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A BIRTHDAY tea without cake is like Wimbledon without tennis. It was therefore vital that cake should be on the menu for grandson Joe’s sixth birthday – and preferably a cake that was ready for devouring the very second he arrived home from school in his usual state of near-starvation.

My daughter, who makes every scrap of her family’s food from scratch, had embarked on the cake-making part of the tea preparations as soon as she’d cleared away the chaos of toddler Zach’s lunch.

All seemed to be in good time, then, for the return of the hungriest small boy in the world. Joe is having his official party in the woods in a fortnight’s time so this tea, on his actual birthday, was just for selected guests: his mummy, daddy, little brother and Geoff and me.

The table was laid and looked so tempting and lovely with toothsome things to eat by the time we arrived after our two-hour journey.

However, crashings and bangings from the kitchen, interspersed with a few cries of woe, indicated all was not well in the bakery department. “I’ll have to throw this one away and start again,” said my daughter, normally so tense you could use her stress levels to power the National Grid, but now at absolute pinging point.

I asked what the problem was and learnt that the oven was too small to accommodate two layers of sponge cake so she was having to bake one at a time. The first one had come out at the due time with its top burnt and its inside still liquid.

“It’s OK, you’ve got time,” I lied, in a calming voice. Unfortunately, not only does my daughter currently struggle with a temporary dolls-house sized oven but her kitchen is on the less-than-grand size, too, so cannot comfortably accommodate two cooks while they spoil the broth, or in this case the cake. I had no choice but to follow orders and get out. My task then was to try and mask the sounds of exasperation and frustration coming from the kitchen and occasionally to put my hands over Zach’s ears.

Soon the birthday boy came bursting through the door, home from school with Daddy, and in a high state of excitement.

Naturally, the first thing he asked Mummy was if she had put the candles on the cake yet. Her “No, not quite yet,” came out a little strangulated.

Feeling brave, I peeped into the kitchen and saw that one cake half was successfully baked and the other was about to be mixed.

As the two boys, and we adults, too, grew increasingly hangry (hunger-induced anger) we decided to launch into the spread of food and hope the cake would make an appearance before bedtime.

We ate well and then my poor frazzled daughter eventually appeared from the kitchen bearing a prize-winning cake sandwiched with strawberry jam and topped with a translucent layer of icing, as per Joe’s specific request. The candles were lit, Joe puffed them out, Happy Birthday was sung, and at last everyone had a slice of cake on their respective plates.

“I’m sorry, Mum. I just can’t eat any more,” said Joe, who looked forlornly at his still-complete slice. We adults divvied it up between us. His small brother licked the icing off his piece before announcing that he couldn’t eat any either. “The jam is too strawberry-y,” he declared.

That’s the trouble with birthdays and cakes – you just can’t please everyone. Except greedy grown-ups.

 

WE went away for an overnighter at the weekend. Geoff and I headed north (or ‘oop north’ as my friend Janie, who lives in Leeds, allows me to say) for 200 miles in heavy traffic and under thick cloud. It did not bode well but we improved the outlook by making two stops on the way.

The first was at the M5 Gloucester Services. We avoid motorway services unless the car is desperate for petrol, but this one is as different from the standard muzak-infused junk-food hell as you could imagine. It’s heartening to see how a totally different ethos can create a traveller’s joy just by embracing simplicity and decency and eschewing the grossly naff.

The staff smile and tell me it’s a lovely place to work. I can believe that. We ate (deliciously) beside a landscaped lake and watched a dragonfly showing off, and then we walked around and noted the many clever, thoughtful features, the absence of noise, the space and the light and, outside, the grass roof and the whole organic ‘out of the ground’ nature of the place.

Nearer our destination we stopped to feed our aesthetic needs a little more at a National Trust property, Little Moreton Hall. After stop-start driving up the M6 it was a feast for the soul, with its wonky black-and-white medieval beauty being all quintessentially English and eccentric in the midst of a limpid moat.

