What’s New Pussycat?

Back when I was in my late teens I used to enjoy the television programme the Wonder Years. Well, this blog is my Wonder Years. I’m oft criticised by Mrs Aitchworld for making this blog all about me instead of Arthur and Henry. She makes a fair point, but, well, my blog; my rules. And to understand me is to understand the boys, as they are at least in part going to turn into me some day, whether they like it or not. So I will continue to write the words as they fall out of my mind and hopefully make some sense of them.

We have a new pet at Aitchworld Towers this week, which got me thinking about the pets I had growing up as a child. Firstly there was Tess. She was a stray cat that just turned up one day when I was about six or seven. I thought she stuck around for what I thought was ages, but it could have been only a year. When you are six, a year is one sixth of your whole life, so seems like a very long time!

I wanted to call this cat Lazy-Legs, but my Grandma disabused me of this notion, gently breaking it to me that she’d never heard “such a stupid idea” in all of her days, and maintained I would sound daft calling in a cat at night by that name. These were harsh words to a six year old; she called a spade a spade, that woman.

There was then a ten year gap between pets (barring a couple of hamsters along the way). George came along when I was about 15 and was a great cat, my best friend who followed me everywhere. It turned out he was no great shakes at crossing the road though, being run over by a car when he failed to out-run a Ford Escort at six months old. He was a little black cat and I just turned up with him at home one day. My dad went ballistic and still maintains he didn’t have anything to do with George in his six short months on this earth. I have photographic evidence to the contrary though, with a great shot of my Dad with George draped over his arm.

We then got Smudge from the local rescue home. I have heard it said that you don’t choose cats, but they choose you and this was certainly the case with Smudge. The local rescue home was a domestic garage behind a bungalow on a well to do housing estate, that had been converted to house a couple of dozen stray cats for re-homing. When I walked in with my mum, Smudge batted some of the other cats away from my feet then jumped up onto my shoulder. I was the chosen one.

We soon found out that Smudge was little more than feral though, hiding under a bed for over a week when we first brought her home, only emerging after dark when everyone was in bed in order to get food and do her ablutions. Even after settling in she would occasionally go into full attack mode for no apparent reason, ripping your arm to shreds when she felt she had received enough strokes. She still preferred hunting wild animals to food out of a tin, and many a time I saw her bring down a pigeon in full flight, which was quite impressive for a cat that weighed over a stone. A former Mrs Aitchworld used to call her Fat Bastard, but really she was just big-boned. Smudge that is, although thinking about it…

I swear if we had lived in an area any more rural we would have found her trying to drag a sheep or a cow that she had caught, through the cat-flap, thinking it was a wildebeest. With David Attenbrough doing the narration.

When I moved out of home, I left Smudge with my parents. My mum wanted it that way and I wasn’t ready for the responsibilities of full parenthood whilst I was still so young. I still saw her very regularly, because for the first few years of live on my own I failed to invest in a washing machine and used to take my laundry back home for my mum to do. And I’d get a Sunday roast at the same time.

Smudge would also come down to mine to stay, which as my dad took early retirement at about the same time as I left home, thus having plenty of time for holidays, meant she spent a lot of time down at my flat. Smudge lived to the ripe old age of 18, and could still catch wildlife right up until the end of her life.

And thus I remained without pets for many years until the current Mrs Aitchworld moved in. In the absence of children, we decided pets were the next best thing. Mrs Aitchworld was brought up with dogs, but as we both worked full time, we felt it wasn’t fair to leave a dog home alone all day. But cats… Cats, with the aid of a cat-flap, can come and go as they please.

After a couple of false starts, we found ourselves at a local shelter where we were swiftly chosen by a pair of black kittens, brothers from the same litter whom the staff had named Kip and Squeak. They chose me by one trying to undo my shoe laces through the bars of their pen, and the other climbing up the bars and reaching through to try and grab the cord of the hoody I was wearing. The bond was formed.

Once they arrived home with us, Kip and Squeak were thoroughly examined to determine their real names. Kip was re-named Charlie, and Squeak became Dave. While their original names accurately reflected their actions, they didn’t suit their faces or personalities.

We subsequently found out that black and white cats, and black cats in particular, are the hardest for the shelters to re-home. Given how handsome Charlie and Dave were, we didn’t understand this, or think it particularly fair. In fact, we spent many hours looking at shelter sites for black cats we could potentially re-home. It became like Tinder for cats. For those that remember Debbie from the dating site viral video who wanted to hug every cat, well, we were Debbie. We could have re-homed and hugged every black cat in the North West of England given half a chance.

How we didn’t end up with more than just Charlie and Dave is a mystery. Actually it isn’t; we were trying to have children and if successful in this endeavour a house full of cats wouldn’t have been ideal, so our focus ended up being on chickens. Strictly speaking these weren’t pets as they lived outside. Well, they did for most of the time, but when Henrietta (yes, we went there) was nearing the end of her days, Mrs Aitchworld brought her inside to live in a cage because she looked cold. But we gave each and every one of them names and somehow, every time we failed to conceive it seemed another chicken or two got added to the herd.

Dave and Charlie though, largely had the house, and us, to themselves for the best part of five years. Their world was turned upside down when, through the wonders of IVF, Henry and Arthur entered our world and theirs. Throughout, Dave and Charlie have been brilliant with the boys, and are very protective of them. Henry and Arthur in turn have been very gentle and loving with the cats for as long as they have comprehended what and who they are.

Sadly we quickly found out that we didn’t have enough time to devote to so many chickens, twin cats and twin boys, so something had to give. You are probably thinking this doesn’t end well for the chickens, but we could never eat anything we had given names to and so we gave the chickens to a friend with a small holding, to live out the rest of their days in the countryside. No, seriously, an actual smallholding; not one of those other farms in the countryside where chickens usually go!

