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The Juggling Act

 

Single … with Children: Book 1

The Juggling Act

Maggie McGuinness

 

 

Copyright 2016 Maggie McGuinness

Published by Word Wise at Shakespir

 

 

 

Shakespir Edition License Notes

 

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Contents

Welcome to ‘Single … with Children

The kids, your who and his what?

When I’m 84

The juggling act

Growing pains

A dogged dilemma

Fishy business – Part 1

In my day…

Going public

Away from her

Fishy business – Part 2

So you think you can… join our cult?

No wheels attached

About the author

Connect with Maggie

Also by Maggie McGuinness

Sneak peek – Planet Single, Chapter 1

 

Welcome to ‘Single … with Children’

Book 1: The Juggling Act

This is the first book in the three-part ‘Single … with Children’ series.

I wrote these pieces several years ago, when I was commissioned to write a weekly blog about being a single mother for a parenting website – my very first paid writing job. At the time, it was hard to come up with something new each week. What had been going on in our lives that other people might want to read about? What could I discuss about the juggling act of my life –shop, clean, cook, supervise homework, get kids to bed, get kids to school, go to work, pick up kids, make dinner, grit teeth and keep peace with ex-husband, drop off kids, go to work again, rinse and repeat – that could be at all interesting? I’d spend hours on each piece, working far longer than I was being paid for, worried that each one would end up being 600–800 words of dull sludge that nobody would want to read.

I’m glad I made the effort. I look back at these articles now from the perspective of several years further down the track, and I love being able to revisit that time in our lives. Max and Lauren are young adults now, at university and in the final year of high school, and life has changed quite a lot. It’s still a juggling act, but the balls are different sizes and colors and – while I suspect they may be whizzing around even faster – my hands are steadier these days. I’ve settled well into this ‘Single… with Children’ gig, and life is good.

So here is the first collection of articles that take me straight back to the days of being a mother of much younger children. I love reading about Lauren going to school camp, the anguish we went through over the fish, the crazy plan of going on holidays with my ex-partner, and my recollection of Max as a toddler being completely underwhelmed by the arrival of a little sister. Whether you’re a parent or not, or single or not, I hope you’ll like them too.

 

Thanks for reading, Maggie

The kids, your who and his what?

I caught up with a friend the other day and she asked how I enjoyed the summer.

“Great!” I replied. “I went on a holiday with the kids, my ex and his girlfriend.” I sat back, sipped my coffee and waited for the response.

“With the kids, your who and his what?”

I realize the situation is unusual. While my ex-husband and I have an amicable, shared-parenting relationship, a combined summer holiday was a bold move – even for us. But we have always done things as a family, even in the early days of our separation more than three years ago when we decided on the weekly family dinner.

At the weekly family dinner, we sit down together in one of our two houses and discuss pressing issues, such as the latest wound on Max’s knee or Lauren’s prowess on the monkey-bars at school. We find out who has a party invitation, who needs new shoes, and who has a new best friend. The minutiae of a child’s everyday life remain the same, even when the structure of that life has changed forever.

Sometimes I didn’t want to have dinner with my ex-partner in those early days, when the wounds on our own metaphorical knees were still red and sore. Sometimes I would have to sit in the car, take a deep breath, and fix a smile on my face before walking into the house.

But I made myself walk into the house, because I was on a mission. We both were. We may have been ex-partners and ex-lovers, but we were not ex-parents. We had resolved from the start that we would still parent as a team and share time together as a family, and it has worked well. Of course, there are ‘moments’ sometimes, but they are not often these days. Friends comment on how well we do, but I wonder – is it really due to our efforts, or are we just lucky?

The other night I saw a neighbor’s child standing on the footpath in the dark, waiting for her dad to pick her up. Seeing her patiently standing alone made me want to cry.

It takes two people to commit to a path of cooperation to make it work. If just one of us had been vindictive or selfish, or violent or stubborn, we could easily have spun into a vicious circle of bitterness and point-scoring. Then it would be our children standing in the dark.

But instead – lucky us – we went on a summer holiday together. One weird blended family with two cars full of suitcases, buckets and spades, fishing rods and boogie boards. I can’t say there was no tension at all in the five days we spent together, but considering the circumstances there was little.

Did we have fun? Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. Did I breathe a sigh of relief when Steven and Jane drove back to the city, leaving the kids and me to continue our holiday? Well… yes, I have to confess to that. But it won’t be any moments of minor tension I will remember from this holiday – it will be the joy on my kids’ faces as they splashed in the surf with their dad, and raced him up the giant sand dune, and showed him how to climb their favorite rocks.

Besides, having a man around turned out to be useful. We hired a boat for a day on the lakes and I was in charge, since I’d learnt to drive my dad’s boat when I was 16. Had I ever driven one with an inboard motor? Nope. After we stopped to fish for a while, could I start that stupid inboard motor? Nope. I tried to remember how to turn the crank, find compression and kick-start the handle like the hire man had demonstrated, but the motor just gave a few feeble coughs and then stopped. We were adrift in the middle of the lake as I gazed, mystified, at the cursed inboard and its weird handle. The children waited expectantly. A chill wind blew across the water.

And then my ex had his moment of glory. He fiddled around and cranked the handle, twiddled it a bit, gave a big kick with his foot … and the motor putt-putted to life. Jane and the kids cheered, and I stopped calculating how long it would take to row home. Sometimes it’s handy to have a bloke around – even an ex-bloke.

 

***

When I’m 84

Driving the kids to school the other day, we were stuck at the railway crossing – victims of Murphy’s Law, which dictates that the number of trains is inversely proportional to the number of minutes left before bell time. As we waited for two incredibly slow trains to meander past, I sang along to Green Day on the radio.

“… I’ll be there not far behind, I will dare, keep in mind, I’ll be there for you … two,” I sang, turning to look at Max and Lauren in the back seat.

“And we’ll always be there for you, Mum,” said Max kindly.

“That’s good,” I replied. “Because you know you’ll have to look after me when I’m really old, don’t you?”

“Oh yes! Don’t worry, Mummy. I’ll wash your toenails for you,” promised Lauren, in a generous but somewhat bizarre fashion.

“How about you, Maxie?” I asked. “Will you trim my nostril hairs for me when I’m really old?”

I caught his cheeky smile in the mirror. “Actually, Mum,” he said, arranging a look of mock indifference on his face, “I just don’t think I’m that dedicated.” Our banter finished as the boom gates went up and the rush to school resumed, but later I started thinking, what will my life be like when I’m old?

It’s all very well when you’re part of a couple, and you see the future as something like Paul McCartney did when he wrote When I’m Sixty-Four. Mind you, I bet now he wishes he’d made the title When I’m Eighty-Four. At 64, you’re not really that old – right, Sir Paul?

But I’m not part of a cosy couple; I am single, and don’t have the expectation of a husband doing the garden and digging the weeds while I knit by the fireside. That distant (extremely distant) future for me is hazy.