When we finally reached our hotel it seemed we had had a full day already although the evening was yet young. We took a long walk to check out our new surroundings, noticing what a hit the town had taken in recent years but how there were signs it was bobbing back up to prosperity again.

This fact was evident later, when the streets came alive with young people intent on having a good time. Geoff and I found ourselves among them, feeling dowdy and far too sensibly dressed, when we went out to eat.

I’d done hours of research before leaving home to identify a suitable restaurant, based on location and the quality of its online reviews. The perfect one was not far from the hotel, and while out on our walk we’d popped in and booked the last available table. I glowed with triumph. What a perfect ending this would be to our day.

It’s a bit Spanish, I explained to Geoff, and the reviews mention how you share your tapas and how lovely the atmosphere is. It doesn’t look all that Spanish to me, he remarked, casting his eye down the menu.

Well, perhaps it’s an oop north version of Spanish, I said, jollying him along. True, there was a starter you could share, but there was nothing that could be pronounced with a lisp and therefore properly Spanish.

We shrugged and made our choices and then just lapped up the novelty of this odd northern take on a Spanish eatery.

While dissecting my distinctly un-Spanish stuffed aubergine I asked Geoff why he thought there was a huge number ‘64’ pasted on the street-side window. “It’s the name of the place,” he said. “Didn’t you notice on the menu it was called The 64 Bar & Grill?”

Oh whoops. We were in the wrong restaurant! This was the one that we’d booked, but it was not where my research had planned for us to be.

Geoff and I raised our glasses to serendipity. What No 64 lacked in tapas it made up for in atmosphere, and our friendly, chatty waiter made us happy, too. His name was Fernando. He was Spanish.

 

JUST imagine going to sleep one night and not waking up for seven months. Hedgehogs and tortoises make a habit of that sort of insular behaviour and now, we learn, it is also the province of space probes.

Much to the dismay of the scientists involved, the little dishwasher-sized Philae landed on a comet last November and its batteries failed.

Now, perked up by a smidgen of solar energy it has roused itself enough to get back in touch with Earth. I wonder what it has to say for itself and how it is explaining this excessively sulky meltdown that saw it go on the blink and out of commission for so long.

A hibernating hedgehog is one thing, a space probe that’s dozed off is quite another.

Frankly, Philae can say what it likes. The scientists will fall for any excuse it makes because they must be so relieved it’s finally come back to life.

I imagine they’ll be like parents who have agreed not to ask provocative questions such as ‘And what time do you think this is?’ when the mound of duvet in their son’s bedroom metamorphoses into a vaguely sentient object. You try not to punch the air with joy and relief when it thump-thumps down the stairs at the speed of a sloth and slumps in front of the telly with a mixing bowl full of breakfast cereal and the rest of the week’s milk.

No, there’ll be no questions snapped in Philae’s direction. Knobs may be tweaked and switches thrown, remotely of course, but no-one will actually shout into Philae’s ear and curse it for giving them seven months of grief.

I have a great admiration for this object, this clump of electronic miracles. I believe it has shown the weary among us an excellent way forward for coping with life and its many unwelcome pressures.

I cannot help imagining how much more pleasurable the past seven months might have been had I remained snuggled on my passenger’s side of the bed, covers pulled up, brain in neutral.

There’d have been no winter, for a start, no messy pile-up of angst about how we are going to manage Christmas and appease all the family, no attempts at listing impossibly ambitious New Year resolutions, and, best of all, no February. No February! Such a gloomy, good-for-nothing month, whose only saving grace is that it has the decency to be shorter than the rest.

Did I say that was best of all? No, best of all would have been not enduring the build-up to the General Election, which started on 1st January with the first news bulletin of the morning on the Today programme. How I groaned, and how it never, ever relented in its bombardment of non-news made all the more clunky and intolerable by the legal requirement to be even-handed to all parties. It was like drowning slowly in the turbulent waters of the Severn Bore.

