Game, set and pants

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It is 6.45am and it’s raining pants.

Harry, Kit and Alec burst into our bedroom wearing, of course, pants.

Harry leaps forward.

“Fact One,” he shouts, “Pants Man does NOT wear a cape.”

Pause for giggling.

“Fact Two,” he continues, “Pants Man…. throws pants.” About 20 pairs of pants land on our bed, some thrown with surprising force.

“Fact Three: Pants Man never clears up!”

An eruption of hysteria and all three scamper from the room, leaving my husband and I with a couple of  Y-fronts dangling from each ear.

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Pants Men

Later Pants Man and his sidekicks attempt a multiple pant-wearing world record with the final tally as follows: Harry, 22 pairs, Alec, 10 and Kit 10 (including two pairs on his head). The game then had to be abandoned due to the boys walking with an odd gait, later identified as early onset of circulation cut-off.

Although part of a generation which apparently doesn’t know how to play anymore, my boys dream up far more interesting games than I ever managed as a child.

My sister and I used to spend entire days writing out pretend library cards and would then fight over who got to be the librarian when mum or dad came into the room to ‘borrow’ a book. Occasionally Barbie would be taken to an elaborately constructed ‘beach’ or our neighbour’s elderly, arthritic dog would be persuaded to heave himself over a course of jumps we’d set out in the garden. I don’t remember ever wearing 22 pairs of pants, but I wish I had.

Games now tend to be spearheaded by Harry, seven, with Alec and Kit, four,  providing manpower for supporting and universally subservient walk-on parts. Occasionally they get a promotion if they cry. In the bath recently, Harry appointed himself Jesus, with Alec as his brother and Kit as Joseph. When Alec objected he was generously upgraded to be Jesus’ twin.  Later when I lost my temper with Harry for splashing bathwater everywhere he complained: “Awww, you can’t tell me off – I’m the baby Jesus.” Two years spent at a Church of England school has clearly had an affect on his sense of self.

Last week Kit set up shop as a hotel manager and chef with Harry as his guest. This involved huge powers of imagination given that neither Kit nor Alec have ever set foot in a hotel. It probably explains why the menu was infinite and everything was free.

“What about me?” asked Alec hopefully. There was silence. “You can be the doorman Alec,” suggested my husband finally. “You can call taxis and ….. stuff.”

A dejected Alec trudged off and took up his position at the door. Fifteen minutes later his taxi summoning skills had not been called for but he remained doggedly on duty.

This is not to suggest that the majority of the boys’ games together are either lengthy or harmonious. They nearly always conclude with one or more participants sobbing while clutching an eye, limb or broken toy. Often only moments after they’ve started.

However the violence, petty arguments and sofa cushion chaos are all worth it for the chance to eavesdrop on the fantastic randomness of three young imaginations in full flight.

Harry once decided to give everyone a super power based on the order of who got dressed first. The powers allocated were: me – invisibility, my husband – sense of smell, Harry – a paper man, Kit – yellow hair and Alec – raisin teeth.

Which just goes to show that it pays to get dressed quickly. With or without pants.

Reluctantly ringside

We are off to the circus. This is almost as much as a surprise to me as it is my children. I have successfully dodged the circus during its annual visit to our park for some years now, and, had it not been for a third installment of Madagascar, I might have got away with it.

But despite impressing upon Harry, seven, and Alec and Kit, four, that there would be no canons, knife throwing or inter-galactic trapeze work the momentum towards this year’s Big Top became unstoppable.

I have to admit that as family treats go, the circus nestles just above Build A Bear and a trip round the Hello Kitty archives on my list of priorities. I can’t help but feel the traditional circus may have had its day. But, and I need to keep reminding myself of this, today’s trip is not about me. Or even paid for by me (generous grandparents to thank here), so really, I should just shut up.

Entering the tent is dramatic, and I am encouraged. There is a slight haze in the air, a buzz of chatter and a cosy, cave-like ambience. After a lot of  experimenting, we find four seats which, with only one child on my knee, allows us all to see the ring.

“Can I have a light saber?” asks Harry. “Look, they are giving them out free.” When I cast doubt on this interpretation he heads off to ask the seller himself. He returns looking determined.