And a little stressful. It’s an unavoidable fact that divorce is expensive for all concerned, when one household splits into two. Reading investment articles about how much money you’re supposed to have by retirement makes me reach for the smelling salts and want to believe all those emails about my British lottery win. What will the future hold?

Will I be living alone when my children are all grown up? Will I have enough money to support myself or will I be camping in a tent in one of their backyards? Will I be a bag-lady with five cats to keep me warm at night? (Unlikely – I hate cats.) Will I be a burden to my children? I can just imagine the scene, as my daughter’s husband hands the phone to her. “It’s your mother,” he says, rolling his eyes. “Reckons her toenails need washing again …”

I’m just so grateful I had kids in the first place, and can expect to have a family around me. I’m close to my siblings and their children, and could always have been the nutty great-aunt they have to invite to Christmas dinner, but it’s not the same as tormenting your own offspring with your eccentricities.

I know you’re not supposed to reproduce for that purpose, and with good reason – for all the money kids cost you could buy into a really swish retirement village. I swear that wasn’t my motivation for having children but I am eternally grateful, for that reason and many others, that parenting ended up on my resume of life.

Well, there’s no point worrying about the future. I’ve been perfectly happy with single life so far, and perhaps it will stay that way. At least then I won’t have to worry about errant husbands staying out till quarter-to-three. I just need to give up reading the investment pages –they’re bad for my nerves.

Besides, you never know … maybe I’ll hook up with another geriatric and we can forge a new life together of aged bliss. Maybe he will provide the Valentine, birthday greeting and bottle of wine that Sir Paul sang about all those years ago.

Whatever happens, aren’t I lucky? I have two gorgeous children to love and to cherish. And to spend years instructing on how look after a really old mother someday. Should I start with the toenails or the nostrils, do you think?

 

***

The juggling act

There’s a sentence that fills me with dread when I hear it during the Getting To School On Time Rush and it goes something like this. “Muuuum … where are my bike shorts?”

Our setup is that my ex-husband and I have shared care of our two children. Our communication is good and we have things pretty well organized these days, but it’s taken a bit of work. I find it’s like trying to juggle and, since I’m not very coordinated, it has needed planning and practice. I’m sure most parents would say that life is a juggling act, but for single parenting with shared care, which involves the logistics of two houses and the complexities of getting along with one’s ex-partner, there’s an extra degree of difficulty. I reckon we have at least two extra balls spinning in the air at any given time.

The kids have belongings at both houses so they don’t have to carry much back and forth – there are two sets of school clothes, for instance. Usually things run smoothly. However, sometimes even the best systems get blips in them. Like now. The bike shorts that are supposed to live at my house are nowhere to be found. After a frantic search the dreaded answer to the dreaded question can only be: “They must be at your father’s.”

Again! Sometimes I think those bike shorts are like migratory birds that instinctively wing their way north on a regular basis.

That’s so annoying! My brain morphs into minor crisis mode and the thought patterns are something like this:

  • If we go to their dad’s to get the bike shorts, we’ll be late for school.

  • Lauren won’t wear a dress without bike shorts as the boys will point at her knickers when she’s upside-down on the monkey-bars.

  • A day of telling the boys to get lost, or staying off the monkey-bars, is apparently not an option.

  • Telling her I spent my childhood hanging upside-down like a fruit bat before bike shorts were even invented will be counter-productive. Both kids will be so distracted by this reminder of my horrific pre-smartphone childhood that we’ll never get to school on time.

  • Lauren can wear track pants with a polo top. What? They’re at your dad’s too? Why? (Silent swearing.)

  • Okay, she can wear Max’s spare track pants. Yes, I know they’re too big, but they’ll have to do … What? The elastic has gone? Why has no one told me this till now? (More silent cursing. Lauren bursts into tears at the thought of her pants falling down.)

  • It’s time to ransack the cupboards and throw all school clothes, or anything bearing a vague resemblance, onto the floor. Aha! A solution! We find the old bike shorts which are faded, threadbare and two sizes too small, but will do in an emergency.

 

We scramble into the car, and I resolve to do more thorough checking on the weekends to make sure we’re organized for school. I also impress on the kids that they need to pitch in and help make sure the school clothes end up at the right house.

This shared-care juggling act really is a team effort between all of us. I figure the kids are old enough to contribute, and their dad and I do our best to make things run as smoothly and happily as possible. Fortunately, we live in neighboring suburbs, so if necessary we can make an emergency dash to the other house to collect whatever item cannot possibly be lived without for the next day or two.

Overall we manage pretty well, but I often wonder – how do ex-couples who don’t communicate well manage the logistics of shared care? It must be very difficult, and I applaud those single parents who battle on and sort things out with little or no help, often in the face of hostility.

My ex-husband and I are lucky that we generally get along with each other, so it’s not a problem for one of us to get on the phone and say something like, “Hi, it’s me. Lauren left Scruffy behind so is it okay if we dash around and get him? And I need to get those bike shorts back as well. They’ve migrated again.”

 

*****

Growing pains

My daughter is nine years old, and in some ways I want her to stay that age forever. She is still a child who loves her cuddly toys, swinging on the monkey-bars and playing chasey. When we walk down to the shops together, she still wants to hold my hand.

She won’t be a child much longer; I can see her body is already beginning to change. Her legs are growing longer and her hips are beginning to curve. A couple of months ago she noticed a couple of hairs in her armpit and was so excited she ran down the stairs – all long, gangly legs like a faun, her hair tangled around her freckled face – to show me.

I had to get my reading glasses to have any chance of spotting the tiny things, but after close inspection I could see the reason for the excitement.

“Oh there they are!” I cried. “Hooray!” So we jumped up and down and made fairy bread to celebrate.

While I enjoyed making a fuss about the milestone, I secretly felt a little pang. I remember how easy my childhood was – until puberty swept in like a hot, north wind. I grew skinny and awkward, and discovered the discomfort of bras and the terrifying embarrassment of menstruation. I was painfully self-conscious.

My mother, much as she loved me dearly, found conversations about personal matters difficult. Although I was supplied the facts, I felt I couldn’t talk to anyone about the anxiety these changes were causing, and I felt horribly alone for a year or two until time and a dash of maturity helped me get a grip on things.

I look at my daughter now and hope that her rite of passage will be smoother than mine. So far – so good. We talk about all sorts of things, and she is becoming quite interested in the topic of Growing Up.

Recently I have been asked: “You know when you get that blood and stuff thing that girls get … is it really bad?” and “When will I grow boobies (giggle) like yours, Mum?” and “Does it hurt to have a baby?”

I assured her that having a period isn’t too bad and that it’s just a natural part of being a woman, and I promised I would help her learn to manage it when the time comes. When I told her that her boobies (giggle) would probably grow gradually over the next few years, she beamed with relief. Apparently she’d been expecting she would wake up one morning attached to a pair of C cups, and had been a little concerned at the thought!

The childbirth discussion was interesting. I didn’t want to lie and tell her it’s painless, nor did I want to frighten her. “It does hurt,” I said. “But the baby makes it all worthwhile.”

“Hmm,” she said, not convinced – she knows the exit route. “Does it hurt more a wasp sting?”