The hibernating me would have missed all that. The thought is delightful. Mind you, I can think of a couple of political leaders who, when their own power went on the blink, would have found it infinitely more delightful if the painful denouement could have been played out not in the camera’s eye but, like Philae, behind a rock on a distant comet.

 

WHENEVER I see, hear or read anything about the annual parental torment of Prom Night I thank whoever is responsible for having made me so old that my daughter had left school before such events became a fixture.

And yet years ago I did endure a sort of torment, albeit one that didn’t require me to help dream up a brilliantly original mode of transport to get my little darling to her date with destiny.

It was her leavers’ ball. Yes, of course you shall go to the ball, Cinders. Never mind that it is unlikely to be any different from what we called a dance in the dark ages, and never mind at all that you have nothing to wear. We can have enormous fun together as we seek something that meets the approval of you and, therefore, your fashion-conscious, judgmental friends, and never mind your impossibly dowdy mother and father, when we only have enough money in the bank to pay for tonight’s supper.

Cinders and I drag into the nearest large town and ‘do’ the shops, enduring hot changing rooms and heartless mirrors. Of course my daughter looks lovely in everything she tries on – it happens like that when you’re 18, slim, with long, blonde, wavy hair – and of course she thinks she is simply hideous and absolutely nothing is right. “It’s a disaster, Mum,” she moans, “I look awful.”

Whatever I say has no effect or, more often, the wrong effect.

We spend the afternoon engaged in this soul-destroying activity, and by the end we have stopped speaking to each other. It happens like that when one of you is a right-on savvy teen and the other is a has-been (or a never-was), feels at least 100 and would happily settle for being Coco the Clown if it meant getting out of this shopping nightmare.

We do, at 5.29pm, with happy-at-last Cinders clutching a bag containing a plum-coloured piece of velvet that she insists is a skirt. “That cannot be a skirt,” I say, in my weary-mother voice. “That’s a pelmet. And anyway, who wears a pelmet, sorry, I mean a skirt, that short to a ball?” I splutter those last few words, which puts an end to all communication, even the raising of contemptuous eyebrows, for at least six days.

The following Saturday I paste on a smile and we devote more hours to finding a top to go with the skirt, and the Saturday after that it’s the shoes.

Miraculously, we repair our mother-daughter relationship and the velvet pelmet goes on to make a number of further appearances that have nothing to do with me, being well out of my sight at university. I believe it graduated with a low-grade degree in Politics, Philosophy and Extreme Shortness.

Now Cinders and I look back on that testing experience as a learning curve that took us both way off the scale.

Nobody warns you about the agonies of shopping with your teenage daughter. They just bang on about the other rites of passage of motherhood: the tightrope-walk you take to achieve the potty-training miracle, the letting-go of the hand on the first day at school and the shoulder you provide through the heart-sinking ups and downs of friendships. But there’s no flashing danger sign over ‘The Shopping Experience’.

It isn’t easy being a mother, but I take solace from knowing that the hell must be worse for every girl preparing for a prom night, or a ball, in the company of a mother who has aged to decrepitude and has aspirations to be Coco the Clown.

I’m not sure when I started to notice how public places were becoming so, well, public. Think about banks, post offices, building societies, chemists’ prescription counters and doctors’ and dentists’ reception areas and try and imagine, nowadays, having a discreet word with whoever is manning or womanning the area. You can’t. Everything is on a ‘speak up, please’ basis, with absolutely no chance of keeping even the smallest personal detail strictly between yourselves.

What’s in that parcel you’re sending to America? Would you confirm your address? Do you pay for your prescriptions? Is your appointment with the doctor or the midlife crisis nurse? Can you make an appointment with one of our customer appreciation consultants to discuss the financial implications of your redundancy? The bill for your dentures comes to £1,729, so how will you be paying for that?

