Notes from my bookshelf #6: First One Missing – Tammy Cohen

  • Thrilled to be invited to write this post as part of the Tammy Cohen blog tour and thanks to Sarah Harwood for sending me a copy to review.

I love a good psychological thriller, whether it involves a crime or not, and having recently read Tammy Cohen’s The Broken, I was really looking forward to reading her new novel, First One Missing.

Published yesterday (2 July 2015) by Doubleday, the novel tells the story of four grieving families who are living through every parent’s worst nightmare: the murder of their child. The plot follows the police investigation upon the discovery of another body of a young girl on Hampstead Heath, as told through the eyes of not only Family Liaison Officer Leanne Miller, but also the other forgotten victims of such crimes – the families – as they try to support each other in getting on with their lives.

This is not just a police procedural narrative. Cohen expertly provides a raw, naked insight into familial grief, whether a parent or sibling. The story is told from a number of characters’ points of view, all distinctive from each other, showing how a split-second twist of fate can ripple in numerous directions.

Weaving through the entire narrative is the anti-hero in Jason. I don’t want to reveal any spoilers, but he is painted so clearly as the suspect initially that I began to worry that there would be no Big Twist, as I have come to expect from such novels. As it turns out, I was not disappointed and I never did guess how it would end.

It is a tense, unpredictable, sometimes uncomfortable read and I couldn’t put it down from page 1. If you’ve never read any of Tammy Cohen’s novels, I urge you to as both this and The Broken – a taut, unnerving psychological drTammy Cohen blog tour posterama involving two couples and what can happen when your best friends divorce – will not disappoint (as I’m sure is the case with the other novels she has written).

As this review is part of a blog tour, I (and you too, I hope – see the attached poster for more details) will be reading the other reviews with interest, but I’m sure I will not be alone in saying that this is a must-read. If you’re going somewhere nice on your summer holidays, make sure you’ve got this one packed in your suitcase.

So what will I be reading next? Tammy Cohen was recently asked about her favourite crime reads and she had the following recommendations. There are two on her list that I have not read yet, so I’ll be packing them in my suitcase, along with Bitter Fruits by Alice Clarke-Platts (also published yesterday by Penguin), a fellow ex-Curtis Brown student and good friend of mine. Look out for my review of Alice’s debut novel in the next few weeks.

My 5 Favourite Crime Books – Tammy Cohen

What is a crime book? Is Jane Eyre a crime book? Bleak House? The Great Gatsby? If all it takes to be a crime book is for a crime to happen, practically every book on my shelves could qualify. So to avoid overloading my brain with too much choice, I’m going to narrow it down to the books where the crime, or the lead up to the crime or its aftermath, is the central focus. Here then are my five crime book choices:

  1. The Shining Girls – Lauren Beukes

A time-travelling serial killer? Oh puh-lease. I put off reading this book for ages because of my innate resistance to anything sci-fi and the huge leap of faith this novel demands, but Beukes totally pulls it off. This is a dazzling, stomach-churning book with one of the creepiest villains at its dark, twisted heart.

  1. You – Caroline Kepnes

Told from the point of view of an obsessed stalker, this book fizzes with wit and energy and puts the reader in the uncomfortable position of finding themselves a little bit in love with a seriously messed up, homicidal bookseller.

  1. Apple Tree Yard – Louise Doughty

Gripping, compulsive, brilliantly written. I tore through this book in a fever, desperate to find out why the respected, middle aged scientist protagonist had ended up in the Old Bailey, and was ridiculously thrilled when my fan-girl tweet was included on the inside cover of the paperback.

  1. Broken Harbour – Tana French

French’s haunting, atmospheric thriller masterfully unpicks the events leading up to the deaths of the Spain family in a falling-apart house on an abandoned, half-built executive housing estate in post-building-boom Ireland.

  1. Alex – Pierre Lemaitre

I love it when a book completely wrong-foots you, as this one does, switching from what looks to be a fairly run-of-the-mill kidnapping to something far more subversive. But what really won me over was Lemaitre’s detective hero, Commandant Camille Verhoeven – a stunning creation, psychologically complicated, intellectually brilliant and only 4ft 11ins tall.”

The joy of camping and the great outdoors

My husband and children convince me into a camping trip once a year on average and I suffer through it, not necessarily in silence, because I know how much they enjoy it.