“I don’t know,” I said truthfully. “I’ve never had a wasp sting.” (Ha! That was easy!)

“How about a bee sting, does it hurt more than that?” (Dammit! She knows I’ve had bee stings.)

“Umm, yes, it does. Now how about some more fairy bread?…”

The truth is I wouldn’t have cared if I’d been attacked by a swarm of killer bees during childbirth, as long as they put me out of my misery quickly, but that’s not something she needs to know just yet.

So I look at my daughter’s beautiful, evolving body, and I say a little prayer. Long may it continue that she will stampede down the stairs bursting with excitement to tell me about another milestone. That way we can face things together, and I will have the privilege of being by her side as she walks the road towards womanhood.

I hope she still wants to hold my hand sometimes.

A dogged dilemma

“It’s Lassie! Lassie’s come home!”

Uh-oh, pass the tissues – Lassie movies make me emotional. One look at a bedraggled, limping collie and I’m a goner. There’s something about the bond between a child and a dog that gets me every time.

As a child I had my own devoted doggy friend. That was Trish, the amazing singing dog with flatulence issues, who was my constant companion for many years. However, my own kids are not so lucky. When they ask, “Mum, can we get a dog, please, please, pleeeeease?” my response is always the same. “Ask your father.”

My excuse at the moment is that we’re living in a rental property that specifies ‘No Pets’. Besides that, there’s no room for a dog, and our courtyard is unfenced, so I have plenty of reasons to say no. If, however, I had my own house with a yard, would I buy the kids a dog?

I grew up in a ‘doggy’ family, which owned several faithful hounds over the years, with Trish being my special dog. As my three siblings were all several years older than me, they were too old to be interested in playing kids’ games, so when I was about six my parents grew tired of my complaints and took me on an excursion to the Lost Dogs’ Home. There we found Trish, a brown Labrador-cross sitting meekly in the back corner of the run. While the other dogs leapt around us and barked with excitement, Trish sat quietly and looked at us pleadingly, stealing our hearts with her soft brown eyes.

Trish was great. Her forte was howling. When I began a phase of wanting to play the harmonica, I learned that the excruciating tones I produced made her yowl like a mournful wolf. Forget learning the harmonica – I was far more intrigued by my singing dog. She loved being the center of attention and, with encouragement, she soon expanded her howling repertoire. After a while, I could get her started simply by howling myself. It made for some noisy but enjoyable family sing-a-longs.

Her second-best talent was, to put it bluntly, farting. She could empty a room with one silent but deadly emission. Of course, she made a very handy scapegoat for both my dad and my brother. “Trish!” one of them would scold, and she would look guilty and slink out of the room, whether or not she was really to blame.

Trish was pretty much a sibling substitute for me, so when my daughter gets tired of her virtual Nintendogs and pleads for the real thing, I just say to her, “You don’t need a dog – you have a brother.” That makes Max roll his eyes and say, “Gee thanks, Mum!” – but I know what I mean, even if it gets lost in translation.

Would I buy a dog if I could? I really don’t know. Owning a dog is a big commitment, and there are many reasons that make me reluctant to take that big step. Dogs need company, and at the moment I’m spending most of each day either in an office or a classroom, so our hypothetical dog would be lonely. If I had a dog it would be part of the family, and it wouldn’t feel right to have it sitting home alone.

And would it be an inside dog or an outside dog? In my parents’ house, dogs were allowed inside. Dad spoilt them rotten and ignored Mum’s rules about no dogs on the couch or beds. They were all large dogs that shed a lot of hair so, despite Mum’s best efforts, our place sometimes resembled a large comfy kennel more than a house.

I dearly loved the dogs, but my childhood has left me with an aversion to ‘doggy’ houses at the same time as I feel sorry for dogs banished to backyards, when they long to be inside with their people.

I wouldn’t get a small dog either, even though they are tidier and easier to manage. No offence to small dogs or their fans, but they don’t really grab me or the kids. (Except by the ankle, as my sister’s terrier once did to Max, but that’s another story.)

Then there is the terrible loss you feel when your dog passes on to the big comfy kennel in the sky. It really is like grieving over a person, and I’m not sure I want to go through that again.

So for now I enjoy other people’s dogs, and memories of my own. I look through the photo albums and there is Trish – sitting like a figurehead on the front of my big old surfboard as we sail down the river, lying on the beach covered in sand and shells like a living sandcastle, and photographed in mid-howl with her nose pointing up and eyes closed in doggy rapture as I play the harmonica … what a lovely, patient dog she was. Rest in peace, old friend.

Sigh! All these thoughts about doggy companions have made me want to watch a Lassie movie. Pass the tissues, somebody.

 

Fishy business – Part 1

I’ve finally cracked and succumbed to the pressure to buy the kids some pets. I’m blaming my friend Bill, since he offered to give me a fish tank he wasn’t using any more, plus a bubbly machine thing, some gravel, some plastic seaweed and spare packs of fish food. Being a fish owner didn’t sound that hard, when I was handed all this gear. Just add water! Oh yes, and … fish.

Still, I needed another opinion. “Do you think I should buy the kids some goldfish? I asked another friend, Helen.

“Oh yes, she said. “Fish die all the time and it’s good for children to learn about death and bereavement.”

Hmm, that’s not exactly the angle I was considering.

“Also,” she continued. “It’s very soothing having a fish tank. You just watch them swim around and enjoy the tranquility.” Privately I wondered how soothing it could possibly be with fish dropping dead willy-nilly and grief-stricken children, but I did like the idea of tranquility.

I went back to Bill. “So … what happened to your fish?”

“They all died,” he said. Right. Do anyone’s fish live long? I started picturing sad little fishy funerals, with Lauren in a black veil and Max as the somber carrier of a matchbox coffin holding yet another deceased guppy.

Then Bill told me a happier story about the days before the fish dropped dead. There was a time when they swam around happily in their tank. They were soooo happy that the girl-fish and the boy-fish cuddled up together, and they loved each other very much. They became the proud parents of some eggs which turned into baby fish.

I was delighted to hear such an uplifting fish story. “Oh, that’s so cuuuuuute,” I raved. “All the little baby fishies! Did you have to buy a bigger tank to keep them all in?”

“Nope,” said Bill. “The babies got eaten.”

Oh, great. I wondered if Helen would think it was good for children to learn about cannibalistic parenting practices too. That didn’t sound very soothing.

Anyway, it was too late to back out of it as we’d already got the tank ready, so off we went to the local aquarium. It was great! The shop was full of huge tanks teeming with beautiful, neon-coloured tropical fish – all the types we couldn’t buy.

I explained to the friendly fish man that we were complete beginners, so he took us up the back to the foolproof fish section. We bought two paradise fish, which are the same size as goldfish but nicer, we thought, and three tiny fish called white cloud minnows.

Unfortunately, the Spectre of Death confronted us before we even left the shop. After a session of plastic weed buying, we were ready to go home. Peering into the bag on the counter that held our new pets, we could see both the big fish but only two of the little ones swimming around … plus one sad, tiny corpse curled up on the bottom.

