Wednesday, February 25, 2009

That’s the old stream that I long to cross

We’re not exactly a back-to-nature household. Our idea of a ramble in the wilds is to go right to the far end of Cliffe High Street. But last year, when two ducks settled on the Winterbourne Stream near us and made it their home, we vaguely encouraged our children to monitor their progress. Unfortunately this led to them developing a perverse and unnatural interest in outdoorsy things. It started harmlessly enough, with Thing Two naming them ‘Bucky-Duck’ and ‘Ducky-Wuck’; but gradually Thing One became obsessed, and Crèche-Manager and I secretly gave the birds an alternative, though still rhyming, name.

Most of the year the Winterbourne Stream is, frankly, rubbish. Apparently there’s a clue in its name: in summer there’s no water in it. The section along the path leading to Rotten Row fills up with mad triffid-like vegetation and crisp packets, and you forget it could ever be a waterway. Then some men clamber in, clad in space-suits, and cut the greenery away with electric scythes. For me this heralds the arrival of winter as surely as The Apprentice back on the telly. The stream fills up and even I can see it’s pleasant to walk beside it, listening to it gurgle, playing hopscotch over the amazing regenerating dog poo which decorates the footpath, and occasionally dredging out small floundering children, for there’s no barrier at the edge of the path.

A few days after the ducks arrived, Thing One, with the single-mindedness characteristic of the greatest despot, or average toddler, insisted she had to visit them every morning, ‘to give them their breakfast’. She didn’t miss a day, padding out there in her fluffy blue dressing gown like a minipop Tony Soprano checking on the ducks in his swimming pool, except she isn’t the head of a Mafia family and he doesn’t wear Scooby-Doo slippers. The arrival of some cute ducklings only made things worse, and we were suddenly in the grip of a full-blown infatuation, having to buy cuddly ducks and rubber ducks, forced to pretend to be ducks in public, and allowed to speak of nothing but ducks and their fascinating lifestyles. This phase culminated in a nasty scene when we inadvertently offered Thing One crispy pancake duck at the Panda Garden.

For weeks it was just our two ducks; then suddenly word got round and twenty more descended on the stream. But like a restaurant that’s only trendy when hardly anyone knows about it, or in fact not like that very much, the bandwagon had rolled on. The sun came out, the water dried up, and one day, there were no ducks there any more.

Thing One’s not long out of therapy and has been making good progress, so we’re dreading the return of the ducks now the stream’s flowing again. It’s only a matter of time before she hears that quacking, stops clipping wise guys, and returns us to early morning constitutionals with a bag of day-old Mother’s Pride.

Beth Miller, 17th February 2009. Published in and in Viva Lewes magazine, March 2009. Photo by Alex Leith.

Wednesday, February 18, 2009

Love that’s only slightly soiled

When Aging Lad popped round yesterday to unveil his plans for Valentine’s Day, it brought back vivid memories of his misadventure last year.

He’s in the habit of visiting occasionally, to get a fix of teeming family life. Thus he can reaffirm his chosen path of one-night stands and zero responsibility, and we can experience the violent envy that’s so bracingly testing to our morale.
Last year we assumed his February call was business as usual, so were staggered when he showed us a diamond engagement ring, saying he was going to propose to his most recent paramour, the waitress from Pizza Express. While we hauled our jaws back up off the floor, he went on, ‘Booked a table for Valentine’s at the Real Eating Company. Champagne, bended knee, the works.’

I pinned a screaming Thing Two to the floor to prevent him smashing his sister’s face in with a light sabre, the kind of standard parenting technique which would normally send Aging Lad half-way down the highway on that lonesome bachelor trail. But he didn’t even flinch.

‘Lad!’, wailed my Crèche-Manager (we job-share), appalled our friend was failing every beat up, broken down, vicarious-living Lewes husband, ‘What’s happened to you?’

Aging Lad humorously sat Thing One on top of a bookcase, then sauntered into the kitchen for a drink, forgetting she was there. ‘Getting old, guys’, he called over his shoulder, as Crèche-Manager caught her in an outstretched blanket, ‘You know how it is’.

On 15th February he was reluctant to talk, claiming an almighty hangover, but finally, we got the story. It had started well: Pizza Waitress looked lovely, the food was great, the champagne sparkling. So sparkling that Aging Lad drank most of it – ‘out of nerves’ he claimed. He then forgot his honourable intentions and reverted to type, flirting outrageously with the waitress serving their meal, rather than the one sitting opposite him.

Time was at the Real Eating Company you’d have been hard pushed to find a waitress to take your order, let alone one to flirt with, but things have changed. Lad teased, flattered, and leered; and when he finally went down on bended knee it was to look up the wrong waitress’s skirt. Pizza Waitress ran to the deli counter and grabbed what she thought was a wheel of cheese to crown him with, but luckily for our Lad it was a large buttermilk loaf and he got away with superficial crumb damage.

So yesterday we were surprised by his undimmed enthusiasm as he waved the engagement ring about again. ‘Second time lucky’, he grinned.

‘Who’s the unlucky girl now?’ I asked, hiding a traumatised Thing One behind my legs.
‘Oh’, he mumbled, ‘Waitress from the Real Eating Company.’ He was hazy about how they’d got together.
‘Where you taking her?’ asked Crèche-Manager.
‘Thought we’d try Artisan’, Aging Lad said airily, ‘I don’t know what the food’s like but they’ve got some cracking-looking staff.’