But to me it is an absurd way to spend a weekend. Why would you leave your perfectly comfortable home, complete with soft duvet, springy mattress and flushing toilet, to load up the car with more kit than you would need for a two-week European vacation and drive to a remote part of the countryside to sleep in a field with a few hundred random strangers while foregoing all nods to hygiene for fear of either falling over in the portaloo or catching something unspeakable from the public shower block?

A few weeks ago, our annual trip rolled around and I was hoping that the weather would be so inclement that we could cancel a few days before. Alas, no. The day was glorious and spirits were high. My organisational task was catering the food for the three families that were going, so I did the required shopping trip to buy mini boxes of cereal, ready-made salads and as much steak and burgers as our mini bbq could hold. Other Half’s job was to check the camping gear hadn’t been eaten by mice or squirrels since it was stashed in the garage after last year’s trip and to pack the car.

So far, so good: the cooler box of food and beverages was in; there wasn’t a centimetre of breathing space left in the car; Geoffrey the bulldog had been dispatched to the Dog Hotel for the weekend. We were off – and on schedule! We had chosen a campsite close to West Wittering in the optimistic hope of a bit of beach fun, so all manner of activities had been planned, from cricket on the beach to body-boarding in the non-existent waves.

About half an hour from our destination, OH realised he hadn’t packed the bag containing the beach activities. Ok, not a disaster; we can still have fun building sandcastles and paddling in the water. We carried on for another ten minutes before I asked if he had packed the folding chairs. Apparently not. As if on cue, we passed a caravan shop and did a quick handbrake turn into the car park. He disappeared inside and came out ten minutes later with four new chairs, only to ask if I had packed the bag with all of the picnic stuff in – you know, plates, cups, cutlery, kettle. I reminded him that he had had One Job. He disappeared back into the caravan shop to buy the rest of the essentials that were apparently still sitting in our garage, while I cast an eye behind me and wondered what the hell was actually packed, considering there was no room left in the boot.

Twenty minutes later we were back on the road and a few hundred pounds lighter. The memory of the caravan salesman waving us goodbye while wiping the tears of mirth from his eyes stayed with me for the rest of our journey.

Thankfully, night #1 was fairly uneventful once we had erected the tent (in record time for us, probably because we were both now gasping for some sort of alcoholic beverage to numb the pain of how much this little trip had cost us) and found the loo block (walk past the “organic loos” with your sleeve covering your nose to the portaloos at the end of the road). The bbq was lit, the burgers were sizzling and the kids were laughing and having a great time.

That night, we collapsed onto our newly inflated air mattress and hoped for a good sleep. It was absolutely freezing and I had so many layers of clothes on inside my sleeping bag that turning over or moving in the slightest proved incredibly difficult. I spent the night stuck on my back like an overstuffed worm. All I could hear was whispers from other tents, cows mooing and the traffic rushing past on the road beyond the field. At 6am, with the sun streaming in, I gave up and struggled out of the bag to find OH lying on the hard floor after a puncture in his mattress overnight had caused it to deflate completely.

Day #2 and the weather was promising for our trip to the beach. Sunny, not exactly warm, but the wetsuits would come in handy. We packed up our lunchtime picnic, secured the tents and headed off. The beach was busy, but we found a spot and settled in. Then the wind picked up. Within ten minutes, everything was covered in sand and the temperature had dropped substantially. I looked over at my friend in the chair next to mine and she was wearing two hoodies and a woolly hat – that kind of cold. The kids were ok with it, snug and warm in their wetsuits; the mothers less so. The flasks of tea and coffee came out, as did the picnic lunch, and we sat with our backs to the sea, facing the car park, to shelter from the sand blasting our faces.

And we stubbornly refused to move. We were going to spend the day on the beach if it killed us. However, when three of the children in our group were crying from sand stinging their eyes and a crunchy sandwich held no more appeal, we had to admit defeat and return to the campsite.

Instead, we opted for a game of rounders in the field. It started well. We took turns, the children were gracious in accepting parental advice on how to pitch and no car windows were broken. Then other children from other tents started to join in, the group got bigger, the requests to bat and moaning about not having a go reached fever pitch, strange kids started arguing about the rules and we suddenly realised that we had become the childcare providers for all those other adults sitting in their deckchairs, raising a beer to us in thanks. The game went on for hours. Only once we couldn’t see the ball in the dark were we able to call an end to the “fun”.

While we waited for the steaks to cook, one of the dads in our group decided to check the weather as a precaution. Cue the weather alerts for a storm overnight. The discussion began, as we fought to cut through our steak with plastic knives, occasionally spitting out soggy bits of paper plate, as to whether we were going to stick it out. The general consensus was that we would stay – how much worse could it get?

