This is the road to Hell…

I’ve been on holiday all this week and I must say it’s been wonderful. Not having to get up early, although of course I haven’t exactly had lay ins, I’m afraid my ability to sleep in was destroyed by having a baby and I’ve never got back into the habit. Nevertheless, it was nice not having to be up and out of the house but being able to take things a little easy.

I was determined during this holiday to forget about catching up with housework or all the other things I tend to waste my time on during my precious days off, instead I was going to concentrate on writing book ten. Apart from blogging, I haven’t written anything original since last April and like most things, the longer you let things slide, the harder it is to get back into it.

Monday, I struggled to start. My main character was refusing to play ball and wouldn’t give me any clues about herself, so I did all the bits and pieces I really had to get done during the week, including a massive pile of ironing that had been glaring at me for days. Finally, early Tuesday morning, she whispered one line to me – My life is small. And that was it, that was all I needed, because with an opening line of – Her life was small – I was able to ask the question why? Why was her life small, and from that point I was off and running. I won’t bore you with too many details, but at the time of writing this blog on Saturday, I had written almost 30,000 words of the book. Not bad going, and considering the Blackwood family saga of which this will be book three, are all books of about 50,000 it means I’m a good chunk of the way through. I must say, this book is turning out to be very exciting and I don’t think I’ve ever written such an action led book before.

So that’s been my holiday, and it may sound boring to you, but to me it was bliss. Not only time to write, but time to read and time to cook a nice meal every evening for me and Miss F. It was Valentine’s Day on Friday, and even though I don’t hold with such nonsense and Miss F was working anyway, I still made us a lovely three course meal on Thursday evening to celebrate.

It was funny though, in the week leading up to my time off, every time I happened to mention to someone that I had a weeks holiday coming up, their immediate reaction was – “oh, how nice, where are you going?” – and it’s interesting how most people don’t consider it a holiday unless you’ve actually packed your bags, left your home and traipsed off somewhere where you probably won’t be as comfortable or as relaxed as you are at home.

I love being home and I love being home with nothing major to do. It’s so relaxing to be able to just chill out and read a book, or catch up on a TV series, or have friends round for coffee or lunch, and in the summer why would I want to get into a sweaty car and sit in a traffic jam for hours to sit somewhere that isn’t as nice as my own garden?

We haven’t really had that many holidays over the years, Miss F and I. For a start, funds have rarely been available, and as holidays are so expensive there has always been the tussle between wasting money on an experience that will be over and done with in a week, or spend it on essential improvements to our home which we’ll appreciate for years to come. Also, there was just Miss F and me, and when she was younger and going to bed early in the evening, that meant I’d be left sitting on my own in a hotel room or holiday cottage, having to be quiet because I didn’t want to wake her up. Not much of a holiday for me. It’s also exhausting, being the sole adult and the one responsible for all the packing, the driving and the decision making, the few holidays we did take, I came back needing a holiday to get over it.

I remember one particularly bad time we had when we were going to stay with friends down near Portsmouth for three days, before then travelling on to stay with other friends for a couple of days who lived in Gosport.

Things didn’t get off to a good start when we were sitting in a fully packed car and I turned the key, only for the engine to go clunk. Panicking, I turned it again. Nothing. I could not believe it. This was our holiday. We hadn’t ever really had one before, and the fecking bloody car wouldn’t start. I tried again, muttering curses under my breath, aware of little ears strapped into a car seat behind me. On the tenth go, the ignition caught, and the car flew into life. Phew. We drove onto the A14, only ten minutes behind schedule, so that was fine.

We’d barely gone five miles, when I had to slam on my brakes and ending up bumping into the central reservation to avoid an accident literally two cars ahead of me. Shaken, I checked that Miss F was okay and then got out to see what had happened. A car had slid into the side of a lorry. Luckily, no one seemed hurt, but the road was blocked. Two other lorries had stopped, and their drivers got out and between them shoved the slightly damaged car over to the side. Producing brooms from the back of their lorries, they swept all the broken glass off the road and then waved us through. Phew, I thought again. That was lucky.

We drove on another five miles, then from the back of the car came those words that no parent wants to hear at the beginning of a long drive to go on holiday. “Mummy, I don’t feel very… bleeuugggh!!” Vomit erupted from my child all over herself and the back seat of the car. Now, she’d had blackberry porridge for breakfast, so you can imagine what that was like.

Now edging into full blown panic, I desperately wondered what on earth I could do? Turn around, go back, abandon the holiday? Plainly, the gods were telling me something and the universe quite clearly didn’t want me to have this holiday. I saw the turn off to Exning approach and remembered that’s where my aunt and uncle lived, so took the turning.

Driving through the village, my phone clamped recklessly to my ear, I shrieked out the situation to my mother and begged her for directions because I couldn’t for the life of me remember where they lived.

“White gates, look for some white gates.”