So our family now consists of twin boys and twin cats. Or it did until last week. Last week Henry and Arthur found a caterpillar in the garden. They wanted to keep it. When asked what it could be fed on they informed us that on Monday it would eat through one apple. On Tuesday it would eat through two pears, and so on. So we filled a large vase with twigs and leaves (and five strawberries, for Friday you understand) and it takes pride of place on the island in the kitchen.

When asked what the boys were going to call the caterpillar, they unanimously decided on “Grandma”. Why, we have no idea. But Grandma it is. This created a very awkward conversation when I went to pick up the boys from nursery on their first day back after finding the caterpillar, where they had been telling everyone there that we keep Grandma in a vase in the kitchen. I had to explain to the nursery staff that we hadn’t, in fact, had another death in the family and it really is a vase, not an urn!

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(Don’t) Steal My Sunshine (RIP Len)

Sad news – my Mini adventure is over. When I bought it, I went through a long and convoluted thought process that seemed logical at the time and, to be fair, still stands up to scrutiny. I had started a new job and I thought the Mini would be used for commuting but only very occasionally taking the boys to nursery in it, owing to the time I had to get to work. I didn’t need anything bigger.

As it turned out, the hours I work and the location of the boys’ nursery in relation to my office meant I was perfectly placed for taking the boys in every day. Whilst they can climb in and out of the Mini and even get into their car seats, they could not fasten their seatbelts. That entailed me climbing into the back of the car on a daily basis, which was doing me no good at all.

All of which means I needed a new car, with conventional doors. A simple estate would do. Something like the Volvo V50 I had a few years ago as a company car would be perfect. So this is where I started looking on Autotrader and before long I had purchased a car.

Only I got a bit distracted during the process and anyone who is old-school and used to flick through the printed incarnation of Autotrader back in the day, whilst on throne, will know all too well how easy it is to go off on a tangent when looking for a car.

As a result, there is a nice shiny XC90 sat on my drive. It’s a big old Hector, about as far removed from a Mini as you can possibly get and very much bigger than the simple estate I had planned to get, but I absolutely love it. I have called him Neil.

In the process, I forgot to sell the Mini and because we were going on holiday in June, just a couple of weeks or so after getting the Volvo, there seemed little point in getting bogged down trying to sell a car. I must get round to doing this.

So it seems I am a Volvo guy – this is my fourth. I’ve never really been one for brand loyalty, unlike my Dad who for all of my childhood only bought British Leyland vehicles, then just after I left home very briefly owned a Vauxhall but didn’t really get on with it and finally settled on Subaru as his brand of choice. His second one seems to be his car of choice because he has had for 13 years from new and shows now desire to change it, as it does everything he wants it to.

Time and again, the recurring theme is we turn into our parents and here we are. Again. The only difference is the brand of car. This has now even extended to holidays and this year I had a hankering to re-visit some holiday destinations of my childhood.

For the last two years we have holidayed in Brittany. The first year was so late in September, even though we were only there for a week, we returned in October. The weather was good, although the evenings were so cool it was nigh impossible to eat outside. The second year we decided to move the date forward to early September. The rain in the UK on the journey down to the ferry can only be described as biblical. While we only had one truly wet day while we were in France, just thought of swimming in the outdoor pool sent shivers, well, everywhere. Literally.

This year, we decided to really mix things up. We would holiday in June, rather than later in the year, and go on a road trip, spending a few days on the Vendee, a few days in the Dordogne, and, to break up the journey on the way home, a night in the Loire.

At this juncture, I should point out, that Mrs Aitchworld, for her job, arranges conferences, meetings, international travel arrangements, visas, hotel and accommodation bookings. So why on earth we collectively decided it would be a good idea for me to book a holiday is a mystery. Captain Fuckwit here managed to book the wrong day for the ferry back home. All the ferry crossings for the day we wanted to travel were fully booked. The only thing we could do was stay an extra day in the Loire.

We had planned to go on holiday in the camper van. About a week before we were due to leave the clutch started playing up and although my mechanic said it would probably be fine to take to France, probably isn’t good enough for me, and even if it had sat right with me, giving Mrs Aitchworld such a prognosis would have worried her, so at the last minute big Neil was pressed into action. The Vendee, Dordogne and Loire, Eurocamp, a big Volvo… I’ve never felt so middle class.

It could have all been so different. I pondered this when I drove past an old acquaintance the other day. James (I have changed his name to protect identities) grew up in a middle class environment, much like myself. In fact our respective parents were good friends. Somewhere along the way, James lost his way, got involved with drugs and I believe did a spell inside prison for a while. Now James and I were never close, so I was never likely to get involved and dragged into all of that. Lenny, on the other hand…

I don’t feel the need to change Lenny’s name to protect his identity, because Lenny is dead. Sorry, that possibly wasn’t the gentlest way to break this news. During my first year of high school Lenny was my best mate.

I don’t know how we got together as it was such an unlikely alliance. I don’t even know all that much about Lenny, as he was a compulsive liar and his story would change like the wind. He was definitely from a broken home on the wrong side of the tracks and at the time lived in the local children’s home, a place where they usually sent naughty boys for rehabilitation. He also had an older brother, Paul, who we occasionally hung out with, and he still lived with their mum. There was also another girl who hung out with the three of us whom Lenny claimed was his sister, or half sister, but I never truly believed this.

We were pretty much inseparable and we did everything together. We were blood brothers – we cut our hands with a scalpel in a science lesson and then shook hands to seal the deal. Lenny taught me how to smoke. None of your Silk Cut rubbish – smoke properly or don’t smoke at all! This nearly ended in disaster, again in a science lesson, when we lit a cigarette at the back of the science lab and panicked when the teacher made her way to the back of the room. We hastily threw the still-lit offending item into an empty wooden locker and shut the door, not noticing the handle had been removed, leaving no way of removing it. We still tried to draw out some smoke by sucking at the screw hole the missing handle had left in the door, but the relative lack of oxygen soon extinguished it, narrowly averting a school fire.