“Can I have £5?” he says.

A man leans over us to pass three portions of popcorn to his children. “Can I have one?” Harry asks him. (This from the boy who claims he is too shy to say hello to his friends in the street.)

A moment later he is clutching a vat of popcorn and looking smug. I’m not sure if I should be proud of his new found confidence or appalled by his willingness to accept, no – demand, a treat from a total stranger. Almost certainly the latter. I sink lower into my seat.

Five minutes before the show starts, a woman asks if I can budge up the children to allow her and her partner to sit together. I am torn between innate politeness and the fact that if I do so I will be paying £11 for Kit to look at the back of someone’s head for two hours. I explain my dilemma, possibly a little tersely.

“Wow!” she says. “You won’t move.” She then pointedly sits on the steps next to our seats. Having made my stand I know I will now spend the entire performance feeling guilty. Damn that woman. And me. And the bloody circus.

Anyway, before the woman’s bottom has had a chance to numb, the show has started. A Cuban acrobatic troupe wearing American tan tights and leotards with flames stitched to their nether regions is enthralling the crowd.

Over the next few acts we see a van driving over a man (it’s ok, it is Strongman Hercules), a woman suspended by her neck from the roof and an elderly gent encouraging some budgies to operate a toy car. I am not looking forward to the questions at the interval.

The first half is rounded off by the roar of engines as motorbikes and a quad bike screech in, skidding, revving and, erm, wheelie-ing, before departing in a fog of exhaust fumes and Brazilian aftershave. I hope the budgies are still on their perches backstage.

The interval is spent saying no to demands for candy floss, horse-shaped balloons, plate spinning kits and having a photo taken sitting on said quad bike.

Harry has grudgingly allowed Alec and Kit a handful of popcorn each from his misappropriated vat of shame. On pain of having it removed and returned to its rightful owner he increases their rations. He is still only a quarter of the way through the tub.

As the second half gets underway, I glance over at the boys. They are enthralled. Alec has his hands clasped together under his chin. When the act finishes he bursts into double-quick applause.

Next up, horses. What? I am shocked. Not so much by the fact that they still feature in a 21st century circus, but by their handler – the Big Top’s answer to Hilary Devey, except slightly less natural looking. The crowd gasps, and for the first time I join in.

Aside from the obvious ethical issue,  there is something odd, and rather pointless,  about watching a horse lumbering round a ring roughly three times the size of a darts board. I look across at the boys. “Amazing!” mouths Harry.

The final act is a genuinely thrilling motorbike stunt which leaves me weak with fear that the boys will one day attempt to follow suit. The riders mass at the front of the ring, raise their right arms and, in unison, flex their biceps to a standing ovation.

It is fair to say that Alec, Kit and Harry enjoyed the show. A lot. I decide to leave my musings about a circus’ place in modern society for another decade or two.

The next morning my bedroom door bursts open and the boys run in, all wearing their PE kit.

“We’re training to be Hercules,” announces Harry. “Will you come and watch?”

New term

After four-and-a-half years of near constant cacophony my house is quiet. Silent, in fact. I know I should be listening to Radio 4 and reading something meaningful, but I am slumped on the sofa digesting the fact that all three of my boys are now at school.

And just as my twins, Alec and Kit, four, knocked us sideways with their chaotic arrival, so their double departure this week has packed a similarly painful punch.

No sign of first day nerves

No sign of first day nerves

“Yay! Freedom!” I warbled unconvincingly as they trooped into their classrooms for the first time, weighed down by lunchboxes the size of suitcases. I watched proudly (darting from window to window) as they took their seats on the carpet, looked up expectantly at their teachers and moved seamlessly into their new roles as schoolboys.

We parents gawped through the panes and, after being ignored for a few minutes, drifted off feeling redundant and, in my case, inexplicably disappointed. After a leisurely coffee and lots of jolly comments about how I ‘won’t know what to do with my time,’ I return home and, guess what, I don’t. Not for a day or two anyway.

I start scrolling through my mental list of things to do. It is so long and dates so far back that even getting to the top feels like too much to think about. Somewhere on that list contains the ambition of having an uninterrupted cup of tea. As a life goal I admit I may be setting the bar a little low.