“There are no white gates!”

“Turn right by the butchers.”

“I have no butchers, I have a bakers and possibly a fecking candlestick makers, but no bloody butchers.”

By this point I had passed through the town of full-blown panic and was approaching the suburbs of mild hysteria.

Eventually, I found them and bless them, they rose magnificently to the challenge of their niece and her small, seven-year-old daughter arriving unannounced on their doorstep one Monday morning, with a car covered in purple vomit.

My uncle manfully volunteered to deal with the car and my aunt hustled us up to the bathroom, where I stripped Miss F and hosed her down in their shower and helped her clean her teeth, whilst my aunt quickly washed her clothes and poor Teddy. Being held in her lap I’m afraid he’d borne the brunt of it and wasn’t looking very happy about the situation.

All this took time, of course, and I phoned my friend who’d been expecting us for lunch, warning her it would be more likely mid-afternoon by the time we reached them. Then we got back in the thankfully now freshened up car and set out once more on what was rapidly becoming a quest of almost Tolkien proportions.

Now, I’d been given strict instructions what route to take and they were taped to my dashboard for easy reference. I knew I had to stay on the M25 until I reached the M something or other to Portsmouth and after that it would be plain sailing. I sat on the M25 for what felt like hours, and suddenly saw a sign proclaiming that Watford was ahead. What?! I thought, isn’t Watford on the North side of London? Had I missed the turning? Had I almost done a complete lap of the capital?

Panicking. When the next junction announced it was the A something or other going to Portsmouth, I automatically took it, assuming I’d stupidly written down the instructions wrong, and, to be honest, so thankful to see a sign pointing in the right direction I didn’t stop to think. Just as I turned off the M25 and was fully committed to taking this road, I saw the next sign along – it was the M something or other to Portsmouth.

Too late, this was the road I was on, so this was the way I was going. I drove for another thirty minutes, desperately wondering how badly I’d screwed up and how much time I’d added to this road trip from hell. I saw a sign for a Wimpy roadside café – I hadn’t realised they still existed – and took it. I was starving hungry and desperate for a wee and a cup of coffee.

We parked and got out, both incredibly relieved to be out of the car. The facilities were before you entered the main restaurant, so we used those first, then went in to get something to eat and drink and it was as though we’d stepped through a time-warp and ended up in the 1970’s. Seriously. Orange and brown flock wallpaper, brown lino on the floor. Brown Formica tables with orange padded bench seats and those big ceramic lamps hanging overhead. There was waitress service – I kid you not – and the menu had all the things I remember there being when stopping at a Wimpy was an occasional, longed for, holiday treat.

I just ordered burger and fries for myself, with coffee, water and some toast for Miss F. She said she wasn’t hungry and was still looking a bit green about the gills, so I didn’t want to risk putting anything more exciting into her. My aunt had given us an old ice cream container, which Miss F had clutched like the Holy Grail all the way, but I really didn’t want any more incidents in the car.

While we waited on our food, I phoned my friend to fill her in with what had happened. She seemed a little annoyed at my ineptness but gave me fresh instructions and assured me I’d only added about twenty or so minutes to my trip which was now reaching epic proportions. We’d left home at 9:30am, thinking to reach theirs by midday at the latest. It was now 1:30pm and we still had at least half the journey still to go.

After lunch, we reluctantly climbed back into the car and set off. For two pins I would have turned around and gone home, but not only were people expecting us, I was quite looking forward to catching up with friends. Maybe I wasn’t so desperate to see the first friend we were staying with again, but I was definitely looking forward to staying with the second couple.

The rest of the journey seemed to pass uneventfully, but I went wrong somehow navigating her complicated instructions around various villages and suburbs. Peering at road signs, trying to make sense of it all, there was a sound from the back seat. Yep. The toast had made a reappearance and we now had a full ice cream container of vomit in the car with us.

I pulled over, there was a woman working in her garden with a little girl helping her and I shamelessly threw myself completely on her mercy.

“Please help me, my little girl’s just been sick in the back of the car.”

“Oh, you poor darlings.”

I kid you not, that was what she said, and then she just kind of took us under her wing and sorted everything out. She got Miss F out of the car and disposed of the vomit down a handy nearby drain. I fished Miss F’s toothbrush out of the case, again, and her daughter who was about ten, took Miss F inside to help her clean her teeth and wash her face and hands.

Our lovely saviour helped me clean up the little bit that had splattered on the seatbelt, and she then looked at my instructions and drew me a handy little map with a clear and precise route marked on it. Seriously, she was like an angel who’d been sent to earth to help other mum’s when their offspring had barfed in the car. I never got her name, and of course I never saw her again, but I’ll never forget how amazingly kind she was. People like her totally restore my faith that there is still good in the world.

