I was hurling bricks into a skip, covered in filth, my face smeared with grime, when a friendly looking lady walking her dog stopped and asked how things were going with the renovations. It turned out our house had belonged to her daughter Rachel before she emigrated. She motioned with her arm to say she lived a way down the road, although she was looking to move away. We chatted for a few minutes. She said she really liked the new colour of my front door.

Last night, my house alarm went off. I had inadvertently knocked the alarm unit with a protruding leg of the ironing board which I was trying to put away. Rather unfortunate, you might think. And you would be right. Especially if you had lived in the house for a year and a half, had never used the alarm, did not have any record of the code, had no alarm engineer’s number on the unit and the previous owners had moved to Canada. Each of these facts flashed through my mind in rapid and depressing succession as the brain piercing wail started to pulse from the control unit’s plastic box. The noise was unbearable, which I suppose is generally the point.

With hands over my ears, I stared desperately at the alarm keypad panel. There was clearly no OFF switch. No volume control. No ‘It’s fine, it really isn’t a burglar at all, can we stop this now’ reset button. The children appeared in the doorway, bleary eyed, their hands also over their ears, eyes pleading for the noise to stop. I jabbed at the buttons in a random fashion. How many four digit number combinations could a key pad actually have? (It turns out that the answer to this question is actually 10x10x10x10, so ‘A LOT’). After five minutes of continuous alarm shrieking and random button pressing, the childrens’ cerebral cortexes were beginning to melt down. I had to do something. The boyfriend would not be home for half an hour, by which time we would almost certainly all be dead and bleeding from our ears.

The alarm’s master unit is handily placed high up at the top of steep stone steps to the cellar. I grabbed a dining chair, dragged it as close to the edge of the steps as I dared, scrambled up and leant into the precipitous stairwell. With one hand needed to hang on, one to hold the torch and one to wield the screwdriver to open the unit, it was not going to be easy. Clamping the torch under my chin worked temporarily, but a Maglite (Christmas present 2007 – thanks Dad!) is damned heavy and my jaw just wasn’t steely enough. All the time, the shrieking alarm continued to pulse its ultrasonic waves through my head, exploding neurons with every shriek. In desperation, I pulled at the edge of the cover. It bent, it creaked, then finally snapped under the pressure.

Surely this would be it. A master switch. A plug to pull. An ‘off’ button.

Inside the unit was revealed a maze of wires, circuitry and flashing lights so complex in its intricacy, it could only have been requisitioned from NASA’s Space Shuttle mission spares cupboard. My eyes were drawn to a big, serious looking wire and I yanked it out, desperately hoping I wouldn’t be electrocuted. Nothing. I pulled another at random. Then another.

A fourth wire and … It worked! The shrieking stopped. The bleeding ear pain stopped. We fell to our knees and gave thanks to the god of house alarms who had seen fit to take pity on our plight.

As our ears began to regain a degree of function we became aware of another noise, from outside this time. I peered outside in half disbelief, as I realised the box on the outside of the house was still flashing, its second siren still shrieking in the still night air. I looked at the children’s crestfallen faces.  I had to do something.

Minutes later I was running down the road in the dark, my breath fogging in the icy night air frantically looking for For Sale signs. I spotted one in the distance and ran up to the front door. I knocked, waited then rang the bell. Nothing. I knocked again, more insistently this time. Eventually a man’s face appeared. “Sorry,” I blurted. “Oh lord, sorry, I’ve probably got the wrong house. I’m looking for Rachel’s mum…”

Rachel’s mum was inside, settled for the night in front of the fire in a big fleecy dressing gown. “You’ll think I’m a total idiot,” I garbled as she got up from her chair “but is there any chance you might remember the alarm code on the old house?”

“Nine one four one” she smiled, quick as a flash. “I’m an old woman. We remember useless things like that at my age.”

The relief flooded through me. I instinctively gave her a hug. She was warm and smelled of talcum powder.

As I ran back up the hill towards my house, the alarm still blinking blue in the distance, I was reminded how small twists of fate can sometimes bring us to unexpected places and how lucky we are to be able to depend upon the kindness of strangers.