A lot. The weather overnight can easily be described as torrential. The wind howled, the rain pounded into the thin fabric of our tent, lightening flashed and I found myself getting up every hour to check we hadn’t blown away. My husband, on the other hand, apparently had the best night’s sleep ing ages, now that he was on the mattress without a puncture, and woke the next morning looking fresh and alert. I thought he would come to physical harm when he emerged later than the rest of us, saying chirpily to our friends how much sleep he had had, while they were in the process of cleaning up vomit from the inside of their tent after one of their children had had an explosive dose of motion sickness through the night.

With that, we packed up our bags, took down the battered tent and tried to cover the scorch marks in the grass from our enthusiastic bbq. It was over for another year and I waved in delight and relief at the caravan shop as we passed on our way home.

Next year, I may suggest that someone sticks small pins in my eyes rather than go camping again. However, on the plus side, we have more than enough kit these days and will never run out of chairs, unless we forget to pack them again.

The Big Little Food Fib

A few years ago, I lost a lot of weight (almost 4 stone) over a period of about a year. It wasn’t easy, but I managed it through running a lot more, eating less and watching my portion sizes and I have managed to keep the weight off (give or take a few pounds) ever since. I wouldn’t necessarily call myself a slave to technology, but one of the most helpful tools in my arsenal during the battle of the bulge has been the mobile app.

I started logging every tiny little thing that passed my lips on MyFitnessPal and every step I took in my trainers on the Nike+ running app. What I came to realise as the weight graph dipped was that all the excuses I used to give – gluten intolerance; thyroid issues; sluggish metabolism; genes – were a load of bollocks. Essentially I ate too much for the amount of calorie-burning going on and the fact that I could eat more pizza than my husband in a single sitting was possibly not a cool talent after all.

In the last few months, that weight has slowly started to tap me on the shoulder and whisper in my ear that it is trying to make a comeback and I’m nervous. I still have the apps and I still use them on a daily basis (well, almost), but little white lies now niggle at my conscience. Where I was dedicated and strict before, I’m now like a rebellious teenager trying to bend the rules and trick the system. Here are the rewritten rules according to the Dawn Diet – none are proven to work, so be careful if you try this at home. I cannot be held responsible for the size of your thighs afterwards.

  • I don’t log anything when I’m on holiday any more. There is nothing more depressing than watching your family tuck into a Mr Whippy while you nibble on a carrot stick, so I eat the Mr Whippy and chalk it up to “creating memories for the kids”.
  • Nothing liquid is counted, from the copious amounts of tea I drink every day to the G&Ts on a weekend. Alcohol in general is on a “need to know” basis. Besides, keeping track of the glasses of prosecco I have when out with girlfriends would a) require my memory to be reliable; and b) make the hangover feel even worse the next day when I realise how many I actually had.
  • Similarly, anything eaten while recovering from a hangover is for medicinal purposes only. The carb fest that generally follows a boozy night out helps to restore order and calm to the broken body and therefore fulfils a vital role in recuperation.
  • Birthdays are sacred and anything consumed on that day has zero calories. My 41st birthday last week was a case in point when I ate three Krispy Kreme doughnuts and a lemon curd muffin before 3pm, followed by a three-course dinner in the evening. The same is true of any birthday celebrations, whether they occur on your actual birthday or are spread out over some weeks (as mine tend to be).
  • Anything eaten in secret remains secret. Admit it, we’ve all hidden behind the kitchen cupboard door and eaten pilfered sweets from the kids’ jars without them noticing or sneaked a few extra chocolates out of the fridge late in the evening. This is made so easy in our house as the utility room fridge holds all of the confectionary, so it is very easy to load my mouth with treats at the same time as loading the washing machine with the whites.
  • Eating the leftovers off your children’s plates also does not count. My mother would remind me often when I was little that there are starving children in Africa who would love to have the leftovers from our plates, so I’m essentially helping to restore order to the world by consuming the half-eaten fish fingers and cold chips left stranded in the kids’ congealing tomato sauce.
  • Anything eaten immediately after any form of exercise, especially when you are still in your lycras, is muscle-building and replaces lost energy. Just as lycra has magical powers to hold all the wobbly bits in place, so the biscuits consumed upon your return to the house has the power to speed up weight loss – but there’s nothing scientific in that theory, so don’t quote me on it.
  • If the day’s good intentions go tits up by lunchtime, the entire day can be written off and anything consumed later in the afternoon is a free for all and doesn’t count. On the flip side, if you have managed to stick to your guns and have resisted all temptation by 9pm, then anything found to be snackable after this point is null and void and you have still managed to log a good day.

