On Uncle

Today you went to your Uncle’s funeral.

No, it’s all right. He was old – a good 80 years. And he had cancer, and it hadn’t been pleasant these last few months so, all in all, something of a blessed relief.

Plus, you won’t pretend you knew him that well. He was considerably older than your Dad and they didn’t grow up together. And for years your family and Uncle’s did tag team Granny visiting so as not to overwhelm her, the point of which was, you didn’t meet.

You’d only seen him a few times since you moved back to the UK. He sent money and cards for your birthday, and your kids birthdays. The money was always more than you really thought was necessary. The cards were usually funny, bawdy, crude or all three and made you snigger. You rarely said thank you properly. Your main way of showing your appreciation was to put rather more effort into his Christmas presents than those for most of your other relatives. You doubt he realised this. Last year you found mugs which definitely beat Uncle at his own game. You were touched to be served tea in them when you went to see him for what turned out to be the last time. It’s a shame Christmas is coming up because Uncle tended to send Dad small, gloriously odd gadgetty presents, which were one of those little highlights of the season that you look forward to.

But those scant memories are not why you are feeling a bit depressed this evening.

Uncle was the sort of man who you were happy to think existed in the world. You didn’t know he had been expelled from public school for writing satirical verses about his teachers, but it didn’t surprise you. You didn’t know he was thrown out of the army on the grounds of mental instability for, among other things, painting his uniform in the white leather polish reserved for the belt. That surprised you. You didn’t know he wrote poetry, but you read some of it at the wake. It wasn’t boring. It wasn’t banal. That didn’t surprise you. Neither did some of the contributions to his running club’s newspaper. The one about working out some world record holder’s feat in units of tortoise, based on his observation of his own tortoise was your personal favourite. You knew how involved he was in various clubs in his home town,and it didn’t surprise you how warmly regarded he was by the members, or that one of his friends from the club nearly didn’t finish the eulogy because he broke down towards the end.

He was a lovely man, he made an impression on the world, so much so that even your son remembers him and he only met him, what, three times.

So it’s not alright, not alright at all, really.

Place won’t be the same without him in it.

This was the closing music. One of Uncle’s favourites. You didn’t know that either. And you defy anyone not to be surprised when the… uh… singing starts.

On Mothers Day.

For the last three years you have been trying to get B to recognise Mothers Day.

It’s not going well.

He just doesn’t feel it. Russians don’t celebrate it at all. They have Women’s Day, which in principle you prefer to both Mothers Day and Valentine’s Day as it is somewhat less specific to certain stereotypical roles women are supposed to play in their lives and considerably more inclusive to all women in general. Who should, after all, be worshipped at least once a year.

Although you’d prefer all three times.

Of course, the irritating thing about Women’s Day in Russia is that lately it is apparently impossible to mention it without sourly drawing attention to the discrepancy between its intended status as a celebration of feminism, and the fact that feminism in Russia is a dirty word and that this is just an excuse to throw the downtrodden female masses in the Former Soviet Union a paltry sop in the form of a limp bunch of flowers in lieu of any actual appreciation of their rightful place as equal and valued members of society.

If you were in a feisty mood, you would find it almost impossible to resist the temptation to point out in return that taking mother out for lunch is also something of a paltry sop for taking her for granted the rest of the year in a society with doesn’t even have the decency to be honest about the second class status that women still hold. Because otherwise, why would the bulk of childcare, cleaning and career suicide still be left to the female half of the parenting partnership? Why wouldn’t this holiday have become ‘Parents Day’ a long time ago?**

Plus you do wonder if anyone who thinks the female masses are downtrodden in Russia has ever actually met any Russian women. Stronger-minded ladies are few and far between. Although they do dress well.

However, you are not in a feisty mood. Or even a pensive mood.  You can get irritated with Mothers Day on ideological grounds, but it’s never bothered you on a personal level, not when you were childless, not even when you were unwillingly childless. You tended not to connect the dots. Mothers Day was a day for presenting your own mother with a homemade scribble and a bunch of daffodils with a beam of benevolent affection, and for turning up at Granny’s with the annual pot plant.

