A pet subject

Six days since becoming pet owners and disaster has struck.

My husband went downstairs to make breakfast but is now standing by the bed looking panicky.

“Do you know how the fish tank works?” he asks.

The news is not good. Our fish tank has gone murky and Harry’s new pets, Stripey and Hoover, are struggling.

“I think Stripey is pretty bad,” he said.

“How bad?”

“Erm, you probably couldn’t get much worse.”

Before we have a chance to pluck the unfortunate Stripey from the tank, Harry, nine has discovered the scene. All resuscitation efforts focus on Hoover, who is looking lacklustre at the bottom of the tank.

While my husband desperately googles “how to save a fish in a murky tank”, our twins, Alec and Kit, six, hop out of bed, intuitively aware that breakfast time has suddenly got interesting.

Informed of the tragedy they race downstairs with only marginally less enthusiasm than on Christmas Day. Kit wants to see the body, while Alec focuses on the survivor.

“Mummy”, he whispers, “I think Harry needs to think of a new name, doesn’t he? I mean, he’s not really doing much hoovering any more, is he?”

The fish were originally christened Steven and Gerrard, but were downgraded when it became apparent that two goldfish swimming round a small tank could in no way conjure up the magic of a sporting legend.

Despite appearances, considerable research had gone into Stripey and Hoover’s arrival. Their tank had been prepared weeks earlier, the water tested to make sure it was ready for them and all manner of cleaning equipment was waiting to be pressed into action.

Although goldfish feature at the less exciting end of the pet Richter scale, they are at least a step on the ladder, even if they don’t know they’ve got a name or who their owner is.

As a child, I had lots of pets. First was the family hamster, Frisky, who got lost while circumnavigating the lounge and managed to eat his way both into and out of the sofa, then came my very own rabbit Suzie, who I used to take for walks round the garden on a lead, followed by a guinea pig, Gladys, who, thrillingly, had three babies.

Yes, my sister and I would bicker over who had to feed the rabbits and I’m sure my mum ended up doing most of the work, but having pets has always seemed like an essential part of childhood and I was keen for the boys to have that experience too.

 

However, as my husband is allergic to cats and I am not a particular fan of dogs, two major pet possibilities were immediately eliminated. Factor in the additional peril of a fox which regularly patrols our garden and suddenly we were down to a choice between a hamster, goldfish and a couple of stick insects.

And so, having opted for the most boring, low maintenance of pets (or so we hoped), here we were less than a week later with one fish belly up and the other well on its way to the exit.

With a tearful Harry packed off to school, I raced down to the petshop and showed them a film of our dismal fish tank. The assistant confirmed our mistake: over feeding. Probably the most basic error in fishkeeping.

I slunk out of the shop guilt-ridden at having crashed so spectacularly into the first hurdle of pet welfare. Back at home, Hoover had given up the fight. Two little parcels of kitchen roll waited sadly by the sink.

Poor Harry. After school we had a small, tearful ceremony of remembrance in the garden. The boys stood reverently by the newly christened “fish tree”. After a while, Kit broke the silence.

“Mummy,” he said, “If we buy some new fish, will Harry have to pay for them with his own money?”

Clearly, on many levels, we are not ready for pets. To the relief of pet shop fish throughout London, our tank remains unoccupied.

Meanwhile…

My more astute readers may have noticed that not much has been happening on this blog for the last 12 months. This is not because my children have matured into such angels that I no longer have anything to write about, but more to do with the fact that I have written my first book, which has just been published. It is, of course, on my specialist subject, twins. The book, “It’s Twins! Now What?“,  looks at the first year of raising twins, from pregnancy to their first birthday.  It is based on lots of interviews with fellow parents of twins and is designed to be a practical, honest and sometimes humorous companion in that tricky first year. Should you know anyone who might find this useful, please do tell them about it.

It's Twins_ cover

Am I right?

We have a keen sense of right and wrong in our family.

It is a simple concept: Wrong is what other people do.

As a pioneer of this attitude, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that it has caught on so quickly with the boys.

