ugly Daddy". I'm a mess but just manage not to let it show. Lulu looks back to me just as the door closes her little face crumpled and close to tears. Only Helen has a grip of herself. It's clear the Lulu has made the right choice.

Some hours later and Sorrel has watched every DVD in the house. I've completed chores so dull that I've been putting them off for years. Helen and I have been exchanging 'calm' texts the wall-climbing sub-text of which is clear. The op is supposed to take two hours and she's been in three then four then FIVE hours.

Poor Helen is sat by Lulu's empty bed steadily knitting a scarf for Lulu's beloved Bunny that will make him look like Tom Baker era Dr Who. I'm at home doing wall-of-death circuits like a chinchilla on amphetamines.

Eventually the surgeon emerges. The cholesteatoma has grown five-fold since the scan. It's eaten up all the bones of hearing and they've had to be removed. He's replaced them with plastic prostheses but we won't know how much hearing - if any - she'll have until all the packing in her ear is removed at the end of the month. Rather than doing the delicate paring away he was planning on, followed up
by similar ops in the years to come he's had to perform the semi-radical mastoidectomy with the spoon. So no more swimming for the dolphin-girl. We'll be seeing a lot of him over the next ten years he tells Helen.

I visit her later that night. She's in the post op ward with three very unhappy babies and an awkward looking teenager who would clearly rather be anywhere else. She has a bandage round her head and looks all puffy with a black eye on the way. But more than that... she's tiny. My tall, leggy girl who can't keep still is motionless: curled up, bandaged and tired, around her old grey Bunny - smart in his new scarf - as though he is the only thing keeping her afloat. She opens her eyes and gazes solemnly at me for a beat longer than is comfortable. "Dadda," she says and closes her pale blue eyes again.

If there was anything in me left to break it breaks now. I'm helpless to do anything for her but just be here. So I take her hand and do just that.