It didn’t have anything to do with you.

But when you realised that you were about to qualify, you spotted an opportunity, as a down trodden female mass, to wangle a bit of a lie in. Well, what you are aiming for is breakfast in bed, actually. Lounging around in bed. A bit of light bathing, with the door shut, and a book. Someone else doing the cooking and wiping the Star’s snotty nose. Someone else stuffing the suddenly eight armed toddler into clothes in preparation for a walk. Someone else answering the question ‘where going?’* about yourself, himself, the ladybird, the lady on the street, your neighbour, the pigeon, the worm, the man getting off the bus, the man getting on the bus, the other pigeon, the other lady bird, the other lady on the street, the rook, the crisp packet, the boat, your neighbour again, the water in his bath and Papa after he has said good night.

For a day.

Of course, a card on a grubby bit of paper that makes you look like a demented female dinosaur is also absolutely indispensable.

However, this year you got a framed black and white photograph of what you are reasonably sure is a late eighties Lotus formula one car, with a dedication from someone whose signature you can’t quite make out (yet) to someone called ‘Q’, which B found at a car boot sale and has been hoarding for the occasion.

As presents in general go, this is pretty up there on your list.

As Mothers Day presents go, it really needs work.

But you felt entirely unable to complain as April 3rd – Mothers Day 2011 – coincided rather unfortunately with B’s birthday.

You made him a cake. Of course.

What do you get the Soviet medal enthusiast who has everything for his birthday?

You make him a Soviet Order of the Patriotic War, Class I cake, of course.

And this is what it's modelled on.

You will say this. You will never laugh at Cake Wrecks again. How people, even professional people, get the icing onto the sponge in one piece and without getting it covered in either powdered icing sugar or jam is beyond you.

Fun though.

*’Why?’ will be a relief.

**Well, card sales on Fathers Day would take a bit of a hit perhaps.

On alternative medicine.

As you scribble, you are sitting on one of the exceptionally hard beds in a building somewhere in North East Moscow devoted to quarantining Russian children with highly infectious, extremely dangerous diseases.* Of whom the Star, diagnosed with that most deadly illness, tonsillitis, is, apparently, one. Although not a very poorly one any more as the antibiotics have finally kicked in and he’s really quite chipper.

One of these windows is yours.

You are not sure how many rooms there are here altogether – ten? fifteen? twenty? – because you are not really supposed to go out, but the one you are in has four beds and a cot. Currently, two children are occupying the beds There’s N, a ten-year-old boy, and the Star. N is suffering from homesickness. Trying to distract him by asking about school was not a success. “So, what’s your favourite subject then?” “I don’t have one. I hate school.” Lending him your mobile worked better. As did allowing him to chase you and the Star around the room making monster noises. Up until today there was the Star, D and his mother L. D is nearly two and he and the Star got on like, well, like two two-year-old boys. Sometimes they played together, but mostly they stole each others’ toys and argued about who would pull the cot around the room. You found L a very pleasant companion but D was a bit disconcerting. He has the most enormous penis. You had ample opportunity to admire it as it’s hot and both children are running around with as few clothes on as possible. You would look at his, and look at the Star’s and worry. D is also potty trained, speaks in full sentences, feeds himself and always puts the tops back on his felt tips. The Star is watching him closely, however, and you can only hope he is taking notes.

Apart from the beds, room 7, your room, has its own bathroom and a fridge. There’s also an anteroom for the medical staff to prepare themselves for meeting the children, with a sink, some white coats and a cupboard. The Star’s medicines are in the cupboard, as are a collection of mismatched but cheerfully decorated cups, plates and cutlery.

The cupboard.

The cupboard has two doors. One to the outside world, where the food is spooned into the plates and one to your room, where you take the plates out and try and persuade the Star that he doesn’t have a sore throat and does want to ingest some sustenance. Only the doctors and nurses are allowed to enter the Star’s infected presence. There are no visitors. Young children are allowed their mothers but the parents of older children have to be content with shouting at them through the windows.

