Tuesday 30 June 2009

Edging back?

15st 0lb, 1.5 unit. I proved to be wrong about yesterday’s Tom Gutteridge column in The Journal. It was not about “The Michael Jackson I knew” but “The Michael Jackson I never met.” Damn. I felt like a man who has to hit a bullseye to win a vital darts match (if that is not an oxymoron) and finds that his arrow has landed just in the ring around it, after unluckily making a deflecting contact with the wire.

In my own column today (see http://www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com/2009/06/changing-by-accident-or-design.html) I decided to address the critics who lambasted my previous effort about the arrival of The Baby for being “soft” and representing “an almost complete role exchange with Wife in the North”. Which I would not mind one little bit, I must say, if it meant that I got her readership and publishing income. I was faintly encouraged when my editor shrewdly asked “do I detect a little edge from one or two nights when one could have done with another five minutes sleep?” (which would be right on the button) as the absence of “edge” seems to be what my critics principally complain about. Having said that, someone at The Journal felt it necessary to blunt it a bit, in the printed version, by amending my description of John Bercow from “a midget” to “a man small in stature”. A decision presumably inspired by the very real danger of direct action against The Journal's offices by the much-feared NADMADAG (Northumberland And Durham Midget And Dwarf Action Group), also known as The Little Terrors.

Yes, it has to be admitted that Baby-related lack of sleep is making me considerably tetchier than usual. Which is a bit of a worry, given that I started from such a high base of extreme tetchiness in the first place. I knew things were bad when I was packing up to leave for a short visit to Northumberland yesterday, and burst back into the house announcing, as a last straw, that “Now some f***ing idiot’s parked right across the drive!” When it should have been obvious that the only likely candidate for this title was one of Mrs H’s closest friends, who had popped around to worship The Baby and was standing with him in her arms looking somewhat surprised and abashed as I delivered myself of my outburst. Sorry about that, Philippa.

I was completely knackered by the time I completed the 222-mile journey, of which the highlight came on the Military Road that follows (and indeed largely replaces) Hadrian’s Wall, when I spotted a camper van stopped dead in the middle of the carriageway, for no obvious reason, right in front of me. Luckily it is a dead straight road and I could see far enough ahead to establish that there was plenty of time and room to pass it before the next oncoming car arrived, so did not think to ease off the accelerator as I approached. Imagine my surprise when a youth stepped out of the vehicle and nonchalantly positioned himself in the middle of the road directly in front of me to take a photograph. Though it was probably nothing to his surprise as I sounded my horn and gave vent to just a portion of my extensive vocabulary of swear words. Luckily for him he chose to leap out of the way. But if not, I suppose it would have made for a memorable last picture when they picked the camera out of his squashed remains. Albeit not in the same league as some of those of the 2004 tsunami, or that spoof one of the tourists posing at the top of the World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, and failing to spot the approaching jet behind them.

I felt a great sense of peace when I finally arrived home. I really cannot imagine why anyone would ever want to live anywhere else. Indeed, the feeling was so strong that by the time I had finished tending to my plants and tidying the house, I simply did not have the strength to drive back to Chester as originally planned, and had no alternative but to endure another lonely but unbroken night’s sleep, with a refreshing Northumbrian breeze blowing on me through the open windows of my hilltop bedroom.

Monday 29 June 2009

Hands not blown off by mystery parcel

14st 12lb, 8.3 units. Until they handed on the baton to the militant Islamic community (or “your lot” as I always call them for the benefit of my beloved wife), one of my chief fears in life was of being blown up by the IRA. It seems particularly ironic that the focus of our worries should have moved on, by the addition of just one letter, to Iran.

My concerns about Irish terrorism were not quite as groundless as they might seem. Although the chances of being targeted while living on top of a hill in the middle of nowhere in Northumberland are indeed low, for 17 years up to 2004 I spent the greater part of my life in London. And, for most of that time, I lived in a flat in Dolphin Square, the bizarrely upmarket council-owned block in Westminster that was and is such a favourite choice of second home for MPs, peers and senior military officers. At times of heightened alert, I used to look with grave suspicion at any strange cars parked beneath the windows of my flat. Sometimes I even used to move my porn collection to a vaguely blast-proof cupboard on the far side of the room, so that my dismembered body would not be recovered from the ruins covered in charred and tattered pages of hardcore filth. Though bearing in mind the sort of neighbours I had, this was surely an unnecessary worry even by my standards.

Ah, you will think, but surely a location so full of high-profile personalities must have been exceptionally well protected? Well, let me put it this way. I was once dropped off by a taxi driver who said, without conscious irony, that he was always completely bowled over by the quality of the security at Dolphin Square. “I mean, you’ve got all these nobs here but it’s the only block of flats I know in London where you can just wander in off the street without an entryphone or anything, and go and knock on someone’s door. I mean, security so good that it’s invisible. How much do you pay for that?”

Nothing at all, I hesitated to reply. Which suggested an altogether simpler explanation of why our protection was so inconspicuous.

Anyway, all this came flooding back to me this morning when we received a mysterious package containing a “Disney baby record book”, as part of the apparently unstoppable flood of cards, flowers and gifts unleashed by the arrival of The Baby. Someone had gone to the trouble of removing the price ticket from the goods, but not of enclosing any clue as to the identity of the sender. So I examined the packet and found that it had been posted in BT38, which proved to be somewhere in County Antrim. Not a lot of help, it must be said, since neither Mrs H and I know anyone who lives in Northern Ireland, or seems likely to shop there. But could it have been an Internet purchase? Is there a major Disney store in County Antrim, or indeed an Irish Disneyland? (I once described a particularly lacklustre Caledonian seaside resort as “the Scottish Disneyland” because “it disnae have a beach, it disnae have a pier, it disnae have any decent hotels …” You doubtless get the picture, but I am not sure whether the joke works in an Ulster accent, or indeed at all.)

We ended the day none the wiser, but at least I felt a sense of profound relief that we had managed to open our mystery package from over the water without the deleterious consequence traditionally associated with opening padded envelopes marked “If undelivered, please return to IRA, PO Box 1916, Dublin.”

Sunday 28 June 2009

The dodgy starter motor of impending doom

14st 12lb, 1.5 units. Our baby starts each day making a noise exactly like a vintage car with a dodgy starter motor. I wonder whether he is destined to be a world class mimic, though at present he is very much a one trick pony, like those blackbirds of my youth who drove people mad with their uncanny imitations of the trill of a BT “Trimphone” (remember those?) On the whole I find it quite endearing, though more so when he does it at 7 a.m. than at 1 or 4. Today, though, it was not his crying that got me out of bed, but the distinctive sound of someone lowering the ramp of a sheep trailer. So far, so usual, until I remembered that I was not in my house in the middle of Northumbrian sheep-rearing country, but close to the centre of distinctly urban Chester. Clearly this required investigation to establish whether I was suffering from auditory hallucinations as a result of sleep disturbance, so I drew back the curtains and found myself looking at a Land Rover and sheep trailer, which were inconveniently blocking our drive. They were in the charge of an impossibly old, bald man who moved in such slow motion that I felt like going out and recommending that he seek work in our local sandwich shop, famed for its exaggerated defiance of the fast food ethos. He must have come from somewhere in the very depths of Wales, to judge from his evident bafflement on spotting one of those polystyrene boxes from a kebab shop, thoughtlessly discarded on the pavement by some passing scratter. He had clearly never seen anything like it before, indeed to goodness. First he bent double to assist the process of staring at in intently. Then he moved it ever so gently with his foot, as if concerned that it might be some sort of improvised explosive device. It was clearly one of the most unsettling experiences he had had since Mr Attlee’s shock landslide in the 1945 election. Then he moved ever so slowly into the house next door, in the stylized way I had only ever seen before in a slightly strange production of Peter Shaffer’s The Royal Hunt of the Sun, emerging about 15 minutes later clutching a bed headboard. Clearly this was going to take all day, creating a splendid opportunity to ruin it when I insisted on getting my car out of the drive to go to church a little later. I was hugely disappointed when we came out with the baby at 9.30 and found that the bloody trailer had magically disappeared, as though it had never been. Could I have imagined it? I enlivened the drive to morning worship by suggesting that Mrs H might like to ring her friend, who owns and rents out the house next door, to find out who we would be getting to replace the unnaturally quiet young couple who were clearly just moving out. I envisaged a conversation along the lines of “Don’t you worry, I’ve let it to a lovely group of clergymen who want to hold silent retreats there. They call themselves something like The Angels. Yes, that was it, Hell’s Angels …” We were greeted at church with many congratulations. The splendidly charismatic vicar was wearing the gold cope in which he had married us, and cheerily told us of his latest symptoms and imminent operation for what he always presents as terminal cancer. Because I am incredibly easily suggestible, and have a few mild symptoms that might be compatible with the diagnosis, in the past few days I have managed to convince myself that I also have prostate cancer. This at least gives me something else to fret about, in addition to the question of whether or not I should accept the remarkably generous job offer I received over the telephone yesterday afternoon. That should be what some people call a no-brainer, because the money is good and the requirements undemanding, and at my age I stand precisely no chance of anyone else offering me anything better, or indeed anything at all. But, on the other hand, while I actually quite enjoy work whenever I do it, I absolutely loathe the IDEA of work, and of being tied down to it again after five glorious years of increasingly impoverished freedom. In which, in case you are wondering, my occasional expensive treats like nights at the opera have been funded by squandering what is left of my rather pathetic savings. The church had clearly lurched further in the direction of liberalism since our last visit, because towards the end the vicar read the banns of marriage of what both Mrs H and I took to be two women: Leanne and Simone. Then we were summoned to the front for a cheerful celebration of our baby’s birthday, along with that of another newborn and assorted slightly larger children. I left in a state of grace and with the benefit of a glass of pink champagne to celebrate the imminent ordination of a lady parishioner, which unfortunately gave me a taste for more of the stuff, which I was quick to satisfy. Alcohol, heat, hunger and my twin nagging worries all made for a thoroughly miserable afternoon, in which almost the only light relief was wondering “Who the hell is Fred Perry?” I had never knowingly heard of him before, but on my way back from the city centre shops with our lunch I ran into the King of the Scratters, looking particularly gormless with his mouth hanging open, wearing a black shirt emblazoned “Red Erry” in white letters at least 18 inches high. As we passed I spotted the “F” and “P” on his side, and reflected that it would have been more amusing to do it the other way around, when I would naturally have extrapolated these as “F***ing Prat”. Or possibly “Prick”; it is a nice distinction. I have something of a track record of misinterpreting scratter garb. In the winter their favoured uniform seemed to be a red bomber jacket with a gold crest on the back and three brilliantly descriptive letters. I was most disappointed when Mrs H belatedly explained that these stood for “Liverpool Football Club”. And not, as I had always assumed, “Lazy Fat C***.” When the heat of the day had finally abated I resolved to take The Dog for a refreshing walk by the river, and the first thing we encountered was a hopelessly drunk scratter staggering out of the nearby chipper with a plastic carrier bag full of chips in one hand and a half bottle of vodka in the other. He was slurring some sort of song as he lurched along the pavement, and I could not help noticing that he was also wearing a Fred Perry shirt. I had found out who this was by then: the last British man to win Wimbledon, and the father of a once respectable line in gents’ apparel. Oh dear. Another fine old British brand evidently going the way of Burberry, brought down to the gutter by its inconvenient and no doubt wholly unintentional appeal to the scratter community. Things looked up distinctly when we got to the Dee and I saw the always wondrous sight of a kingfisher flying along the river, and a large patch of beautiful yellow water lilies. Yet even in this idyll the scratters haunted us, for approaching from the city could be heard a pleasure boat, loudly playing music. The oddity was that they appeared to be tunes from a completely different era: first “Knees up Mother Brown” and then “What shall we do with a drunken sailor?” I stopped to watch, to see whether it was indeed a boatload of geriatrics, and to establish whether they were all wearing Fred Perry shirts, but it never came into view. Perhaps it really was an auditory hallucination, and maybe that is another symptom I could be worrying about. I must get onto Google and check without further delay.