Even though the boys have been at school for less than three hours I am already feeling unaccountably nostalgic about all those playgroups, music classes and mid-week park café lunches that we’ll never have again. Of course, I never actually took the twins to a music class (too stressful/expensive) and we last attended a playgroup more than a year ago. But the point is, we could have. And now we can’t.

With the start of term comes another realisation: I am no longer the mother of very young children. I admit that having three children under three is not something I could wholeheartedly recommend, but it did provide an identity of sorts. My harassed demeanour and double pram with buggy board set me apart from other parents. Now my children are just like anyone else’s – no cause for admiration, pity or any other form of attention. I shall miss not being able to get cross about it.

So now that the two main excuses for my general inaction and, ahem, undercleaned house, have left the building, it is probably time to smarten up my act a bit.

I have to confront the fact that I do now have time to look in the mirror so probably can spare a minute to drag a comb through my hair and, regrettably, may now be able to tackle the health hazards that are our toilets. I probably could sort through the jumble of summer clothes on the spare bed too.

But just as seven years ago, I never imagined being a stay at home mum, today I don’t really hanker after being a mum-who-lunches either. Not every day, anyway, although no doubt it is a role I could quickly warm to. So the question of What Are You Going To Do Now looms constantly, if not in my own head, then on the lips of others.

In the meantime, though, I have accrued a lot of unpaid leave in my extended role of childcare-provider-in-chief and refuse to spend it soul searching. Instead, I shall pine.

I wander into Alec and Kit’s bedroom and fluff up their pillows (I know they will appreciate this later when they hit each other with them). I imagine them having lunch and hope they can get their yogurts open. I am the first parent pacing outside the classroom at 3.15pm.

Kit bursts through the door, smiling, clutching at least five drawings of monsters. “They’ve got lots of books!” he shouts. Alec emerges, looking dazed but pleased with himself, happy because he had lunch with big brother Harry in the canteen.

And we totter home, all talking at once, pausing only to run into people’s driveways, snatch a school bag and chuck it into the road and climb any unstable-looking walls.

I am back on familiar territory. It feels good.

Stuff and nonsense

A friend wants to borrow our ‘ready bed’ and I’m feeling smug. Not only is it clean and works but I know exactly where it is in the garage.

Getting to the box in question is another matter. I squeeze in, past the lawn mower, over the camping equipment and across the bikes, scooters and scoot bikes, dislodging the hula hoop as I go, tripping over a Peppa Pig inflatable hopper and spiking myself on the swingball set. The box itself is under three plastic sledges and a car seat.

I wrench off the lid and pull out … a bag of pine cones. Ah yes, collected one holiday with optimistic plans for an Ideal Home-style Christmas display and now mouldy. No sign of the ready bed.

Next stop, the cupboard on the landing. On tiptoes, I open the top door and a quilt immediately drops on my head. I retreat to my bedroom to get a chair to stand on to stuff it back in again. To do so, I have to remove all the stuff already on the chair – a  knitted cardigan for a newborn baby, a top waiting to be handwashed (which has been worn twice while in the queue – and actually, might stretch to a third outing, now I look at it again), a tea towel, a school top waiting for a label to be sewn in and a dinosaur. I stagger to the cupboard with the chair, wrestle the quilt back into its cupboard and jam the door shut. I return the chair to my room and dump all my stuff on it again.

The pointlessness of my actions so far are all too obvious. The amount of debris that must be waded through to complete the simplest of tasks in my house is frankly soul sapping.

You could decorate entire rooms with the number of Teenage Ninja Turtle colouring pages my sons churn out. As it is, they attach them carefully across the join between the fridge and freezer so that shafts of paper fly across the kitchen every time I make a cup of tea.

Depending on witnesses, these are grabbed from the floor and stuffed in the bin or, if a little sad face is watching, slapped onto the ‘pending’ pile of ‘paperwork’ and immediately lost in a black hole of school photo order sheets, Ben 10 watch designs, bills, 3p off your next shop from Sainsbury’s vouchers and expired 2 for 1 deals to Legoland. Every now and again a passing remote control vehicle attacks the foundations of the pile and it cascades back to the floor whereupon my eye starts to twitch.