The other day Alec, aged five, raced into the room, his face contorted into a familiar combination of extreme injustice and tell-tale glee. “Harry and Kit have stolen the Christmas sweets,” he said, his voice wobbling.

“Now there aren’t any for me to steal.”

And with that a wail filled the room.

Harry and Kit of course knew nothing about the raid, despite brown mouths and a stash of wrappers under a sofa cushion.

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The founder members of the Always Right Club

To master the art of never being wrong you need a few techniques. One is to insist that this is absolutely the first time you realised a rule was being broken. (The “Really? He needs his own ticket?” approach). This is most effective when followed up by an immediate deflection of blame onto the accuser. (The “Well, why isn’t there a sign about it?” rejoinder).

When I caught the boys attempting to slide down the stairs on a massive Ikea cardboard box they used this technique to perfection.

“Why?” asked Harry. “We were only having fun.”

I reminded them of one of the few rules we try to enforce: No playing on the stairs for fear of injury, disfiguration and, most importantly, wallpaper damage.

“You never said we couldn’t surf on the stairs,” he replied, accurately.

It is an approach Harry, aged eight, uses quite often. Having spent 10 minutes lying in the shower cubicle making indelible hand prints on the glass, I quizzed him over whether any washing had taken place.

“Yes,” he said, unconvincingly.

“With soap?” I asked.

“Aww, you didn’t tell me to use soap!” he said.

I am currently drafting a pre-shower contract with a terms and conditions tick box to save us all a repetitive lecture every bedtime.

It also helps if you have a scant to non-existent grasp of how to behave in certain, if not all, social situations.

As I sat reading with Kit one day, he was suddenly sick all over me, himself and the sofa. While I shouted to my husband to come and help, Alec and Harry appeared at the door.

Before I could ask them to go and get some towels, Harry said brightly, “Do you want to do the Conga Kit?” Not deterred by his silence, Harry and Alec did an energetic conga round the room and disappeared.

When I pointed out that it might have been nice to ask if Kit was alright before partying around him, Harry stared at his vomit-encrusted brother.

“How was I supposed to know he was ill?” he said.

The worst thing that can happen to those of us in the always right club is to be falsely accused of wrongdoing.

“Mummy!” Kit wailed recently, clutching his head. “Alec hit me and kicked me and pulled my hair.”

Alec looked indignant. “I didn’t kick you!” he said.

Luckily more than one person can be right at the same time, which helps enormously.

Yesterday another raid on the Christmas sweet mountain was reported. My heart sank.

“Mummy, where’s my chocolate reindeer? I was saving it,” asked Alec.

“Oh”, I said vaguely, “Was that yours?” And gestured towards the kitchen windowsill, reindeer’s last known resting place.

“No,” he said firmly. “It’s gone.”

There was an awkward pause.

“Did you eat it Mummy?”

He was right, of course. I did.

Well how was I supposed to know he still wanted it?

Are we nearly there yet?

The countdown is almost over. Never mind the sleeps, there are only three more drop-offs to go until the summer holidays.

And while six weeks in each other’s company is not always the bliss I imagine, the relief of being released from the nagging, cajoling, comforting and threatening that is needed to drag the boys from their beds to the school gates on time each day is compensation enough.

It is only the knowledge that the term is almost over that prevents our already glacial journey grinding to a halt altogether.

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Hopping to school

Chief holiday cheerleader is Kit, five. Having finally woken, he opens both eyes and sits up.
“Is it the holidays yet?” he asks.

The answer, alas, sets off the first strop of the day.

Ignoring it, I get out his and Alec’s shirts which until a month or so ago had seemed white and rather smart but are suddenly grey, grubby and sporting a yellow sun cream tide around the neck. There is a brief locking of horns over who wears the Friday socks before a relatively civilised descent to the breakfast table where Harry, seven, is already eating his cornflakes.

While I fetch the Weetabix, Kit gets in a sneaky joke (in contravention of a Bomford HQ cardinal rule).

“Why did the cow cross the road?”

“Because it wants to go to the cinema?” asks Alec

“No. To go to the moo-vies,” says Kit

“That’s what I said!” shouts Alec.