Lenny was a hard case, always picking fights with bigger kids. He was good at it too, and was generally feared. Of course this offered me a degree of protection. I would get myself into all sorts of scrapes with my big mouth, but Lenny would get me out of them. For a while I was being bullied by one particular boy, prior to meeting Lenny. When he found out what was going on, he went to find the bully, to have a word in his ear. I think he might have ripped the ear off, or at the very least torn it a bit, because bandages were involved. He was a roughhouse, but he was loyal and a true friend.

I don’t know what happened to Lenny after that first year. I generally have an incredible memory, verging on photographic at times, but that period of my life is a bit hazy. Lenny just seemed to disappear off the scene and I hung around with other middle class kids again. Later in life he got heavily into drugs, eventually losing his legs to them, and I gather ended up taking his own life. I feel incredibly sad about this, but I am under no illusion I would have changed any outcomes if we’d have continued to grow up together.

I also like to think I’d have always taken the path I ended up on, turning into my parents, but who knows. As James proved, it isn’t always the case. I also wonder what my parents must have thought at the time; how much they worried, or even despaired. I should ask them. I will ask them.

The reason I have pondered all of this, is because until now, Arthur and Henry have been very content with each other’s company. Sure, they have friends at nursery, and outside of nursery, but truth be told, they couldn’t give a shiny shit about them and have never expressed a desire to see them outside of nursery.

However, the other day we had a note from another parent saying their slightly older child was soon to be leaving the nursery and would miss Arthur and Henry terribly, wanting to arrange a play date over summer. This is the first time this has happened, and while I have no reservations about arranging the play date with this particular child, one day that note might, just possibly, be from a parent of another Lenny, and then what do I do? Mind you, Lenny’s mum, he claimed, couldn’t read or write, so I might be safe yet. I won’t get that note!

Orinoco Flow

I’m not sure how we made it, but the boys, Arthur and Henry are now three, as of March of this year. We pondered the other evening whether they are still considered to be toddlers, because they don’t really toddle; they walk and run just like children now.

People like to categorise children’s ages, such as the “terrible twos” and “threenagers”. I don’t subscribe to such bollocks, personally. As I have previously said, the twos weren’t terrible and I actually quite wanted to freeze that age, or hold onto it for as long as possible. It was a joyous period of learning and discovery that just keeps getting better and more interesting.

Admittedly Arthur can throw some quite spectacular tantrums – the other evening he managed to empty a full, five tier, one metre long shoe rack in a time that, had Norris McWhirter and Roy Castle been on hand to independently adjudicate, I am fairly confident would have set a new world record.

In my very first blog post, I based my optimism in being able to look after children of my experience of raising our two cats, Charlie and Dave. How hard could it be, I pondered. Well, I have come to the realisation that it is more akin to looking after a dog. Or two, in our case. In particular, it is like admiring a breed such as a Husky, or Dalmation, or a Weimarana. What seems like a handsome dog to own actually turns out to require endless exercising to tire out, and they cover your garden with shit and piss in the process. The only difference with having children is that it isn’t as easy to take them to the rescue shelter if they don’t match your furniture or aren’t easily house trained.

We have discovered that Henry and Arthur have boundless energy, and so for Christmas we had bought them balance bikes. As a result of an excessively long winter those bikes didn’t really leave the garage for seemingly months, but now we seem to have skipped spring and entered straight into summer and we have the boys out on their bikes at any given opportunity.

In the early days of this blog, it seemed that every post had an element of poo in it. This waned for a while as poo incidents diminished in their frequency. I assumed that as potty training ensued, this would come back to the fore, but it has largely passed without incident. That said, when we were in the middle of a bike ride the other day, Henry decided that he wanted to sit on the potty. What happened next was the biggest poo I have ever seen emerge from a human. If I’d have said I’d done it, it would have been believable. I’m most surprised Henry didn’t split in two.

I was so impressed with his effort that I took a picture of it and sent it as an MMS to Mrs Aitchworld. Now, every time she opens a subsequent text message from me a picture of a glistening brown whale in a luminescent green potty is always in the feed and never far from sight. The HDR setting on the phone really brought out the colours!

Henry has cracked potty training, pretty much. He is a determined little boy and a bit of a perfectionist to boot, so once he sets his mind on something, he will achieve it fairly quickly. However, on the same bike ride as the aforementioned poo, I needed a wee, so we all stopped in the woods while I found a convenient tree. Of course, now Henry wants to do standing up wees and he is resolute that he is going to achieve perfection in this endeavour, and quickly.

His first attempt ended in an accident. I found him weeing up against the front of the downstairs toilet, with it trickling down and accumulating on the floor where he was standing, soaking into his socks.

His second attempt was outside. Since early May we have had some particularly clement weather and on a couple of occasions we have had the paddling pool out, stripped the boys off and let them play. Henry decided he was going to try standing up wees and went up against a railway sleeper that separates the upper and lower lawns. And bless him, he didn’t get any splash back. Even if he did he could have washed it off in the paddling pool.

Buoyed by his success, he took a massive shit on the lawn. I’m not sure if he is Husky, Dalmation or Weimaraner. You often hear about feral children but Henry is such a clean child, removing clothing if it so much as gets a few drops of water on it to exchange for clean clothing, never mind any dirt, that I don’t think he could be labelled thus.

The third attempt at a standing up wee was on Sunday. I came out of the house into the back yard and Henry was in full flow up against the side gate.