Finally, we reached my friend’s house at almost 5:00pm. We’d been travelling for over seven hours. I think I could have flown to Kief in the time it took us to get there. But we were there. Surely now I could relax and enjoy our holiday? Wrong. In the couple of years, it had been since I’d last seen this person, her snobby pretentiousness had got worse. Before, it had been funny. Now, it was so pronounced that it made me very uncomfortable and I was livid at the way she treated my child.

Now, I’ve had parents with small children come to stay before and always I check with the parents what kind of stuff they like to eat and make sure I get that in, together with some fairly safe standbys such as fishfingers, oven chips and spaghetti bolognaise. Bearing in mind, Miss F was only seven-years-old and also bearing in mind I’m not the richest person in the world, so our normal diet isn’t too extravagant most of the time, also bearing in mind she knew how sick Miss F had been on our trip there, I was a bit taken aback to find out our meal that night was going to be squid in a really rich red wine sauce. For a seven-year-old.

Now, I would hesitate to offer squid to a grown up unless I knew they really liked it, let alone expect a child to eat it. I knew Miss F would (a) refuse to put the slimy heap of tentacles in her mouth (b) wouldn’t like it even if I could persuade her to eat some, and (c) probably throw it up everywhere. I managed to persuade my friend that as Miss F was still feeling sick, could she possibly just have some toast and an early night, and then I was sure she’d be a lot better in the morning.

Things went downhill from then on. Now, I’m not a slob, but when someone immediately plumps the cushion you’ve been sitting on as you stand up, and hoovers up under you every five minutes and snaps “Shoes” at you the second you walk in the front door, then I begin to get a bit twitchy. And when every single meal comprises of ludicrously expensive, rich and over the top fish dishes that your child has had no experience with and simple won’t eat, then things start to get a bit tense between the grown-ups.

There were whispered conversations about me in the kitchen, which of course I could hear. There was forced politeness, and sympathy for me for being saddled with such a “fussy” child. I wanted to slap her for that one. Miss F was no worse and a hell of a lot better than most of my other friends’ kids, but we didn’t inhabit the type of world where having squid and crab and lobster was a normal, everyday occurrence. I just wanted to grab my child and go. Her brat of a child who was the same age as Miss F also didn’t help. Totally spoilt and presumably spoon fed squid with his mother’s milk, he was simply foul to my daughter and actually hit her so hard around the head with his lightsabre that it raised a bump the size of an egg and I wondered whether I should take her to A&E.

At last, it was Wednesday morning and we could go. I packed up the car as quickly as I could and then there were polite hugs and promises to stay in touch. Her son really put the cherry on the top though, as we were heading out the door, I heard him say.

“I’m so glad they’re leaving, mummy.”

Yeah, you and me both, kid.

We got in the car and drove to the top of the road to turn around, and as we drove back past the door where they were standing ready to wave, I muttered through clenched teeth to Miss F.

“Right, big smiles, wave goodbye.”

We waved goodbye until we turned the corner and could no longer see them, when the smiles and the waves abruptly stopped.

“Don’t worry, darling,” I promised. “We are never going back there again.”

And we never did. I also never contacted my friend again and she never contacted me. Which, I guess is a shame, we had been friends for several years and had had some good times together, but she’d broken the universal code of friendship, which is never, ever criticize somebody else’s child to their face. Sure, Miss F could have her moments, and maybe she didn’t know what a mussel was and really didn’t want to try one, thank you very much, but then I know a lot of adults who won’t even try seafood either and she was only a little girl.

I knew why my friend had behaved like that. She was one of those people for whom appearances was absolutely everything. An immigrant from Ukraine, she’d worked very hard to get what she called the “nice things” in life and cared passionately about them. She could never understand why I didn’t give a hoot about my home being glossy magazine perfect. It was home, and so long as it was clean, tidy and warm, then I didn’t care about having co-ordinated cushions which exactly matched the rug and exactly matched the picture frames.

She was what my mother used to call “showing off”. Look at me, I have all these things and earn all this money. Aren’t I wonderful? In a word, no. I’ve never cared about what my friends have or how much money they make, only what they’re like. Furthermore, if any guest in my house had ever been made to feel that uncomfortable then I would have been ashamed of myself.

So, did our week get any better? I hear you ask. Oh yes it did. We made it to my old friends, where I fell on their necks with relief at being there. They had a log burning stove going, with a big comfy sofa in front of it, with Willo-the-Wisp DVDs for Miss F to watch and fishfingers, mash and beans for her tea. It was heaven. They were renovating an old house and things were a bit chaotic, but that didn’t matter a bit, because it was warm and homey, and they were pleased to see us and made us feel so welcome.

And that, at the end of the day, is how it should be.

My, how I’ve run on. I was going to tell you about the best holiday we ever had, but I’ll obviously have to save that for another day. I hope you all have a wonderful Sunday, and I am going to celebrate my last day off work with an enormous roast dinner and a glass or two of wine.

See you next week

Julia Blake

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