Saturday 27 June 2009

The stripper, the seer and the witches

14st 12lb, 4.4 units. Yesterday I went to see a professional stripper. Always an exciting treat for me, but even more so for the dog, who has clearly been much troubled by his thick coat in the recent heatwave. He has always been stripped in Northumberland before, passing through the hands of a succession of enthusiastic amateurs and allegedly qualified groomers. The low point was perhaps allowing my ex, with whom I then shared his care, to have a go at it herself. She lost interest halfway through, and for a week or two the poor little chap was wandering around with the hair on the upper part of his body short, and the lower part long. He looked like a two-tone car re-sprayed by a blind man with Parkinson’s disease. With hindsight I wish that I had taken a photograph to corroborate this claim, but at the time it seemed too much like an intrusion into serious private grief.

We had chosen the Cheshire establishment on the recommendation of one of Mrs H’s colleagues, who raved about their treatment of her own dog, their huge experience and the many awards that they had won. The impression that they might be quite good was reinforced by the six weeks it took to secure an appointment. I was a bit surprised that the girl who took him off my hands looked about 18, rather than the hugely experienced Border terrier specialist I had been expecting. But perhaps, I reasoned, she was Debbie McGee to the Paul Daniels of some wizened old coat stripper, whose nimble fingers were already hard at work in some back room.

I returned to what passes for home at present and sat on the sofa grumpily writing stuff, interrupted only by eating the delicious lunch prepared for me by my beautiful young wife. Then things took a decided turn for the worse when she announced that it was time for us to Take The Baby Out. Even worse than that, she had set her sights on taking him out in the car, with a view to collecting the dog and looking for the chest of drawers we desperately need in the nursery, to replace the current sub-IKEA model in which all the drawers collapse whenever one opens them and endeavours to store a really heavy item like a handkerchief or a pair of socks.

It was the first time I had had to face up to the full horror of what getting a baby out of the house and into the car involves. First his carefully chosen buggy proved hellishly difficult to fold, even after we had worked out that the dangling mobile thing we had attached to the front of it for his entertainment is going to need to be dismantled every time we want to do so. This lifted this particular plaything straight into the top five of my Worst Buys of All Time (against some very stiff competition, I can tell you). Thank you, Early Learning Centre.

It then requires the strength of an Olympics weightlifter to clip the buggy shut, in the way that the tiny shop assistant in John Lewis in Newcastle had somehow managed to demonstrate with such practised ease when we were being conned into buying it. After that, it should have been no surprise that it proved surprisingly heavy and difficult to stow it even into a rather large car, despite my removal of a load of stuff from the boot to make room for it. It ended up shoved behind the front passenger seat. The car seat that came as part of our “travel system” package proved difficult to unclip from the buggy, while we already knew that it required a minimum of two people heaving and straining to secure it by the seat belt in the car. Though we have got better at this since our first practice run, which took a good quarter of an hour, at the end of which Mrs H pointed out that, if there had been a baby in the seat at the time, he would have had her elbow shoved hard into his face throughout the procedure and would almost certainly have been dead by the end of it.

All in all, it is no surprise that the whole process made me very tetchy, particularly as I was feeling more than a little tetchy before it even started.

We had been planning to go and collect the dog first, and the inevitable phone call just as we were going out of the door duly sanctioned this by saying that he would be ready for us around 4 o’clock. He looked very smart, and the bill of £31.20 was about £7 less than I last paid in Northumberland, so far as I could recall when the proprietrix herself (younger than I am, though not 18) presented me with the invoice and enquired how her prices compared with those “in Devon”. Despite my best efforts she continued to insist on calling the dog “Cruster”, which sounded vaguely disgusting.

From there we drove through a series of twisting lanes to the “Lady [Name Removed on Anticipated Legal Advice] Crafts and Antiques Centre”, which sounded rather grand on the web but proved to be the Cheshire equivalent of that Dorset Lapland which attracted so much opprobrium last Christmas. It was a sort of cross between a very run-down farmstead and a prisoner-of-war camp, with a car park surfaced in what appeared to be unclaimed ashes from the local crematorium, and a series of tatty old sheds implausibly given names like “Tudor” and “Elizabethan” (the underlying assumption that they are different in itself showing a dangerously weak grasp of early modern British history). But first we paid a call on the site’s pine furniture specialist, refusing to give up as I suggested when I first spotted the big “CLOSED” sign on his door. Mrs H, as ever more determined than I am, insisted on following the accompanying instructions to seek entry, in these circumstances, through the workshop at the rear, and even on ignoring such supplementary warning signs as a man in a van with “Pine Furniture Specialist” clearly written on the sides driving off at speed. Mrs H did finally admit that we would have been unable to get the buggy up the steps to the dangerous-looking workshop even if it had been open, which amazingly it wasn’t.

We then pushed the buggy to the first of the tat sheds. These were sub-divided into a series of rooms, each occupied by a different dodgy dealer in second-hand bric-a-brac. A surprising number of them sold golliwogs, suggesting that the whole place could well be a front for the BNP.

The dog had a huge drink from the bowl placed outside the door, and the presiding elderly, female waxwork greeted him effusively and announced (correctly) that he was aged between seven and eight. She explained that she could communicate with dogs and would also be able to tell whether there was anything wrong with him. She ran her hands over his back but remained tight-lipped, strongly suggesting that whatever she found was so awful that she did not like to share it with us. This experience was repeated, in a mercifully dilute form, in every other shed we entered. Mrs H remarked afterwards that it was a bit strange that everyone made such a huge fuss of the dog and did not even mention the baby.

But perhaps they are interested in human infants only as potential sacrifices, to judge from the row of old witches holding court on a bench outside the ice cream parlour. Mrs H ventured in there about ten minutes before closing time to be greeted with a heavy sigh and the news that the woman in charge had “just put the ice creams away”. A very English attitude to service, though at least she did reluctantly get them out again and graciously allow us to purchase a couple of cones filled with honeycomb and chocolate ice cream, which were very good indeed – even though admitting this does detract from my present theme of an all-round shit afternoon in the finest British traditions of fifth-rate rubbish being flogged in deeply depressing surroundings. Not for the first time, I wondered what exactly Woolworths did so wrong? Surely they always had their finger on the pulse of our national taste? Overall, it was the sort of place calculated to make you aspire that one day you might be able to trade up to a car boot sale.

As for the chest of drawers we were seeking, fairness compels me to record that we did, by some miracle, stumble upon a pretty well-made and not unreasonably priced example that would have served our purposes admirably, if only it had not been 2½ inches wider than the piece of crap we have already got, which is itself rather bigger than is strictly desirable. A lucky escape there, then, from having friends around and being forced to admit “Oh yes, we bought it from a little place we know …”

We drove home to repeat the rigmarole with the car seat and baby impedimenta all over again, so that I could reflect that the day was going to be typical of the high points of my life for the foreseeable future.