And so on. The sensitive among us cringe and whisper, pointlessly, because no one hears anything below a shout since all this cross-counter business is conducted at high volume. More often than not it has to negotiate the barrier of a blinking computer, which competes for attention on the user’s side.

Queues and waiting rooms have become centres of entertainment as private lives become public property. It can’t always have been like this. I’m sure I recall a church-like reverence in such places, with receptionists and counter staff leaning towards you and speaking respectfully to ensure matters confidential remained just that.

In the dentist’s crowded waiting room the other day I heard a patient having to enunciate his name loudly and clearly before explaining his non-appearance for his 9.30am appointment. He’d been working away the previous day, been out late into the night and seriously overslept. He was sorry. I felt sorry for him, too, as he couldn’t help his misdemeanours being mentally noted by the roomful of us awkwardly studying our watches and our 1997 copies of Yachting Boatly.

Mobile phones play a major role, too, in making public what should be, and certainly used to be, private. I was unwittingly privy to two such phone calls this week that caused me to consider if I am the one out of step in my concern to keep things quiet and personal. Perhaps the world nowadays really is just a great big stage for everyone to lay bare their lives and I am only now tumbling to this fact.

Both phone users were within earshot of me and about two dozen others in the viewing gallery of a sports hall. They spoke loudly and although none of us was actually listening, we couldn’t help hearing.

One woman called up the hospital from where she is on maternity leave as a trainee doctor, seeking a date for resuming work. Her loud and sometimes tetchy negotiations were played out just before a man a few yards away from her called his mortgage provider to make an appointment for a meeting with an advisor. We learned to our discomfort – but clearly not to his – that he was struggling to make the payments and needed to renegotiate the existing arrangement.

I felt I knew both of them quite well after they had concluded their long and deeply personal conversations. I certainly knew how to spell their names and all about their domestic circumstances.

It served to illustrate for me that there is no longer any fun in speculating about someone’s personal situation, perhaps idly weaving a tale of romance or mystery. Hang around for a while and all its tawdry dullness is sure to be revealed.

 

BANK Holidays tend to mean traffic jams if you are brave or mad enough to venture out, so we become recluses and leave the honeypot attractions to everyone else.

This Monday was no exception, but I knew we were in for our own version of fun and games at Hill Towers when Geoff declared he intended to spend the day doing DIY.

He even got up unusually early to launch into his chosen project, no doubt aware that, as in the case of everything either of us ever does, tasks always take twice as long as the time allotted.

Geoff’s focus for the day was a garden seat that was old even when we bought it about 15 years ago. Nowadays it is not just old but falling to bits in a ‘help me now, before it’s too late’ way, a little like its owners.

Its state of decrepitude has meant that, from the day it came into our lives, we have not had the courage to sit on it for fear of breaking both it and ourselves. The white-painted metal framework of twirly-whirly fern leaves is in good order but the wooden seat slats are moss-covered and spongy and quite obviously need renewing.

The need is so obvious, in fact, that that is why it has only taken 15 years for action to be taken. Correction: for action to be thought about.

Geoff worked out all for himself that the wooden slats should be removed and replaced. I agreed, managing not to say or imply anything even slightly off-putting for fear of snuffing out this quite astonishing bout of DIY hyper-activity.

True, this had amounted so far only to Geoff descending into the cellar three times in search of the right tools. He was puffed out by then so we had coffee and discussed the prospects for success.

Even two hours later, things weren’t looking good. Geoff had managed to turn the bench upside down, which was an encouraging start, and I made sure I told him so, several times.

Then he’d squirted the bolts – and no doubt the entire bench and surrounding ten square yards of garden – with WD40, trusty workmate of all hapless DIY-ers. With his lower arms by now soaked in a greasy film, he applied 17 different-sized pairs of pliers, various wrenches and an Exocet missile to the bolts.

