Spooked

I rarely get spooked. Nothing really scares me. Well, ok, I have been known to run a mile from a wasp but really scared? Truly spooked? No.

But today, on this Halloween of days, I was spooked.

Things started well and ended even better. It was our first proper Halloween and we started preparations early, carving a pumpkin on Friday afternoon (which subsequently disintegrated over the weekend, but noone seemed to notice that it wasn’t there on our terrace this afternoon) and making a Halloween mobile to hang over our front door. I’d never entered into the spirit of Halloween before but last year, in a token effort to do something, I hurriedly bought some Marks and Spencer sweets from London Bridge station on the way home from work, in case we had some trick or treaters. Unsurprisingly, come 10pm and with no revellers having rung our bell, Mister and I shared out the haul. It wasn’t that I couldn’t be bothered or that I was fundamentally opposed to the idea of Halloween, I just didn’t get it.

Back in Balgowlah, we had costumes and face paints at the ready and my expectation was that we would dress up, sit on our terrace and wait for a handful of trick or treaters to pass through before calling it a day. I happened to mention this to a friend at school and moments later received a text, inviting us to join up with their family to trick or treat on the streets of North Balgowlah. With no idea what to expect and with costumed children at the ready, I thought, ‘well, why not?’. TJ and Miggins were beside themselves with excitement but it soon became clear that they didn’t get it, either. And how could they? I had been so vague about the whole thing that they were sort of just cobbling along with my sudden enthusiasm for all things spooky. So we jumped onto our broomstick and headed into the unknown.

It was a balmy 24 degrees when we emerged into what felt like film set, with tens of children milling about in various guises, from the traditional witches and ghosts to the less traditional fairies, gnomes and members of the mafia. House after house was bedecked with cobwebs, skeletons and spiders but it didn’t feel tacky or cringeworthy, it felt like honest, wholesome, fun. TJ’s reaction to his first sweet was to promptly sit down and eat it and it took some time (and a small amount of foot stamping on his part) to persuade him that if he collected the sweets they were his, to keep. He moved pretty swiftly after that, quickly realising that the more ground he covered, the bigger his haul. Smart lad. Miggins consulted with me after each house, asking ‘are we allowed these ones’, she, too, in wide eyed wonder at this unexpected, surreal experience.

After an hour of trick or treating and with the children’s plastic pumpkin-pots brimming, we were ready to head home. The sweets were emptied onto the kitchen table and I listened whilst Miggins negotiated some swaps with TJ, at one stage convincing him that the pink lollipop that she was coveting in his pile probably tasted like a dog biscuit. He quickly gave it up. She also accumulated a pile of hard sweets, knowing that as a child I once swallowed a hard sweet whole and came very close to choking and she wasn’t about to let the same fate befall her or TJ. She mixed the unwanted ‘chokers’ and all of the green sweets into our trick or treat bowl and she and TJ waited, now in their pyjamas, for our own trick or treaters to arrive at the gate. As darkness fell and as the sandman paid his visit, TJ and Miggins drifted off to bed, with visions of sweets, pumpkins and happy, balmy nights dancing in their heads.

But I was spooked. Shaken up.

In the heat of the afternoon, my little witches and I decided that we would have a dip in the pool before our Halloween revelries commenced. Miggins and TJ waited patiently on the steps of our pool whilst I, a mere 3 feet away, cleared something from the edge of the pool. At that exact moment, an inflatable toy floated past TJ’s feet in the pool and the last thing I heard was ‘watch me surf Mummy’ before Miggins shouted ‘TJ!’ and I looked to see a blue hat bobbing on the surface of the pool with TJ flailing beneath it. I know I reacted immediately, jumping in and calmly pulling TJ up and into my arms but the replay feels so slow, so tortuous, so frightening. TJ cried for a second then proudly said ‘I went under without my goggles’ and we all carried on. But I was spooked.

So whilst our first Halloween felt more like a fairytale, it didn’t come and go without a scare, without a moment of terror, without a residual feeling of unease and without a lesson learnt. And I, for one, would be happy if I never, ever, get spooked again.

Red dot from the moon

October 2012, Balgowlah, Australia

We had a visitor this week; my lovely friend, Clarabelle, whom I have known since we were both the ripe old age of 8. She arrived on Monday and we had four days of chatting and laughter and whirlwind tours of my favourite places in Sydney.

Although amazing friends like Clarabelle require no real effort in terms of falling immediately into our lifelong friendship groove, I pulled out all the stops in preparing for her arrival, which would mark the last 4 days of her month-long tour of Australia. The agenda was easy enough (there are so many places I wanted her to see, many of which we couldn’t fit in) but I knew her nomadic adventures would have seen her sleeping in hotels and on sofas and I wanted her to feel comfy, cosy, at home.

I dropped Miggins at school at 8:30am, grabbed a coffee and told myself that everything would be in order by 12pm, when I would collect Miggins and drive to the airport.