Friday 26 June 2009

Pop goes the King

14st 13lb, 5.6 units. Clearly I will never forget where I was at six o’clock this morning. Woken by the baby a maddening three minutes before I intended to get up anyway, I turned on the wireless in time for the pips and the devastating news that the King of Pop is dead. Blimey. He had only been a little bit poorly when they mentioned him on last night’s news at ten.

It brought back memories of watching Top of the Pops with my parents, and my mother making the immortal comment that “There must be a lot more darkies in the country than they let on about.” When I asked what had brought this on, she gestured at the screen, where Michel Jackson was performing his number one smash of the moment, ironically enough in black and white. (My father was a “late adopter” of colour TV on the grounds that “There’s more to go wrong”. The same principle which led him to urge me to have a bike with no gears, and which no doubt lay behind his assertion that “A radio spoils a car.”)

“How else,” Mum asked, “Did he get to the top of the hit parade?”

I remember suggesting that it was just possible that some white people also bought Michael Jackson records, at which both my parents laughed uproariously at my naivete. The very idea! Buying a record by a black man? Unthinkable. They did have a well-worn copy of Al Jolson’s “Sonny Boy” in their collection of 78s, and were among the biggest fans of the Black and White Minstrel Show, but in both cases they could clearly see through the disguise. No doubt they would have been profoundly shocked by the revelation that, in its latter years, some of the artistes behind the slap in the George Mitchell troupe genuinely were black. Though, on the other hand, they would at least have been pleasantly surprised by Jackson’s subsequent transformation into a white person.

It is strange to think that in those days, in my family’s terms, I was something of a liberal. I certainly did not share my father’s apparently genuine conviction that black people were closely related to monkeys, lived up trees and subsisted on bananas. (Though, curiously, the only other person I have ever heard use the phrase “Straight down from the trees” without comic intent was a plummy-accented, English-public-school-educated Nigerian chief who would no doubt have been the first to describe himself as “black as the ace of spades”.)

The next time that Jackson made an impact on me was in about 1978 in Cambridge, when I found myself sharing a flat with the veterinary student who, 31 years later, became my best man. Perhaps because of its animal associations, he was curiously addicted to Jackson’s song “Ben”, which he told me (though I never really believed him) was a love song about a rat. Odd. Still, I suppose everyone’s inappropriate crushes have to start somewhere.

A few years later, in London, I remember expressing surprise that my flatmate’s record collection included the album “Thriller”. When she asked my why I reacted in that way, I mumbled something about Jackson not being my cup of tea, but could not help wondering whether I had unconsciously absorbed some of the prejudices of the previous generation. If that process of transmission does occur, I fear that the baby may be in for a very fraught life, including some long stretches in re-education camps.

Since the days of “Thriller”, I don’t think that Michael Jackson has made any impact on me except as a fertile source of grossly inappropriate City humour about paedophilia. The first thing I saw when I turned on Facebook this morning was a friend’s comment “He "wanna be startin something" like maybe the defibrillator”. Already the flood of City jokes has started clogging my inbox, and perhaps the most repeatable of them is this: “The coroner is unsure what to put as the cause of Michael 
Jackson's death. He doesn't know whether to blame it on the
sunshine, the moonlight, the good times, or the boogie.”

Perhaps they will play “Ben” during the inevitable tribute shows this evening, which will take me right back to days that are best, on the whole, completely forgotten. But at least there will be the Tom Gutteridge column to look forward to in next Monday’s Newcastle Journal. What other subject could he choose than “The Michael Jackson I knew”? I say: bring it on!

Wednesday 24 June 2009

The Great Escape

14st 10lb, 5.6 units. A typically lousy start to the day. The first thing I spotted was that the milkman has failed to pick up the direct debit form I carefully put out for him last night, in an envelope inside a plastic bag in case of rain. Presumably he thought it was intended for another random passer-by called Chris. I was further miffed, on taking out the bottle of milk already in the fridge, to find that it was lukewarm; the thermometer showed 10ºC rather than the desired 0-5º, and the cheapjack built-in fridge we installed in December, on the assumption that we would be moving out and renting the place, does not run to a control for adjusting the temperature.

The early news from the hospital was that The Baby’s latest blood test for jaundice was fine, but that Mrs H had not yet received the ‘all clear’ to go home. I was heading for the shower after this when there was a loud hammering on the front door; I could tell that the man from Parcelforce was clearly less than gruntled by my cry of “Oh for f***’s sake! What now?” before I opened it.

By the time I arrived at the hospital at 2 things had moved on, and Mrs H had been assured that she would be out of the place “by tea-time”. We laughingly speculated whether this meant PLU tea (4) or working class tea (5.30 – 6) but we turned out to be badly wrong on both counts.

In the meantime The Baby had begun to show the signs of a hospital-acquired infection, with green gunk seeping from one of his eyes. A midwife promised to bring some sterile solution to bathe it, but never returned. Then an implausibly youthful female paediatrician randomly wandered in and started talking about the desirability of The Baby having a BCG injection because he was deemed to be at increased risk of TB, presumably because of his dodgy Iranian connections. Mrs H pointed out that her parents had not lived in Iran for nearly 30 years, and I added the firm assurance that “I won’t let any bloody wogs into my house”, though I am not sure it did much good. However, she did at least confirm that we would be going home later in the day.

Later, around 4, I noticed that The Baby’s eye was now exuding a LOT of green gunk, and suggested that we might do well to seek some advice. Mrs H became tearful at the prospect of being detained in the hospital a further night, and was further demoralized by the midwife who came in answer to the bell saying that it was perfectly treatable with something they could get from the pharmacy … only the pharmacy closed at 5. She took a couple of swabs and told us to await a paediatrician. And we waited, and waited. I have rarely been so bored as I found myself in that grossly overheated hospital room this afternoon. We had opened the day’s haul of cards and presents within the first 10 minutes, I had read the Daily Telegraph from cover to cover, and I was finally reduced to attempting both the cryptic and quick crosswords – something I have not done for years.

And so it dragged on, and on. A midwife came in and said that she would chase the doctor if he did not turn up within half an hour, though she had already shouted at him once today and was not in his good books. (Hospital joke: What is the difference between a midwife and a Rottweiler? Rottweilers don’t wear lipstick.) The paediatrician finally came and looked at The Baby’s eye, and said that it needed to be treated with ointment every four hours, and …

“Don’t tell me,” said Mrs H, “We can’t get it until tomorrow because the pharmacy’s shut”, adding that if that were indeed the case they might as well find her a bed in the mental health unit and wheel her straight round there.

“No, no,” said the bloke, clearly sensing a woman on the edge. “We will just give you some.”

After another hour or so a woman wandered in and said that “Linda” would be along shortly to give Mrs H her discharge talk. About an hour later someone called Victoria actually came and did just that, then did that Colombo-like “one more thing”; they had to print off some papers on the computer and get Mrs H to sign them, which would take “ten minutes”, which again turned out to be more like an hour.

We agreed by the time we left that the NHS was designed for the benefit of its own staff and the unemployed, who have no other calls on their time, and that we would not be having another baby unless we could afford to do so privately.

I went down to the car with Mrs H’s bags while we were waiting for her release papers, feeling like I was springing someone from behind the Iron Curtain, and returned to her ward with The Baby’s car seat. We finally escaped at 8, just as the shifts on the ward changed and we would presumably have been doomed to start the whole process all over again with a new set of people. I felt like a man who had passed through a creaking tunnel just before the roof fell in. Never has a bottle of pink fizz and a Chinese takeaway been more eagerly anticipated or wholeheartedly enjoyed.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Swings and roundabouts

14st 9½lb, 2.5 units. A day of mixed fortunes: The Baby is getting better, but Mrs H is patently going off her chump. She rang me before 7 in a tearful condition because, although The Baby’s blood tests showed an improving trend, they still wanted to give him another six-hour blast on the UV machine. She is clearly very demoralized by it all, and particularly by the thought that their return home might be delayed. “Why does it all have to happen to him?” she asked, plaintively; not a question to which I could immediately think of any intelligent reply.

I got up and made myself a cup of tea, and offered The Dog a delicious Pedigree Rancho chew in place of his usual Schmacko, the supply of which he exhausted yesterday. He dropped it on the kitchen floor and looked at me accusingly, as though I were a potential dog killer. This, I reflected, from an animal whose idea of a tasty treat is cat shit. Perhaps Messrs Pedigree need to rethink their recipe and focus on some cheaper and nastier ingredients.

At noon I took The Dog for a walk, turning around on the return leg to see what he had stopped to sniff for so long, only to find him sitting determinedly still in the middle of the pavement, with a facial expression clearly indicating that it was too hot and he had done quite enough walking for one day. Also spotted shortly afterwards: a pair of well-shitted scratter tracksuit bottoms, discarded by the side of the path near the Scratters’ Academy. This area just goes on getting classier and classier.

By the time I reached the hospital Mrs H was displaying all the symptoms of going stir crazy, a condition clearly not helped by the fact that it was inhumanely hot in her room. The Baby was still inside the incubator-like UV machine, with his eyes shaded as though on a tanning bed, though the machine was now turned off. Mrs H seemed to find the eyeshade particularly depressing for some reason. I could not quite work out why.

Luckily her mood improved steadily during my stay; I have no idea how I work my special brand of magic, but for some strange reason my presence clearly cheered her up. It is just as well I married her, since in my experience I have precisely the opposite effect on everyone else. She is also beginning to reflect on her good fortune in the manner in which The Baby arrived, noting that many of the other women in the maternity unit can hardly walk; indeed the one in the room next door is on crutches. It seemed needlessly cruel to press the deflating observation that she was probably also on crutches before she gave birth.

