Absent

September 8, 2011

I’m standing outside the door of my daughter’s school half an hour after classes have commenced for the day. The school secretary’s face falls as she approaches and she sees who it is, but she forces a smile as she opens the door. I know what she’s thinking; ‘Not you again’. I regularly interrupt this unfortunate woman’s work, turning up with whatever item my child has forgotten that day, be it lunch, homework or a vital book.

When I get home, I spot my son’s recorder on his desk. He was supposed to bring that in with him today for his music class. I’m not chasing after him, his school is too far away and in any case he’s older and needs to learn that forgetfulness has consequences. Yesterday I received a note from a teacher in his new school asking me to buy a hardback notebook for him. What she doesn’t know is that the notebook was purchased two weeks ago but has been languishing in his locker ever since. He forgets to bring it to class.

Between them my kids have lost two fairly new jackets and a water bottle in recent weeks. I get annoyed with them about this, but really I don’t have a leg to stand on. It’s all in the genes; they get their absent mindedness from me.

This week I totally forgot to watch or record the second part of a drama I had really enjoyed last week on TV, despite the fact that it featured David Morrissey (I have blogged before about my embarrassing crush on him). I greeted a man with whom I had arranged a meeting with a blank stare when he arrived at my workplace at the appointed time. I got distracted when processing an online payment from my bank and by the time I remembered again the cut-off time for payments had passed.

One wallet found its way home thanks to these guys

I could blame early senility, but my life has always been like this. I have left keys in hall doors and on shop counters, a wallet on a park bench and another wallet on the London Underground. I once went on holiday with no knickers because they weren’t on my list. I’ve had to call out the fire brigade because the grill went up in flames while I was upstairs reading poetry, toast long forgotten. I don’t even like poetry.

To my shame, I can be relied upon to forget birthdays and anniversaries of close friends and family. A friend once phoned me to know why I hadn’t turned up for a lunch date at her house. I rushed over, but she never really forgave me and I didn’t blame her. Why don’t I write things down in a diary or put them in my phone? Well I do, but then I forget to look at it.

What’s to be done? Are my kids to doomed to lead lives of mild chaos, constantly accompanied by that uneasy feeling that something has been forgotten?

Photo by Ian Mansfield, Flickr Creative Commons.

No Chips in the Bar

October 6, 2010

Last weekend I got away with my sisters to beautiful Donegal. We stayed in a small seaside village, in a guesthouse that I first visited as a six year old. In the last few years it has had a makeover and is now styled as a ‘luxury beachhouse’. The décor is tasteful, understated and chic; white walls and bed linen, white painted floorboards, navy blinds and pale blue cushions. It is situated next to one of the most spectacular beaches in Donegal. The entire front of the ground floor is glass, to take in the stunning view of the beach and the small island just offshore.

Preparing to tackle the Donegal waves

 Arlene, a pastry chef, runs the guesthouse and does all the cooking. Her mission in life is to make every guest feel as welcome as possible. Croissants were put in the oven as we set off for a quick walk on the beach before breakfast, we were welcome to traipse through the house in damp, sandy wetsuits, tea and coffee was made on demand.

Best of all was the restaurant. We had a memorable dinner there on the second night and all the food was beautifully prepared and presented. The place was packed – it’s open to non-residents – so much so they even had two sittings. All this in a remote village that all-but shuts down at the end of August (I won’t even mention the ‘R’ word here). Two nights B&B with one dinner cost a princely €120 per person.

After a late breakfast of eggs Benedict on the second morning we reluctantly departed, but not before two of us had booked to return with our families.

On our way home we stopped off for food at the Slieve Russell. This hulking monster of a hotel is plonked incongruously outside the village of Ballyconnell in Cavan. With its ‘big-is-beautiful’ ethos it looks like it was designed by a committee of Tiger-era developers. It probably was, it’s owned by Sean Quinn after all. Inside, you could be in any bland hotel anywhere in the country with the usual vomit-inducing patterned carpets, marble pillars and overstuffed striped velvet sofas.