Harry intervenes to try to explain, but Alec cuts him off.

“Oh, fine,” he huffs.

Sensing that the rules are up for renegotiation, Alec then starts to demonstrate the school’s Brazilian song that everyone has been learning for assembly. Rather than all sing together, Kit and Harry add their versions on top of Alec’s, each slightly out of time and, of course, tune.

Against this cacophony can be heard a little squeak. It is my voice. I go to the mirror and breathe on it to establish some proof of existence.

“Kit, you’re singing over me!” shrieks Alec, much to Kit’s amusement until he realises Harry is doing the same to him whereupon he shouts, “Stop Harry!,” before running from the room crying.

My husband sounds the 10 minute warning and the boys are herded upstairs to brush their teeth. I accompany them while he waits downstairs ready to slap on sun cream and shoes.

“Five minutes!” he bellows, two minutes later.

To say that the children respond to our order-barking would be an exaggeration. In fact, no one appears to have heard a word. The greater the urgency, it seems, the slower they become.

“Did you know that Minnie Mouse is a girl and Micky Mouse is a boy?” asks Kit between brushes, oblivious to the sound of pacing downstairs.

Alec has poked his toothbrush down the plughole and Harry is brushing his chin. My husband appears in the bathroom looking tense and ushers Kit towards the stairs.

A few seconds later I hear Kit say: “Halt. Password!”.

There is a pause as my husband tries to remember previous ones in order to open Kit’s ‘barrier’ and get down the stairs.

“Please can I get past?”

“No.”

“Kit is King,”

“No.”

“I don’t know. We really need to be putting shoes on now.”

“Just guess!”

“Alright. 1234?”

“No!”

I sense Kit’s barrier may get blown off its hinges shortly. Luckily Harry comes to the rescue.

“Click your fingers,” he shouts and my husband is allowed past. His tread sounds rather heavy on the stairs.

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Kit is unimpressed by the demands of the school run

Alec is missing. I find him in his bedroom sorting out his Pokemon cards.

“I can’t find my best card,” he says wobbily. This is clearly a problem that can’t be hurried.

“One minute!” shouts my husband from below.

Thanking the lord for the fact that none of my sons is capable of finding anything located more than two centimeters from where they are searching, the card is quickly retrieved from under a nearby pile of World Cup stickers.

We rush down the stairs and I try to jam on Alec’s school shoes – not easy as one sole is flapping. The front door is already open and Harry is standing outside.

“Look Mummy, look!” he yells. “I’ve found a crystal.”

“Look!”

“Mummy, look.”

“Mumm-eee!”

I finally get the shoes on and turn round.

“Actually, I think it’s more of a brick than a crystal,” he says, tossing it into the flowerbed.

Kit emerges from the kitchen clutching the packed lunches, prompting Alec to run crying into the dining room.

“It was my turn to carry the lunch bags,” he wails.

By now my husband is quite agitated. One minute is definitely up.

Kit is persuaded to give Alec the lunch bags and they head for the door, trying to trip each other up.

“OUT!” roars my husband, just as one of Harry’s classmates and his family walk past our front gate.

“Hi!” we beam in unison.

My husband hoists the school bags onto his shoulder and trudges off down the path. Squeals, laughter and the sound of a lunch bag being used as a football can be heard all along the road.

I close the door. Silence.

Only three more days to enjoy it.

 

 

 

 

Going downhill

Ever since Alec and Kit learnt to ride their big bikes I have been looking forward to cycling together in the countryside with a picnic in the panniers and maybe a few bottles of ginger beer stashed away for good measure.

For years we have been circling our local park with various combinations of scooters, scoot bikes and big bikes until, finally, a day off and good weather have combined and we are on our first big family cycle ride.

Here's a (flat) cycle ride that happened earlier

Here’s a (flat) cycle ride that happened earlier

But despite the bluebells, sunshine and lovely forest, the Bomford ship is not a happy one.

An hour in, and we are convened around a picnic table in a crisis meeting. My husband is wearing his pained-but-patient look.

“Shall we just go home now?” he asks. “You’re obviously not enjoying yourself.”