“Oh dear,” said the fish man. “I’ll get you another one.”

Finally we got home and introduced the fish to their new tank. “It’s sad about the one that died, Mummy,” said Lauren.

“Yes,” I said, hoping to dodge bereavement issues at this early stage. “But that one might have been really old. And look how lively our new fish are. All four of them!”

Four? There were supposed to be five. After some frenzied searching, we discovered Jaws, the tiniest white cloud, skulking under a rock.

“Perhaps he’s tired,” I said to the kids. And perhaps he’s dead, I thought to myself. Better find a matchbox and start writing the eulogy.

We left Jaws to meditate under his rock and went off to do other things. Two hours later, I was able to call out, “Hooray! The fish lives!” Jaws had emerged, and he has been darting around happily with the others ever since. Phew!

I’m getting fond of our new pets already, and I’m looking forward to the time I stop being anxious about them. I still peer nervously into the tank looking for corpses, and have visions of the Grim Reaper holding a fishing rod, but hopefully that will pass soon. Our fish look healthy and content so far. Bring on the tranquility!

In my day …

My kids are obsessed with the latest craze. It’s called mathematics. No, I’m not kidding! Their primary school has introduced them to a terrific program called Mathletics they can access via the internet. Once logged in they do sums, play games, do tests, accumulate points for correct answers, compete against others and customize their ‘mathlete’ (online persona). It’s a great way to get kids into maths, and it sure beats the dreary textbook and pencil method of my childhood.

“You two are so lucky!” I exclaimed, the first time they showed me the program. This is something they often hear me say. Despite all the failings of our modern world, I do think today’s children are fortunate to have so many opportunities, thanks to technology.

I remember the first time I went into the ‘kids of today are so lucky’ spiel, and Max and Lauren were old enough to really grasp the differences between my childhood and theirs. I recall the way their mouths gaped with disbelief as I said the words ‘no gameboys’.

“What about Playstation?” asked Max.

“Nope.”

“iPads?” piped up Lauren.

“Uh-uh.”

“Computer games?” Max tried again.

“No computer, no DVDs … even videos hadn’t been invented then.”

“Wooooow!” the kids exclaimed, eyes as big as saucers.

“So what did you do, Mum?” asked Max, full of concern.

“Well, I read a lot of books.”

“Oh, that’s good!” Since both my kids love reading, they were happy I hadn’t been totally deprived.

“But not Harry Potter.” I went in for the kill. “It hadn’t been written yet.”

Clang. Clang. Two jaws dropped open as their owners contemplated a world without Hogwarts. Lauren looked close to tears in her sympathy for my wretched existence.

“But we did have a TV.” They brightened again, relieved that things hadn’t been completely awful. “A black and white one,” I explained.

“A black and white TV? What’s that?” Lauren looked confused. I think she was picturing a kind of zebra enhanced with a screen and an on/off switch.

I managed to describe the amazing phenomenon of TVs without color, and the conversation ended with the kids running off to embrace their electronic friends and give thanks to the gods of Microsoft and Nintendo. Since that day, ‘Mum’s Childhood’ has been a popular topic. The kids can repeat, with great earnestness, all the things I never had, and even add a few I’ve forgotten about.

For instance, a little while ago we were watching the movie My Fair Lady on TV.

“Look at the horses and carriages,” I said. “That’s how people got around in the old days. And the ladies had to wear long dresses and hats.”

“Is that what it was like when you were young, Mum?” asked Lauren.

“No!” I rolled my eyes. “Even I’m not that old. We did have a car.”

“But you didn’t have the internet,” said Max.

“Or a Nintendo Wii,” added Lauren.

“And you used to get lots of fillings at the dentist.”

“And you had to share a bedroom with your sister, and you never had a doll’s house even though you always wanted one.”

“And you didn’t have McDonalds.”

“And the cars weren’t air-conditioned and you got so hot and sweaty in them you used to stick to the seats …”

The two of them were off and running, and I just sat back and listened to a litany of what I missed out on as a child. I probably should point out that my childhood was really quite enjoyable, despite what it lacked. When you never dream that such things as the internet could ever exist, you are happy watching Gilligan’s Island on black and white TV.

However, one fact remains, which is that in my household this computer is suddenly in big demand. I’d better stop typing this blog and let the kids have a turn on the laptop. They’re dying to get online and do some mathematics.

Kids these days are so lucky …

Going public

Max will be in year seven next year and we’ve been checking out local high schools. His dad and I are getting pressure from some sources which sounds a bit like this: “Oh! You’re sending him to a public school?” This is said with the same tone of voice as if the sentence was, “Oh! You’re sending him off to be a chimney-sweep?”

The unexpressed opinion seems to be that there can be only two reasons why we’re not enrolling him in a private school. Either we don’t care about him enough to pay for a ‘proper’ education, or we are one of the pitiable ‘povvo’ families that Ja’mie refers to on Summer Heights High who “don’t even have Foxtel”.

Our explanations that it’s not just about the money are met with scepticism. And apparently we’re hampering Max’s employment prospects for life, since the lawyers at Bore, Snore and Associates will only hire applicants with the proper old school tie.

When I manage to stop gaping in amazement at this theory, I examine again my reasoning for not seriously considering private schools. Is it just about the money? I like to think it’s not, but perhaps that’s because we don’t have it. At least, not to my knowledge. I must suggest the kids check their dad’s sock drawer where he keeps his small change. Maybe there’s a spare $180,000 or so he has forgotten about.

Alternatively, perhaps we could sell our spare body parts on eBay, or contact one of those nice people who email from Nigeria, or start manufacturing recreational drugs in the garage. I know someone who actually did the latter, but I don’t know if I will be able to ask his advice – he may not be out yet. Anyway, just say somehow we did find the money – would we choose a private school then? I honestly don’t think so.

Both my ex and I went to top private schools and spent a good deal of time detesting them. Certainly, my school groomed me to do well in year 12 and get a tertiary offer, but then I had to spend considerable time getting used to being in the real world, with (gasp!) boys in it.

I also had to learn to think for myself instead of having everything structured for me. I look back and wish I had received more education about life and less about how to behave like a lady. (Tip: Remember to wear your hat and gloves and never be seen eating in public.)

I agree there are many fine private schools, but it annoys me that some people assume public schools provide a sub-standard education. The school we have chosen for Max is inspiring, for many reasons, and gets very good academic results for a non-selective school. I’m sure many private schools are inspiring too, but do they really provide an extra $15,000 or so of inspiration? Per year? Per child? The numbers do my head in.

Of course, the facilities at public schools are not as grand as the private schools, but to me there are many things more important than flash surroundings. Like mixing with a good cross-section of humanity, including (gasp!) the opposite sex. Like being a part of your local community. Like being encouraged to think for yourself. Like having parents who have time to play Monopoly or kick a footy with you, because they aren’t stressed-out wrecks slaving long hours to pay school fees.