When I was at primary school, the urinal was little more than a wall painted with ultra smooth paint, rather than an actual ceramic or stainless steel job. There were windows at about adult head height or thereabouts, above this.

Children being children, or rather boys being boys, we would have competitions to see how high we could wee up the wall. I was rubbish at this, but regular readers of the blog (if there is such a thing) may or may not remember the Ainsleyworth brothers and sister, whose mum made their fancy dress costumes for them to win the annual fancy dress costume competition in which the costumes were supposed to be made by us, the children. Well, to give him credit, the eldest, John, may have been shit at making his own fancy dress costumes but in the toilet he could build up such a pressure that he could actually wee out of the windows at the top of the wall.

This was both admirable and unfortunate, given that the other side of the wall was the playground and “the wall” was where teachers and dinner ladies would send children to stand, facing the wall, as a time out if their actions became a little boisterous. No one wanted to be stood there if they knew John Ainsleyworth might be on the other side. When John said he needed to go inside for a wee, we all behaved!

Henry, in his attempt at a standing up wee against our side gate, achieved a height that would have given John Ainsleyworth a run for his money, and Henry isn’t even of school age. We will soon have to choose a primary school for the boys and I am sorely tempted to sod the Ofsted rating and just send the boys to my old primary school to see if Henry can go in and take the crown.

Hotel California

It has been well documented on these pages that we have had holidays with the boys since they were born. In fact, in their two and three quarter years (at the time of writing, if not publishing, owing to delays in actually finishing this post) on this planet, we have had three summer holidays, two of them abroad, and a couple of autumn mini breaks.

The one one common factor in all of these holidays has been that we have driven to the destination. Just the sheer amount of crap that you have to carry around for babies and young toddlers had put us off flying. It would be difficult enough taking one small child and I am full of admiration for any couple taking a child abroad on an aeroplane, even more so if it is a lone parent and child making a trip.

Just before Christmas though, almost a year in the planning, we took a winter break abroad. Over the years we have been regularly visited by a friend from Sweden, an ex-colleague of Mrs Aitchworld’s from when she worked for a Swedish company. Every time we see her she suggests we go over and visit Sweden and stay with her and her husband. Their three boys have all reached adulthood and have left home so there is plenty of space for guests.

It is also mentioned, every time she posts a picture on social media of the winter snow they have in Sweden, how much the boys would love to play in it, go sledging and build a giant snowman. We don’t really see much snow in the UK, and what little we do see has normally melted long before we get organised enough to even leave the house, never mind get a sledge out of the shed. And every time the invite over is re-iterated.

We decided to put our friend to the test – a shit or bust situation. Did she really mean it when she said we could stay with her? Would she really be so accommodating when faced with two adults and two identically-aged toddlers turning up on her doorstep, suitcases in hand? Well, yes, yes she would. So way back last January a short break to Sweden was organised for the end of the year to coincide with my birthday. Sweden is pretty much guaranteed snow in December.

In view of the distance between rural Cheshire and Sweden, this could only mean one thing – we had to grit our teeth and take Arthur and Henry on their very first flight. Looking back through my journal notes to when we booked the flights, I see that I wrote down “what have we done?”

The thought of flying with the boys has always filled me with dread. I think I inherited this from my parents. I’ve never asked them directly about whether fear factored into their decision making process when choosing their holidays when I was a child, but we never flew anywhere – we always drove to get to our holiday destination, even when going abroad. Given this was the ‘70s and my dad favoured British Leyland cars over any other brand, this was quite a risky endeavour.

One of my earliest memories of a holiday was sitting on a bonnet of my Dad’s 1972 Austin Maxi (JTU483L) in a lay-by on the shores of Lake Bled in what was then known as Yugoslavia, now Slovenia, in 1975. I would have been three years old. Nowadays I wouldn’t even think about driving there, even in a modern car, never mind something built in the Midlands in the 1970s. I’ve just checked and it’s over 1100 miles away!

My memory of the event is slightly enhanced by the fact there is, somewhere, a photograph of me sat on the car in said location, although it is probably 30 years since I have even seen that. But I remember more what happened next, in very clear detail. A gentleman driving a Volkswagen van (a bay window type 2) pulled up and parked in front of us in the lay-by. I am fairly confident it was dark green in colour. The driver got out of the van to admire me.

In the 1970s, middle-aged men getting out of Volkswagen vans to admire small children wasn’t as suspect as it sounds, although with hindsight it probably should have been. My shock of bright blond hair was a sight unseen and quite a novelty in Yugoslavia and drew attention and admiring glances wherever my parents took me. The man was a sweet salesman and once he had finished admiring me, he wanted to give me some sweets…

I’m not painting this well am I? However, it was wholly innocent and my parents did accept a gift of some sweets. I don’t remember them exactly, but I do know they were a jelly type of sweet and delicious. I also recall being particularly distraught some weeks later back at home when I went to eat some and discovered they were all gone and I had finished them. It may be a coincidence, but I think that this is where my love of Haribo and Volkswagen vans may have started.

Back to the modern day, we have never been able to travel light with the boys. Earlier in the year when we went to France, we took the camper van (a Volkswagen, naturally). Of course, back then it was just a van but none of the camper part of the conversion had been done though, which meant we could take anything we wanted. And indeed we did. With flights, we had to fit everything that we needed for a few days holiday within the confines of suitcases. And as winter in Sweden involves sub-zero temperatures packing light isn’t easy – snowsuits for toddlers are bulky items, and we’ve got two of them. By the time we had packed everything, we realised we had more suitcases than we had adults to wrangle them around airports and into cars. This was going to be interesting.

For months I had intended to take the boys to the viewing park at Manchester Airport. Now that we’ve been to an airport waiting lounge, sat eating a breakfast overlooking the planes taking off and coming in to land, I don’t have to go to that expense, although I can’t help but think that the cost of flights to Sweden for four might somewhat have exceeded that particular outlay.