The boys are uncharacteristically quiet.

“No,” I squeak. “Let’s carry on.”

Oh dear. Mummy is in a bit of a strop.

Despite almost eight years of parenthood I still haven’t learnt that these much anticipated big days out often don’t quite rise to the occasion. Today I haven’t got to grips with yet another soggy parade – and it’s been spotted.

Our adventure had started so well too, with high hopes and great excitement, especially as I would be hiring my own bike to accompany everyone.

“Don’t worry Mummy, “ said Kit, five. “I’ll help you because you probably aren’t very good.”

After a prolonged toilet trip and 10 minutes fiddling around with Alec’s helmet because apparently the strap makes him look like he has a beard, we are off. Or at least one of us is. Harry, seven, shoots up the path shouting: “I think I’ll try gear two. No, three!” Kit attempts to follow suit but wobbles against the incline while Alec instantly drops his bike to the floor. “I can’t go uphill,” he wails.

And so our ride begins with me trudging up the hill pushing two bikes. Shortly afterwards, my husband is doing the same. Every now and again Harry returns to us. “Why am I the only one cycling?” he asks, and whizzes off again.

At last we reach the top and a flat section beckons. Alec and Kit scramble onto their bikes and are off. This is it!

“Woo-hoo!” shouts Alec. “Our family bike ride!”

It is great – just like the Center Parcs adverts – smiling in the sunshine as we meander along a leafy track. We continue like this for a good two minutes.

I am so happy that we are moving that I fail to notice that Alec and Kit are doing so rather rapidly. As they hurtle downhill I realise that applying the brakes is something we should have discussed in more detail earlier.

“I can’t stop,” shouts Kit, rather unnecessarily. Alec is wobbling all over the path at high speed.

My husband hares after them and manages to throw himself in front of Kit. When I round the bend Alec and his bike are lying in a ditch by the path and a man with a pushchair is looking rather startled.

“He’s fallen off, ” says Harry.

Thankfully, everyone is in one piece. And, much to Alec’s disappointment, there are no wounds to display.

At this point we consult the map and discover that we have progressed along approximately three per cent of the family trail. Clearly it is time to abort the mission.

We push the bikes to the play area and search for a picnic table. The only available one is in the shade, which suddenly feels like the last straw. I sit munching my lunch in chilly silence while my husband retreats to a sunny stump.

“Where are the children?” he asks when he tiptoes back for his crisps.

“No idea,” I reply, somehow conveying that their welfare is no longer my responsibility or concern.

And so it was at this point that he suggested, not unreasonably, that it was time to head for the car.

Of course, we didn’t. Instead, I returned my bike to the hire shop and admitted, rather sheepishly, that I would not be requiring it for the full six hours after all. Armed with my refund, I brightened considerably.

Harry and my husband headed off on the extended family cycle route while Alec, Kit and I explored the woods.

It goes without saying that once we’d abandoned the day’s goal, everyone had a much better time – even me. I vowed that in the interests of enjoyment, expectations would be kept to a minimum on our next trip.

Harry returned exhilarated from his ride and Alec and Kit greeted him with enthusiastic chatter about their woodland adventures. Kit even managed to submerge his entire foot in the forest’s only patch of mud.

So honour, if not my dignity, was more or less satisfied. The boys returned to the car with cola ice lolly smeared across their faces, muddy trousers and tales of near-disaster to boast about. A good day out, by anyone’s standards.

“When are we ever going to go on a proper family bike ride?” asked Harry as we drove away.

Sometime soon, I reply – and it’s going to be brilliant.

Fighting talk

Alec and Kit are sitting in the hall fighting over a Poundland catalogue.

“Mine!”

‘No, mine!”

“MINE.”

The source of the argument is a picture of a family pack of fun-sized Crunchies. The boys jab at the image of the packet with increasing rage.

“I saw it first!” they shriek in unison, pulling opposite sides of the page.

Here I’m afraid Kofi Annan and I part company. After minimal negotiation the catalogue goes in the bin. The Crunchie dream has died. Having endured years of sanity-eroding bickering my patience over non life-threatening disputes has worn thin.