Now the question is whether honesty is indeed the best policy or if the little white lies will mean I have a bit more fun (and a wider bottom)? Maybe I’ll log into the app next week….

Notes from my bookshelf #5: The Girl in the Red Coat

Yes, followers, the book review returns. This one is slightly different, however. As an ex-Curtis Brown writing course student myself, I always feel obliged to read all of the offerings from my fellow students who have been lucky enough to secure publishing contracts. I admit that this is a bittersweet pursuit, swinging between feelings of hope that if they can, maybe I can too, through to pangs of envy that they got there first, dammit. So I came at The Girl in the Red Coat determined to read it as a show of solidarity more than because I wanted to read a good yarn, as is usually my motivation.

I expected a story loosely based on Red Riding Hood about a lost girl. What I wasn’t expecting was to be completely captivated and haunted by the story in equal measures, and totally caught up in the mother’s suffering and the daughter’s determined spirit.

Similar to other offerings from ex-CB students (such as The Miniaturist, for instance), it is a beautifully written book, which is testament to the team at Curtis Brown and the course tutors who helped us to fine-tune our ideas into workable manuscripts. But this novel goes beyond beautifully crafted syntax and imagery. It is rich with layers of mystery and cleverly dotted with all things red. Carmel is a constructed as the kind of daughter we would all want to have, independent and strong despite the situation in which she finds herself. The mother had me crying on more than one occasion and I empathised with her sense of loss and helplessness.

Parallel to this is Carmel’s “special gift” and why she was chosen by her captor, with the different strands of plot knitting together to form a narrative constructed like a dialogue between the daughter and the mother, as though they are talking just to each other, the bond never broken.

I read it in two days, couldn’t put it down until I had found out what had happened and there are very few books of late that I have connected with so strongly. Do yourself a favour and read it.

Ah, the memories… or not

Yesterday, while scrabbling around in the attic for my old school copy of “Macbeth” for my daughter, I came across a dusty box containing my old diaries. For most of my high school years, I wrote every thought, feeling and angst-ridden memory down on those pages, so you can imagine how heavy the box was when I wrestled it down the rickety stepladder.

What quickly became apparent, apart from the melodrama that goes hand in hand with being a teenager, was that a fair-size portion of it I just do not remember. Some Big Events – the school disco; the first broken heart; exam time – are still riding high in my consciousness, but the day-to-day stuff that I spent so much time agonising (and crying) over seems to have been wiped from memory. Probably for my sanity.

Paging through, I started thinking about what I have chosen to remember – and, more importantly, what I have chosen to forget. For instance, if you ask me to sing the lyrics to any number of the songs I listened to back then in the good old eighties, I can word for word (but not necessarily in tune). I can still remember my old home phone number and the phone numbers of some of my friends (in the days before mobile phone contact lists); the names of my best and worst teachers, and various acquaintances from primary school and their siblings; the bubble skirts, long jumpers and lime eyeshadow I wore to a number of discos; the taste of the chips with a curry sauce splash from Liu’s, the Chinese takeaway at the end of our road; how much a quarter of rhubarb and custard sweets cost out of my dinner money on the way home from school; even the number of the bus I used to take.

However, when it comes to my present life, I struggle to remember the names of my children on a daily basis. I often find myself telling them off for something or other and calling them by the wrong name, which always takes the sting out of my wrath when they hear their mother stumbling over who it is she is supposed to be chastising.

The other day I walked into the kitchen, went clockwise around the island, only to find myself back where I started and none the wiser as to why I was there in the first place. I then went anti-clockwise in case that would help, was still none the wiser and went back upstairs. Only then did I remember what it was I had wanted (a cup of tea and a chocolate digestive).

There are other things that I can’t remember that would be quite useful to know, like how we did long division or algebra at school. Nor can I remember the date of the Battle of Hastings, which order the kings and queens reigned in or how many terms of office Margaret Thatcher had in the end. And there is always one of the seven dwarves I can’t name.

I’m not going to dwell unduly on this though. I will embrace it for what it is: a sign that I shouldn’t have any more children if I have a hope in hell of remembering who they are and that I’m rubbish at pub quizzes unless the questions feature 80s pop lyrics or the bus timetable for the No34 through Bedlington.