Anyway, hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to the local secondary college we will go. The kids did raid the sock drawer but it only contained $22.75 and a lot of lint – not enough to make me revisit my stance. The local secondary is a great school, and I’m confident Max will get a fine education and many opportunities, even if he may not end up working for Bore, Snore and Associates.

And I know I said it’s not just about the money, but the fact that neither his dad nor I will have to manufacture party drugs in the garage is comforting. I’m afraid we both flunked chemistry at those flash private schools.

Away from her

Lauren is on school camp, and it feels weird not having her around. She’s been on camps before, but this one is different. It’s a combined camp with kids from lots of different schools, and it lasts for nine days. Nine whole days! It’s a long time.

She’s lucky to have this opportunity. Spaces were limited and only half the students from her school who applied were able to go. The principal pulled the names out of a hat, and Lauren said she wished so hard for her name to be chosen that her brain hurt. It worked! She got a place and so did her best friend, Genevieve.

For the last couple of weeks before the camp, Lauren was in a frenzy of excitement. “I can’t WAIT!” she would regularly scream. I had to keep sending her out of the room to have a yell, calm down, and come back in again. This particular camp has been running for many years, and it’s an adventure camp, with activities like rock-climbing, boating, rope courses, archery, bush cooking, craft, and singing. I know people who went there years ago, and carry fond memories of it still. Yes, she’s a lucky girl!

Finally, the much anticipated day came around, and we arrived at the departure point. It was a riot of eager children calling out and dashing around, hauling suitcases on wheels and chattering to each other in excited groups. Lauren gave me a big hug. “Bye, Mum,” she said happily. “Don’t worry – I won’t get homesick. We’ll have too much to do. It’s going to be so cooooool!”

Lauren and Genevieve climbed on the bus, found a seat, and waved through the window. The last few pieces of the mountain of luggage were stowed on board. The bus started up, and I saw Lauren look silently stricken for a moment. This really was goodbye. I fixed a big smile on my face and hoped my eyes didn’t look too shiny. “Have a great time!” I mouthed, and she smiled again and waved, twisting in her seat as the bus pulled away.

I confess I had to wipe my face with my sleeves as I walked back to the car. It’s funny how you can be hit by different emotions at the same time. While I share her excitement at venturing out into this wonderful world, I still want her to be my little girl, tottering towards me on plump baby legs, starfish hands reaching for me to steady her.

I remember her first day at school. She couldn’t wait to be a ‘big girl’ and go along every day with her brother. She lined up that first day and marched inside without a backwards glance, an enormous schoolbag bouncing on her back, her wide-brimmed hat shading sparkling eyes and a big smile. I went home, humming with happiness that she had started so well, but when I went into her room and saw her toy bunny abandoned on the floor, I was hit with a gust of grief. Her babyhood was over. Holding tight to faithful Bunny, I sat on the floor and sobbed.

I doubt this emotional rollercoaster ride changes much as your children grow older. I went to a 21st birthday party recently for the daughter of some friends. As their beautiful girl stood in front of the guests to thank them all, I saw the same mix of emotions flit across the parents’ faces. Their daughter was so poised on the edge of adulthood – and so much still their little girl.

Halfway through Lauren’s stint at camp, I had the rare experience of something arriving in the letterbox that wasn’t a bill. It was a letter from her! “I’ve made two new friends,” she wrote. “There names are Maddy and Eleanor. The bus trip was great but someone was sick. The rope course is cool, and the giant swing is the BEST! In my cabin is Maddy, Eleanor, and guess what… Gen! I sort of miss you…”

It still feels weird without her around; even on the days she would normally be at Steve’s. He feels the same, and so does Max. We can’t wait to have our noisy, lovely, demanding, wonderful girl back home, to tell us about her adventures. We sort of miss her too.

Fishy business – Part 2

I’m still waiting for owning a fish tank to be a soothing experience. Dramatic and intriguing? Yes. Soothing? No. In fact I’m a bit stressed from all the goings-on in there recently.

It’s about 6 weeks since I gave in to the kids’ pet-deprived nagging. As I described previously, we bought two paradise fish and several little minnows from the local aquarium. The first weeks of fish ownership went so swimmingly, pardon the pun, that we later got two more minnows and a couple of leopard danios – beautiful little spotted fish who dart around the tank like tiny streaks of silver.

The ones causing all the drama in the tank are the paradise fish. These fish can be aggressive, but it’s supposed to be okay if you buy a male and a female, as we did. Certainly for the first few weeks they made a lovely couple.

Now, however, the female has become belligerent and keeps harassing the male, which is unusual. The males are supposed to be the aggressive ones, but our bloke is a complete wimp who cowers behind plants and rocks trying to hide from his wife.

My friends are telling me it’s my fault because I named him Princess. Yes, okay, perhaps it was asking for trouble, but when we bought him I thought he looked like a princess as he had a long flowing tail and fins. It pains me to say ‘had’ because he doesn’t own a beautiful tail any more. If he doesn’t swim away fast enough the female eats it. He’s looking rather tatty at the moment.

Anyway, the general consensus is that I have caused gender confusion by naming the male Princess. Perhaps that’s the case. I really wish he’d grow some … whatever fish have … and swim up for himself.

Lauren named the female Pearl, inspired by the pretty pearly sheen she has around her face. It’s a good name, although to me it conjures up images of a sweet-faced little old lady, but oh no – there’s nothing sweet about Pearl.

The situation got so bad I once put Pearl in the naughty room. I couldn’t stand watching the bullying any longer, and thought Princess might drop dead from stress, so I scooped Pearl up with our little net and relocated her to a salad bowl for a while so poor Princess could have a rest.

The kids thought it was hilarious that Pearl was in the naughty room. “You’re like a fish super-nanny,” said Max with a grin. I think they had memories of their own sessions of ‘time out’ when they were younger, and were pleased to see someone else getting the tough love!

I went back to the aquarium the other day hoping to get some fish psychology advice.

“Perhaps she just doesn’t like him?” the fish-man suggested.

“She used to like him,” I replied. “It’s only recently she’s gone psycho.”

“Maybe she wants to breed and the male’s not keen on the idea.”

Oh, great. So we’ve got a sex-crazed, hormonal shrew with a ticking biological clock in our tank. She really does look intimidating when she gets feisty. Her dorsal fin stands up like a Centurion’s plume and her stripes darken. If I were Princess I’d swim behind a rock too.

I ended up buying a clump of live plants to float on the surface of the tank. The rationale is that: a) Pearl might spend her time chewing on the plant rather than a certain tail; and b) It will give Princess extra places to hide.

I can only hope this tactic might work. Perhaps things will settle down enough for Princess to do his husbandly duty and tame the shrew. But how do you get a fish in the mood? Maybe I should dim the lights and play a Barry White CD.

Oh well, the fish-owning experience is teaching the kids and me all sorts of things. We’re learning how to keep the tank clean with regular partial water-changes. We know how to keep the water aerated, and not to over-feed the fish. And now we’ve learnt how to send a fish to time-out, as well as the art of constructing hidey-holes out of floating weed clumps. It’s proving to be very educational.

So you think you can… join our cult?