Seven years ago, as I pushed my adorable first baby around the park (and yes, it was probably sunny), I had no greater concern than which home made meal to defrost for his tea and where to stop for my latte. Motherhood really was a doddle. When I think of it now, the image is actually sepia.

Fortunately I had no idea then that within a few years my main role as a mother would be that of a human shield, a fragile and often ineffective barrier against the verbal and physical grenades my sons like to explode in each other’s faces.

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Kit may have lost this particular argument

I rapidly discovered that no possession is too small and no subject too trivial to spark tears, shouting and, usually, a good punch-up. Last week it even extended to unspoken thoughts.

When Kit asked my husband to get his bike out of the shed Harry, seven, exploded with rage.

“He’s copying me!” he shouted. “That’s just what I was going to say.”

The list of flash-points in our house is endless, but includes an epic struggle over who has the orange bowl at breakfast (a rota was instigated), a standoff whereby the twins would only sit in the left hand car seat (their seats were identical) and a nightly row over the angle of the bedroom door (too much light for Kit, too dark for Alec).

As toddlers Alec and Kit, five, fought over who would hold my right hand – both refusing to hold my left which was, of course, free. Whoever failed to get the right hand would then freeze on the spot and refuse to move until said left hand eventually swooped down on them and propelled them unwillingly up the pavement.

On World Book Day Alec and Kit were given the same books by their nursery. When we settled down to read them all hell broke loose. It turns out I was reading Alec’s version of Grumpy Cat so therefore Kit boycotted the reading. In the end Grumpy Cat (with whom I was starting to have quite a lot of sympathy), was read twice – once from each book.

Alec and Kit have developed a bedtime ritual of taking on the persona of a baby animal. Every night it’s a different animal, yet the conversation is pretty much the same.

“I is a baby tiger”, says Kit.

“Awww! I wanted to be a baby tiger!” is the inevitable response from Alec.

Two loud sighs.

“Fine – you be the baby tiger,” says Kit. “I’ll just be a piece of air.” And with that he turns dramatically to face the wall.

“OK then,” says Alec happily.

Constant bickering does funny things to the parental brain. Rather than refusing to be drawn into the boys’ whine-fest, I occasionally find myself capitulating to the most ludicrous demands simply so I don’t have to listen to another second of arguing. At my lowest point I once moved round our dining table at three minute intervals after an interminable row about who was going to sit next to me during the meal.

Harry has developed more subtle guerilla tactics.

When Kit fell off the sofa recently Harry bandaged up his leg and pushed him around on a ride-on school bus which acted as his “wheelchair”. At story time, Harry sat with Kit and “explained” the plot to him.

“Mummy,” he said in a stage whisper. “We’re pretending – even though it’s actually true – that Kit doesn’t know anything.”

As if to prove his point, Kit smiled gratefully.

If there is the sound of a wail from the lounge, I can be fairly sure that by the time I get there Harry will be in another part of the room deeply engrossed in a crack in the wall. Once he tried a different approach. With Alec clutching a red mark on his cheek and Harry culpably near his victim he put his head in front of Alec’s hand and said brightly, “Right, now see if you can hit my head.” Unused to such an invitation, Alec stopped crying immediately and duly whacked Harry. That ploy was not repeated.

The one thing certain to unite the warring factions is an intervention from me. Driven to breaking point recently, I exploded through the lounge door and demanded that a cushion house game which had been dogged by fights, injuries and tears be abandoned once and for all.

“Awww!” Alec said. “We were having so much fun – why did you have to spoil it?”

Speaking of which…

After a few minutes in Alec and Kit’s company, strangers have a tendency to turn to each other and nod excitedly.

A secret language!

It’s not a secret language, I correct them. Anyone can join in – it’s just that, well, only Alec and Kit understand it.  More knowing nods. Mother in denial.

Alec and Kit, four, are bright, funny, and vocal but until a year ago had barely a handful of recognisable words between them. Instead of conventional English they deployed a series of grunts and actions to convey their everyday needs.