Monday 22 June 2009

From Pamela Anderson to Jordan

14st 11lb, 2.5 units. I woke early and wrote a newspaper column, which was inevitably about the arrival of The Baby even though I know that this will be of precious little interest to most readers in the North East. But, to look on the bright side, it will probably offend most of them less than my taking another pop at Gordon Brown.

At 11 I took The Dog for a walk, following a couple of tracksuited teenage scratters who slung their plastic drink bottles noisily onto the pavement behind them as they walked. How I wished I had the strength of character to remonstrate with them; but it struck me as an imprudent course of action if The Baby is to grow up with a living father, or at any rate a father who isn’t on a life support machine and is capable of eating solids. On our way back we encountered the youth I always think of as The King of the Scratters, his mouth as ever hanging open gormlessly. He was wearing a ludicrous, large baseball cap to disguise his comical ginger hair and remarkably low forehead. Surrounded by his posse of even more stupid admirers (hard though it is to get one’s mind around either part of that concept), he was clearly trying his utmost to exude menace, though I am happy to report that he merely succeeded in looking utterly ridiculous and pathetic.

Having deposited The Dog at home I set off on a mad dash around the shops to buy various things desired by Mrs H. I thought that it would also be a good opportunity to renew the battery in my pocket watch, so called in at the repair shop only to find some scratter pensioner debating whether or not to treat herself to a new, cheap wristwatch. As I entered she had just reached a decision: “No, I’ll leave it for another week”, presumably to see whether she died in the meantime. But then the crafty young salesman sowed a doubt in what passed for her mind: “Yes, that’s fine. Though, of course, when it’s gone, it’s gone.” So naturally she had to “have another look at it”. I gave a despairing sigh and left, heading up in the lift to the top floor of the nearby department store to buy Mrs H some hair mousse. For the first time ever there was a queue at the counter, inevitably led by another old biddy making incredibly heavy weather of arranging an appointment to have her short, grey hair styled in a coffin-ready perm. Why can’t they just get on with it, for God’s sake?

When I got to the hospital I found that Mrs H had again been transformed, this time from Pamela Anderson into Jordan. I devoutly hoped that she would be stopping there, rather than continuing to develop into one of those ladies who can only obtain work in special interest porn films.

At 2.20 we went to see the Assistant Registrar of Births, Marriages and Deaths, though presumably her duties at the hospital mainly relate to the first and last of those. We initially struggled to find her, but eventually tracked her down to an office off the hospital café with a big sign saying “Registrar” on the door. She took down The Baby’s and our particulars, after which I cheerily pointed out to Mrs H that the next time she would need to perform this task would be when she was registering my death. She seemed to find this thought unaccountably depressing, though it cheered the assistant registrar up no end. We were then presented with a copy of the short registration certificate which the State generously provides completely free of charge, though the assistant registrar warned that we would find it totally useless for any important purpose such as obtaining a passport; for this we would need a full registration certificate, obtainable at the bargain price of £3.50. Even though she could offer no discount for bulk, I bought three of them; the same number as of the Christian names we had just registered. In birth certificates as in names, there is no way that my son is going to be stuck with just one of the buggers, as I am.

Baby H doing what he does best

Mrs H rang me at home in the late evening with the not altogether surprising news that The Baby had been diagnosed with a recurrence of mild jaundice and that this was going to be treated by sticking him under a UV light overnight. He would be remaining in his mother’s room for this, but she did not like the idea of him sleeping in something that looked like an incubator even though, as I pointed out, that was not actually what it was. I cited the many cases of my friends’ children who had suffered jaundice and grown into fine, strapping adults. She did not seem convinced, so I did a bit of research about jaundice on the internet. The first site I looked at said that 65% of babies suffered from it; the second site claimed 90%, and that was naturally the figure I quoted to Mrs H when I rang her from our bed before going to sleep.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Moving in the right direction

14st 12lb, zero units. It was so chilly in the house when I got up at 6 o’clock this midsummer morning that I treated myself to a blast of the gas fire as I sat on the sofa, eager to write some e-mails but fearing that friends might try to have me sectioned if I started writing to them at that time on a Sunday.

I took The Dog for a walk around noon and found the streets still full of no-hopers limping to the end of the “Deva Triathlon”. An idiot who had clearly entered for the supplementary Slowest Driving event impeded our path across the street so I shouted some colourful abuse at him, attracting the attention of the finishers drifting back from the end of the race, pushing their bicycles and carrying square plastic boxes full of God knows what impedimenta. They looked at me as though they considered me a likely candidate for sectioning, too. After my improved mood yesterday, I was definitely Mr Tetchy once again.

The crowds eased by the time we reached our usual path to the river by the Scratters’ Academy, but its grounds were filled with marquees, music was playing over loudspeakers and a bloke was sitting in a little glass commentary box saying mendaciously kind things about the pathetic losers who were still trundling up the hill from the river to the finishing line. I was relieved when he did not feel the urge to comment on the large crap The Dog decided to take in full view of his vantage point.

We next found the path we had intended to take along the river blocked with tape and two people badged as “Marshal”, but who did not look like they would be much use in a shoot-out at the OK Corral. So we crept under various unmanned sections of tape to reach the park across the river. Here The Dog distinguished himself by having another crap right in the middle of the path next to an incredibly gruff-voiced (possibly transgender, now I come to think about it) mother and her three young children, who were cooing over and feeding a baby squirrel. Luckily he did not attempt to eat the squirrel for his next trick. In fact, he did not even chase it, just looking at it in a fascinated sort of way. Or maybe he was really staring at Sexchange Mum; he is remarkably good at pretending to do other things to disguise his fundamental nosiness.

One thing I had noticed shortly after entering the park was the absence of the usual dog waste bin. I noted the absence of another two as we made our usual circuit, reflecting that by this time next week I should be able to take my son for his first ride on the miniature train. Whoo-whoo! I finally found a bin that they had perhaps overlooked near the entrance by St John’s Church. If this is the new Conservative unitary council’s idea of enhancing public services then they have just lost my vote, or would have done if I had actually bothered to put myself on the electoral register.

At lunchtime I took some sandwiches into the hospital and shared them with Mrs H, who was weak with hunger after receiving probably the world’s worst plate of roast beef from the hospital kitchen (or, in reality, no doubt, the off-site, cut-price facility where food is now prepared). Mrs H has now become a sort of milch cow. She observed herself that she had woken at 6 to find that she had breasts like Pamela Anderson, and wondered where the hell they had come from. The afternoon passed much as yesterday: sitting in the soporifically overheated neo-natal unit, watching Mrs H feed The Baby and then express her remaining milk, and listening to the mother of the premature baby behind a screen chatting to her scratter relatives. We went back upstairs for a cup of tea and, to general delight, The Baby was brought back up to join us at the same time as his grandfather pitched up for an evening visit. Things are clearly moving in the right direction, which is always better than the alternative in my experience.

Baby H: back where he belongs

Saturday 20 June 2009

Who did that?

14st 13½lb again (am I deluding myself here?), 6.7 units. Restored to something like equanimity by seven hours of uninterrupted sleep, I went into the hospital and found Mrs H in an altogether better mood, too. She looked well scrubbed and groomed (not in the paedophile sense) and was wearing jeans and a colourful top in place of her blood-spattered white dressing gown of yesterday. Later on, when we were going down to the neo-natal unit to see The Baby, a nurse ticked her off for showing up the rest of the patients and staff by looking so “glamorous”. I agreed wholeheartedly, and pointed out that that was how we came to be there in the first place.

Having found a way to comply with the neo-natal’s dress code without providing a gift to the robbing bastards so prevalent in the area, I spent some time watching the entertaining spectacle of Mrs H expressing milk, or to be accurate at this stage cholostrom, into two plastic bottles using a couple of truncated plastic cones attached to her breasts. I had witnessed this sort of thing before but only on dairy farms, and it struck me that it would make a splendid picture for inclusion in my blog. Sadly she took a diametrically opposed view.

It is proving exceedingly difficult to wake The Baby up to feed him (a phase which I suspect we will remember with fondness all too soon). Before the attempt due at 5 an attendant nurse tickled his tummy vigorously, and I followed her example, while Mrs H cooed and shook him before expressing a little of that stuff which is supposed to small as good to him as a big curry does to me after I have drunk five pints of beer. And it worked to the extent that he suckled for about 40 minutes, albeit proving to be very easily distracted, just like Mother; and was then “topped up” with 30ml of formula milk, which he lapped like a cat from a little cup.

I talked to the nurse while Mrs H was cleaning her expressing equipment, and asked when we might be able to take The Baby home, and she answered “Towards the end of next week.” She talked of how much the science and equipment have come on since the days of Mrs H’s parents, when she conceded that being sent to a special baby unit was pretty much a death sentence. I then gently pointed out that Mrs H’s father and I were pretty much the same age. Swiftly changing the subject, she moved onto the apparently safer topic of bathing the baby and said that much the best way was to get him into the bath with us. I tried to scotch this idea by pointing out that, at my age, there was a very high risk that one of us would wee in the water and it would be extremely hard to establish just who was to blame.