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Divorce is hard. It’s nasty, messy and repeatedly soul destroying. It takes you to a desperate place, beats you half senseless and then kicks you in the guts while you’re winded on the floor.

This is the text of a letter I wrote to my brother after learning he was separating from his wife of five years. It was his decision. She was utterly shell shocked. He felt guilty but was fairly sure he didn’t want to carry on for the sake of it. Their children were 4 and 2 at the time. When I spoke to him recently, he said he’d read and re-read the letter many times during the darkest times. “I was textbook, Sis. Absolutely textbook.”

“Hi JB.

I emailed M. It was difficult to know what to say to her at first. Words can be so easily misconstrued and I really didn’t want to make anything worse. I hope she’s ok. She’s trying to be practical and rational and to make decisions but I don’t think she knows which way is up right now.

You wondered how other family members have reacted to the news, and without wishing to take up the ACAS position, I really don’t think anyone intended to say anything other than the separation wasn’t a complete shock. You shouldn’t take this badly. It’s not critical, not ‘We saw it coming’, simply that the two of you sometimes seemed to lack that outward warmth as a couple. People said exactly the same to me, after G and I separated. They were right of course but I shrugged it off at the time. I honestly didn’t see it. I just thought I wasn’t ‘like that’, that I wasn’t a very lovey or touchy person. I since found out that it’s what someone else brings out in you.

Anyway, Little Bruv, the process that you are now embarking upon is such a lengthy one. Yours and M’s lives have been effectively knitted together and the exercise of unravelling each of the rows will take much longer than you can even begin to contemplate right now. The immediate, ‘big’ decisions you are making over the next few days, like who lives where and who takes what and who has the children are very much like hacking through the knitting with a big saw. You will then have to sew up all the ends to stop each side from falling apart. That is going to take a lot of work and probably some unexpected heartache.

I would warn you about over simplifying the childcare decisions too. I know you think it will be straightforward to do half and half but there is a reason why it doesn’t generally work out that way. ‘Shared care’: the divorcing middle classes dream. It sounds fine and dandy but it can be staggeringly, depressingly complicated and it will get more so as the children get older unless you and M live very close to each other and, more importantly, continue to have a friendly and supportive relationship. You may be being civil and practical about arrangements right now, but there is a whole load of emotional fall-out coming your way. While dealing with this, your children are going to have to ship out from one of you to the other every few days with half their belongings in tow which takes huge foresight and planning. Imagine packing for a holiday, but doing it every week. You will have to pre-empt everything they will need. Have they got coats? Teddies? Medicine? Later: homework, swimming kit, sandwich boxes for the school trip 3 days away? You may find you will be backwards and forwards fetching the stuff that was forgotten or trying to persuade a tearful little face to do without, while feeling like the crappest parent for inflicting this on them. Sniping over who was meant to have signed the reading record or who didn’t send school trip money in time may also become a weekly pastime.

Whatever you decide, you will no doubt be discussing all this with a complete stranger sometime soon, hideously embarassed at the exposure of laying out your personal lives and intimate details to a ‘mediator’, in a depressing little office, being charged £120 an hour for the privilege, in the hope of avoiding solicitors deciding it all for you. ‘Memorandum of Understanding’ is a phrase that may soon hang over you like the proverbial dark cloud.

Also, no matter how well intentioned you are or how well you and M are getting on now (if you actually are), the involvement of solicitors will pit you as adversaries and you will – inevitably- begin to stake your corners. I would just say do whatever you can to try and keep perspective for yourself and never, ever act or speak in the heat of the moment. I truly hope it is less horrible for you than it was for us. It’s a very long journey, Bruv, so steel yourself.

On the plus side, you are moving towards somewhere where you want to be so don’t be too hard on yourself. You will make it through. Good things sometimes have to fall apart so that better things can fall together.

With much love

Sis xxx”

The morning after Parents Evening. The staffroom is empty. Only the abandoned remnants of a tea trolley pushed into a corner, discarded like a carcass picked clean, hint at what may have gone before.