Ordinarily, the boys love aeroplanes. Whenever they hear one when we are outside, their eyes are drawn to the skies to look for it. I therefore, wholly reasonably, expected that the whole boarding and take off experience would be one of wide-eyed wonderment and excitedness. The reality of the situation was that by the time we had queued to board the flight, boredom with the whole situation had set in and as the plane took of Henry, sat next to me on the outbound flight, couldn’t give less of a shit if he tried. He was distinctly underwhelmed, and even Arthur wasn’t overly fussed about the whole event. And skipping forward to the journey home, during it both boys slept for a time at some point during the flight.

During our stay in Sweden, the sum total of snow that fell on Södertälje, where we were staying, amounted to little more than two centimetres. By the time I got the boys in their snowsuits and outside, it had started to drizzle. Do you wanna build a Snowman? Henry decided he didn’t wanna. He also decreed he didn’t like snow, or drizzle, and went inside pretty much instantly. Only Arthur and I were left outside to make what can only be described as a half arsed snowman, rushing it so we could get inside before we got too wet.

Meanwhile, in the UK, for the first time in years, the country was enjoying a huge dump of snow. Roads were closed, business and schools shut, and everyone was having lots of fun sledging, adopting penguins, hunting Polar bears and building igloos and equally impressive snow structures that would last a little bit longer than a mere few hours before the drizzle washed them away.

As usual, the British press were full of stories of the worst winter of ever, and for once, they were right in their assertion. January passed without incident, as did most of February. Then, right at the end of February, what was coined “the Beast from the East” struck and the UK was covered in a duvet of snow. Finally, I could see my boys enjoying the snow; take them sledging for the first time maybe. Well, I could, if only I hadn’t been on a business trip in Ireland.

I flew out to Dublin on Monday the 26th February for two and a half days of business meetings in Ireland, leaving from Cork on the afternoon of Wednesday 28th. On Monday, one of my meetings scheduled for the Wednesday morning in Cork was cancelled by the customer, due to the weather forecast. I believe I used the words “nesh ponce” to describe said customer. Not to his face, of course, when I met him on the Monday at a revised meeting point. But at that stage, it just felt a bit cold.

On Tuesday, it also just felt a bit cold and there was the odd flurry of snow. At my last appointment of the day, with still another 30km of travel to go after it the customer called time a little early on the meeting for my safety – the weather outside, to him, looked a little foreboding. Again my assessment of their caution was less than charitable.

That night it snowed, both in the UK and Ireland. In Ireland, the last time they saw any sort of snow of merit was in 1982, according to the news. That night it snowed. Where I was staying, a small town called Clonakilty, it snowed so heavily so quickly, it knocked the power out. Fortunately, it happened just after my food and pint of Guinness turned up at my hotel table.

When I awoke the next day, there was about 20cm of snow and no such thing locally as a gritter. Indeed, between Clonakilty and Cork airport, there was no such thing as a gritter and the only method of applying grit and salt to the roads was a tractor with a digger bucket attached to the front occasionally tipping out a bit of grit onto the roads.

The news was that flights out of Cork had been suspended for the morning for snow clearing operations at the airport. My flight was due to leave at 3pm. When I arrived at the airport I was told that all flights to the UK for the rest of the day had been cancelled because of snow in the UK. All hotels near to the airport had been fully booked. I rang Mrs Aitchworld to tell her the news. She managed to find and book a hotel for me, and I booked onto a flight at 7am the next day.

At 2am the next day, I received notification that my 7am flight had been cancelled. This was for two reasons: a weather front of severe snow called The Beast from the East had done it’s stuff in the UK and was making its way to Ireland, followed by Storm Emma, which was bringing gales to whip up the snow into drifts of a magnitude never before seen. That morning, at Breakfast time, the Prime Minister of Ireland appeared on the telly box in my hotel room to tell the entire country it was on red alert, to ensure we we were inside from 4pm that day, and stay inside until the all clear was given.

Everybody did. The hotel I was in was in a suburb of Cork called Douglas, which was almost like a town within a city. At 2pm it shut. The whole town and everything in it. Staff at the hotel stayed there. The only thing that stayed open was one bar; it is Ireland after all.

I didn’t get home Thursday – all flights and ferries were cancelled. I didn’t get home Friday. All flights and ferries were cancelled. I kept re-booking my flight, only for each booking to be cancelled, one after the other.

I eventually left Ireland on Saturday evening, four days after I was due to leave. It was, however, after all the snow had left the UK, so I still haven’t got to see Arthur and Henry playing in the snow; we still haven’t been sledging or built that giant snowman we talked about.

Circumstances

I freely admit to being a bit of a nightmare to buy presents for. The reason for this is that if I want something that is within my means I just go out and buy it, on impulse, usually within minutes of having the idea of wanting whatever it is, leaving little opportunity for family to surprise me with a present of something I’ve wanted for a long time.

And so it was that just a couple of weeks before Christmas I found myself in a shop buying a record player. We had just re-modelled our adult living room, rather foolishly splashing out on a brand new settee. Foolish, because we have toddlers. We thought about that though and bought a second brand new sofa to put in their playroom that we weren’t as bothered if they spilled things on. This was the plan, but we still wince every time they go near it with anything remotely edible. Mrs Aitchworld cringes and I get a nervous twitch in my right eye.

We also bought a huge bookcase that, as luck would have it, had lower shelves of dimensions that would house all my old vinyl LPs. There is something wondrous about an album cover, so much so that they should be displayed and not hidden away in a loft. There was once a pub near to me owned by a musician who decorated the establishments walls with framed album covers. (While this looked good, ultimately it was crap because you couldn’t get the LPs out of their sleeves).