Friday 19 June 2009

Just like Iraq, really

14st 13½lb, 10.2 units. I sent a load of e-mails before I went to bed last night reporting the safe arrival of The Baby and stating that he and his mother were both “exceedingly well”. This was, like the decision to go to war in Iraq, based on the best information available to me at the time. I also included the important supplementary news that all our carefully laid plans had gone to hell in the proverbial handcart because not only had Father been present at the birth, but Mother had managed it without any of the shed-loads of drugs to which she had been so greatly looking forward. This was mainly because it all happened so quickly that the baby had just about arrived before either of us thought to enquire about pain relief. For Mrs H, that is. I was under no illusions that they would be prepared to give me anything for my crushed hand.

In addition, Mother wished it to be generally known that The Baby had emerged to the sound of “Love+1” by Haircut 100 on her iPod, a tune which she considered peculiarly appropriate, and which I might have done too if I had ever heard of it. It is a sad reflection on our relative ages that even allegedly major hits of the 1980s appear to be “after my time”.

I slept incredibly badly, which was probably God’s way of getting me into training. When I did get up I spent some time on the sofa reading congratulatory e-mails before I got around to ringing Mrs H, who gave me the slightly disconcerting news that The Baby was “in the neo-natal unit downstairs” because his blood sugar was too low. Perhaps partly because he had got too cold at some point after he was born, though he was swiftly wrapped in towels and then warmly dressed; a cynic might suggest that undressing him for his fashionable “skin to skin” feeds might just be a factor here. Or perhaps because his body is making too much insulin, to compensate for the fact that Mrs H was not making enough for the pair of them. All in all, not the cheery bulletin with which I had expected to start the day, before going around to the hospital to bring them home.

As we were talking I detected the distinctive aroma of The Cat having a crap. I made the mistake of finishing my call before going to deal with it. Meanwhile, The Dog came through to the sitting room smacking his lips. When I went to deal with the litter tray I found a scene of unimaginable horror, far worse than anything I had glimpsed in the delivery room yesterday, while a sniff of The Dog’s beard confirmed the worst; he has been eating the stuff. I felt sick. In fact, if I had had any breakfast by that point, I almost certainly would have been.

I then got shit all over my trousers while cleaning up after the dog during his walk later in the morning, after which I was nearly killed by an erratically lurching delivery lorry as I drove into the hospital shortly before noon. All in all, I reflected that it was not shaping up to be my day.

Mrs H took me down to the neo-natal unit to see The Baby, but I was not allowed to do so unless I divested myself of my jacket, which happened to contain a fair amount of cash and other valuables, and I did not feel minded to sling this casually onto a hook in a hospital infested with the sort of people who steal the sodding pillows. So I decided to forego that pleasure. There is supposed to be “security” in the place, but by the end of the day I had entered Mrs H’s ward three times without ever needing to use the entryphone system, simply by following some passing simpleton with a trolley or a bucket. While my mother-in-law found she could evade the tight security around the labour ward yesterday by simply wandering in through its open back door.

Late this afternoon I returned to central Chester and my favourite pub, for what was either an incredibly late lunch or an unfashionably early supper. The only table available was right next to the door of the loos, with associated aroma, but I was too tired and hungry to care. The steak pie with red cabbage and chips were well worth waiting for, though the place slipped down a notch in my estimation when I went to the bar to order a third pint and some pudding, and someone cleared away not only my plate and glass but also the magazines I had brought with me. It slipped further still when a rather disobliging waitress came to tell me that they no longer had the honeycomb ice cream I had ordered, but a new flavour: blackcurrant and liquorice. I said that it sounded utterly disgusting and she replied “That’s what I thought” so that was the end of that. Almost the perfect ending to the perfect day, though the real conclusion was comfort eating a great deal of chocolate on the sofa while watching Coronation Street.

Thursday 18 June 2009

The most important day of my life

15st 4lb, 7.7 units. So this is it, then: the most important day of my life. Probably, as they always say by way of qualification in the Carlsberg ads, since we had been warned that the process of inducing a baby could well take more than 24 hours. Nevertheless, I was keenly aware, as I heaved myself out of bed at 6.30 a.m., that there was at least the possibility that I could be a father by the end of the day. Though at the start of it I felt much more like a mother, marvelling at the bouncing baby-sized eight pounds I had apparently gained in just 24 hours. How could a labour-inducing curry and a mere three pints of beer possibly wreak such havoc? It seemed even more incredible than the miracle of human reproduction.

Our last remaining lifeline was the call that Mrs H had been instructed to make as soon as she got up, to see whether the labour ward at the hospital had room for her. But they said they did, so we readied ourselves with our customary calmness (and dilatoriness, in Mrs H’s case) and made our way to the hospital, where we were shown into an “Assessment Room”: a decent-sized space which even seemed to be moderately clean by NHS hospital standards. At this point we remembered that we had forgotten to bring the pillows we had been advised to have with us, as they are “like gold dust” in the hospital. Apparently the scratters steal them.

Q: You need a couple of pillows for your bed. Would you:

(a) Go to John Lewis and buy them?
(b) Go to Marks & Spencer and buy them?
(c) Go to Dunelm Mill and buy them?
(d) Get pregnant so that you could steal them from the NHS?

Is (d) your final answer? Are you sure? Then I am sorry to inform you that you are a scratter who will make the King of the Scratters himself jealous at the epic extent of your scumminess.

A pleasant midwife came in and linked Mrs H up to a couple of monitors – one for the baby’s heartbeat, the other for contractions, if any. Her mother, who had joined us as Mrs H’s chosen “birthing partner”, then performed some strange Persian ritual which involved waving a small book around in front of Mrs H and getting her to kiss it several times while she muttered some mumbo-jumbo or other. The book turned out to the Koran – or so she said, though it appeared to be about as thick as a pocket diary, making me wonder why those chaps in the madrasahs in Pakistan take years to learn it by heart. My mother-in-law also made us both wonder about the usefulness of the exercise when she admitted, unprompted, that “When I pray to Jesus, I usually find that I get the answer quicker.”

Mrs H being a Brave Little Soldier before it All Kicked Off

The process of attempting to induce the birth of our son began at around 9.30 and then not a lot happened for a couple of hours, so I excused myself to go home and take the dog for a walk. I was conscious as I was walking by the river of a sense of deep calm and the feeling, as Churchill put it in 1940, that “all my life had been a preparation for this hour and this trial”. Quite poetic, that, by my standards.

After I had grabbed some lunch, I returned to the Assessment Room to find that there had been a surprising change of pitch while I was away; Mrs H was experiencing what seemed to the untutored observer to be painful contractions every 20 minutes or so, and was in so much pain that she could no longer lie down. She turned to her mother after the first one I observed, and informed her that she must be sure to bond with this grandson, as she most certainly wasn’t going to be having any more of them.

The contractions almost immediately increased in frequency to about one every 10 minutes, so I thought it prudent to have a word with the hatchet-faced old boot presiding at the front desk, who had clearly missed her vocation when the NHS abolished old-fashioned battleaxe matrons in the mould of the late, lamented Hattie Jacques. After an authority-asserting delay she came into the room and said, in response to a complaint about the pain and an enquiry from Mrs H as to whether it was too late to opt for a Caesarean, “I hate to tell you this, love, but you’re not even in labour yet”, adding that someone would be along to give her a scheduled assessment quite soon anyway, and in the meantime she might as well just grimace and bear it.

Fortunately the original midwife, who had completed the “niceness” module of the patient care course, returned shortly afterwards and within seconds pronounced “Ooh, you’re nine centimetres dilated … you’re going to have a baby!” and promptly wheeled Mrs H through into a Delivery Room. Although it came equipped with doors, they were never closed and I imagine that Mrs H’s screams could be heard at the other end of the hospital. Having taken on board the warnings that induced labour is rarely quick, I envisaged that we were going to be in for several hours of this, so I foolishly accompanied Mrs H into the room to offer a few words of initial encouragement before staging my planned tactical withdrawal to a suitable boozer. Instead I found my hand seized in a vice-like grip from which there was no practical possibility of extricating myself. At one point she squeezed so hard that I thought my fingers were going to break, and wondered whether I would ever be able to type again. The potential loss to the world of blogging and regional journalism scarcely bears thinking about. Later she dug in her nails with such ferocity that I was amazed she did not draw blood. Though not as amazed as I was by the business-like way Mrs H responded so effectively to the midwife’s advice that screaming was a waste of energy which could be applied to pushing, to get the thing over with. She later attributed this to her training for the Great North Run.

Remarkably soon afterwards the midwife said. “He’s right there. I can see his head – he’s got lots of lovely black hair!” Mrs H asked if she couldn’t just pull him out and she said she would grab him by the ears if she could see them, but there was nothing to get hold of at present. After a few more pushes the head was out (I took the midwife’s word for that) and then, amazingly quickly, the whole thing was over and I could see a little baby lying between Mrs H’s legs. I cried, as all authorities on the subject had predicted I would, despite my staunch determination to prove them wrong. It was 15.53, precisely 50 minutes after I had rung Mrs H’s father with the news that we were moving to the Delivery Room.

Mrs H and her real birthing partner, with Baby H

The proud mother and shell-shocked father, with offspring

The baby’s face was rather purple at first, allowing me to make an inappropriate joke about him being black and there being some questions to answer later, but we swiftly established that he was whole and in good nick. I was invited to cut the cord, but declined politely and allowed my mother-in-law to do it. Another midwife then gave the baby a quick rub-down and handed him to his mother, while her original attendant got on with delivering the placenta, beginning with its ugly, long, grey cord and carrying on with an object that looked like something out of a low-budget 1960s Hammer horror film. I did my best to avert my eyes, just as I used to do when they showed the films on late-night TV in the 1970s.