Visiting hours.

Or leaving chalked messages on the driveway outside.

Get well soon!

It is, in short, the sort of place which would do quite nicely in the event of a major epidemic. But this is, in fact, a devoted entirely to tonsillitis, or at least that’s what every child in the building seems to have.

The cynic inside you darkly suspects that opening it up for tonsillitis sufferers is just a way of keeping the place operating while they wait for swine flu to really take hold, after that last case of diphtheria was released in 1995.The place is hardly full to bursting. If this is what Russian people usually do with their infected children, you would expect a few more patients. On the other hand, given this overreaction to the Star’s swollen tonsils, perhaps there really aren’t that many cases.

In reality, though, it’s probably just a different path in the evolution of health care.

In the UK, the NHS hasn’t got, and has never had, the resources to deal with every case of childhood blight in such a manner. They haven’t got the bed space, and the expense of employing a nurse to take the Star’s temperature is probably not the best use of that £2.50 an hour. So it is in the interests of the medical profession to convince us that virtually everything that doesn’t involve a rash that doesn’t fade when you roll a glass over it is a relatively minor thing which we can all handle with a river of Calpol, judicious applications of TV and lots and lots of ice cream. In much the same way, we are now conditioned to think that staying in hospital for the shortest possible time for everything from replacement hip operations to childbirth is desirable and that lengthy hospital stays are an anathema.**

Now you are sure that the Russian NHS does not have infinite resources either, but the thing about the Soviet Union and full employment being the norm is that it must have been more a matter of finding something for all the doctors and nurses to do to keep them occupied rather than worrying about maximising the occupancy of every single bed.

And of course there was a different attitude towards the rights of the individual. Most mothers worked full-time in the Soviet Union, yet you can’t imagine the latest five-year plan being very keen on having half its labourers off half the time soothing the fevered brow of its young pioneers. In contrast our right to stay off work, look after our children in splendid isolation and help the economy on its way down the toilet by is enshrined in law in the UK.

But if a child is not cared for at home, they certainly can’t go exposing themselves to all and sundry and risk some other mother having to miss a day or two’s grind. So you have got to have somewhere to put the kids when they are off school or locked out of the nursery. It also explains why the occasional sniffle is regarded with such horror here. Putting it in the hands of professionals raises the stakes of course. Once doctors get involved they will start doing things like insisting on injecting the Star with his antibiotics, giving him a cardiogram and requesting blood and urine samples before they will release him. Mainly however, it’s the way that illness, threatened not just the ears nose and throat of Mummy’s little prince, but also the economic security of the entire state. There are only so many beds in this unit after all, and you bet that these plague houses were much fuller twenty years ago than they are now.

The view.

Anyway, much as it galls you to admit it, given this background, you may have to (mentally) apologise to your MiL for thinking her a self-indulgent hysteric because she landed the Star in hospital for tonsillitis when you weren’t there to protect him. Plus, just before she phoned 999 it turns out the Star had massively thrown up, which is always disconcerting.

Damn. Still, just because everyone else decides to jump off a cliff…

The very hard bed.

*Or not. See What I Did on my Holidays Part 1.

**Of course, given MRSA and so on, this is probably correct. But what they’ll tell you, and what we all believe, is that we will be much more comfortable at home. You are not entirely sure you agree with this, particularly when it involves being left alone with a newborn when you haven’t a clue what to do with it.

On the plane.

As you type you are high in the sky somewhere between London and Moscow* and you are furious with your MiL.

This is because the Star is in hospital. In Moscow.

With tonsillitis.

You are, of course, feeling somewhat guilty about this, which doubtless exacerbates your crossness.

You had been thoroughly enjoying your two weeks sans husband and child. You’ve cleaned the house to within an inch of its life, including shampooing the carpets, rearranging your kitchen cabinets, washing even the ceiling in the bathroom, dusting between and under all the technics and removing three bin bags of toys from the colourful plastic mountain that exists in the corner of your living room. Your work files are beautifully organised. You have eaten lasagna every day for a week. You have gone out and got completely and utterly plastered in the company of one old friend and spent an entire afternoon chatting lazily over coffee with another. You have spent another whole day shopping. You have read trashy novels. You have lounged around in bed all morning. You have read trashy novels whilst lounging around in bed all morning.