Ten things it has taken me 40 years to learn

For  an intelligent woman, sometimes I can be surprisingly slow to catch on. Some of this I put down to age and some to a certain degree of denial. I’m sure that there will be many more lightbulb moments as I head further into my forties, but here are ten things that I now embrace, along with my mid-life crisis.

1. Force yourself to enjoy the first minute of the day. I used to hate mornings. Getting up for school was torture; getting up for work was a fate worse than death. The only mornings I enjoyed before I had children were the ones I missed entirely by staying in bed until noon as a student. Now I realise that the first minute of the day, when you are just opening your eyes and your mind is frantically scrabbling to hold onto a dream as it evaporates, is the quietest and most settled minute you are likely to experience for the rest of the day. For a few blissful seconds, you are unaware of what lies ahead. Once you step out of bed, the day can go one of two ways: it can take off and be the Best Day Ever; or it can plummet into the depths of hell. Best to stay where you are for a little while longer and enjoy your cuppa.

2. I will never be tall. At 5ft, you would think I would’ve realised this sooner, but in my head I am definitely taller than what the height chart says. Mentally, I look people in the eye, not in the boob region. However, as my daughters and their friends get older, I am reminded constantly of how short I actually am. I have to look up to talk to them now and I often get lost in a crowd of kids at school, only to emerge from the other side mentally traumatised. However, dynamite comes in small packages and I find that my diminutive stature means I am often underestimated, which comes with the pleasure of knowing that I have plenty of opportunities to surprise people if I feel like it. And maybe one day I will.

3. Heated rollers are never a good idea. I have had my heated rollers since the early 90s and once or twice a year I get them out, thinking that it would be a good idea to try them in preparation for a night out. However, I have yet to use them successfully without looking like a French poodle afterwards. It is time I realised that rollers will never create relaxed gentle curls in my mop of untameable hair. Best to stick to the straighteners.

4. I don’t know everything and it’s best not to pretend I do. When they were younger, my children’s questions were random, but fairly easy to answer, which led them to believe I was the fountain of all knowledge. With this came my short-lived belief that I did in fact have an answer for everything. Then they started school and the questions became more complicated. These days just going through their maths homework is a challenge. For a while, I admit I blagged it and gave what I thought sounded like a credible answer to questions like, “If people say it can be too cold to snow, why is it always snowing in the Arctic?” Thank goodness for the internet as I can now confidently admit that I do not know everything, but can satisfy them by saying, “Google it!” What did our parents do before the internet? Oh yes, they lied too…

5. Some song lyrics will always be an enigma. There are certain songs that I will never understand. “The Riddle”, for instance, “China in your Hand” and possibly the entire Depeche Mode back catalogue. In my youth, I’d sing them unashamedly and contemplate their deeper meaning while trying to draw parallels with my own teenage angst. These days, I still sing them out loud, but now realise that Nik Kershaw didn’t have a clue what he was writing, but it rhymed and suited the tune in his head, so he went with it. Good lad.

6. A beautiful pair of shoes is the best medicine. After emerging out the other side of the teens, university heartbreaks, career frustrations, marriage adjustments and childbirth, I can safely say that the only thing that makes me feel better when my day/week/month has gone to hell in a hand basket is a beautiful new pair of shoes. Forget chocolate and wine; all they do is trick you into thinking you feel better, then make you feel crappy again when you’ve had too much (as you inevitably end up doing, evidenced by the multitude of hangovers I have endured over the years). However, a pair of shoes doesn’t care how fat you are, how many spots you have or if you’ve said something stupid. Every time you look down at your beautifully clad feet, you feel your spirits rise and that’s enough for me. Until you walk in your new heels and sprain your ankle of course…

7. I will never like olives or stinky cheese. They say that your tastebuds develop over time and you will enjoy different foods when you’re older. And in fact I can now eat guacamole, even though I used to think the avocado was devil spawn, and cooked fruit is ok when covered in crumble and smothered in custard. However, I can safely say that I will never embrace the trendy but foul-tasting olive or understand the attraction of eating a cheese that smells worse than Andy Murray’s trainers.

8. I really like sleep. As previously mentioned, I am not a morning person, so why it should take me so long to realise how much I love sleep is ridiculous. It was only once I had children that I realised just how important eight hours of sleep a night are to my mental wellbeing (and those around me). Even now on the rare occasions when one of my daughters wakes me complaining of having a nightmare, I am likely to be short-tempered and brusque, and certainly not the loving, comforting parent they deserve. They learnt that quicker than me and wake my other half instead now.