After this The Baby was weighed, initially at 6lbs 13¾oz, subsequently revised to a straight 7lb. I noticed that he was slim, with rather a long body, dark hair on his head and also on his surprisingly hairy back, and disproportionately large genitals. He only inherits one of these characteristics from me, and regrettably it isn’t the last one. I took a suitably embarrassing photograph of him while he was on the scales, but he was soon decently clad in a nappy and shortly afterwards in a blue and white-striped jump suit which made him look, to my mind, like a junior convict. He had coughed and then cried a little when he first emerged into the world, but after that he just lay on his back with his eyes shut, practising his sucking technique. I decided that he was, on the whole, rather lovely.

All he needs is a ball and chain to complete his fancy dress

After a while Mrs H was wheeled off for a shower, rashly leaving me in sole charge of The Baby. Then we were kept waiting for considerably more than an hour for someone to come and wheel her up to the ward. Our rather graceless greeting when we finally arrived there was a warning that visiting hours were just ending and that Mrs H’s parents, who had been twiddling their thumbs in her room, would need to leave immediately. I hung on until the official chucking-out time for “partners” at 8 p.m., then went home and attempted to buy myself a bottle of chilled champagne from the local off-licence, forgetting that we lived in Scratterville and that this was a hopelessly unrealistic aspiration. However, they did have a bottle of chilled Australian sparkling rosé, which I think I might even have preferred. Perhaps I am becoming acclimatized to Scratterdom. Come to think of it, why on earth did we go out a few months ago and buy those new pillows, when we knew we had a date at the maternity hospital coming up?

Wednesday 17 June 2009

The pregnant lady falls over

14st 10lb, 4.5 units. This was scheduled to be my last day on Earth as a non-parent; or more likely the penultimate day, if the popular assessments of the efficacy of inducing childbirth turned out to be correct. I woke at 6.30, feeling refreshed (will I ever know that sensation again?) and got up intending to write, but instead spent 20 minutes reading the last two editions of The Journal online. Yesterday’s included a letter from one Bill Heron of Throckley which read: “In the thousands of words written about what will happen if Gordon Brown stands down as Prime Minister, one important aspect has been overlooked. If Mr Brown is no longer in office, what will Keith Hann write about in his tedious column?” I felt somewhat disheartened, and also betrayed. I have always been particularly fond of herons.

After a morning tying up loose ends at what passes for work, I began my self-granted paternity leave at lunchtime. As soon as I had forced down a sandwich, I fulfilled Mrs H’s last wish (well not literally, I hoped) and drove her to the Trafford Centre in Manchester to do a spot of shopping. Our destination turned out to be a sort of more grandiose version of the Metro Centre in Gateshead, apparently constructed to plans left over by the architect to some particularly well-funded Indian railway company. The exterior was adorned with domes that seemed more than vaguely reminiscent of a mosque, and must have been a red rag to the Pakistani students who were allegedly plotting to blow the place up a while ago (though curiously, after the immense publicity surrounding their arrests, there was found to be no evidence against them and they were quietly deported). As I walked along the long, curved glass mall, roofed exactly like an unusually clean train shed, I could not help reflecting that it might have been no bad idea to allow them to demolish it, if an arrangement could have been made to do so out of hours when there would have been no loss of life (except, if they absolutely insisted, of their own).

We waddled first to John Lewis, with the aim of replacing the defective nursery lamp that we had bought at their Oxford Street store when we were last in London. Naturally Mrs H had taken the elementary precaution of ringing them up before we set off, and establishing that they had ample numbers of the thing in stock. So we were not unduly disheartened when we went to the lighting department and found that they had none on the shelves, and no staff available to serve us. We simply waddled to the customer services desk, where a woman was kind enough to look the item up on a computer and confirm that they definitely DID have lots of it in the stockroom. She then led us gently back to the lighting department and secured us the services of a pair of evident simpletons, one of whom promptly went into the same computer system and announced that they did not have any in stock after all. Now, why did that not surprise me in the slightest?

However, what did surprise me was their announcement that they were willing to let us take away the one lamp like ours that they had out on display. Which had the advantage, Mrs H pointed out, that we knew that it actually worked. I could safely predict that the bulb would blow as soon as I plugged it in again at home, but I covered myself against that by buying a couple of spare ones while I was there.

We then traipsed around a number of other shops, taking the opportunity to buy a present for The Baby at the Early Learning Centre. Predictably enough, this proved to be almost the only item in the store not included in their “50% Off Closing Down Sale”. We then went to Boots, pointlessly as it turned out since Mrs H had only wanted to go there because the Trafford Centre guide on the Internet listed it as a retailer of maternity clothing, which they proved no longer to stock. Perhaps because no-one in their right mind would ever think “I need a maternity dress: got to get down to Boots!” However, I did spot a large section full of sun cream, which I actually needed. I picked up a few bottles, to take maximum advantage of their inevitable BOGOF offer, and was heading for the till with them when I heard a screech from behind me and turned around to find a shocked-looking Mrs H scrabbling on her hands and knees on the floor. My first thought was “Oh no! Please God don’t her let have smashed that f***ing lamp from John Lewis, which she was carrying at the time!” Followed some time afterwards by a faint concern that she might have caused some harm to herself or The Baby.

A woman left her till to look into the cause of this mild commotion, and underwent a sea change in her attitude when she spotted (a) that the victim was about nine months pregnant, and that (b) her fall had been caused by a pool of something left unmopped on the floor. This proved, ironically, to be Baby Apple Juice discarded by some passing scratter, who had simply dumped the almost finished carton on the nearest available shelf. A Major Incident Plan immediately swung into action: a chair for the victim was found, followed by the inevitable glass of water and then by a qualified first-aider (who proved to be the fattest woman in the store). Mrs H took up her offer of making an entry in the store’s accident book just in case we didn’t like the look of The Baby when he came out, so that we could blame Boots and sue them for massive damages. Another supervisor came along and cheered Mrs H by telling her that she looked ten years younger when she gave her age; this bucked me up a bit, too, until I realized that a 27 year age gap between us would probably be considered excessive everywhere outside showbiz circles and paedophile chat rooms.

When we finally escaped we went to a shop that really did sell maternity clothes, then made our way back to Chester laden with booty. In the evening I was indulged with a pint of Thwaites and packet of pork scratchings in my favourite canal-side pub, which will always have a special place in my heart as the scene of my second date with Mrs H, or the LTCB as she then was. Then we walked hand-in-hand across the road to a curry house to get on with the serious business of “bringing on the baby”. The only table they had on offer was in a booth, into which we were so firmly wedged by a combination of Mrs H’s advanced pregnancy and my portliness that I feared it might require the attendance of the emergency services to release us after our meal. But we managed to escape somehow, without disturbing other diners with the sound of splintering timber.

I left with the strong feeling that I would be much troubled by indigestion during the night, and not at all by cries of “My God, my waters have broken!” and I was in no way disappointed.

Tuesday 16 June 2009

The debased tastes of an alleged pervert

14st 10lb, 6.1 units. One of the less important consequences of yesterday’s shock decision about the baby was that we failed to make it to the supermarket in the evening, as we had intended. The one important omission that we could identify was orange juice for my breakfast, but Mrs H kindly volunteered to get up and squeeze me some fresh oranges instead. It is depressing to report that my tastes have become so debased that I found it less enjoyable than the bottled version I usually buy. It seemed more watery for one thing (and how likely is that, in reality?) and also suffered from being served at room temperature rather than chilled. But how on earth can I afford to be so particular when I have no reliable source of income, a wife on maternity leave and a child not just on the way, but on the final approach for landing?

I spent the day interviewing people for some copy I am writing for a website. I have to admit that I rather enjoyed it; whether they did is considerably more debatable. Later the Chief Executive pitched up and told me “What you need is a proper job.” It is hard to dispute this from a rational point of view, though pottering about and blogging is much more fun. Which way should I jump?

Early this evening we took The Dog to the vet for his annual booster shots, now that he has recovered from the bout of kennel cough he contracted while Mrs H and I were on our cultural tour of country house operas at the beginning of the month. The vet, who bears an uncanny resemblance to Freddie “Mr Parrot Face” Davies, suggested that this would also be a good opportunity for “mildly sedating” The Dog and scraping the worst of the tartar off his teeth. This seemed reasonable, and preferable to giving him a full general anaesthetic for a proper dental clean, so I assented. The vet duly gave him an injection and within seconds he was completely comatose on the floor. (The dog, that is. Not the vet.)

Mr Parrot Face then lifted him onto the table, cleaned his teeth and gave him his jabs. The Dog was so far gone that Mrs H and I kept checking to see that he was still breathing, and I felt obliged to warn the vet that I would not be paying his bill if he had killed my much loved pet. He then administered an antidote, warning that it would be only partially effective, and put The Dog on the floor to wake up. After five minutes or so he clapped loudly next to The Dog’s ear and told us that, if we left, The Dog would follow. And so he did, staggering groggily towards the car. But he did have the strength to give us a look that said, quite unmistakably, “You f***ing bastards!” I think it will be some considerable time before he recovers his faith in us, if he ever does.

After this triumph, the early evening was enlivened by one of Mrs H’s lovelier friends calling upon us to return the spare key with which she had been entrusted so that she could feed The Cat while we were away for the weekend. It says much for the trust and esteem in which I am held that, faced with the choice between sitting next to me on the sofa and perching on the edge of an uncomfortable chair which was already piled high with junk and covered in cat hair, she unhesitatingly plumped for the latter. Mrs H suggested after she had left that this might have something to do with the perception that I am a pervert. Completely unjustified, of course, though when Mrs H mentioned it I did dimly recall suggesting that her friend might like to take all her clothes off so that I could adjudicate on some figure-related point she and Mrs H were debating during a previous visit.