It was about five o’clock. We had not eaten since our late breakfast and were after a quick dinner in the bar, of the fish and chips or bowl of pasta variety. Alas, this proved impossible. The bar menu was limited to sandwiches and soup. If we wanted anything more substantial we were told our only option was to take a seat in the formal restaurant. A quick glance at the menu soon ruled this out. All main courses were around the €20 mark and if we wanted chips with our beer-battered fish that would be an extra €3.50 thanks.

Undaunted, we decided to order sandwiches in the bar with a couple of side orders of chips. Sometimes you just really, really want to have chips, and this was one of those occasions. Imagine our disappointment when we were emphatically informed by the bar staff that they operate a firm ‘No Chips in the Bar’ policy at the Slieve Russell. This rule proved non-negotiable. Chips in the bar was an absolute no-no, a no-can-do, a more-than-my-job’s-worth request. We ordered the sandwiches and quietly fumed at the thought of other people’s chips being prepared in the same kitchen as our sandwiches.

What a contrast with Carnaween House, our wonderful Donegal bolt-hole. We weren’t expecting the same nothing-is-too-much-trouble, personal service from the Slieve Russell, but a bit more flexibility wouldn’t have killed them.

Ireland is overrun with big, characterless hotels with golf courses and spas attached. If we want to attract tourists back here we need more stylish, genuinely welcoming, value for money destinations with great food, run with care and a spark of imagination.

Consumer champion and money-saving guru from the Irish Times, Conor Pope was a guest on George Hook’s Newstalk show the other week. The topic was the cost to middle class parents of bringing up a child.

Conor pointed out that before the child is even born, most middle class parents pay between €3500 and €7000 to secure the services of an obstetric consultant – private health insurance does not cover this cost. Apparently you need to get straight on the blower the moment you see the little blue line appear in the pregnancy test window if you want to get the obstetrician of your choice.

Now this topic is a bit of a personal bugbear of mine. Why are women with straightforward, healthy pregnancies attending obstetric consultants for routine antenatal care and normal deliveries? Do they really need to shell out thousands of euros to have a highly trained consultant tell them that their blood pressure is fine, the baby’s heartbeat and growth are normal and that their blood sugar levels are no cause for concern? That is a midwife’s job.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists in the UK lists the following definitions on its website:

  • Obstetrics deals with problems that arise in maternity care, treating any complications of pregnancy and childbirth and any that arise after the birth.
  •  Obstetricians work alongside midwives, whose speciality is usually normal pregnancy and delivery.

 In other words, during a straightforward, healthy pregnancy and delivery, there is no need for a woman to see hide nor hair of an obstetrician.

My first child was born in London 11 years ago. Private health insurance is relatively uncommon in the UK and I, like the vast majority of women, relied on the NHS for my antenatal care. Most of my antenatal visits were to the midwives clinic at my local health centre, with a couple of GP visits in between. I usually saw a midwife called Mandy, a reassuring and warm Welsh woman.

Everyone is assigned a consultant obstetrician, but only sees him or her if problems arise during the pregnancy. Because I had a history of hip problems, I was referred once to the hospital so that the obstetrician could confirm I was capable of having a normal delivery.

On the day of delivery, I was delighted when Mandy arrived on shift towards the end of the labour, and welcomed my son into the world. There was no doctor in the room. A breezy registrar had appeared shortly beforehand to check in on us, announcing that “if baby hasn’t appeared in the next 10-15 minutes I’ll be back to ventouse”. That did the trick. Ten minutes later Mandy was handing us our first child and it was wonderful to be attended by someone I knew and trusted.

Back in Ireland a few years later and expecting my second child, it seemed I had committed a terrible middle class faux pas by failing to take out private health insurance. A lot of people’s first response to my news included the question “Who is your consultant?” They seemed almost embarrassed to hear that I had thrown myself at the mercy of the public system, and I was given grim warnings about the endless queues I would face at the ante-natal clinics.

They were right, the queues literally stretched up and down the length of the hospital corridors. However, I never had to join those queues. At the end of my initial booking visit I was offered, almost as an afterthought, the option to attend a midwives clinic, as I was in a low risk category. This was apparently not a very popular option as I wouldn’t be seeing a doctor for routine care, but I jumped at the chance. At every subsequent visit I walked past the seemingly unending lines of women waiting patiently for a doctor, till I reached the door marked ‘Midwives Clinic’. Here, I never waited more than 10 minutes to be seen and was soon on my way home, passing the same women still queuing on my way out.