Did you know there’s an insidious cult carrying on its business right under our noses? It likes to wrap its chiffon tentacles around our daughters and brainwash them into thinking that leotards and hairnets are normal items of apparel. It’s the dance cult – with the main branch known as ballet.

Cult leaders are often tall, graceful women with long necks whose toes point in different directions. It’s a bit like being cross-eyed but with your feet. They usually have eyes in the back of their heads, no known sense of humor, and very short tempers. Always possessing highly-strung, artistic temperaments, they can be observed by early summer to reach a stage of ranting hysteria as they prepare for the annual cult ceremony –the end-of-year ballet concert.

I came up with my dance-cult theory the other day after catching up with two friends, Kate and Libby, whose daughters learn ballet together. My friends were describing the stress they suffer in the name of dance lessons. Their daughters’ ballet teacher is a formidable woman called Miss Melanie who can spot a wisp of loose hair at 20 paces.

“It’s so stressful,” Kate said. “You have to get the bun right; otherwise Miss Melanie goes off like a frog in a sock!” Libby nodded solemnly.

“The bun? What bun?” I was confused, having never been initiated into the ballet cult.

“The ballet bun!” they chorused. “You have to do the girls’ hair in the proper bun with no wispy bits. Loose hair means trouble!”

“I’ve got the knack now,” Kate said proudly. “I bought some heavy-duty hairspray which is like superglue. It’s hell to wash out though.”

“You could try this gel I found …” said Libby, and the two of them launched into a comparison of super-strength hair-goo products that left me completely mystified. They’d definitely been brainwashed.

I tested out my dance-cult theory at writing class the other day when, during our coffee break, I asked the other mums if their daughters had ever done ballet.

“Oh yes!” one yelled, looking traumatised. “My daughter only did ballet for one year, thank God! I couldn’t stand it – it was so stressful. I had no idea how to do her hair properly. I had to Google the topic of ‘Ballet Buns’. Did you know there are websites with step-by-step instructions? I still couldn’t get it right. I was a terrible failure as a ballet mum!”

“You can watch ballet-bun instructional videos on You Tube,” added one of the other mums.

“Really? Oh, it’s all coming back to me now,’ said the first, shuddering. “There are two types of bobby pins … and I had to buy a hairnet. I didn’t even know what that was. And did you know …” she continued in a whisper. “That some mums actually like doing all this stuff?”

We pondered the notion in horrified silence. We writers are not fond of wasting precious time wrestling with bobby pins and hairnets when we could be wrestling with metaphors and dangling modifiers, which are much so much more fun … but each to their own, of course.

I couldn’t completely dodge the dance bullet – Lauren was a member of a related dance-cult known as jazz’n’tap for a while. While I was spared the trauma of the ballet bun, no one gets spared the end-of-year concert. Ours lasted over three hours and included both ballet and jazz’n’tap. The kids were gorgeous, and I did enjoy watching them, but after three hours in sweltering heat with no air-con the enjoyment started to wear thin.

That’s when we got to the introduction of the youngest cult members – the tiny tots’ ballet class. One-by-one a tiny ballerina dressed as a fairy tippy-toed across the stage, tottered around in a circle, curtseyed to the Fairy Princess and tippy-toed off again. For the first ten fairies I was swooning over how gorgeous they looked – until I noticed another 63 waiting in the wings. By about number 47, I was just swooning.

And far as brainwashing cult activities go, this concert was a good one. By the time I stumbled out of that concert hall, eyes glazed, brain-numbed, the Fairy Princess tune still tinkling in my head, I could have been persuaded to do anything.

Fortunately, Lauren decided to have a rest from dance after that and took up taekwondo instead. I find it’s much safer than dabbling with cults – as long as I remember to dodge when she practices her side-kicks.

No wheels attached

When I was pregnant with my second child, I remember confiding to a friend that I feared my son would only be interested in the new baby if it was born with wheels attached. As a two-year-old, Max loved things with wheels. He was happiest when surrounded by a pile of cars or trucks. He would lie on the floor and push a car back and forth for ages; transfixed by the way the wheels went round and round.

He was the sort of child who, when taken to the zoo to see all the exotic and amazing wonders of the animal kingdom, had firm ideas on his favorite. “What animal did you like best at the zoo, Max?” asked Nanny. “The lion? Or the elephant?”

“The digger,” said Max. Nanny and I were a little confused, until I remembered the road works they were doing at the zoo the day we visited, which did involve a very interesting digger. Who needs lions and elephants? I could have just taken him to look at a local building site.

It wasn’t just vehicles that were Max’s passion. He also loved lawn mowers, wheelchairs and trolleys – all sorts of things – as long as they could roll or rotate. He wasn’t much interested in babies though, and I was a little concerned that when he realized his new sibling didn’t have moving parts like axles or discs he would quickly lose interest. The baby wouldn’t move in a smooth, gliding motion, or make rumbling engine noises. The baby would only move in a wriggling, limb-flailing way and make baby-crying noises. I was worried Max would be seriously under-whelmed.

Lauren arrived as expected, one day before the due date and with no wheels attached. At first, Max didn’t mind visiting his sister in the hospital. They had big rubbish trucks in the car-park there that emptied skips. The new baby slept in a trolley thing, and at least it had wheels, even if she didn’t. The trolley thing could be pushed back and forth, at quite high speed, actually …

Max wasn’t all that happy when he had to stop pushing his sister’s trolley. He couldn’t understand that trolleys really don’t handle well round corners, or that newborns are not supposed to impersonate rally drivers. Babies? Humph! At the age of two he was so over them.

So for the first week or two, Max’s feelings towards his sister were made up of indifference crossed with apathy. But, with children, things can change in the blink of an eye or the beat of a heart, and I can remember the exact pivotal moment.

I was picking Max up from crèche and I carried Lauren inside in her capsule to show the other children. They all seemed interested in the new baby. Very interested. They crowded around the capsule as Max stood back and wondered what the fuss was about. Babies don’t even have wheels. Yawn!

I could see him watching the children ‘oohing’ and ‘aahing’ over the new baby. They peered closely at her, warming her with hot toddler breaths. Some reached out to touch her sleeping face with plump toddler fingers. Suddenly, Max was there in the scrum, wriggling his way to the front. He may even have given a child or two a subtle push.

He glared at the others with hands on hips, ready to take on anyone who may have had ideas about a takeover bid for his new sister. “My baby,” he said. “Mine!”

From that day forth, Lauren took on a much higher status, probably somewhere in between a police car and a rubbish truck. It took her a while to work past fire engine and up to digger level, but that was okay. Diggers are pretty special, after all. They’re so much more interesting than lions and elephants.

These days, Max and Lauren are best friends as well as devoted siblings. For all their squabbling and bickering, they adore each other, and spend hours together inventing crazy games involving the trampoline, bouncy balls, and each other’s heads. Max will freely admit that Lauren, although intensely annoying at times as only a sibling can be, is the best sister in the world. Even with no wheels attached.

 

***

 

Thank you for reading my ebook. If you liked it, I’d really appreciate it if you wrote a quick review, or checked out my blog or Facebook page.