When she had left Mrs H and I got on with the frankly tedious business of putting up a new curtain track in the nursery; a task which even I could no longer conjure up valid reasons to defer, given that the nursery may well have an occupant as soon as Friday. We had made the obvious mistake of buying a cheap and nasty track from B&Q which I could not fathom at first, took ages to install and then looked much uglier than the branded ones I am used to at home in Northumberland, since this system is brilliantly designed so that the track does not conceal the mounting brackets, and the curtain does not conceal the track. Still, it does make the room substantially darker than it was with the previous curtain pole, which should apparently increase the chance of the baby getting some sleep. And, therefore and much more importantly so far as I am concerned, of us being able to do the same.

Monday 15 June 2009

Now there's NICE progress for you

14st 10lb (surprisingly), 2.0 units. I woke up at 5.45, but somehow misread it as 6.15 and decided that I might as well get up and write my weekly newspaper column. I had run through a couple of ideas in my head as I drifted off to sleep six hours earlier, one of which struck me as just about acceptable and the other as very funny. Naturally I could not remember the slightest thing about the very funny one. (Memo to self: place notebook and pen by bed. Memo to Mrs H: have wall demolished to make room for bedside table.) I hoped that sitting down with my computer would bring it all flooding back, but it didn’t. So I positioned myself on the sofa with a cup of tea and the laptop on my, well, lap, and wrote something vaguely about Iran, justifying it to myself if to no-one else on the grounds that I must be the only columnist on the paper who has the advantage of being married to an Iranian. (See http://www.keithhann-whyohwhy.com/2009/06/cometh-hour-cometh-woman.html).

I had bought all the national newspapers on Saturday and been frightfully pleased with the coverage of the release I had put out on Friday. In the absence of any more professional arrangement, I had even spent some time at my desk with a pair of scissors and a Pritt stick, making cuttings for the file. It reminded me that I quite actually enjoyed my former career in PR, on the comparatively rare occasions when things went according to plan. Sitting in my office this morning I heard the Chief Executive’s voice in the corridor and thought I would take the opportunity to bask in a bit of unaccustomed praise, so I stepped out and asked him what he thought of his press coverage. It was just like old times, “A bit disappointing, really. There was nothing in the Telegraph.” (To pick the one and only national paper that had chosen to ignore our release.) “There were no big pictures, no half pages like there were when we were quoted.” Ah well, that will teach me.

At noon I drove to the station through a surprisingly violent but very localized rain shower, and picked up the old school and university friend with whom we had arranged to have lunch. The poor sod had just escaped after a weekend in Wales, yet Mrs H chose to take him straight back there, to a pub selected on the grounds that it would be a nice place to sit outside. This seemed a bit optimistic in the circumstances, but it was temporarily warm and sunny, and there was masses of free space inside if we needed to make a dash for it, so we decided to give it a go.

Mrs H in the sun at the pub: perhaps her last child-free outing

Our guest demonstrated the effects on the brain of having a weekend home in Wales by becoming highly excited about the strange, large birds on the other side of the lake which he swore were ostriches, but which looked to me remarkably like Canada geese. I began to understand how he had come to be a member of the British National Party. Who knows what an immigrant must look like in his eyes? He entertained us during the meal with the tale of how he had scoured his part of south London for an English-sounding doctor when he moved there, and ended up with someone who is as black as the ace of spades. Apparently he very nearly died when the man failed to treat him properly for a chest infection. I wonder why?

Dark Welsh clouds gather over what my friend identified as a flock of European mammoths

Having deposited our friend at the station, and sadly failed to persuade him to borrow a bed sheet and dress up in Ku Klux Klan gear for the return journey, we made our way to our weekly meeting with the consultants at the hospital maternity unit. We were seen promptly by the PLU (as in People Like Us) diabetic specialist, yet another pukka Englishman, this one with a reassuring Robert Winston style moustache. He finally explained to us that the reason for recommending an early induction in the case of diabetic mothers is that the placenta is more inclined to fail, which could jeopardize the baby, adding that it would be rather a shame to have a “tragedy” after coming all this way. It would indeed. At 38 weeks, he said, the baby was safer out than in. And we believed him.

We then moved across to see the altogether less impressive obstetrics team, represented on this occasion by a plump south Asian gentleman who seemed obsessively interested only in Mrs H’s iron levels, and had not even grasped that she was diabetic until Mrs H mentioned it when we were on the verge of being told to come back next week. She wondered why he had not made any mention of the early induction that his colleague had raised last week, and which the diabetic team favoured. He asked what day next week would suit and Mrs H said Thursday, so he went off to consult with the consultant, appropriately enough, by means of a whispered conversation in the corridor outside. We sat listening to this while contemplating our surroundings in a depressingly scruffy cubicle. It was hard to decide on its least appealing feature, but I finally concluded that the half-eaten sandwich biscuit lying on the floor probably clinched the title. I wondered how long it had been there. Our doctor finally returned with a NICE leaflet about induction on which he wrote “7.30 Thursday”, which turned out to mean not next week, as we had been discussing, but the day after the day after tomorrow. Mrs H began hyper-ventilating at this point, and I did not feel that I could altogether blame her.

When we got home we walked The Dog down to the river and attempted to get our minds round the concept of imminent parenthood. At one point Mrs H neatly summarized the situation as follows: “I knew you were in denial, but I only realized last Monday that I was in denial, too. Now I’m in denial about being in denial.” On the way back we called at the local greengrocer and bought ourselves a courgette plant, which is apparently the thing that every imminently expectant mother needs to take her mind off it. It was certainly more effective than the actually far from NICE leaflet about induction I read in bed this evening, and which constitutes pretty much the whole preparation that the NHS has provided to Mrs H. This helpfully advised that the procedure is likely to be more painful than a natural delivery. Thank you so much, Plain English Campaign. Without your kitemark seal of approval, it would no doubt have used some traditional medical euphemism for total agony like “mild discomfort”. But then that’s progress for you.

Sunday 14 June 2009

A series of pleasing discoveries

15st 1lb (Northumberland scales, no longer a fair basis for comparison), 11.1 units (sadly accurate). Yesterday was one of those days that unexpectedly gets better and better, which was handy as it got off to a thoroughly lousy start when the alarm went off at 7.30 after not nearly enough sleep. I suppose we just have to keep telling ourselves that this sort of thing is an excellent preparation for parenthood.

We drove to Alnwick in convoy so that I could leave my principal car at the garage for the replacement of a rear light, which had been broken when Mrs H backed it into a concrete post a couple of weeks ago to see what would happen. I laughed in a good-natured way even as I was paying the bill for £165 later in the day. After all, you can’t put a price on gaining this sort of invaluable driving experience. Though come to think about it you can, and it’s about the same as a top-of-the-range ticket to Glyndebourne or Covent Garden. I know which I prefer, and wonder how Mrs H will react when I next take myself off to an opera on my own, handing her a photocopy of the garage invoice in lieu of her ticket. Though of course she wouldn’t be able to accompany me anyway because of the baby, so it’s really not going to be any sort of sacrifice.

In the meantime we nipped down to Newcastle to visit my favourite picture framer with some Disney postcards for the boy’s nursery, and to buy Mrs H some nursing bras from M&S. She had actually gone into M&S in Chester to buy these a few days ago, but in a brilliant feat of counter-salesmanship one of the staff had put her off, telling her that she should not be buying bras that fitted her now as her measurements would change after she had delivered the baby. Which may well be true, but leaves her with the problem that she still needs something to wear that will be suitable for breastfeeding as soon as the baby is with us, and it is not exactly going to be easy to nip out straight to M&S from the delivery room.

We returned to Alnwick, collected the car and drove home for lunch, after which we called on my next-door neighbours to present them with a copy of today’s local newspaper, as an all too transparent cover for our attempt to scrounge some of their superlative free range eggs. At this point we made the welcome discovery that that the note from the courier found on my mat yesterday should have said “Parcel left NEXT door” because they had been kindly looking after it for a fortnight. The well-wrapped package proved to contain a long, handmade, ceramic dish with turned-up ends, which doubtless has some significance in Maori circles. On the one hand no immediate purpose for this suggested itself, but on the other hand Mrs H I both really liked it. So no need to dissemble in our “thank you” note, then. Which is nice.

We did a rather bad and wrong thing after this in that we had arranged to meet our friend Mr X [not his real name] in a seaside pub at 3, but did not leave home until nearly then. I justified this to myself on the grounds Mr X and his usual companion Ms Y [not her real name, either, though it could be as she is the questioning sort] have never knowingly been on time for anything, ever, and that in any case there could hardly be a better place for them to entertain themselves than in a pub. I annoyed the bloke driving out of the council car park when we finally arrived by failing to stop and accept his offer of a used all-day parking ticket, but I did not actually need one as I have crazily lashed out £110 on a 12-month parking permit from the spanking new, unitary Northumberland County Council. So far I have had it for two and a half months and saved myself a whole 140p. Plus about £250 worth of annoyance in not actually having the right change for the almost inevitably non-functioning ticket machines.

