The sea. Without me.

I am on holiday. Only for about four minutes, but it’s still a holiday. This tiny getaway was designed to satiate the longings of a madman who wanted to surf in North Devon for the weekend. That’s right, surfing. In Devon. In March. I don’t even want to think about the temperature of the sea, it’s truly for the die-hards and I am definitely not one of those.

We are in a gorgeous little holiday apartment right on the beach which means that we don’t have to mess around carting surfboards back and forth on the car, we can wreck our forearms by carrying them to the water. It’s out of season, there’s loads of parking right next to the apartment and it’s literally seconds from the sea. Perfect! Except things haven’t gone exactly smoothly since we arrived.

The first thing we did wrong was to not actually arrive. I thought I was fairly safe by following directions to this specific, tailored-for-surfing beach but we left the main roads for these tiny, little lanes and after twenty minutes the sea was nowhere in sight. But that wasn’t too much trouble – nothing was in sight. Because of the fog. And there was not another car on the road, unless you count the one with the faulty headlight following very closely behind us (Wolf Creek, need I say more). Then we saw a sign for some military thing ahead but we persevered down the lane anyway and quickly came to a gate. I did a 93 point turn and suggested that while we were here we should probably let the dogs out for a quick wee, seeing as they’d been in the car for about three hours.

“Come on,” I say to my eldest daughter, “let’s just walk them quickly.”

“Mummy! No! Didn’t you see the signs?!”

“Yes…..but so what?”

“It said there were troops training, it had a little picture of shotguns and unexploded bombs! I am not getting out here!”

Oh. OK, maybe it’s best if we don’t go for a wander here, alone, in the dark then.

When we arrived at our destination, it was pitch black and all we had were vague instructions which alluded to a reception hut, a key safe and the details of our apartment. ‘Next to the restaurant’ it said. All that was next to the restaurant was their bin area, which seemed improbable for hosting a reception, we did actually check, albeit doubtfully and trying not to breathe. ‘Next to the restaurant’ happened to be about half a mile away along cold, windy, sandy footpaths with no lights, it turns out. But we found it eventually and began the gargantuan task of locating the actual apartment. The place was literally deserted, with no signs whatsoever. There’s a row of apartments called ‘The Burrows’ and our burrow was allegedly number 5. The problem was that there were no actual numbers, or indeed any indication, to clarify which one was which. Some had lights on and some were in the dark, so we hedged our bets and stole up to one of the dark ones. This is worse than it sounds because in order to do this we had to open their private garden gate and trespass across their land, sneaking up to the front door to see if we could spy a number. I hoped fervently that there was no farmer with a shotgun, ready to take us out if we started worrying the residents.

For the first couple, nope, there was nothing. We were reduced to burglar status, trying each door until we found one that our key fitted, which it eventually did. In a bid to recover from our journey I, quite reasonably and immediately sought sustenance in the form of wine, but the only glasses that are here are the smallest, meanest little wine glasses that I’ve ever seen. It’s like drinking from a thimble. But desperate times, desperate measures and all that.

This morning it was snowing. Undeterred, my crazy family donned their wetsuits, waxed their boards and headed off determinedly to submerge themselves into the sea under the blanket of the howling winds and blizzard. I honestly feared for their poor little hearts, being goaded into sudden arrest by the sub-zero temperature of the water. I, myself, stayed in bed with tea and a book. As anyone who knows me will testify, I’m more likely to fly through the air than I am to get into the English seas in March. And it seems that I was right, about ten minutes later the intrepid explorers were back, blue of lips and chattering of teeth. “Nice time?” I called out.

“Can’t. Feel. My. Hands.” But their hearts were still beating so we must be thankful for small mercies.

And then this afternoon, it was my turn to venture out to the sand dunes with my newly-arrived-back-from-work partner. We’re still at the stage where spending a second apart seems completely unreasonable. We were hoping for a nice walk. We didn’t mind the chilly weather (although we were freezing), we didn’t mind the biting wind that attacked us as we walked along the top of the dunes. Well, I say we didn’t mind – it was enough to drive us elsewhere. So, we made our way further down into the dunes, off piste – off the beaten track, if you will. And we found brambles, vicious brambles, that were growing over every single path we went down and were determined to rip my leggings, and Dubarrys, to shreds. We came across a sign telling us to beware of the sheep, dogs must be kept on leads, that kind of thing, but other than that, we were alone.