Nothing would budge them. The rusted-in beasts defeated the muscle power and brute strength of this man of mine, this DIY hero who last demonstrated his versatility and skills only a handful of years ago when he glued a six-inch piece of wooden beading back into place. Yes, he is that keen on DIY.

The bolts won. The can of WD40, now virtually empty, was put away, the tools were taken back to the cellar, Geoff picked up a book and that was it. Job done. That job being, of course, to discover if the garden seat could be repaired. Geoff had established that it couldn’t, so he had certainly achieved something. I praised him, in much the same way one overdoes it with a toddler who has painted a green splodge and says it’s Mummy.

The seat remains upside down in the garden, reproaching us in a silly legs-in-the-air way for having failed to give it new life. Knowing us, it will stay like that for at least another 15 years or until someone points it out and wants to know why and how it ended up like that.

“Oh that,” we’ll say. “It isn’t what you think. In fact, it’s been shortlisted for the Turner Prize.”

 

IT sounds wrong to say we went to the beach on Sunday. Having been brought up in Cornwall, I know I should really say we went ‘down beach’, but since Sunday’s outing was to a Devon beach perhaps it doesn’t matter so much if I break the old habit.

Cornish beaches, so often nestling tantalisingly at the foot of cliffs (think Poldark) almost always require mountaineering skills to get to them. Such efforts were well-rewarded for our family when I was a child: a cove of our own, rock pools, egg sandwiches, six swims, elaborate sandcastles, and sometimes the shocking joy of seeing bookish, sensible Dad, transformed by flapping swimming trunks, run into the sea, perform a handstand and run back out again to the sanctuary of a towel and his place on the rocks beside Mum. “That’s it for this year!” he’d tell my sister and me when we begged him to do it again.

Later, the trek back up perilous snaking paths lined with tufts of pink sea thrift, occasionally pausing to look back wistfully at the shimmering blue below, seemed an interminable, aching, effortful way to end a perfect day.

There was no such effort involved in Sunday’s outing ‘down beach’, where, thanks to the geographical differences between dramatic south Cornwall and gentler south Devon, there were no cliffs to negotiate, no ‘down’ at all, as we were able to park the car within a level walk, all of half a minute from the beach.

This was just as well, as mountaineering is not yet in the suite of accomplishments of my grand-daughters, toddler Poppy and her newborn sister, Clemmie (aka Drinky). In fact Clemmie stayed for the most part firmly anchored to her mummy’s front in a sling contraption, only occasionally testing her lungs in competition with the gulls.

Poppy, on the other hand, scampered and capered as only two-and-a-half year-olds can when given the freedom of a beach and access not just to her daddy on a rare day off but also to her granny who fancies herself as an ace builder of sandcastles.

In fact, Poppy and I built more roads than sandcastles, using large flat pebbles to pave a route between Camp Baby and our chosen play area some distance away. It was when excavating for tiny pebbles for her collection – milky white and humbug-striped  ones being particularly favoured – that Poppy found real pirate treasure.

“Look at this!” she exclaimed, pulling out a shiny 10-pence piece, for all the world a modern-day doubloon, albeit more silver than gold. I shared her excitement as we dug for more. Never mind that our efforts were in vain. Finding one piece of genuine treasure was quite enough to make Poppy’s day.

I blessed whoever had let it slip from their purse or pocket. They can never know how much their loss meant to a little person who likes nothing more than an adventure with a happy ending.

For us adults the day had a happy ending, too, because this lovely beach proved to have everything a family could want or need for seaside comfort. (Everything, I noticed, except the hat, scarf and gloves I could have done with to augment my three layers and wind-proof jacket.) The shop, selling every size and colour of bucket, spade and much else, is next to the café offering exceptionally good locally produced food and in front of a block of loos that deserves prizes for cleanliness.

I was terrifically uplifted by the whole outing – and I hadn’t even been the one who’d found the treasure. Or perhaps I had.

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