Even the bathroom is not immune. Where once there might have been a few pleasant smelling and looking bottles there is now a tub or tube for every ailment and eventuality. Industrial sized Sudocream containers, enormous ‘family sized’ shampoo and bubble bath bottles, three different toothpastes, head lice treatment (just a precaution, obviously) a box of ‘funny face’ plasters which don’t stick and a bumper pack of skin coloured ones that do. Not to mention a packet of baby wipes on every surface, a random pair of pants in a dusty potty and the inevitable single sock.

And don’t get me on to toys. Really. Or Harry’s bottle top collection.

But back to the ready bed. I have a sudden flash of inspiration – literally, a vision. A black garbage bag. The garage. There it is, next to the hedgetrimmer. Thank God, because the only other option was the loft and the thought of that was having an odd effect on my ears.

I head for the sofa, swipe three remote controls, a newspaper, a lego tower and a note from Harry asking me if I want to be a witch or a wizard onto the floor and slump onto the cushions, instantly setting off a distant siren.

Somewhere in the toy drawers, there is an emergency.

My dinnertime dictatorship

It is suppertime at Bomford HQ. The boys have shuffled, protesting, from the television to the dining room. I have broken the news. It is tuna curry.

“Yes! The best meal ever!” says Harry, six, in a surprise development.

Alec’s face crumples. “Pooiest meal in the whole wide world,” he says, climbing despondently onto his chair and assessing his plate.

Economical with his language, he glances over at his twin brother, Kit, four.

“Ugh, Kit?” he inquires.

For once, it is not a double ‘ugh’ as Kit is already tucking into his meal. Two out of three – not a bad strike rate.  We only have one meal that they will all happily eat and I save that for swimming night, for obvious reasons.

Alec, four, immediately leaps off his chair clutching his trousers. “Need a poo!” he splutters before sprinting from the room.

Kit’s fork clatters to the floor. It has gathered a shriveled raisin and a hair clump by the time I retrieve it from the far side of the room. Reluctantly I leave to fetch him a clean one. One potato, two potato…. three –

“Mummy! Kit threw his rice at me!”

“No!”

“You did!”

“Harry nappy baby bum!”

“Please be nice,” I shout pointlessly from the kitchen.

Next, the sound of a chair scraping the floor and rapid patter of footsteps. A wail.

“Mummy, Kit hit me!”

Oh to be Mr Tickle. With those extraordinarily long arms of his I could probably throttle both of them from where I stand.

There is a sound of muffled straining, a gush of water and Alec is back in our midst looking mournfully at his now congealed curry.

Alec before mealtimes got complicated

Alec before mealtimes got complicated

Welcome to my “nursery of democracy” as the family dinnertime was christened by a food writer recently. Yes, that cradle of civilization where my sons learn to socialise and together we develop our family culture while catching up on each other’s news. Presumably all while eating food topped with a smiley face fashioned from a couple of olives and an organic carrot.

In truth, our mealtimes owe more to North Korea than the free world.  Bribery, threats and blackmail are often employed simply to get the boys as far as the dining room table, let alone actually putting food in their mouths.

So while other households grapple articulately with the complexities of modern life over their spaghetti bolognese, my family is stuck in the starting blocks, barely able to transport fork to mouth or bum to seat without encouragement of an official nature. As dictator-in-chief, my job consists of blocking the exits, providing helpful reminders that food is often nicer when it’s hot and confiscating anything which could be fiddled with, broken or used as a weapon. If there is a lull in this role I then crack down on excessive table drumming (Harry), burping (Kit) and repetitive joke telling (Alec). I admit that this approach does not leave much room for discussions of a more philosophical nature, except perhaps to ponder on how quickly bedtime is approaching.

It is no doubt a relief to everyone when I finally leave the dining room, laden with half empty plates, the boys’ food intake quotas eventually met.

Harry follows me into the kitchen in an attempt to get first dibs on the Pretty Peachy yogurt, safe in the knowledge that once selected, both Alec and Kit will want it and therefore refuse to eat anything else.