When we reached the pub we were surprised to see Mr X sitting on his own at a table in the sunshine outside, and judged from a glance at the level of his pint that he had probably actually turned up on time. We realized at this point that we had simply assumed that he would be coming as part of a package with Ms Y and her lurcher, without ever bothering to check whether that was in fact the case. I joined him in a pint of some home-brewed ale called, if memory serves, “Ship Hop” (geddit?), because it would have been Rude Not To, while Mrs H bought and consumed rather a lot of crisps. Then we walked along the beach, deploying two squeaky toys in lieu of the expected canine playmate so as to give the dog a run while averting the usual problem of his attention wandering towards someone more interesting (defined as anyone at all apart from us) and attempting to invite himself home with them.

Mrs H, Mr X, the two squeaky toys and The Dog
(why on earth couldn't Mrs H have chosen the Fortnum's bag?)

A tussle to the death between Mr X and The Dog
(though fortunately, on this occasion, death was averted)

After a reasonably scenic drive home I positioned Mrs H and Mr X in the conservatory with instructions to keep a close watch on the swallows’ nest, while I got on with watering my house plants before they expired. My conscience had been troubling me all day, after I got out the stepladders this morning to check on the nest and found a row of open beaks gawping at me; my feelings were further pricked when we returned at lunchtime and I found a dead fledgling on the ground beneath. I was much relieved when my observer team reported a steady traffic of insect-bearing adult swallows in and out of the roof space. It seemed to more than justify having a drink or two with dinner, which will be where things started going seriously wrong on the alcohol count.

Today we had a leisurely day, during which just about my most energetic achievement was doing the ironing accumulated over several visits while listening to The Archers Omnibus and Denis Healey on Desert Island Discs. Then in the late afternoon we loaded the car and drove back to Chester for what promises to be a very interesting week.

Saturday 13 June 2009

The grindstone and the disappearing swallow

Too busy to check, 1.0 unit. I had a busy day in the office yesterday, doing just about my first full day of public relations work since February 2004. I was reassured to find that I was still able to attain the high standard of incompetence I have always set for myself. The function of a PR man whose name appears as the contact for enquiries on a press release is to answer the phone courteously (in the regrettable absence of a well-groomed PA to do it for him), listen attentively to the journalist’s enquiry, refrain from saying “That’s a bloody stupid question” OR “The answer is in the second paragraph if you had bothered to read it, moron” OR “If you want to speak to the chief executive, why didn’t you ring his number instead of mine?” Dear me, no. One just nods and murmurs intelligently (the nodding being a bit of waste of effort, to be honest, in the absence of a video phone). Then one utters the immortal, all-purpose PR line “I’ll have to get back to you on that” and goes to seek out some poor sod who may be able to answer the inevitable question “How many of the new stores you are opening this year are going to be in Wales?” Knowing full well that within half an hour one will have to go back and pose the same question about Scotland, Yorkshire, the North East, Northern Ireland and anywhere else that aspires to a regional media. Not something any of us will have to worry about too much longer, then, the way things are going. It’s not exactly demanding work, it has to be said, but after a full day of that I was still more than a little tired when I set off with Mrs H and the dog for the four hour (on a good day) drive to our house in Northumberland. Fortunately it proved to be a good day, and we scrunched into the gravel of what I have to admit is a yard rather than a drive about 11.20 p.m. The first thing I did after unloading the car was to check my mail, and right at the bottom of the substantial pile was a note from a courier company saying “Parcel left at door” which reminded me of the wedding present two friends had carted all the way from New Zealand to hand over to us, but which we had then failed to find the time to collect from them in person. I opened the front door with a heart that was only slightly heavy, for crime has never been a major issue in this rural backwater, but there was nothing there. Next I checked the woodsheds at the back of the house, which was where I had told my friends to get the present delivered, in the sure and certain knowledge that we would be away when it turned up. I drew an equal blank here, though I was surprised to find another pair of eyes staring at me intently as I looked. These proved to belong to a swallow, which had built its nest right next to the lamp in roof. I called Mrs H out of the house to admire it, but by the time she turned up it had flown off into the night, greatly troubling my conscience in case I had caused it to abandon its eggs. I went to bed exhausted, present-less and guilty, in sore need of the soothing whisky nightcap with which I lulled myself to sleep.

Friday 12 June 2009

Mr Jones's shit tsunami

14st 10lb (they had curry on the menu for lunch in the staff restaurant yesterday, with naan bread and popadoms and everything), 1.5 units. I was on track for zero units until a mysterious knocking in the early hours woke us both up and made me reach for a soothing whisky nightcap; I concluded that either the dog was having a particularly loud and rhythmic scratching frenzy or we have rats (in which case both the dog and cat are clearly even more useless than I thought, which is saying something) or someone is trying to contact us from The Other Side. My money is on the last of these. It could well be one of my miserable ancestors trying to advise the baby not to come out. Still, at least it has been a nice day today. It was also a pretty nice day yesterday. A shame, then, that it should have been such a spectacularly nasty evening on Wednesday, when I accompanied Mrs H to the grand party that followed her company’s head office conference. The grand garden party, that is. I knew it wasn’t looking good when it took half an hour longer than usual to crawl home from the office along a series of flooded roads. The delay was partly because no-one dared to overtake the bloke on a bicycle who was wobbling very slowly through the deluge, looking exactly like a very wet monkey dressed in a Guantanamo-style orange jump suit. It wasn’t that we could have made him any more drenched, but we were clearly nervous of actually drowning him in our wash. Then, one by one, we went for it. I was sitting on the sofa explaining to Mrs H that it would be mad to go to the party, and that she could not go without me because her advanced pregnancy was my alibi, when there was a terrific pounding on the front door. Mrs H, who was nearest, went to open it and a wild-eyed, elderly man in shorts burst into the room, shouting “There’s a collapsed manhole down the street and the sewers are backing up! It’s this torrential rain! There’ll be shit all over your back yard!” Perhaps detecting the hint of a smile about my lips, brought on by the fond memories he had aroused in me of Private Frazer in Dad’s Army, he continued “This is no laughing matter – it’s serious! I’m telling you there’ll be sewage all over your back yard! It’ll be coming up through your manhole! You won’t be able to use your toilet! I’m an ex-builder! I know what I’m talking about! Mind if I take a look?” I’ve always made a point of never arguing with anyone who has tattoos on their knuckles, even if they are old enough to be my father, so I meekly followed in his wake as he headed purposefully towards our back door, merely taking the opportunity to whisper to Mrs H “Who the hell is he?” and receiving the reply “Mr Jones from two doors up the street.” Which was, in the circumstances, rather more reassuring than the other obvious possibility, “I don’t know: I’ve never seen him before in my life.” He explained the dynamics of the local sewerage system as I opened the door, with special emphasis on the bloke two doors down who had ignored his repeated warnings about the whole collapsed manhole scenario. His face fell like the proverbial stone as soon as he realized that there was not so much as the smallest turd floating around in our modest yard. In fact, there was not even an inspection cover from which it could have issued. “Where’s it gone?” he asked, looking about him frantically, “It should be there!” He pointed to a patch of unbroken concrete just outside the back door. “Unless when they built this extension they left it under the floor – they didn’t ought to have done that!” He went out and looked around the corner. “Or maybe they moved it round here and then covered it up with that decking! They shouldn’t have done that! The shit will have your decking up!” He left shortly afterwards, clearly immensely disappointed and faintly apologetic, but also looking forward to an immense geyser-like torrent of ordure imminently bursting out of the ground under extreme pressure and taking at best our decking, and at worst our kitchen, skywards with it. After that Mrs H and I had a brief, frank discussion about the party. This inevitably concluded that we were going to it, since that was what she wanted to do. When we got there it was all very British stiff-upper-lip-mustn’t-grumble-making-the-best-of-it as we wandered around the garden in the rain, moving from bar to bar like bees collecting pollen. Though we agreed that the jazz band were perhaps the most miserable group of men we had ever clapped eyes on, even by the high standards of brass instrument players, and they were at least protected by a canvas gazebo.
Some sad-looking jazz men keeping an eye on the rising lake
Mrs H can only wear flip-flops at present, the rest of her vast shoe collection being laid up as a result of the swelling of the feet which is apparently one of those side-effects of pregnancy that no-one bothers to warn you about. So her feet were soon absolutely soaking wet, and rising damp had progressed up her legs to leave a tide mark just below the knee of her jeans by the time we were scheduled to move indoors to a vast, heated marquee containing a splendid selection of delicious food, unlimited free drink and an Abba tribute band, all to be rounded off with a huge and spectacular fireworks display. Clearly this was the point at which the evening was set to take a dramatic turn for the better, but it WAS a huge party attended by upwards of 550 people, all intent on enjoying themselves, so naturally I had another whinge about wanting to go home. Remarkably, Mrs H concluded from my facial expression and body language that I was “so far outside my comfort zone” that she really ought to assent.
Mrs H and a high class scarecrow (scarecrow on left)
Funnily enough, one of the conference speeches that very afternoon had all been about the importance of teamwork and pulling together, which meant sometimes doing things we do not really want to do and stepping outside our comfort zone. By the time we got home I felt about an inch tall for failing to take that excellent advice, which I had even helped to script. My particular worry right now is that my own comfort zone is almost vanishingly small and, as well as excluding things like crowds and parties, it most definitely does not encompass babies. Even now, with perhaps only a week to go to C-Day, I am seizing every excuse, however feeble, not to hold any baby that may be proffered to me by its proud parents. Perhaps that knocking last night was one of my miserable ancestors from The Other Side, trying to tell me not to be such a c**t. Alternatively, and even more worryingly, I suppose it could have been the final creaks of the back yard decking before the dam breaks and Mr Jones’s shit tsunami bears away all before it.