Walking in the sand dunes is like entering an alternate universe. Everything looks the same, all the paths are identical, winding up and down around the dunes and all routes lead to the same place. Almost literally. You quickly become disorientated, lose track of which direction you’re facing and have no idea where the beach is and much less your apartment. It was freezing cold, the sea winds whipped around us and chilled our very bones. After about fifteen minutes, I looked around me and realised two things:

a)       We were lost

b)      There was a bull bellowing at us and preparing to charge

Yep. I kid you not. As we clambered up onto a dune which dipped sharply downwards, we were suddenly confronted by at least four cows and a bull. Sheep! Where were the sheep??? We signed up for sheep! We both froze, unwillingly to attract any attention to ourselves, but as luck would have it, we had the dogs to do that for us. Off they bombed towards the bovines, happily anticipating a nice chase. I don’t think for one second that they appreciated they might be the chasees. We glanced at each other, “They can run faster than we can,” we reasoned, and we climbed swiftly up onto the next dune. In our hurry to get away, I fell once, sustaining bramble injuries to my frozen hands and knees, but we had to scrabble hastily onwards in order to escape the bull. It didn’t work. Every time we peered over a peak, that bloody bull was there, surrounded by an increasing number of acolyte cows. Watching us with his black, beady eyes, bellowing and planning his next mode of attack.

“Get down!” was hissed at me. “Get down here, quickly!”

It soon became clear that he was pursuing us. I have no idea what for, or how long we traversed the dunes, shivering, frantically searching for the path that led to home. I didn’t care how cold I was. It may not be my idea of fun, but I will say that I’d rather dive into the sub-zero seas than I would be gored by an angry bull.

Happily, we made it back eventually, the dogs had re-joined us just as we emerged from the dunes, wondering if we were in fact walking into 2055. We stumbled down towards the safety of the beach in blinding snow and freezing temperatures and I realised something. I may not be a die-hard, but I was a hair’s breadth away from becoming a die-cold.

Tales from the New Forest. Or one specific tale, actually.

Picture the scene: it’s a glorious, sunny afternoon with balmy temperatures of about 6 degrees, which feels like the heat of Spain in the summer after last week’s snow-calypse. You’re driving off through the beautiful New Forest to watch your daughter playing enthusiastically for the U11 netball B team (an opportunity which must be seized) at a lovely, country Prep school. It’s a scene to warm the cockles of the maternal heart, isn’t it? Said child is going there on the team bus so it’s a peaceful journey and I have a brownie as a snack for her in the car for the way home, which is always lovely as she chatters excitedly about the match. New Forest ponies are roaming contentedly, there are some donkeys wandering across the road; it’s idyllic, yes? Well let me tell you that this rural idyll swiftly began to sidle across to being something decidedly less palatable. And why was this? I’m looking at YOU, iPhone map app.

I’ve been to this Prep school before. About 5 times. I know where it is and I know what the entrance looks like and I know that, bizarrely, you come upon the exit before you reach the entrance. I was confident that with trusty my iPhone map app I would glide sweetly on my relaxed, merry way through the New Forest and arrive in plenty of time for a 2:15pm start. *Dark chuckle*.

The map app seemed confident to me. It was definitely pointing me in the right direction for the school and with my only-slightly-rusty memory of the route, I wasn’t worried. Until I came upon the school. Oh, no, sorry, I don’t mean school – I mean where the map app tells me where the school is. This is disconcerting because all around me is flat farmland and there’s not even a hint of a school. But no matter, I think, I have plenty of time and I’m in the right general area. And then I start driving around in circles, down teeny tiny little roads, barely big enough for a pushchair to fit through, with high sided hedges and any amount of muddy puddles. I reach School Lane, where the app insists the address is. There is no school. But then, happy days, I spy a ‘School’ road sign. Bingo! I think. What more confirmation could I need? Quite a lot as it turns out because it’s the wrong bloody school.

