On the surface of it all, these are quite the days for the sisterhood. Years of institutional discrimination and abuse are now openly shouted about. Deafeningly so actually as the rich and famous cling together in solidarity, outvying each other in expensive black dresses that have little significance in the lives of the rest of us. Well, that’ll do it then. Not. Just one of those black dresses would pay for a year’s child care for ordinary working women who wouldn’t then have to depend on their own mothers to step in, thereby perpetuating a cycle that will continue ad infinitum.
It’s not just that the grandmothers I know seem to be constantly worn out and ill from experiencing childhood ailments for the third time – their own, their children’s and now their grandchildren’s – it’s the guilt that’s all pervasive. And I don’t mean the guilt bestowed on them by their children: I’m talking about that unspoken conspiracy amongst grandmothers who ‘care’ towards grandmothers who don’t. Forget the sisterhood because it’s only for young women. Women who look after their grandchildren are in a club marked by embitteredness. How dare we older women live our own lives devoid of other people’s children. Clearly, we’re not ‘proper’ and ‘good’ family types.
I have a good excuse – and let’s face it, I need one. My grandson, of eighteen months, lives 140 miles away so the daily commute would be a bit tricky. Also, he lives in Greater London and I, selfishly, live in the country, by the sea. And I know which is best – for me. His mum, who to my knowledge doesn’t possess an expensive black dress, works harder than anyone else I know. His dad probably does too, but this weasel is about women. In order to give the child the best possible life, she follows a very strict regime. Out of the blue, I am asked whether I can offer some temporary help.
Dad is away working in another country and mum has to stay late at her place of employment. This will be the first time that H has ever been put to bed by someone other than his parents. I’m a bit scared; not by the prospect of looking after him, but by the bloody regime in all its frightening detail. My memory’s not what it was. Remembering the running order seems a lost cause. Life will surely fall apart if I miss a step. They come to stay with me for two days so I can get the hang of it, but things are different in my house. In my house, things are different from the rest of the world.
The mornings are not too bad: get him up and dressed, give him breakfast, play for a while, then take him to the childminder (because she’s already been paid for and anyway, is part of the plan). It’s snowing in their part of the world and their house is exceptionally old and, to my frozen mind, a bit draughty. I’ve discovered a so-called air vent in their front room through which Storm Emma is blowing. H has these jig-saw shaped things that form a play mat. They also form a handy barricade against Emma and I’ve piled them up against the wall. H wants to play with the jig-saw mat. Have you ever tried to explain the concept of a draught excluder to an eighteen month old person? Intellectual explanation fails. I remove the jig-saw pieces and hold his tiny hand against the vent. He’s horrified and replaces the mat. Job done.
Next, it’s time to go out but I can’t find his shoes. ‘Where are your shoes?’, I ask. For such a small person, he’s extremely helpful, looking under tables and around corners. He searches one room, I search another. No shoes; funny because I distinctly remember seeing them earlier. That was before I moved the pushchair to create more space. Finally, I discover the missing shoes have become lodged under the buggy. We are both greatly relieved.
The evening regime is far more tricky as there’s a limited window of opportunity. Whilst play is ongoing, I must cook dinner, then feed him whilst he looks at a book, put the heater on in the bathroom, run a bath, prepare the night-time bottle, go upstairs and turn off the main lights to create an ambient reception, allow him to put the last nappy in the rubbish bin, bath him, remembering to play with the ducks in a certain order, get him to remove the plug, remove him from the bath, allow him to switch off the light, take him up to his room, cover him in anti-eczema cream, dress him for bed, get him to say nighty-night to all his toys and throw him in the cot. Easy from a distance.
Whist he’s eating his dinner – apparently, I gave him the ‘wrong’ pasta – H becomes very involved in his farm book. We have a long discussion regarding how farmers’ markets and farm shops exploit middle-class customers by palming them off with discoloured, malshapen vegetables dressed up in fancy wicker baskets. H agrees that he much prefers Sainsburys. Meanwhile, I’ve succeeded in the rest of the pre-bed preparation, although this has involved a lot of running back and forth and shouting from the kitchen: ‘are you still there?’ I’m just coming’ and suchlike. Fortunately, H is busy writing a letter to the Guardian about farm shop produce.
Having got him in the bath, I suddenly notice the discarded nappy on the floor. ‘I’m so sorry’, I say. ‘Would you mind terribly if I put it in the bin tonight?’ H doesn’t mind; he’s busy trying to get an ancient ET into the water. I think it’s a precious, sacred remnant from my daughter’s childhood. ET’s head falls off. ‘Oh dear, I think ET has a poorly head. Shall we leave him there?’ H regards ET with disgust. Getting H out of the bath is difficult enough but carrying him up the stairs of the Himalayas is another story. And smothering him in cream and trying to fit him into his nightwear in the ambient darkness is a non-starter. ‘I’m terribly sorry’, I explain, fumbling around, ‘but I’ll have to put the light on. Grandma can’t see a frigging thing’. H laughs and I’m amazed that he falls into his cot and goes to sleep instantly.
I go to my room, put on my little black dress, step lightly downstairs to clear up the carnage, before sitting in a darkened room to watch Midsomer Murders. Hello, John Nettles. I’m ready for you. John seems unamused.
There’s a moral to this story but I’m too exhausted to decipher what it might be.