Beth Miller, 9th February 2009. Published in

Monday, February 9, 2009

Anything is possible when you're sowing the seeds of love

I couldn’t think what to do with Uncle Adultery when he paid us an unscheduled visit on Saturday. In desperation I suggested the Seedy thing at the Grange Gardens and to my surprise he jumped at it.
‘Why do you call him that?’, whispered Grange Girl, gazing at him in shock and awe. Uncle Adultery always cuts a bit of a dash; doubly so in this straw-strewn tent scattered with Lewes worthies in woolly hats.
His unusual moniker is not a slur on his private life but rather his professional one: he runs a dating agency for married people who want to have affairs. I know! Whatever happened to initiative?
His slogan is ‘Attached? Yet Need a Loving Friend?’ and he has made a packet from it, for those of you recession bunnies considering a change of portfolio. His pale gold Prada suit, accessorised with purple shirt, white Italian moccasins and loud Received Pronunciation caused all heads to turn as he sauntered round the stalls, looking puzzled.
‘Dearest niece’, he boomed finally, ‘I can’t see a single thing that could be granted the nomenclature ‘seedy’. Where are the burlesque ladies? Where are the gentlemen’s etchings? Where, in short, is the va-va-voom?’
Honestly, if he didn’t exist, I’d have invented him. Grange Girl pretended she wasn’t with us, and hid under a bookstall selling tomes such as ‘Apocalypse Now: Use String to Protect Your Family’ and ‘Yum! Mung Beans!’ I’d been interested to see Grangey and Uncle A together as I couldn’t imagine two more different universes, but she gestured at me to make him go away.
My Uncle gave one last hopeless sweep of the room to ensure he wasn’t missing a pole-dancing display somewhere, then allowed me to show him round.
At first he was impressed: ‘They do your garden for free here, Niecey! They charge £25 an hour in Kensington!’
I gently explained the principle behind land-share, whereby people with gardens share them with people without for mutual gain and fresh veggies, but he just nodded as though I were simple and said, ‘Yes! Free gardening!’
However, he was confused by the man giving away small packets of compost (‘Yes, dear fellow, but why would I want it if you value it so little?’) and completely mystified by the seed swapping element of the day.
‘Now let me just see if I’ve got this straight’, he harangued them. ‘I give you some SEEDS’ - pronounced as though it were a foreign word - ‘and you give me some different SEEDS?’ They nodded, uncertainly. ‘And then what?’ he cried, ‘Where will it all end?’
At this point I sidled off to spend a futile yet pleasant hour milling flour. I was rather astonished, on my return, to see Uncle and Grange Girl sitting on the window ledge in the foyer, talking intently. As I approached, I heard her say, ‘Really? That’s extremely interesting’, and she twisted her wedding ring round and round.

Beth Miller, 2nd February 2009. Published in, and in Viva Lewes magazine, February 2010. Photo taken by Alex Leith

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Pretty Green

As I was hauling Thing Two to the shops, amidst the usual bribes and random shouting, I bumped into Pells Boy doing the same with his child, The Beast of Playgroup. We ambled companionably down School Hill, chatting and smiling vaguely as our toddlers rammed, cackling, into the backs of old ladies’ legs. Then we crossed the road at Boots and suddenly we were at the Great Lewes Divide.
Thing Two ran into Waitrose as if it were his second home, which it pretty much is. I started to follow, when I realised that Pells Boy was standing incredulously at the threshold, fending off a Big Issue seller and holding the squealing Beast two inches off the ground by her collar. ‘Waitrose?’ he spluttered, ‘we don’t go there. We go to Tescos.’
Tory or Liberal, Catholic or Bonfire; there’s nothing that divides Lewes residents quite as much as their preferred supermarket. Yes, there are a few floating voters who use both, and a few who pretend not to use either, but generally you say tomato and I say vine-ripened. I reasoned with Pells Boy. ‘Look, you’re never going to get The Beast to schlep all the way to Tescos.’ He hesitated, and I coaxed: ‘They’ve got this brilliant thing for kids at the exit.’ Pells Boy looked left and right, pulled his balaclava over his face and slunk in.
We whizzed briskly round the aisles, stopping occasionally to kick broken eggs or jars discreetly under shelves, and to allow Pells Boy to clutch his heart and gasp, ‘Lawks a mercy, £3.99 for a punnet of blueberries’ (though actually blueberries are now half-price in Waity’s, bargain hunters). At the check-out, the cashier – clearly deluded - thought the children were cute and gave them extra green tokens. ‘Pretty’, gasped the Beast, and tried to eat them.
‘The kids love this’, I explained to Pells-Boy, as we tipped the Beast upside down. ‘They can bung these in that slot thing over there.’
Pells-Boy likes to read the instructions, and informed me that each slot in fact represented a local charity. ‘Poor old Camera Club’, he said. ‘Fancy pitting them against the Lifeboat Society. That’s like Jimmy Krankie being drawn against Roger Federer.’
It’s true that the Lifeboat Society had about four million more tokens than its rivals, who included the Monday Club, a group of self-proclaimed grumpy codgers whose pitch, I felt, needed some work.
‘We can even it out a bit’, I said, and lifted Thing Two so he could reach the Camera Club’s slot. However, he subscribes to the doctrine that to those who have shall be given – he’d just experienced a classic toddler Christmas – and he donated all four of his tokens to the lifeboats. The Beast, who’d had her tokens removed in the interests of health and safety, threw herself to the floor and began screaming, ‘I WANNA GO TO TESCOS!’ Pells Boy carried her out proudly, and I heard him whisper, ‘That’s my girl’.

Beth Miller, 28th January 2009. PUblished in and in Viva Lewes magazine, June 2009. Photo taken by Alex Leith.