9. I am morphing into my mother. Much as I always said I would follow my own parenting path, I sound more like my mother every day. Yesterday I heard myself tell my youngest that she would “put her eye out if she isn’t careful” and that “there are starving kids in Africa who wish they could eat that cauliflower”. However, I hasten to add that with this comes a certain sense of relief in knowing that I turned out ok, so my mum must’ve been on the right track and if I can emulate some of that, then my girls will be ok too.

10. Always hold on when riding the bus. How many times have I told my girls to hold onto the rail when we are on the bus? Loads. But do I follow my own advice? No. There I was sitting on the aisle seat on the top deck with my mum over Christmas when the bus took a corner a little too hastily and I fell off the seat onto my back in the aisle like an inverted turtle. In my embarrassment as all eyes turned to stare, I started to laugh hysterically and couldn’t get up. My mortification reached a new level when I heard my mother loudly say in between guffaws, “I told you not to drink that gin with your breakfast.” Always hold the rail, people…

Time flies….

A lot has changed in a year. The last time I blogged, I was still on the younger side of 40, stretching my brain with a creative writing course and trying to squeeze in as many random but satisfying pursuits before That Birthday came around.

The Big 40 has come and gone (and I’m closer to the Big 41 now) and I’m taking stock of what I achieved in my last year of my thirties: in a nutshell, I’m greyer, a little heavier and unemployed. Wow, it really wasn’t a productive year after all!

Actually, it was a pretty good year in a lot of respects – and the Big 40 wasn’t as daunting and traumatic as I was led to believe it would be. Ok, I did plan a month’s worth of celebrations to help me cope, ranging from a 1950s rock-‘n-roll party to a legendary evening with girlfriends in a Soho tequila bar called the Pink Chihuahua that would have a blog post all of its own if I hadn’t been sworn to secrecy about what actually took place. What happens in the Pink Chihuahua stays in the Pink Chihuahua…

Now that I am 40 and supposedly a grown-up, I appear to be in the midst of a mini mid-life crisis. After 14 years working for a company that wasn’t all that bad in the grand scheme of things (don’t tell my ex-boss that though), I spontaneously decided in December to resign and try to make a go of it on my own. Call it a last-ditch attempt to seize the dream before I forget what the dream is, but at the time of resigning I thought it was a brilliant idea. I have to say, a weight has lifted from my shoulders knowing that I don’t have to log my brain into a job that had become tedious, routine and repetitive after all this time. However, one look at the wares on offer in the Christmas sales and I realised very early into my new-found freedom that a salary is a surprisingly useful thing to have and that mid-life crises aren’t as much fun as you’d expect. It’s apparently not all sports cars and toy boys – I can’t afford a sports car and a cougar I am not, since my idea of bliss is spending the evening in a onesie with a cuppa and some Bombay Mix, cuddled into a farting bulldog with a bit of David Tennant on the telly.

I also appear to have lost a sense of my own identity. Before, when asked, I could say with authority and confidence that I was an “editor”. But what am I now? I can’t say housewife (anyone who has been to my home can attest to that) or stay-at-home mum (my oldest is about to start high school). That’s like saying I’m a pianist because I’m learning to play the piano (which I am because I didn’t scratch it off the 40 list). I’m now label-less, a bit like the basics range in Sainsbury’s.

Yes, it was all self-inflicted, so I can’t complain. And I had a Plan: to relaunch my freelance editing business, maybe do some writing, get myself published – you know, all that easy stuff. However, the freelance business is slow to take off, the publishing deal has yet to find a champion agent to drive it and I am running out of funds, so I have found myself trying to come up with a new idea for a job: something that pays well, motivates me to get out of bed every day and makes me feel like I’m achieving something or making a difference. Yeah, not much to ask for….

I’ve thought of a number of options: a postman (they get loads of exercise and finish work early, but the winters must be a bitch); dog-walker (lots of fresh air and exercise, matched by enormous piles of poop); opening a tea shop (I don’t know if I’m nice enough to be polite to the public every day); bake cakes (too tempting to do a taste test all the time); librarian (surrounded by books, but not allowed to read them during working hours). None have fit the bill just yet.

So if anyone has any ideas for me, I’m all ears. In the meantime, I’ll keep walking the dog and drinking copious amounts of tea, all in the name of brainstorming.