IMG_3074Communication became an elaborate pantomime of songs, signs and codes with me, my husband and Harry, seven, cast as chief translators for a uniformly baffled outside world. Often we, too, were stumped, desperately trying to decode a sound while Alec or Kit roared it with increasing frustration.

At times, the pantomime bordered on farce. Every time Alec or Kit wanted to say ‘spider’, they would sing “twinkle twinkle little star”, ‘big’ was “ooh”, ‘little’ was “aah”, “la la” meant either ‘yellow’, ‘wee’ or ‘over there’ or sometimes none of those things. Added to which they learnt a few Makaton signs so would suddenly pretend to milk a cow if they were thirsty (the sign for milk) or make the sign for cake if they were hungry. Naturally, it was sometimes hard to keep up and, for anyone outside our immediate family, impossible to follow.

Speech delay among twins in general and identical ones in particular is not unusual. They spend more time in each other’s company than most siblings and often their natural baby babble becomes self-reinforcing when repeated back between themselves. It is estimated that 40 per cent of identical twins have some form of autonomous language in their early years.

All of this I knew, even before Alec and Kit were born, plus I had the advantage of having a speech therapist in the family (my sister) and still here we were, with a communication crisis. The boys were progressing in so many ways and yet their language was so basic compared to their peers. I fretted constantly about the effect this was having on their overall development.

The boys themselves seemed largely oblivious to the problem. They showed no interest in imitating language and stuck stubbornly to their version of words  – often, frustratingly, converting other children and even adults to their way of saying things. Alec and Kit insisted on playing lengthy games of I-spy, even though they could only say one colour – “la la” again – and had to point to show the object they had in mind. They brought book after book to be read, yet never attempted to copy the sounds they so obviously enjoyed listening to. Their attitude seemed to be that this was our problem, not theirs.

To compensate for their lack of vocal range they developed comically exaggerated facial expressions. A fully made up clown could not have looked sadder than Alec in full grump mode.

Alec and Kit started to have speech therapy sessions two years ago. The initial therapy was largely aimed at me and my husband and gave us various techniques – such as describing scenes using simple language, not asking questions (which tend to elicit one word answers) and repeating back words as they should be said rather than correcting the child. The advice was to speak in sentences a word longer than the boys were capable of, which, at that stage, was two or three words. But the boys’ comprehension so far outstripped their language that this felt absurd, almost patronising.  The boys’ hearing was tested and found to be fine but progress still seemed slow to non-existent.

Starting part-time nursery at the age of three finally produced a break through. Their teachers – admirably unfazed by the challenge – reported that they were “tuning in” to Alec and Kit’s language. My heart sank. A mass conversion to “Aleckittish” seemed on the cards.

However, by Christmas, their teachers were commenting on progress which we too were noticing at home. At last the boys wanted to use the same language as everyone else and were trying to copy words – a small but profound step.

Gradually, they started to be able to say numbers and simple words such as “car” or “book”.  One day after nursery the boys were upstairs playing. Kit brought me in a parcel. “Happy Birthday, Mummy,” he said. It was his first sentence.

At their fourth birthday almost a year ago, it was hard not to compare Alec and Kit with their articulate, chatty peers. Despite all the progress they had made, they still did not use each other’s names – they had different words instead – and their sentences remained short and hard to understand. We kept reminding ourselves of how far they had come, but it was impossible to ignore how much work lay ahead too.

Once words started forming there was even more of a battle to be heard at home. “Excuse me! Excuse me! Excuse me!” Alec would shout until all conversation around him stopped. When we asked him what he actually wanted to say he would sigh and say despondently: “I’ve begotten”.

Now that the boys have started “cepshun” their language and confidence continues to improve. We still have roll-on-the-floor-why-can’t-you-understand-me moments and at the current rate of progress it may yet be a few years before Alec and Kit’s language is on a par with their peers but at last it feels like they will eventually catch up.

Luckily the boys are better at dealing with it than I am.

Recently Kit was trying and failing to explain something. Alec did an exaggerated shrug. “Kit,” he said. “Even I can’t understand that.”

And with that they both sprinted off to build some Lego towers.