By this point my blood pressure is rising. I am wasting valuable minutes driving round in aimless circles, seemingly traversing the same roads again and again with absolutely no indication of how far away I am from the school. It does advertise itself as ‘Buried within the picturesque New Forest’, and I’m beginning to believe it. Pompeii, eat your heart out.

Up and down the roads I go, feeling like I’m in some sort of time slip, and around and around in circles with the app proudly announcing every so often that “You have arrived at your destination”. No, iPhone map app, I have not. Losing all hope I pull over and call the school; they must be familiar with this rabbit warren of roads. Ring ring, ring ring, ring ring, ring ring – you get the idea – and then “Sorry, we can’t come to the phone right now, please leave us a message and we’ll get back to you as soon as we can”. Best not to leave my message, I think savagely.

As I drive down a teeny tiny road for the fiftieth time, a little old lady and her dog appear. I brake sharply and open the passenger window, “Excuse me,” I say, “sorry to bother you, but you wouldn’t happen to know where X school is, would you?” It’s charmingly retro.

“Oh yes,” she says. “I do. Now what you want to do is follow this road until you see a red post box. Turn left there and carry on straight until you get to the Fox and Hound, there you need to turn left again, then right, carry straight on until you reach the Post Office and Keith the butcher, and then you’ll see the school on a far distant hill.” OK, she didn’t really say the last bit, but she may as well have done.

“Thank you,” I say weakly and drive on. By now I am twenty minutes late for a 40 minute match. But I promised her that I would be there and be there I will. Somehow, following that muddle of instructions, I do come across the school. Hurrah! I’ve made it! It’ll be easy from now on, I think confidently. I quickly find somewhere to park and look for the netball courts. No sign of them, which is strange because everything else in the school is signposted, down to the last cupboard. But, luckily I’ve perfected my retro approach out on the road so, vaguely aware of my wild woman of Borneo look, I flag down an unsuspecting passing parent. “Do you know where the netball courts are?”

“Yes,” she tells me. Go down that path and they’re just there on the right. Indoor and outdoor ones.” I thank her and hurry down the path. Ahead of me I can see the right sports colours for our school and I breathe a sigh of relief. And then I quickly breathe it back in again when it dawns on me that these girls are TOO TALL for an U11 match. In fact, they look distinctly Year 8-sized. I check the indoor courts, nada. There is one our teams waiting to play there but these ones look TOO SMALL. I go back to the outdoor one, perhaps I was mistaken. No, I definitely wasn’t. This is going from the sublime to the ridiculous, I think to myself, blood pressure rising quickly. Where on earth could they possibly be? I approach another parent and ask “Pray, where might the U11 match be?” There are muttered directions to the places I’ve already come from. “I’ve checked there,” I say, “they’re not there.” Easy? I think to myself. Oh, you fool, not easy at all.

“Oh. Well perhaps they’re down on the other netball court.” The OTHER netball court? The one nobody mentioned? The one I didn’t know existed? THAT netball court? “And how can I get to that?”

“Go down that path, don’t go left, follow it round and there’s a sort of bend, just keep going straight until you reach a tree, then you sort of turn 180 degrees, go through that gate – it shouldn’t be locked – and then you’ll be sort of near it.” I look at her.

Deciding that I was done with my own navigation, I latch onto the parent as they head towards the court and stick to them like glue. You know when two people go through a ticket barrier, practically attached, at the same time? That was me as we wended our way towards the match. I was not letting her out of my sight. Which was just as well because the route we took to reach this netball court involved gates and playgrounds and steps and twists and turns that I would have got hopelessly sort of lost in.

An hour and a half since I left home, I got to watch the remainder of the match, which was no more than about 25 minutes. But I thoroughly enjoyed it and looked forward to dissecting it on the way home with my child. Out of nowhere she appears in front of me and shoves her tracksuit into my hands, “Hello darling! Well played. Are you ready to go now or are you staying for tea?”

