People Who Need People. And People Who Don’t. 

(This was first published in Le News 10 September 2014)

Sometimes I like to think of my family as a patchwork quilt. Because we’re covered in cat hair and permanently draped over the couch in the TV room. Ha ha. No, but seriously. I think of it as a quilt because, as any quilt-maker can tell you, organising the various pieces of fabric into a whole can be a challenge. The bits might all be lovely on their own, but they need to achieve some sort of harmony if you want a quilt that doesn’t give you a headache every time you look at it.

As with soft furnishings, so with life. Two or more people, with unique characters, different needs and (sometimes horrible) habits are forced to live together in one house for extended periods of time without going completely mad … it may sound like a description of Big Brother, but I’m actually talking about families.

For example. In my family, we have a few differences of opinion around issues such as sleep (my husband and I enjoy it but the children aren’t big fans) and holidays (I’m into Slow Travel while my husband tears through destinations as if the tour bus were being tailgated by Time’s Winged Chariot). But these are minor incompatibilities. Our real area of mismatch – where we just can’t get our pieces of fabric to fit together – is in our attitudes to other people.

My husband is an extrovert, which means that socialising not only makes him happy, but actually gives him energy. He’ll come back from a weekend of sport, brunches, barbecues and parties all fuelled for the week. The bigger child is cut from the same cloth, only hers is a rather bolder pattern: she absolutely lives to socialise. She can’t walk to the postbox and back without making a new friend, and is constantly coming home with someone’s mother’s telephone number scribbled on a piece of paper, which I must then use to cold call and set up play dates. She’s done this at parties, in restaurants and, most recently, on a twenty minute boat ride up the Thames.

I, on the other hand, am an introvert. Socialising makes me tired (most probably because of all the extroverts, sucking out my energy to fuel themselves) and I need a fair bit of time alone to recuperate. The smaller child is like me but more so. Much more so. When we were planning her birthday party, her biggest concern was not the cake, or the decorations, but how we could best keep everyone out of her bedroom. And only last week, on hearing that friends were popping over for a visit, her immediate response was, ‘Oh no! Lock the doors!’

‘But I thought you liked them,’ I said, as she headed off to her Happy Place (a cardboard box under her bed).

‘I love them,’ she agreed. ‘But not in the house.’

I’m not sure yet how we’ll work these disparate needs into a family that is both vaguely socially normal and still respectful of the space that some members need. But I do know what the quilt that represents us should be like: it should be soft and warm, and big enough to wrap around all of us, and whatever friends we want to bring along; a joyfully-coloured, free-motion crazy quilt with plenty of embellishments. And some pins left in.

On the Beach

(This was first published in Le News 4 September 2014)

One morning during our recent summer holiday in England, my husband leaped out of bed, joyfully announcing, ‘It’s a Beach Day today!’

‘Really?’ I asked, peering out of the window at the grey sky and the trees bending horizontally in the wind. ‘Why do you say that?’

‘Because it’s not raining!’

The children and I balked, but my husband, who has spent time in the UK before, reassured us. ‘It’s what everyone does on a day like this. Let’s go.’

So we grabbed our beach gear – fleeces, jeans, umbrellas – and headed off. And he was right. Everyone was doing it. Although they were doing it with metres of stripey windbreaks and flasks of steaming tea, so we really stuck out as sadly underequipped foreigners.

No matter. The family had a wonderful time. My husband went surfing, and the children raced around with buckets, spades and fishing nets, giddy with beach-joy. I watched them for a bit, then retreated behind a rocky outcrop to attempt hibernation. And while I did so, my mind turned to memories of Beaches Past, and how different they have been to one another.

For example, before we left South Africa we spent a bit of time in the Cape and landed up, on New Year’s Day, on the beach in Muizenberg. The sun was blazing, the waves were big, and you could hardly see the sand for all the people: people playing beach sports, people sunbathing, and lots of people in the water, paddling, swimming, bodyboarding, surfing, kayaking …

And every now and then the Shark Spotter, sitting high on an east-facing cliff, would see a dark shape easing along the coast. The spotter would then radio down to a compatriot on the beach, who’d sound the shark siren and raise a white flag, and everyone would get out of the water. Calmly and immediately. There was no Jaws-like panic, no stampede, no screaming. Paddlers, swimmers, surfers … they just walked out of the sea and waited on the beach until the dark shape moved on. When the white flag was replaced by a green one, they trooped back into the water again.

I thought it was all pretty hardcore, so I was very surprised a few months later when we headed down to Lac Léman for our first Swiss swim, and my daughter refused to get in.

The whole lakeside area looked like something out of a fairytale, with a manicured lawn and white swans drifting past us on water as flat and clear as a mirror. There was no one else there, apart from a group of pensioners having a chat in the sun after their morning swim.

‘No way,’ said the small one, sitting back down on her towel. ‘Too dangerous.’

Dangerous?’ I repeated, baffled. ‘Child! You’ve never been anywhere safer!’

In reply, she narrowed her eyes at me, as if she’d just realised I was actually trying to kill her. ‘Mommy. How can you expect me to swim on a beach where there are no shark flags?’

Things That Go Bump in the Night

(This was first published in Le News 28 August 2014)

Every time I read an article about someone who swears they saw the face of Elvis in a piece of toast, I’m reminded of how good we humans are at putting random shapes into patterns, and trying to make sense of them. It’s what makes cloud-watching so much fun; it’s also what gave us the evolutionary edge over animals that peered into prehistoric forests and couldn’t mentally organise the shadows well enough to tell a sabre-toothed tiger from a hole in the ground.