Whole generations are missing out on the experience of studying the 30cm square (more if it was a gatefold cover) works of art that accompanied the approximately 45 minutes of music contained within, which entertained me while I was growing up. Tape cassette artwork and CD artwork was just too small to appreciate. And do recording artists even bother with cover artwork on albums these days?

What absolutely shouldn’t be displayed in the living room, ever, according to Mrs Aitchworld, is a bright silver, plastic and chrome stereo system from the early 2000s of the sort I had been using up in the loft room until it turned into a dumping ground of out-grown baby items and as yet too-big hand me downs waiting to be grown into. Apparently, as amazing as the sound quality may be, it was considered far too garish and vulgar, and would look out of place in a tasteful and classically styled living room.

A small suitcase-style record player, in a stylish red colour to match the decor and soft furnishings, was deemed acceptable though, and (literally) within minutes of this decision Henry and I were deep in baskets in the middle aisle of the nearest Aldi in order to acquire one. I didn’t need telling twice.

It should be obvious that I love music. I’ve mentioned it enough and although it wasn’t the intention when I started this blog, every blog post name has ended up being a song title (or at least a slightly paraphrased version of one) and this is now (and will remain) the standard. Usually as I am wittering away via the medium of typing words, a song will pop into my head that just suits whatever it is I am writing at the time; it fits the theme of the blog post. Sometimes it is the title, sometimes it is part of the lyrics. It has always been this way. Even before I even got into writing, this was the case, as I was reminded when I listened to Queen’s very first album the other day on my newly purchased turntable.

Back when I was 17, freshly expelled from school, I decided I needed to express my feelings in writing to a girl whom I would no longer see on a daily basis. The thing is, back then, I wasn’t quite as good with words as I think I am today. In fact, I was quite the awkward teenager. However, I had music at my disposal. And so it was that I proceeded to write a love letter that was made up entirely of snippets of song lyrics, interwoven into an approximation of how I felt. I was the literary equivalent of Fat Boy Slim, mixing all the music up long before he had even thought about doing it.

There was always the danger of the girl in question could have recognised the song lyrics… who am I kidding? I wasn’t in the least bit trendy when I was 17. I liked progressive rock music. The love letter was constructed from lines from songs by bands such as like Marillion, King Crimson, Rush, Yes, Genesis (obviously from before Peter Gabriel left) Pendragon, IQ and I can even remember I used a line from Queen’s “My Fairy King”, hence why I was reminded of it when listening to the album it was from for the first time in decades just the other day.

It was a genius idea, fool-proof in winning the heart of the intended recipient even, especially when all penned neatly in fountain pen. I thought it looked the bollocks. To be fair, the reason I used fountain pen wasn’t necessarily because I thought nicely flowing ink would add a romantic touch. The reality was that I couldn’t, and to this day still can’t, write in any sort of ballpoint pen without getting covered in little spots of biro ink all over my hands. I have no idea why. Eventually I gave up with pens altogether and these days write everything with a propelling pencil.

If you are reading this, Vicky who lived in Congleton in 1988, and you did read my letter of that time rather than just shoving it straight in the bin, and it made absolutely no sense to you, now you know why. Mind you, you are equally as highly unlikely to be reading this load of bilge either, so it may forever remain a mystery to you.

So, what place has all this indulgent, reminiscing nonsense have in a blog that is predominantly about raising children, I hear you ask. Well, probably not much, except that Arthur and Henry have become rather taken with the whole record thing. While generally they love relatively modern artists such as Avril Lavigne, Taylor Swift and Katy Perry, often requesting these be played when in the car with me, they have actually started to ask that I get albums out of the new book case and play them on the new record player.

The two most common wants, currently, are “the green one” (The Yes Album) and “the bed one” (Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason) to play on the new record player. Arthur, the more musical of the two, likes to play it all very loud. Henry, obviously with not quite as good musical taste as his brother and father, turns them right down again. I foresee some cracking love letters being penned by Arthur in his teenage years! Both of them love counting the beds on the cover of Momentary Lapse, which takes them the entire length of the album because their capacity for numbers at the moment runs to about twenty and then they have to start again.

The boys aren’t yet fully aware of the capacity of an iPad or an iPhone*. They are starting to recognise certain icons on the screen – for some reason both Arthur and Henry like to play with the calculator app and once into an unlocked iPhone they can go straight to the app and start “playing numbers”. They also recognise certain Cbeebies apps and the Iplayer. However it is all a bit more luck than judgement a lot of the time, as I found out the other day when I left my phone alone and unlocked with Arthur in the playroom. Later that evening I was looking for a picture on my phone and I found in the region of two hundred and seventy pictures of Arthur’s face. I was quite impressed he’d found the function that swapped to the camera on the front of the phone though. I was also relieved that I hadn’t had to cancel yet another call to the emergency services again.

There is still just something a little bit special about pulling an LP off the shelf, removing it from it’s cover and lyric-lined inner sleeve, and then spending the next 22ish minutes listening to it, before turning it over and listening to the next 22 minutes of the other side. And although one day the boys will fully understand how to use phones and tablets, probably fulfilling their potential for usefulness far more efficiently than I can, for now, they seem to get the whole record experience that I grew up enjoying.

I’ve got loads of music on my phone and on memory sticks in the car, and yet still more on computers and hard drives and smart televisions dotted around the house. I can easily access pretty much anything I want, music wise, in seconds and it is all in one place. And that’s before even considering any online radio or on-demand streaming.

When I was growing up, if you’d have told me that one day all the music I could ever want would be able to come through my telephone wires I’d have laughed. Then again, I do remember dialling 16 to hear records played by the GPO on repeat, via my parents telephone, so I suppose it wasn’t that far fetched. I still remember the bollocking I got from my dad when he got the first telephone bill subsequent to this discovery, although that was probably very much akin to receiving an iTunes bill these days. It’s funny how life changes, yet stays so very much the same.