It hasn’t all been hedonistic self-indulgence, mind. You’ve been working too, hence the delay in your joining your family. But it is amazing how much spare time you have when your two part-time jobs are no longer vying for attention with your full-time job looking after a hyperactive two-year-old. And B.

And of course you have been looking forward to being reunited with your menfolk. And missing them. You spent a whole hour playing cars with the boy downstairs on the flimsiest of pretexts just the other day, just because the way he declaims ‘car!’ as though it is the only important word on the English language reminds you of your son.

But up until Saturday evening, you had felt barely a moment’s actual anxiety about the fact that you were separated by three and a half hours of airtime from your baby. He was, after all, in the company of his Babushka, who you secretly suspect of being rather better at looking after small children than you are.

Except, that is, when the small children are ill.

You have noted before how hysterical your MiL gets when the Star runs a temperature.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Star runs a very high temperature every time he gets more than a slight sniffle. Nevertheless, you were only vaguely concerned when B told you on the phone on Thursday that the Star was feeling a bit under the weather. Calpol exists in Russia. As did your husband, who seemed to have everything under control, is a demonstrably capable man in the general scheme of things, a thoroughly involved father and who has been trained in coping with the Star when ill by you. You could rely on him, you thought.

In a strategic error, however, your husband went out for a couple of hours on the Saturday leaving your MiL alone with your son.

And in those few hours, your MiL panicked, phoned an ambulance which, somewhat bemusedly you hear, whisked your son off to the children’s hospital on the other side of the capital.

Your husband, arriving home sharpish after a confusing phone call from his mother, found the door locked and no key or other useful information left with any of the neighbours. He had to scale the scaffolding that builders are using to renovate the building and break into the balcony in order to get inside. Whereupon he found no useful information left there either. He eventually tracked down the Star with a couple of phone calls to the Russian equivalent of the NHS.

No, your MiL did not take a mobile with her. To be fair, she’d given hers to B. Who doesn’t have one because a) you have to pay to get foreign mobiles unlocked in Russia and b) you have his as you had washed yours two weeks earlier.

This, of course, does not explain why the Star is still in hospital, two days later, with tonsillitis.

You are yourself unclear on this point, except that it seems to have something to do with the fact that he is having injections to counteract the overblown tonsils. Whether or not he can only finish this particular antibiotic course if they are injected is something you need to find out immediately. You have a horrible feeling that you, B and the Star may all be stuck in the hospital for a week, although the medical friend, who you tracked frantically down across cyberspace and numerous messages on various answering machines on Saturday evening ** did suggest that doctors will occasionally recommend admitting a small child to hospital for a relatively minor illness purely on the basis of the complete lack of ability to cope displayed by his caregivers. Clearly your MiL passed that test with flying colours and Russians, if you can be allowed to generalise horribly, tend to assume that men should not necessarily have much to do with children, so presumably B doesn’t count. Hopefully, once you arrive, you can present a competent female presence they can deliver your son to and all will be well.

Except that you do not know how you are going to spend the next month in the same small flat as your MiL.

Now you appreciate that it could be said that she is only the grandmother and it is your and your husband’s responsibility to do the more extreme aspects of childrearing. You would sourly note that you are expected to treat her as a member of the nuclear rather than extended family in pretty much every other way. It’s a Russian thing, you are told. Babushkas are more involved than their British counterparts. Still, you and B failed to control the situation and that has landed the Star in hospital. Hence the guilt.

Nevertheless, it is an unfortunate truth that with minor and common childhood illnesses, or not so minor for that matter, the adults just have to stand there and watch, relatively powerless, whilst the apple of their eye suffers. There isn’t anything anyone can do about that. Well, OK, calpol, antibiotics and so on. But basically the illness is going to run its course regardless and a hospital can do nothing for tonsillitis except provide a sugar pill of the illusion of medical assistance… for the adult. It does nothing for the child except remove him from his familiar surroundings and cut him off from the TV at a time when he could really do with them.