I would point this out to him, but I am standing by the bin with most of Alec’s tuna curry in my mouth. I motion to him to return to his seat with less authority than I’d hoped for.

When I return to the dining room clutching an apple and some jaffa cakes, Alec’s face brightens.

“Best mummy ever!” he shouts.

“You don’t really know that for certain Alec, ” Harry cautions, sensibly.

“Mummy ever,” repeats Alec, defiantly. He senses there could be a jaffa-related bonus if this loyalty to the leader continues.

Kit’s apple is eaten and he is now dismantling his jaffa cake. Flakes of chocolate litter the floor until all that is left is the orange jelly in the palm of his hand. Finally and joyfully this is stuffed into his mouth.

“Can I get down?” shouts Harry from the lounge.

Dinner is officially over – it must be, the room is empty.

An hour later and I am switching off Harry’s bedroom light and heading down the stairs.

“Mummy?”

I emit a non-committal grunt.

“I’m huuungry..”

The Art of Noise

When a stranger in the street tells my children to keep the noise down, even I have to admit it’s time to take out the earplugs and start fiddling with the family’s volume control.

I was not as affronted as you might think by the lady’s intervention. Humiliation and acute embarrassment being something of a regular feature these days, I was mainly just grateful that somebody had made the noise stop. As, no doubt, was the rest of the street.

The racket in question was a heated discussion between Harry, six, and me about whether or not he was shouting. (“I started off politely and then I worked up to shouting,” he bellowed). At the same time Alec, four, was pawing at my knees babbling excitedly about a hole that British Gas has just dug in our road while Kit had stopped, rolled up his trousers and was trying to get my attention focused on a tiny cut he’d sustained a week ago. In short, it was chaos. I hadn’t really noticed, because that is the norm in our house.

As we returned home, chastened, I realised that in the last six years my noise tolerance has risen dramatically. Admittedly, having twins who between them cried continually for approximately a year hastened that process and no doubt hardened Harry against the more subtle aspects of communication as he spent his formative years attempting to make himself heard over his brothers’ wails. Alec and Kit learnt from an early age to block each other out and rarely disturbed each other with their crying. One night I went into their room after Alec had been repeatedly howling to find Kit fast asleep with his fists clamped over his ears.

Batman and spiderman

Noisy? Us?

Over the years I have perfected the art of selective deafness –  a common condition amongst parents –  which allows you to function and retain your sanity by blocking out whining, crying and shouting below a certain level.

While most normal people associate white noise with a washing machine, a blank television screen or maybe even a dolphin’s cry, for me, it has become the sound of small voices raised in grumpiness, injustice or tiredness.

I am able to chat pleasantly to a fellow mum, completely ignoring the cacophony of competing voices below me until the level reaches a tipping point (usually when I can’t actually hear the person I’m talking to) at which stage I snap: “Will you be quiet. NOW!” before turning sweetly back to my startled companion and resuming the conversation.

On holiday I blanked it out so successfully that as I read to Alec in his bottom bunk, Harry was actually being strangled by Kit on the top bunk. It was only when his cries turned to splutters that I realised the potentially life threatening nature of his distress and intervened.

Obviously I try not to ignore my children all the time. Although I spend a large portion of the day begging them not to shout and fight, I do also defend their right to shriek and squeal.  Hell, laugh even. They are children, after all.

So when my neighbour requested that the boys relocate from our back garden to the park on the first and possibly only sunny day of last summer I feel my husband was fully justified in pointing her in the direction of our local library. Had they still been yelling at 8pm then maybe she would have had a point. But they were tucked up in bed and our house was silent as it is most nights, which I think buys us quite a lot of daytime shouting tokens.

I don’t pretend to be saintly where other people’s noisy children are concerned either. I was furious when a baby howled through Wreck-It Ralph – only the second film Harry has ever seen at a cinema (that’s if you count Alvin and the Chipmunks: Chipwrecked) and I was equally dischuffed to be seated next to an eight-month-old at Harry’s first proper classical concert.