“Oh,” she says casually. “I’ve decided to go back on the team bus now. Can you pick me up from school?” I stare at her. An hour and a half of driving time. Within which, twenty minutes were spent frantically searching for the wretched place in some kind of Bermuda triangle, seeking out a hidden playing court within the maze of 50 acres of school, my blood pressure had soared to stratospheric levels and all this in order to spend just 20 minutes watching her play. And now she decides that she doesn’t want to come home with me after all. I grit my teeth and try to smile nicely, “Yes, that’s fine darling. You do what you want.”

“Thanks, Mama!” And off she skips.

I stalk back to my car and eat the chocolate brownie. Then I begin to head home. But do I use the iPhone map app? I most certainly do not. It’s clear that the iPhone app hasn’t had a very good education. Perhaps because it could never find its school. I choose Google maps, the dear old reliable Google map app, who was always top of its class. But I had chosen to turn my back on this elegant, streamlined map system and give the iPhone-underdog-map app a chance. Never again, I swore, underdog is now synonymous in my mind with under-hinged. Not quite un-hinged, but definitely on the way there. Or maybe not. It all depends on which map app you take directions from.

New Year, same me.

I shall be 36 in two weeks and it’s taken me this long to realise that New Year’s resolutions aren’t compulsory. Sure, there’s stuff I want to change and habits I’d like to alter, but it’s yet to be a truth universally acknowledged that these things are not intrinsically linked to January 1st. Or a random Monday in April. Or in the hour after the full moon has risen. However, just to show willing, I’m going to list a few of my ‘resolutions’ in no particular order:

  1. Make sure that the empty wine bottles are hidden/recycled before the cleaners come. It’s unfortunate that they come, post-weekend, on Monday morning – spectacularly bad planning by me. Not once did I consider that evidence of the weekend’s drinking would be laid bare in the kitchen, the bottles all lined up ready to be cast into the darkness that is the bottle bank. And we do get through quite a few bottles of wine. They never comment, but on more than one occasion I have felt compelled to explain (lie) about why there are so many of them neatly waiting on the side.
  2. I will open the FitBit box and make use of my Christmas present (circa 2014). Just that, really. Like many other post-Christmas souls, I’d like to up my exercise and I have an idea that if a device is actually logging what I do, and how many steps I’ve taken, then I’ll feel obliged not to let it down.
  3. I will un-glue myself from social media. I waste toooooo many hours scrolling needlessly through Facebook, and don’t even get me started on Mumsnet. I have become scarily hooked on following the lives of people that I don’t know and will never meet. It’s a truly ridiculous waste of time, but I do love it. It’s the ‘peering in through front windows’ behaviour for the modern generation.
  4. I will drag my slightly unfinished manuscript up from its crypt and send it to my agent. It will be like a teenager slinking quietly into the house at 4am and hoping that your parents haven’t noticed your unauthorised absence.

And with my personality, that small collection is quite enough things for me to resolve to do.

I’m going to miss the Christmas holidays. My girls are old enough now that we all have enough space, peace and sleep to really get on quite nicely. Well, unless you’re a 16 year old teenager revising for mock GCSE exams that begin next week. The entire kitchen table has been taken over as a revision zone. Or ‘theatre of conflict’ as I like to call it. Did you know that teenagers can snarl? Each time I attempt to do something in the kitchen, like unreasonably make a cup of tea, hide empty wine bottles before the cleaners arrive, unload the dishwasher, those sorts of things, I am met with a death stare and: “Do you HAVE to do that now?”

“Tidy up the kitchen? I do a bit, yes,” I say apologetically and tiptoe even more quietly around the volatility that is being fuelled by nutrition and Christianity, (the topics she’s been revising, just for clarity). And woe betide you if you don’t acquiesce to a request:

“Mother, I need a new fountain pen in the next five minutes.”

“We can’t – ”

“Do you WANT me to FAIL my exams?”

And mornings. I’m not looking forward to waking up for the school run again. Left to my own devices, my natural sleeping pattern is 1-10am. But I’m pretty sure that the children’s educational establishments can’t accommodate those hours. To be honest, waking the younger girl up at 7am is like waking the dead. And a very cross dead person at that. You know when you light a firework and run away quickly before it explodes? This = youngest daughter in the morning. Sigh.

Happy New Year, all.

S xxx