*Other devices are available.

Big Wedge

Back in the early days of this blog, there were a lot of posts about poo. Not mine I hasten to add, and I don’t intend to start logging any details about my, erm, logs, but now I come to mention it, there was that time a couple of months ago when Arthur managed to figure out how to work door handles for the very first time and it was at the exact moment when I was in the bathroom catching up on some reading matter. I was mid shit and he wanted a cuddle. I managed to fob him off with a high five and a fist bump and off he went. Unfortunately he hadn’t worked out how to pull a door to (if I hadn’t have been there at the event I would have sworn that lad was born in a barn), never mind use the door handle to close it. The next thing I know, Henry is in the bathroom along with me wondering what all the fuss is about.

The boys have figured out how to work the bolt on the bathroom door if they are in the room while the door is shut, so I took the pin out of it in case they ever did find their way in and realise they weren’t livestock after all. This is fine if there is just me and Mrs Aitchworld in the house – there is no dignity left between us. We have both seen each other at our worst. Love is running to the bathroom and back at the speed of Hussein Bolt in order to fetch a potty for someone who is in bed and right on the cusp of a lumpy yawn. Seeing each other on the toilet is tame by comparison.

On this note, how do the boys know when a major hangover is occurring? It isn’t very often we drink, so when we do it tends to hit like a freight train the following day. And the day after that, if I’m honest. The morning after this particular event, for the first time in a very long time, the boys decided their toys of choice to bring into our bedroom at 6am (or maybe just before) was their Casio keyboard and a kazoo. Now, even though it was the Yuletide season, a pre-programmed Casio concerto of Jingle Bells and Santa Claus Is Coming To Town, at full volume, inches from your ear isn’t a welcome sound. We quickly invested in a Gro-clock, even paying for express delivery, so that if we ever decide to drink again, we can at least program the sun to come up a little later to give us a chance of some extra sleep.

Anyway, every year not long after such events, just after Christmas we have a foreign student stay with us for three months, on a work exchange scheme. This year is no exception and to get round the no lock on the door situation, the understood rules of the house are that if the bathroom door is shut, it is occupied. The problem therein is that if the boys keep leaving the door wide open after they have visited me mid motion, the sight of me with my pants round my ankles, running like a parent in a school sack race in order to shut the bathroom door, is likely going to scare our student into never wanting to return to the UK, if they just happened to see the open door and thought the room was vacant.

All of which meandering and thrutching leads me to the point I was attempting to get to, which is that we are potty training. Again, not me; I’ve kinda got the hang of it. But the boys have started their road towards being house trained, in particular Henry. The other day he actually took his first ever shit on a potty. I don’t know why, but it is the proudest I have ever been of something, and it wasn’t even my achievement. When I stood back and thought about it for a moment, I did wonder how low my life had sunk that I was so impressed with a shit in an injection-moulded, primary-coloured bowl. But Henry was very pleased with his effort too, and his pride was kind of infectious.

Of course not every shit is a hit and there have been accidents along the way. You have one perfect day, where there was no extra washing involved, and you think you’ve cracked it. You are a master in the art of toilet training. You get complacent. And the next day the washing machine and tumble dryer run from morning to night, coping with all the missed opportunities. The national grid is there just for us sometimes. I fear our next electricity bill – it will probably crack the tiles underneath the doormat when it lands. There is no way our internet service provider will be able to cope with the amount of data in it, if our utility company were to email it it to me.

As any regular readers of this blog (if there are such people) will attest, my mind is an odd place. I have recently enjoyed watching the TV series Limitless, which was a spin off from the film of the same name. The premise, if you are unfamiliar, is that there is a pill which unlocks the full capacity of your brain, leading to excellent learning capabilities and memory function. Although the effect of this pill is very exaggerated in the film and TV programme, memory and mind enhancing drugs do exist, albeit as a side effect for curing narcolepsy, and I have been sorely tempted to try them. However, upon unloading the umpteenth load of washing from the tumble dryer and pondering the electricity bill issue, my brain went into overdrive, even without the aid of any medication.

Firstly, although it wouldn’t solve the electricity problem, I wondered could the vent from the tumble dryer, the one that extracts warm air from the dryer out through a hole in the kitchen wall, be better ustilised to heat the kitchen somehow. At the moment, it is hidden behind the tumble dryer and the kitchen units. Surely it could be better utilised? My mind wandered yet further when I emptied the filter/fluff collector device. There must be a use for all this tumble dryer fluff. There has to be. I don’t know what it is, or how you would even commercially collect it, but I will find a way somehow.

Even without the artificial heightening of the memory, I recalled a number of years ago I was at an exhibition where someone was demonstrating slug pellets made out of compressed sheep wool. The natural salts in the wool deterred any slugs from visiting your flower beds. I have worked with food ingredients and chemicals for many years, and I know there are sodium phosphates and salts in washing powders. I mused whether there would be enough residue from these in the tumble dryer fluff, that if it were compressed into pellets would it do the same job? I think an appearance on Dragon’s Den beckons…

Time Stand Still

“Suddenly, you were gone, from all the lives you left your mark upon…”

It’s a funny old thing, time. I mean, one minute it is early January and I’d just started this particular blog post, and I do mean so early in the month that I hadn’t even broken a resolution yet, and the next thing you know it’ s the middle of November and I still hadn’t finished it. In the intervening months, many things have happened, some good, some not so good and some terrible.