Which brings us back to my problem of how to return our noise level to something approaching socially acceptable. It is a point I attempt to discuss with the boys over dinner. Half way through my clearly over-long explanation of why the shouting must stop Harry suddenly leaps from his chair, adopts the pose of a guitar-playing rock star and shouts “Oooo, sexy lay-dee!” before returning to his seat. Alec erupts with laughter and shrieks “Mama Mia!” while Kit resorts to his fallback angry tiger impression for good measure. I pause, waiting for a moment to resume my chat.

I’m still waiting.

That Sinking Feeling

One of the things that no one warns you about when you have children is that one day you will find yourself sitting with a sweat-soaked back beside an over-chlorinated swimming pool watching your beloved son bash a fellow bather with a float – at your expense.

And yes, several lifetimes ago it may have been pleasant to splash and sing ring-a-ring-a-roses with my new baby, but now, six years on, the pool experience has lost its lustre. Or in my case, gained it since I rarely last five minutes in the changing rooms before turning the kind of shiny puce that makes people reach for the nearest defibrillator.

I’ll be honest, in an ideal world I wouldn’t barricade myself into a windowless cell with my three children, strip them to their pants and then attempt to pull a balloon over their heads. I probably wouldn’t choose to follow that up by sitting in an inhumanely hot room wiping sweat from my eyes while gesturing wildly at my ear and mouthing “LISTEN” as my son attempts backstroke while the rest of the class is practicing log turns.

Alec and Kit swimming

Alec and Kit swimming

But hey ho, that’s the sacrifice a swimming mum makes. A sacrifice which I’m convinced actually takes years off your life. (No hard evidence yet, I’m currently amassing proof.)

Of course, this is the one activity that my children have always been enthusiastic about. Last week I had to bribe them to go to the park on a sunny day, but where swimming lessons are concerned, no amount of snow, illness or maternal feet dragging will stand in their way.

I admit that much of the stress is self-imposed. Knowing that only a 20mm plastic partition separates us from half the children’s school peers and their parents does put something of a straightjacket on my usual parenting techniques. And with shouting, threats and crying ruled out, frankly, where’s left to go? (Actually, hissing can work, but not for long.)

The children, naturally, are attune to this slight relaxation in the norm and seize on it mercilessly. As soon as we enter our family cubicle, Harry, six, throws himself on the baby changer and lies there legs akimbo. This serves two purposes – it infuriates Alec and Kit, four, and puts him in a perfect position to aim sneaky kicks when I’m not looking. Plus when he gets bored he can use this as a step to launch himself at the top of the cubicle and look into the one next door. Usually all he can see is Alec or Kit who are peering up from under the same partition. Occasionally they get a more interesting view.

While Harry is being a baby, I get the twins into their swimming gear, wrestle on their wretched hats, retrieve items of clothing from the tops of doors, fend off goggle snapping, take them to the first of approximately 25 toilet stops and steer them to their class. Alec and Kit then spend half an hour fighting and hugging on the side of the pool, interspersed with some light floating and splashing.

Harry and I watch their performance before returning to the cubicle (via the toilets), getting Alec and Kit dressed again while Harry prepares for his class. At this point snacks are consumed (my secret and only weapon). Harry then has his lesson while I read to Alec and Kit in a bid to prevent them from throwing themselves in the water or trapping limbs down the plastic collapsible pool-side seats. I glance up only when I hear the instructor bellow, “put that float down!” and make appropriate hand gestures to a baffled Harry.

In between all this I speculate endlessly about when I can give up the lessons. I haven’t established a hard and fast rule here, but the bar has been mentally lowered over the years. Initially I felt once the boys had got a strong swimming technique I could retire from the scene, now I shall back out once they can all do a width with armbands, or possibly paddling a raft.

Except that obviously I won’t. Like every other harassed and overheated poolside parent guilt keeps me rooted to my damp chair. Children must be able to swim, that’s a given. Mine will be no different – even if their progress does make Neanderthal man’s mastering of table manners look like an overnight sensation.

Until that joyful day, I’ll keep the snack box topped up, perfect my silent disciplinary technique (which involves holding up pictures of beloved toys and drawing a finger menacingly across my throat) and crucially, keep my very own buoyancy aid to hand. Well, one of us needs to stay afloat.

Harry swimming as a tiny baby

Harry swimming as a tiny baby