That was in 2002. Since then, a handful of midwife-led clinics have opened and a few hospitals are offering ‘domino care’, where midwives visit mothers before and after the birth in their own homes. These services are still very limited however, and are only available to public patients.

This seems to send out a clear signal that midwife care is somehow a second-best option. Of course there are many reasons why women need to see an obstetrician during pregnancy and childbirth. Older mothers, multiple pregnancies, high blood pressure and many other risk factors  require specialist care. Many women probably feel that they are not prepared to take any chance with the wellbeing of their precious child, and they want the reassurance of a familiar face at the birth. But if they were offered the chance to be cared for by a small team of midwives in their local area, one of these midwives would be there for them on the day. And of course at the first sign of a problem at any stage during pregnancy or labour, the midwife can call in an obstetrician.

I don’t know how this system of over-dependence on obstetric consultants and under-valuing of midwives has arisen here in Ireland. It seems an awful shame, not to mention a waste of money. After all, for most women, pregnancy is not an illness. If and when we get the long promised universal health insurance, perhaps everyone will be offered high quality community midwife care, with obstetric consultants available for those who need them, regardless of ability to pay.

Crushed

September 6, 2010

 

How old is too old to have a crush? At the fairly advanced age of 45, I’m still waiting to find out.

My first crushes were the usual neighbourhood boys who seemed not to realise that I existed (fools). I then moved on to a female science teacher, various cool, unattainable older college students, unavailable work colleagues (one of whom featured in a recurring fantasy involving us both getting carried away on a conference room table) and a selection of famous men. For many years my number one crush was Daniel Day Lewis but, alas, he has not aged well.

Once my infatuation with Daniel faded, I was crush-free for a good number of years.

That all changed in 2008 when, thanks to a friend, I attended the Grand National at Aintree as a guest of the sponsors (cheers Nigel). I spotted my future crushee standing at the far side of the crowded hospitality area, gazing slightly moodily into the middle distance. The quintessential tall, dark and handsome stranger. But there was something familiar about him. Where had I seen him before? I slowly realised he was a talented and versatile actor I’d seen in several TV dramas and films. Dredging my memory, I came up with a name – David Morrissey.

David Morrissey, crush victim

I wasn’t 100% sure I had got the name right but, undaunted, I joined his queue next time he went to the betting window. As he turned to leave, I stepped up and asked if his name was indeed David Morrissey. It was (phew) and he politely agreed to sign my racecard.

And that was it. From the moment he directed that intense gaze down at me (he is very tall, and I cannot resist a tall man) I found myself once more in the grip of a ridiculous adolescent crush. He attempted some friendly small talk, enquiring if I’d had any successful bets so far. My response? An inane fixed grin and a muttered, inarticulate answer, delivered while backing away in awe. Impressive.

Since that day I have indulged in the following behaviour:

  • Regularly Googling David Morrissey, with a special emphasis on Google images
  • Once Googling his wife, the writer Esther Freud
  • Making a point of watching any TV programme in which David Morrissey appears
  • Rewatching various clips of David Morrisey several times over (as he emerged from a swimming pool, asked a colleague for casual sex in a police drama, and solicitously enquired whether his red carpet interviewer was cold in her flimsy frock – so thoughtful!)
  • Searching fruitlessly for David Morrissey on Twitter
  • Instantly following David Morrissey as soon as I heard he had joined Twitter
  • Reading David Morrissey’s blog, which has only added fuel to the flames of my crush by demonstrating his self-deprecating wit and charitable nature
  • Engaging in mildly attention seeking behaviour on Twitter in a pathetic attempt to get a response from @davemorrissey64
  • Being stupidly excited on the two occasions that I actually did get a response from @davemorrissey64.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t live alone with an assortment of cats and a shrine to David Morrissey in my house. I haven’t obsessively tracked down every drama or film he has ever appeared in – I have never watched ‘Blackpool’ or ‘State of Play’, apparently two of his best performances from the pre-crush era. I refrained from using my son as an excuse to watch my hero running around in manly armour in ‘Centurion’ after @davemorrissey64 told me it was “a bit violent” for an eleven year old (the poor man is doing his best to discourage me).