A forensic SOCO would have trouble discerning evidence that any chocolate cream éclairs ever existed here. A pie’s only testament is a single crumb and a smear of apple across a dented tinfoil serving platter. Trifle bowls, scraped clean, are stacked high. An occasional globule of dried purée bears witness to there having probably been soup.  Here and there a  lettuce leaf lies wilted, its destiny thwarted, a frisée sacrifice on an altar of ready-cut sandwich decoration.

Yet amongst the detritus, next to the still-warm industrial chrome urn sits a pristine, doily-lined basket, its contents arranged in perfect and undisturbed concentric circles.  An outer garland of pristine decaffeinated coffee sachets, straight as soldiers; a squadron of grey, dusty tea bags labelled ‘Organic’ in an over-elaborate handwritten font, standing perfectly, shoulder to shoulder, just as the moment they were first proudly arranged. In the centre, an array of untouched handy-pack seeds, beige and insipid, snuggle with unopened cellophane bags of darkly jewelled berry snacks. They offer themselves, healthily. Unknowing.

Random thoughts from a hotel room at 2a.m.:

  1. I haven’t slept in the same room as them for years somehow, but the realisation has hit me with utter clarity that both children still sleep in exactly the same way as they did as babies. The elder one snuffles and wriggles and wakes me up every time I drift off. The younger one is dead to the world and wouldn’t be stirred by the proverbial or actual earthquake. This is how they were born, how they came out. I did not make them like this.
  2. How is it all possible that the elder one is now 15? How? I must consider lying about her age. Buying her younger clothes. Hiding her eyeliner.
  3. Why is there always some idiot who talks loudly in a hotel corridor at 3 in the morning and can’t work the door-unlocking manoeuvre? There should be an open season, I tells ya.
  4. If I were to thump her with a pillow and tell her to stop bloody wriggling and stay still for five minutes, would my daughter a) laugh and see the funny side or b) be upset. Ach. Who am I kidding? She ‘d probably be so upset she wouldn’t even use the ‘I’m calling Childline’ routine.
  5. Obviously being married and pregnant at 26 accounts for number 2). It just seems… improbable somehow. It seems awfully young looking back. I have forbidden my two from getting married till they are 38.
  6. It’s warm isn’t it. Or is it me? Was there a heater on when we came in? I can’t remember. I’d go looking for it but I’ll only stub my toe. Or get tangle in a curtain.
  7. That nightmare of a roundabout completely blew my mind. I still cannot quite work out what crazed planner might have thought that was a potentially succesful solution to any kind of traffic problem. And how on earth are you meant to navigate it as a newcomer, in the dark? When you’re lost? After a four hour drive with two grouchy children? Without excessive profanity? File:Magicroundabout hemel.svg
  8. If I don’t get to sleep soon I’m going to be wrecked tomorrow.
  9. Really wrecked.
  10. And I have to drive  to Yorkshire through those endless roadworks. I hate driving in the dark.
  11. I could use some of these random thoughs as material for my blog! Maybe if I wrote some of it down so I don’t forget? Just a few notes. Except I’ve only got an eyeliner to hand. And it’s completely dark.
  12. Ha! I’ve just thought of something really funny. Excellent. Although I’ll probably never remember it in the morning.
  13. My mind hates me. I’ve forgotten what it was already.
  14. The children seem to be settling now. Less snuffling. Slower breathing. Maybe I will get some sleep after all. It’s actually quite moving to watch their sleeping shapes in the dark. They’ve grown and they’ve changed but really they are just the same as they always were. There’s a poem about your children being with you but not belonging to you, something about “life’s longing for itself.” I will have to look that up again when I get home. Seems to fit the moment somehow.

The first post: a little bit like the first kiss.

You want it to make an impression, yet not be too contrived. Understated maybe. Confident, but hinting at a promise of better things to come.

But you’re never going to do it quite as well as you might want, not the first time. Too many expectations, nerves, elbows, noses. A bit awkward. Probably best to just leap in there and do it, unexpectedly. Catch it unawares on the street corner on the walk home. Lean in. Close your eyes…

 

There we are. Now maybe we can just relax and think about where we might want this to go.

Bitzi McFroob

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