In Memory of Mick: A Dog is for Life, Not Just for Christmas

We said goodbye to our beloved bulldog Mick this week, so here’s a repost of an old blog (from a year ago) in his memory. He managed nearly 14 years in the end and every day was special – and I was wrong: it was old age that got the better of him in the end. As I say below, our family is incomplete without him. I hope there is plenty of chocolate in doggy heaven… 

One of the most important members of our small family is Mick, our 12-year-old British bulldog. Mr G and I chose him at eight weeks old as a companion for our female bulldog, Bianca (who is no longer with us unfortunately) and from the outset he was a character. Named after Mick Jagger, I chose him out of what seemed like hundreds of puppies because he was tiny, noisy and incredibly grumpy. Nowadays, he is still noisy and occasionally grumpy, but he is not tiny.

Shortly after we adopted him, Mr G was transferred to London from South Africa and the dogs ended up enduring six months of quarantine as we relocated. He went into the kennels a puppy, but came out a hulking beast of a dog, with boundless energy (going completely against the grain for a bulldog) and no idea of his own strength. A couple of sessions with a dog behaviourist and with wallets a few pounds lighter, Mick was a reformed character with a laid-back, chilled approach to everything.

And it has been something of an adventure ever since. He is the kind of dog that scares the hell out of you at first sight, but once he has snorted at you and sniffed your legs (he can’t reach most crotches), he is a softy. Unless you are a squirrel, in which case watch your back as one day he will get up enough speed to catch you (in his dreams anyway).

Mick has a number of weaknesses, chocolate being one of them. He relishes the approach of Christmas, because that means presents under the tree, which may or may not contain chocolate. Many times we have returned home from a bout of shopping to find the presents unwrapped – none too gently – as he hunts for whatever has caught his nose. He once ate an entire box of Jaffa Cakes (including the cardboard and plastic inner), then ran around the house like a demon for an hour. On another occasion, I had placed a bag full of goodies, such as Walnut Whips and Minstrels, on the study desk, supposedly out of his reach, only to find him perched on my keyboard, having eaten the lot and with a stomach too full to climb down afterwards. It took him days to get over that tummy ache; he would sit and groan for effect, but since he was in disgrace, he got no sympathy from us. And the “k” on my keyboard has never worked properly since. Yes, I know that chocolate is poisonous for dogs, but try telling him that.

His appetite will be his downfall one day. If he thinks he has not had enough dinner, he will either bark incessantly at us until we give him some more or, if we have not closed the cupboard door properly, he will go and help himself. He also enjoys a good hand cream and has figured out how to unzip a handbag if he thinks there is one hiding inside. We have had many disgruntled babysitters, who have come downstairs after putting the girls to bed to find their handbag open, the contents strewn all over the couch and Mick nibbling on their tube of Nivea. He has lovely, soft paws though.

At the ripe old age of 12, he is still as fit as a fiddle, albeit half blind, deaf (although this could be selective) and not as agile as he once was. No matter what he gets up to – once he ate through the cat flap on our back door and got his head stuck in the hole – our family would be incomplete without him.

Of course, he does have some enemies. Stereotypically, he hates the postman, who returns his sentiments tenfold. And there are some members of our extended family that are not his biggest fans. A few Christmases ago, we had family to stay. One morning, one of our elderly male guests came downstairs in a pair of very loose boxer shorts and a gown, then sat on the couch in front of Mick and I with legs astride and everything on show. I averted my eyes and before I could think of a tactful way of suggesting he rearrange himself, Mick caught a glimpse and shot across the room at full throttle, teeth bared, head-first into his crotch, apparently thinking of meat and two veg. After dragging Mick away with some difficulty, I snorted out my apologies, but then had to remove myself completely before hysterics took over. The boxers never appeared again, thankfully, and Mick got an extra Bonio that day.

Socially unacceptable, often embarrassing and frequently amusing, he is my constant companion. Now if only I could do something about his snoring and farting.

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Mick sitting really still in the hope that I won’t notice he is sitting on the chair.

Working 9 to 5: What a Way to Make a Living

This week, after working incredibly hard on a project, the general feedback from those in the know was that I had triumphed and it was a success. Music to my ears after the effort I had put in, I have to say. However, since I work from home and have only Mick the geriatric bulldog for company between the hours of 9am and 3pm, I found myself fist-punching the air, whooping in delight and then having no one to share my news with. A balloon-popping moment.

If I were in an office, we could high-five each other then drift off to the pub for a celebratory pint. Of course, where I work, I wouldn’t have received the kudos in the first place as they tend to be a bit stingy with their praise and appreciation.