 

Maggie McGuinness

 

About the author[+:+]

Maggie McGuinness lives in Melbourne, Australia, and has two teenage children and a part-share of an Australian cattle dog called Missy. With the help of Shakespir, she’s hoping to live the dream (that is, spend less time in an office editing other people’s writing and more time at home doing her own).

Maggie is a Zumba fanatic, extreme gardener and chocolate connoisseur. She’s also an online dating tragic, who has been on 97 first dates over the past 10 years or so. (That’s right, 97! Crazy, hey?) She stalled a bit on the dating front these days, being too busy writing stuff, but is still hoping to make it to 100. Will she achieve a century? Stay tuned!

 

Read Maggie’s Shakespir interview at: https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/maggiemcg

 

Connect with Maggie:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/MaggieMcG99

Website and blog: http://maggiemcguinness.com/

Shakespir author page: https://www.Shakespir.com/profile/view/maggiemcg

 

 

Also by Maggie McGuinness:

 

Planet Single

A full-length novel, scheduled for publication in March 2017, available for pre-order at select retailers now! (There’s a sneak peek of Chapter One below.)

 

About Planet Single:

 

Katerina is blasted off from the world of marriage and motherhood with no chance to gather any essentials for the strange new world she finds on Planet Single. A dating instruction manual could have been handy, and a thicker skin would have definitely helped with her new single life but, with no chance to prepare, Kat has to find her way around by trial and error.

She embarks on a journey to rediscover herself and her lost libido, which was probably packed away in the cupboard under the stairs some time ago. Her travels introduce her to lots of other inhabitants of the crazy planet, including a tribe of young and sexy colleagues, a succession of dubious online dates and a handsome detective.

New boyfriend Scott turns out to be a sociopathic conman with a criminal record, but is otherwise a lovely guy. Discovering the truth about him makes Kat wiser, poorer and much, much angrier. Determined to seek revenge, she teams up with two other victims – young mother Grace and elderly Myrtle – and they unite in a quest for justice.

Kat learns a lot about herself and the mysterious nature of love, and realizes that while single life can be exhausting, chaotic and painful – at least it’s never dull. Even when her heart has been thumped around so much she’s not sure if it’s still in one piece, she never loses faith in love. Could Detective Jack be the one to pick up the pieces and put them back together?

Planet Single is about looking for love the second time around. Through its endearing heroine Katerina and a troupe of other Planet Single inhabitants, this entertaining novel by Maggie McGuinness expresses the humour and the anguish we all experience over matters of the heart – and body – at every age.

####

 

Here’s a sneak peek of Chapter One, just for you …

 

Planet Single

Chapter 1 – Shot into orbit

 

The night I landed on Planet Single, I had no idea I was about to blast off from the familiar married landscape and land in a strange, alternative reality. If I’d known, I could have packed a few essentials like some nicer undies, a dating guide book and a much thicker skin, but I didn’t have the chance. I was dumped – defenceless – into a strange new world that looked quite like the old one, but was so, so different.

The night had started like many others. My two sons were in their bedrooms. Angus should have been asleep but was probably plugged into his iPod. Ben had homework but I could hear some stifled laughs. He was either on YouTube again or calculus was more amusing than I remembered. My husband, Neville, was watching a DVD – his favourite documentary on the mating ritual of Leopard slugs, which involves hanging upside-down with glow-in-the dark genitalia and an awful lot of mucus. For the slugs, that is, not Neville. That documentary fascinated him, which I found quite interesting, as he’d never been very inspired by the human type of ritual. Anyway, with all that slug-porn going on I knew he’d barely notice my absence, so I ditched the washing up and grabbed my coat to go for a walk.

I often paced the streets at night and I didn’t mind bad weather – it gave me an excuse to wear my hooded raincoat. This became a cocoon I could hide in, lost in my own world, while raindrops splattered on the oilskin in a soothing rhythm. I liked the invisibility of walking when the slick, black streets were empty.

I printed ‘Gone For A Walk’ in big letters on Neville’s Daily Schedule Whiteboard (he liked things to be capitalised), and shut the door softly behind me. It was beautifully cold outside, and I gulped the fresh, damp air like a drunk at a cocktail party and set off. While I walked, I used the muted backdrop of the night to watch a movie playing in my head – written by me, starring me. I often did this. I’d create another life for myself – full of passion and sexy adventures. I’d be an adventurer in an exotic location where I’d meet an exotic man. The sexual chemistry between us would flare up like one of the saucepans I had a bad habit of setting on fire, to my spouse’s annoyance. To go into my fantasy world I only had to select a storyline in my head, like reaching for a book on a shelf. It made a nice break from Neville and his daily recitations of things I hadn’t done properly.

 

I squelched through the door an hour later to find my husband in the kitchen. Strange – I thought he would have been cloistered in his study by now, crooning to one of his beloved spreadsheets, but there he was sitting under the fluorescent light with two coffees on the table.

I waited to be criticised over the greasy pans I’d abandoned in the sink, but he just sat there, with his thick, grey hair perfectly in place, like a giant pad of steel wool on top of his head. I noticed how grey and long his eyebrows were these days. Is it only men whose eyebrows sprout at a certain age? I wondered what my eyebrows looked like, as I hadn’t scrutinised them for a long time. I didn’t study myself in a mirror often, just a quick glance in the mornings as I tied back my curly hair and slapped cheap moisturiser on my face. I was lucky I had good skin – Neville had a fit if I spent much on toiletries.

“Thanks for the coffee.” I slid into a chair while quickly trying to gauge my eyebrow length with my fingertips. Neville took his glasses off, blinked, and put them on again.

“There’s something I have to tell you.”

Oh, no. He’d probably devised a new compost roster. I imagined the boys rolling their eyes and saying, “Yes, Dad.”

“Okay, go for it.” I tried to sound enthusiastic. He sniffed. This was a bit odd – Neville hated it when people sniffed.

“Well, Katherine …” He cleared his throat. “It’s not something I thought I’d ever have to say.” He fiddled with the crumbs on the table and lined them up a row, using the edge of the coaster to make sure they were straight. Also odd. He couldn’t stand it when people fidgeted.

While he rounded up an errant crumb, my concentration began to wane. I was impatient to shower and go to bed, so I could lie in the dark and get back to the current storyline. It involved a gorgeous, sensitive hero, who hated slugs and had neat eyebrows.

“Well… let me guess.” I stifled a yawn. “You’ve realised you want to be a woman? Oh, I know! You’re having an affair with a twenty-year-old lap dancer called Sharee!” I giggled at my own wit. The thought of sedate Neville hanging out at a strip joint was pretty funny. He started talking, but it took a while for the words to sink in.

“… yes, an affair … Christine … forty-five actually… canteen manager…”

“Canteen manager?” I snapped back to reality. “Not the Christine? Corporal Christine at the boys’ school?”

He nodded.