Nonetheless, this is quite unseemly behaviour for a middle aged woman. What do I think is going to happen? That ‘Big Dave’, as a fellow-sufferer on Twitter has dubbed him, will read one of my tweets about him and promptly dash for the next plane to Dublin in order to come and ravish me? Hmm, perhaps not.

What is the matter with me? I have a tall man of my own – my husband is six foot four for goodness sake – and we have been happily married for fourteen years. I suppose that is the key to understanding the middle aged crush. The youthful thrills of fancying boys and anticipating first dates are now so many years in the past and as they say, I’m married, not dead.

I don’t know if David Morrissey will be my last crush before I give it up for good. But as he has starring roles in two upcoming drama series (‘South Riding’ and ‘Thorne’) I reckon I’m destined to continue rewinding his best bits and benevolently stalking him on Twitter for another while yet.

 Sorry Dave.

(Photo courtesy Paul Cantrell)

My Secret Shame

August 3, 2010

  • I have a secret. My secret is this.

About once a month, when nobody else is around, I get into my car and drive to a fairly grim retail park on the northside of Dublin. When I spot what I’m after, I pull up the car, roll down the window and speak to a teenager wearing a baseball cap. I hand over my money and am given a package. I drive off again, to a quiet spot in the car park. Only then do I open the package and get my hands on……a Big Mac Meal.

I love Big Macs. I love the cheap white bread of the soft sesame seed buns. I love the ‘secret sauce’. I love the melted plastic cheese. I even love the pickles.

But my McDonalds habit fills me with shame. I never discuss it with friends or family. I always use a drive-through (sorry, ‘thru’) rather than queue up at the counter with my tracksuit-wearing fellow customers. I park well away from other cars while eating the food, and always dispose of the packaging before I get home.

This shame has got nothing to do with problems around food or eating or an obsession with weight loss. Up to the age of about thirty, I was a skinny person. Since then, a combination of motherhood, encroaching middle age and reduced mobility (I need a hip replacement) has changed that. I have a definite muffin top and could do with losing about a stone, but that’s probably never going to happen. Diets are alien territory to me, I have limited will power and frankly, I just don’t care that much. Being quite tall, I tell myself I can carry a bit of extra weight.

Cooking is a pleasure, I love to eat well and can cook a mean Thai green curry from scratch. My weekly bag of organic, locally grown produce is delivered to the door, there are very few foods I don’t enjoy and I love visiting the occasional fine dining restaurant. But pizza, fish and chips and Chinese takeaways also form part of my diet and I have a weakness for tortilla chips and Mr Kipling’s French Fancies. However, I never feel guilty about eating any of it. Basically, I pretty much eat what I like.

So, how to explain the unique shame of the furtive McDonalds trips?

Could it be because I associate it with the most miserable experience of my working life, when I worked as a ‘crew member’ as a teenager? I still remember it vividly; the hyperactive, bossy managers, the smell of vinegar on my hands from the huge plastic buckets of pickles, the beeping of the machines instructing the drones when to flip the burgers. Most of all I remember the catchphrase ‘Time to lean, time to clean!’ (© McDonalds Corporation) being bellowed at me several times during every shift – I wasn’t the most motivated of crew members.

We were given free food if we worked a sufficiently long shift. The rumour among the crew members was that they put some addictive ingredient in the food. Did this get me hooked? I doubt it, except in the sense that the human body craves fat, salt and sugar.

I have read ‘Fast Food Nation’ by Eric Schlosser. I have seen Morgan Spurlock’s documentary ‘Supersize Me’. But my mortification predates these exposés of McDonalds and other fast food companies. I was embarrassed before I even learned the truth, but it wasn’t enough to put me off. My cloak and dagger trips even continued during the BSE scare.

If I have to pick a reason for my shame, it must come down to snobbery. Your stereotypical McDonalds customer is a young, working class mother giving her kids a treat, someone popping in for a milkshake on the way back from the methadone clinic, or a hoodie-wearing teenager attracted by the sheer cheapness of the food (€6.50 for the Big Mac meal!). In other words, not me.

My visits will no doubt continue, though now that I have posted to this blog, they are no longer a secret. I have finally outed myself. I’m lovin’ it.