I have been based at home for nine of the thirteen years I have worked for my company and it has come with distinct pluses and minuses in that time.

The Pros:

  • I never have to worry about appropriate “office wear” and can throw on any old thing as the only people who see me are the mums on the school run.
  • I can wear flip-flops in summer contrary to office policy.
  • Last week, because it was raining, I literally had a duvet day and worked from the comfort of my bed.
  • The commute takes as long as climbing a flight of stairs.
  • The fridge is readily accessible.
  • No idle chit-chat to distract me and no need to be nice to people I find genuinely annoying.
  • I can mute the phone during dull conference calls and catch up on Twitter while they ramble on.
  • I can multi-task the laundry, make dinner, receive deliveries and pop over to school to administer medicine, deliver forgotten lunch boxes and pick up sick children while still completing a day’s work, with the possibility of finishing it off in the evening if need be.
  • No one can hear me scream in frustration or swear at my boss in the face of frustrating office politics. 

The Cons:

  • I spent most of my day conversing with a geriatric bulldog.
  • The call of the Twitter account and Facebook feed is ever present.
  • I essentially never leave the office – and my employees know this and have been known to take advantage.
  • The fridge is readily accessible.
  • It is easy for colleagues to blame a bad day on my home office status.
  • No one is there to share in the successes and triumphs.
  • I miss the days of commuting into London and having an hour on the train just to read my book in relative peace.
  • The longer I am out of an office environment, the harder I find it to return.

As you can see, the pros still outweigh the cons. So I will continue to high-five my successes with the dog, shout obscenities at my computer screen and mute my conference call meetings. Let’s just hope they don’t start insisting on Skype meetings or I will have to start changing out of my pyjamas every day.

The Life and Times of a Mature Student

Last week I went back to school. Not as a harrassed mum dragging tired children into the infant school gates with cornflakes in my hair, but as an actual, bonafide student again. Bearing in mind that I graduated from university in 1995 – *shudder* – this is a big deal for me.

Of course, things have changed somewhat in the last two decades since I was a student, fresh out of high school at the age of 17, eager to take on the world, and with hair that was still blonde without the help of a hairdresser.

One of the biggest changes is that the creative writing course I am currently studying is conducted entirely online. So no more napping at the back of the lecture hall or bleary-eyed tutorials with bespectacled mentors in tiny offices in the bowels of the university campus. These days it is all done via online discussion threads and tutorials on Skype (where I may look respectable from the waist up, but the chances are I am still wearing my pyjama bottoms under the desk). Rather than endlessly searching the library’s shelves, my reading list is downloaded on my Kindle. And while my fellow course attendees are physically strangers to me, I feel that we have done more chatting and sharing in a week through emails than I ever did with the students on my uni courses.

Added to all this is the juggling of running and maintaining a household, holding down a job, parenting (often single-handedly) two small children and cleaning up after a geriatric bulldog, and this is where I really notice the difference. In 1995, I only had myself to worry about – and even then, health and safety were not at the top of the list. It was an endless round of parties; impassioned theological discussions in dingy bars; cramming through the night before a final exam; forgetting to eat, then eating Rice Crispies for a week to save up beer money; thinking I knew the answer to everything and that the world was waiting for me to make an impact; and experimenting with every fashion trend from Goth to Grunge. Don’t tell my old tutors, but some of my best papers were written while drunk or sitting on the steps of the building ten minutes before the submission deadline passed.

Nowadays, I find myself getting up an hour earlier than usual just to get in some study time in the peace and quiet of a sleeping house before the terror of the school run begins. Or elbowing the kids away from gaming time on the computer after I finish work, and having to wipe jam and sticky fingerprints off the mousepad before I can start.

But the biggest change for me has been trying to remind my brain how to think again after years of housework, monotony and motherhood have beaten it into submission. When I stared at the blank screen contemplating my first assignment last week, I had a moment of sheer panic that I wouldn’t have anything valuable to say, and that I was a fool to think I could do this again after nearly 20 years, but a stern talking to myself (and an entire bar of Galaxy) and I ended up surprising myself. Once the gates had very slowly creaked open, I found that I had too much to say and actually got a bit carried away. And I loved it!

To celebrate, I spent the rest of the afternoon nostalgically lounging in tracksuit bottoms, eating Rice Crispies and rereading Thomas Hardy novels (until the school run rolled around again, of course).

(And if my daughters ever read this, university is not all fun and parties; studying is a serious business… cough… cough…)