I was gobsmacked. I knew the Corporal. She barked at me whenever I was dragged in to do canteen duty when I scorched the party pies and mangled the hot dogs. She was a stout woman, with a no-nonsense bosom, who organised the canteen with military precision and loved to reminisce about her glorious army days.

“I didn’t mean this to happen, but I think Christine might be The One.” A strange, dreamy look appeared on his face. The moment seemed so surreal I almost laughed.

“But Neville, that’s so … interesting! It’s the least boring thing you’ve done in 15 years!” I was babbling – dizzy with shock. I’d never thought Neville capable of passion or spontaneity.

“You don’t have to hide behind sarcastic humour,” he said. “You’ve always had intimacy avoidance issues. Please focus on reality. And … I’m sorry. I never meant to hurt you and turn our lives upside down. It just happened. On Dads’ Day in the canteen I stayed back to help reorganise the pantry and, well, I think Christine and I are soul mates.”

What? This was so unlike Neville it jolted me out of my paralysis.

“Soul mates? Fucking hell! That’s not fair!”

“Please don’t swear, Katherine. And besides, life isn’t fair. You know that.”

“Don’t you ‘life isn’t fair’ me! I’m not talking about life; I’m talking about us. We got married, remember? I wore a frock like a sequinned meringue, and you wore a brown suit and new shoes with ‘Help!’ written on the soles by your hilarious accountant mates. It’s not fair because the one interesting thing you’ve ever done in our marriage just squashed it. It’s not fair because I’m the one who was supposed to be unhappy – not you. How dare you turn out to be unhappier than me and then waltz off and get bloody … interesting!” My voice was getting higher and louder. I didn’t usually raise my voice and it felt strange – like I was trying to sing opera.

“Shhh!” Neville whispered. “The boys will hear! But, what do you mean you were unhappy? You never told me.”

“I did!” I whispered back. “You never listened! You always had your head pointed at the TV or the computer. When I said I was bored you told me to try cooking classes. I meant I was bored with you, Neville. I couldn’t fix that by learning deft tricks with couscous. I was the one who was bored and resentful, not you. I was the one who should have had an affair. How dare you be unfaithful before I was!”

I was sounding a bit peculiar with my enraged whispering. And without noticing, I’d grabbed the newspaper on the table, ripped it into confetti and flung handfuls in the air. I looked around the kitchen and spotted Neville’s masterpiece – the Household Duties Roster – on the fridge. I marched over and yanked it off the door, sending fridge magnets clattering in all directions.

“And I’ve hated this bloody thing for years as well,” I hissed. “But did I run off with the milkman? Or even get a job? No! I did the stay-at-home mumsy-wife thing like you wanted, despite being so bored for so long I thought my brain might turn to mush and drip out my nose. And now I learn that you and the Corporal are floating each other’s anal-retentive boats and sailing down Soul Mate River. It’s not fucking fair!”

It was an interesting sensation, letting anger boil over after all those years on slow simmer, even at a whisper level. I’d tried for so long to be the sort of wife Neville wanted. When we’d first got together I’d liked his approach to life – his lists, his planning, his restraint. I didn’t so much like his fussiness and zero tolerance for take-away food, but love could solve everything, couldn’t it?

Now, standing there in the kitchen under the shuddering green-tinged light, I wanted to take my young self and slap her. I had learned love’s limits. Now I knew that whatever annoys you a little bit when your love is shiny and new annoys you ten times more with every year that passes, until your bubbling frustration threatens to make your skull explode and your brain fizz out like an ice-cream soda.

It wasn’t all Neville’s fault; I really should come clean about that. I used to crave the orderly lifestyle he offered, but it gradually began to suffocate me, creeping up like ivy through a gum tree and strangling me with subtle force. I’d been in denial about this for years, but the real me wasn’t Neville’s sort of person at all. The real me liked being spontaneous, relaxed and not very organised and was usually running ten minutes late for everything – more like my mother than I wanted to admit. I’d tried hard for years to be different to her, and had married her complete opposite, but I’d made a bad decision.

One of Mother’s favourite sayings, which I’d always liked, popped into my head. “It’s too late,” she cried, as she waved her wooden leg!

It had always annoyed Neville. “Who is she?” he would grumble. “What wooden leg? Your mother’s quite demented, you know.” This, from a man who had a phobia of constipation and a cupboard full of laxatives to prove it. They were both as mad as cut snakes, but at least Mother was more fun.

Neville wasn’t a bad man. That was the problem – he was just on the reasonable side of intolerable. The fact that he’d done a PhD in Tedious Behaviour, majoring in Annoying Habits, wasn’t a reason to break up a family, so I’d stayed. I loved my sons, and being a mother, but as the boys grew older and the marriage staggered from one year to the next I felt like a sort of robot-mum. I’d been programmed to be the tidy wife who ran the house in an orderly fashion, but the core of me – the passion, the joy, the capacity to laugh till I cried – had gone. I think it was packed away in one of those plastic storage bags you suck the air out of with a vacuum cleaner.

Neville was staring at me. I’d ripped the roster into pieces and thrown it in the air as well. I’d just learned that severe stress turned me into a human confetti machine. A few flakes landed on my nose and others wafted to the floor.

“We don’t have milkmen these days,” he said, literal to the bloody end.

“I suppose we’ll have to get a divorce.”

“Yes. I’m truly sorry, Katherine. Please believe that.”

“My name’s not Katherine.” Neville had been calling me that for years. He reckoned it was more sensible than the fanciful name my whacko mother chose. (His words, not mine.) As you might guess, Neville and Mother didn’t get along. In retaliation to Katherine, she always called him The Accountant, which was a bit unfair as he’d become a financial advisor now. I knew it was ridiculous that I’d let him change my name but, if you knew him, you’d understand. Once he got an idea in his head he was like a bull terrier attached to your ankle – he never let go. So, for many years I’d been Katherine, but now I was getting my name back.

“My name’s Katerina,” I said, liking the way it felt on my tongue.

“I understand you’re upset and I’m expecting a period of adjustment. We’ll talk some more tomorrow. Can I get you anything? A glass of port?”

Incredible! Normally I’d be in trouble for drinking alcohol late at night. I’d sneak Bailey’s Irish Cream into a mug and pretend it was chocolate Quik.

“No thank you, I need some time alone,” I hissed as I stalked past, with bits of paper on my shoulders like giant flakes of dandruff.

“Of course. I’ll bunk in the spare room until we get things sorted out. Okay, Katherine?”

I stared at him.

“I mean … Katerina?”

“Good idea.” I went to our bedroom – my bedroom now – and sat on the bed, looking out at the rain dropping like shiny bullets in the light of the street lamp.

 

***

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The Juggling Act

Maggie McGuinness writes about the juggling act of not only coping with but enjoying life as a single parent, while simultaneously earning a living and trying to keep some semblance of order in the home, maintaining an amicable relationship with the ex, and enjoying how appalled her children are at stories of her horrific pre-Nintendo and Harry Potter childhood. ,

  • ISBN: 9781370769964
  • Author: Word Wise
  • Published: 2016-11-14 14:05:11
  • Words: 12076
The Juggling Act The Juggling Act