I’ll start with the good – in January I got a new job. My previous job, when I was in the office, was a one and a half hour each way commute at the minimum. If there was any event on the M6, this could double and there were some days where I left home before the boys got up and arrived home long after they had gone to sleep. When I wasn’t in the office and was out seeing customers, often the travel times were longer and it meant nights away from home and my boys. My new job, working for an Irish company, meant some travel to Ireland, a country that I love and the home of Guinness, which just happens to be my favourite tipple, but it also meant that most of the time I would be around to see the boys far more. The concentration on the new job kind of took my time away of writing the rubbish that I do.

Next, the terrible – the boys lost a Grandpa: Mrs Aitchworld’s father. Deep down we know it won’t be the case, but we somehow expect our parents to be there forever; the realisation this isn’t true hits like a ten tonne heavy thing when it does happen. At the age of just 73, this shouldn’t really have happened to Henry and Arthur’s Grandpa. Cancer is a bastard.

The boys don’t fully understand of course. They saw Grandpa nearly every day near to the end of his life. In the final stages of the bastard taking it’s toll on him, confined to his bed and incredibly fatigued, the boys would say “Grandpa sleeping”. After he had died, they went looking for him in his room. We didn’t know what to tell them, so we told Henry and Arthur that he had gone up to the sky to be a star. Every now and again, seemingly at random, Henry will say “Grandpa’s gone to be a star”.

I’ve outlined previously how I used to be pretty much emotionally barren. This did change somewhat after the boys were born, but I thought I was reverting back to type, with very few things upsetting me, other than odd things, the strangest being a piece of music in Nora and Nelly that to this day I cannot listen to without welling up. The impact of my father in law’s death, I thought, seemed to be minimal upon me and I accepted it completely as a matter of fact. The reality was more that it was a delayed shock. Even acting as one of the pall bearers at his funeral I felt the same way. Then I saw the order of service, with David, my father in law’s picture on it, and the tears started to flow.

They haven’t really stopped either and I find myself weeping at all manner of things. Strangely Henry is usually the catalyst – he is the sweetest, most caring little two and a half year old I have ever encountered, so much so it sometimes overwhelms me.

Take today for an example. The boys were taking a break watching my Wall-E DVD in their playroom. Mrs Aitchworld produced a fine picnic lunch for me and the boys and we were eating it in front of the telly, having a thoroughly agreeable Sunday.

On the screen, the scene played where Wall E and Eva appeared to kiss. I felt a sentimental lump in my throat. At this exact moment, Henry tipped his Smarties out into the middle of my squid rings. Immediately he fished out two brown ones and rather than ramming his sweets into his mouth, he handed them to me. “Here you go Daddy: they’re brown like your car”.

Tears rolled. Henry noticed. “Daddy sad!” He gave me a hug. I sobbed. And I’ve felt like I’m on an emotional knife edge for the rest of the day. I could go either way at any given moment. If Henry had have said “Grandpa’s a star as he gazed at the luminous plastic tat that is stuck to their ceiling when they went to bed tonight, I would have required re-hydration salts. As it is, I sat in the nursing chair still in their room to keep them company as they drifted off to sleep. They like that. I also had a little weep in the dark.

Sad news, but on a much lesser scale, I sold my beloved classic car, a 1993 Ford Sierra Sapphire Cosworth. Apparently. Jimmy Nail fans and Spender anoraks will understand completely when I say “it’s a beast”. I bought it, two weeks before their birth, with the romantic notion that I would take the boys to lots of car shows and bond with them over an old Volvo or something. The reality was that I did just a few hundred miles in a couple of years in it and every time I had to get it MOT’d the brakes were seized through lack of use. It was time for it to go.

To replace it, I bought a camper van. Sort of. What I actually bought was an abandoned project. It is a 2006 VW Transporter. I bought it insulated, with a nice lino floor fitted, a pop top roof and a couple of windows. But behind the row of front seats, it was empty. Windows have been put in the back doors, rear seats have been put in and the framework for the kitchenette and dining/second sleeping area is starting to go in. Many hundreds of pounds have been spent on all of the equipment needed to do this. Time, again, is the limiting factor.

My new job working from home with the fancy car (well, another brown Volvo)? Well that lasted less than six months and I became a casualty of economics. I didn’t care about the job – I actually hated it and knew I’d made a big mistake a few weeks in; it was poles apart from what was promised to me, but the loss of the Volvo was a bit of a kick in the teeth. I got a new job within a few days, based just a few miles from home, although it doesn’t come with a company car. I vacillated between buying a large Volvo and a large Land Rover, before going out and purchasing a Mini. Henry is over the moon. He loves Minis.

All of which random rambling brings me to my point. Or at least my starting point. The boys had their second birthday in March. This is an age other parents refer to as “the terrible twos”. Well, I may be tempting fate here, but I’m calling bullshit on that. I’m thoroughly enjoying this age. Throughout their life, I’ve not been wishing it away as such, but I’ve certainly been searching for the next milestone.

Soon after the boys were born, we were hoping for their first smile, their first clutch of a finger, then longer periods between feeds and so on. This soon turned into waiting for them to roll, then crawl, then walk, along the way saying their first few words. Each step along the way the boys have been leapfrogging each other with their developments, Henry doing something first before Arthur, then Arthur being the first of them to do something else.

While all of this was going on, and before they could really speak properly, I worried (as much as I ever worry; it isn’t something I waste a lot of energy or time on as it achieves nothing) about how I was going to teach them various concepts. Stuff like day and night – how would you explain it to someone with no concept of such a notion? But you know what? They just get it.

I don’t know how they have picked up what they have, but they have gone from knowing nothing, to being a lot brighter and intelligent than some adults I have encountered. The pair of them are like super-sponges, absorbing information like some sort of a giant vortex. It’s both fascinating and beautiful to watch.

For the first time since the boys were born, I am not wishing for the next developmental leap. I’m not wanting the next stage, whatever that is, to happen anytime soon. Just for a while, I’d like to freeze this moment a little bit longer. Time stand still.