I just wish my children wouldn’t practice their pattern-making late at night, because it’s creepy.

For example, one dark evening when I was alone in our Johannesburg house with my then two-year-old, she looked out of the window and said, ‘Mommy, there’s a man in the garden.’

There are few words that will galvanise a Joburg-dweller into action faster, so, with the  panic button in one hand and the telephone in the other, I turned off all the lights and peered outside.

‘There’s no one out there,’ I said, after a while.

My daughter agreed. ‘No. He’s in here now,’ she told me, pointing to a completely empty corner of the room.

It took several strong cups of tea before I’d let go of that panic button.

Another human skill – although perhaps one with less evolutionary benefit – is the ability to manufacture drama from absolutely nothing. Here, the best example I can think of is a reality TV show I once watched, about ghost hunters. (Yes, I know, but there was nothing else on). The presenter had, for some reason, to walk across a courtyard in the dark while her co-presenter, who was in radio contact with her, kept saying things like, ‘You’re a quarter of the way across and you’ve seen no sign of the terrifying ghost that haunts this hotel? No? Nothing? I hope you make it all the way without meeting the terrifying ghost …’ .

Nothing happened and she made it across safely, but the poor woman had worked herself into such a state that, by the time she reached the other side, she was a gibbering, sobbing wreck.

The reason I mention all of this is that I saw both of these things – pattern-making and drama-mongering – at work last night, in our hotel room, with my children. 

It started when I moved a bag and cast a shadow on the carpet. But the bigger child thought it was something else.

‘I saw something running across the floor,’ she told me. ‘It went under the bed.’

We checked and found nothing, but she was insistent. ‘It looked like a mouse. I thought I saw ears.’

What colour was it?’ asked her little sister, ever supportive.

‘It was whitish brownish blackish.’

By the time the children had finished discussing it, it had grown a puffy tail and whiskers, and was the size of a cat.

‘Mommy!’ the smaller child screamed five minutes later, pointing out the window. ‘I saw it on that tree-branch! It was glowing!’

This went on for some time, until the innocent shadow cast by my bag had taken on the properties of some sort of radioactive tree-dwelling vampire badger. Sleep did not come easily last night, to any of us.

Anyway, I offer this as a cautionary tale to parents: don’t bother planning an action-packed holiday for your children, filled with visits to science museums, boat rides and days on the beach. If your children are anything like mine, it’s very likely that the most memorable part of their trip will be the one thing that they didn’t actually see.

On the Road 

(This was first published in Le News 14 August 2014)

If marriage is a journey (and not a destination, as Jane Austen says), I want mine to be like a car trip: a nice long one, on interesting roads. Although not as interesting as London’s M25 which I was on yesterday and which may have actually taken several years off my life.

There are so many things to love about road trips: all the family is snuggled up together in the car, along with the usual giant toy dinosaurs and monkeys. It’s like being in a big, travelling bird’s nest. The proximity really gives us a chance to appreciate each other fully. For instance, my children really appreciate having a captive audience to perform to. And on this most recent road trip, my husband and I really had a chance to appreciate the children’s sweet voices, as they sang us a seven-hour medley of their two favourite One Direction songs.

Yes, I’ll admit that road trips have their challenges: my husband seems to have developed a permanent twitch in his right eye, probably caused by the children asking, ‘How far to Hamleys?’ every three minutes from the moment we pulled out of our driveway. Also, it must be said, those children have let themselves go, somewhat: the bigger child ‘lost’ her hairbrush somewhere in France and now looks like a thistle, while the smaller one is pink and shiny as a ham, glazed with a happy combination of apple juice and raspberry ice cream.

But … road trips! They’re good! They’re fun! And, very importantly, road trips let me keep an eye on my husband. Because he was born under a wandering star, and he must be corralled. For instance, he will happily sit in an airport departure lounge for ages, doing nothing. But as soon as the boarding gate opens he’ll stand up and announce, ‘I’ll be back in a minute’. Then he goes somewhere and he’s never back in minute. He wasn’t ‘back in a minute’ fourteen years ago in Bangkok International Airport, when he first said those terrible words to me. We’d been first in the boarding queue but by the time he eventually reappeared, we were last and so we had no overhead luggage space at all. I had to fly all the way back to Joburg with five bags of Thai silk, a decorative bamboo ball and three Jenga sets on my lap.

Nor was he ‘back in a minute’ ten years later, when we flew from France to South Africa, with two small children in tow.

‘Please,’ I begged the ground crew, who had not only closed the boarding gate but were switching off the lights. ‘Wait!’

‘Well, where is he?’ they asked, looking down the long empty passage, devoid of husband.

‘I don’t know, ‘ I wailed. ‘But he won’t be long. He said he’d be back in a minute.’

At least once he’s on an aeroplane he can’t get off again. Unlike a train. ‘Back in a minute,’ he’ll say, as the whistle blows and the train starts moving. Apparently that’s the perfect time to hop off and get a sandwich from the platform shop.

No, I definitely prefer road trips. There we are, strapped into our seats and hurtling forward together, for better and for worse: when the children sing and when they wail; when the scenery is good and when the gift packs of French cheese start to fog the atmosphere; when the roads are smooth and easy, and when they’re the M25.

I think it’s a good metaphor for marriage.