I cleaned and tidied for almost 3 hours to knock the house into sparkling shape and even then there was quite a lot of stuff being shoved into the laundry room (which is thankfully closed off from the rest of the house but which I still felt compelled to show Clarabelle after showing her around…). At 11:47 I made TJ and Miggins a picnic for the car journey to the airport and after a fraught negotiation with TJ about leaving the house, I hared it to school at 11:58. Bad.

The school car park was full so I went to park in the next street along, which was of course blocked by a removals van, so I had to park one more street over. 12:05 and 25 degrees. I grabbed TJ and ran as fast as I could with a 3-stone 2 year old (who was holding his jam sandwich and shouting and laughing ‘Mummy I’m getting jam in your hair’) and got to school a sweaty, panting mess at 12:08. A lovely friend stopped me outside school to give Miggins a belated 5th birthday present and pushing aside my usual British politeness I just blurted ‘I’ve got to be at the airport at 12:30’. Luckily, she was characteristically unflappable, handed me the pressie and stepped aside as we all galloped back to the car, with Miggins shouting breathlessly and excitedly ‘why are we running? why are we running?’, her oversized backpack sloughing from side to side and TJ still trying to finish off the jam sandwich whilst I was now carrying him horizontally like a newborn, my arms breaking. Once in the car and on the road we took a breath and we smoothly pulled into the public pick-up area of Sydney airport twenty minutes later than expected but miraculously just in time to collect Clarabelle, who was none the wiser and, thankfully, a few minutes late herself. We greeted each other like the old friends we are and chatted excitedly about the first stop on our tour.

October 2009, London, 8 months pregnant with TJ

I used to start looking desperately at the clock from about 4pm, knowing that I had precisely 1 hour and 11 minutes to finish everything that I needed to do that day to be able to run to Cannon Street station to catch the 5:21pm train. That train would get me home in time to let our nanny, the wonderful Miss J, finish her day at 6pm and most importantly gave me a precious hour with Miggins before I tucked her into bed.

I know what you’re thinking; a lawyer, finishing at 5pm, how did she land that one? The truth was, there was no finishing. The red light flashed continually on my blackberry, the demands interminable. I had, though, made a promise to myself and to Miggins that I would try my very best to be home every night for bathtime and to tuck her into bed and no matter what pressure that put me under I managed it all but a handful of times, each of those missed opportunities weighing heavier than the last. Guilt crept in at those moments, saw the chink in the shiny armoury that that was my professional, well-groomed, suited self and taunted the maternal instinct that told me I should be there, whatever, no matter what.

There was no doubt that I loved both roles of my dichotomous self, as a lawyer and as a mum, but I have yet to be convinced that it is possible for anyone to truly feel that they ‘have it all’; that they have for themselves and for their family successfully and happily sustained those two parallels.

I digress, but I hope I have set my scene.

I was two weeks from the start of my maternity leave but things were far from winding down. My last meeting that day had overrun and I returned to a plethora of emails and calls, each demanding an urgent answer (their authors fully aware of an imminent handover of their file). 4:57pm. I called Mister – straight to voicemail; he was on a lengthy conference call. I hesitantly called Miss J, who almost always said yes to staying later but who had no choice but to get home on time that night. 5:04pm. I quickly packed a Court bag with work to take home with me, put my trainers on and logged off, diving into the lift. 5:08pm. 6th floor to ground usually took all of 30 seconds but it stopped at floor 3, then floor 2. People in the lift chatted amiably, their day over whilst I just stared at the doors, whispering ‘please, please’ desperately under my breath. As the doors opened on the ground floor I bolted, supporting my bump as I ran, cumbersomely dragging the court bag behind me.

I knew I wouldn’t make it, I couldn’t possibly make it, it was a 10 minute sprint without the 8 month bump, but I jog-walked-jog-walked, all the time bumping that ridiculous bag behind me, which sounded like an express train clattering across the pavement, drawing yet more attention to my ungainly self. I was met with looks of amusement, sympathy, disbelief, a rare anomaly amidst the sea of cloned commuters.

When I finally panted up the steps at Cannon Street station, with that bloody bag thump, thump, thumping up each step behind me, the 5:21 was long gone. I called Miss J, apologising profusely, half sobbing, half breathless and although she assured me in her usual calm, upbeat manner that it was really ok, I knew that she, too, was panicking about getting herself home on time.

In the end, I was twenty minutes late. Just twenty. But by then, I had worked myself up into a hormonal, tired bundle of guilt, and it was Miss J who was witness to my raw, desperate relief as I loped, exhausted, through the front door and into the living room, where 2 year old Miggins, already bathed and in her pyjamas, was happily and obliviously absorbed in her favourite bedtime television programme.

I tucked Miggins into bed, changed into my comfy clothes and sank into the sofa, clicking open the oversized black bag, my companion for the evening.

October 2012, Balgowlah, Australia

I used to say that if you watched me from the moon, you would see a red dot sprinting across London, trying to get home. A red flashing light, the Earth’s own Blackberry. If you happened to be watching me from the moon this week, you might have seen that frenzied dot again, rushing to get someplace on the other side of the world. But I think you will also have seen a rush of colour in my wake….. and possibly a small amount of strawberry jam in my hair.