So you find it really unforgivable, that left in charge of your son, your MiL indulged herself, put her needs over your son’s best interests.

Yes, you are indeed furious with your MiL.

*Or not. What I did on my holidays part 1.

**And whom you have yet to thank sufficiently. A big round of thanks to him for soothing this mother’s fevered brow. Huge.

On advent calendars.

Your Mother always made sure you and your Brother had an advent calendar.

It was, inevitably, religiously themed. Extracts from the Christmas story part of the bible with page numbers.

In buying it she was also, inevitably, contributing towards some worthy cause. And, also inevitably, it couldn’t have got much more ethnic if it were hand-woven by indigenous mountain people in Outer Somewhereorother from the hair of hand reared goats to the strains of Peruvian nose pipes while someone nearby prepared something mushy, using their hands and bowls carved from the living bark of thousand-year-old rainforest trees, out of beans, for tea. Although sometimes they were African subcontinent themed. Baby Jesus surrounded by elephants, gazelles and lions in perfect harmony sort of thing.

But there never were any chocolates.

And the two things combined, rampant middle-class consumerist icons and a total lack of frivolous sweet provision, rather annoyed you as a kid. When you were small, you used to gaze longingly at the brightly coloured, Father Christmas and all his Elves themed, glitter coated, sugar high bearing calendars as you were whisked past them in supermarkets and shops throughout December.

But there’s nothing like nostalgia, and so you were all prepared to go out there and buy a calendar which resembled a cross between a gathering of the United Nations and the interior of a Catholic cathedral, when your other pitched up with a present which rendered that unnecessary.

An advent calendar of his very own. Filled from the 1st door to the 24th with large chocolate hearts.

You were speechless, and that doesn’t happen very often.

Luckily for family harmony it also has the words FAIRTRADE emblazoned prominently all over it.

Anyway. New family tradition. When Granny gives the Star an advent calendar with a chocolate behind each door, you will phone her up so she can listen to him eating that day’s.

On decking the halls.

Last year you spent the whole of November virtuously not thinking about Christmas. Sidling past the tinsel, the seasonal food aisles, the oversized Santas, the holly themed car and leg waxing sets and the jolly reindeer socks in shops, averting your eyes when the really jingly adverts came on TV, stuffing your fingers in your ears to protect yourself from carolling muzak, and filing any festive catalogues straight in the bin.

You made yourself so deaf to the siren call of Yuletide bacchanalia that before you knew it, it was February and you had barely even had time to buy the Star a musical Rudolf bib. Despite the fact that your twelve days are extremely extended owing to the way that the Russian Orthodox Church stubbornly clings to a version of the Julian calender and celebrates Christ’s birth on the 7th January. You would be more sympathetic to this if they were consistent in refusing to respect leap years, but it’s just the ones before 1914 they don’t admit existed. Still, at least it doesn’t lead to arguments about whose cultural traditions you will trample all over this year. B puts up with the Victorian turkeyfest because he knows you will do it all properly later.*

So this year, you waited virtuously until after the 5th November and then you bought yourself the Christmas editions of some glossy food porn mags and a festive Good Housekeeping. You have found your collection of old cards ready to recycle into new ones. You have bought the Star his first present. You have made a mental note not to hang the glass baubles this year. You have earnestly discussed the production of the family plum pudding with your Dad, who has enthusiastically taken over British Christmas from your Mum this year following her retirement from the match due to a hip operation**, and who has looked out his microwave recipes, lovingly saved from the last time Mum was indisposed. You have started a gift list for your nearest and dearest. You have located your carol CDs, although you did decide that it’s still a bit early for actually playing them yet. You have contemplated the price of cute snowman wrapping paper in the shops. You have browsed your Christmas catalogue from Lakeland Plastics.

But in the midst of all this breathless anticipation there is something you want to say.

There’s preparation, there’s stimulating the market, and then there’s selling fresh festive turkey and cranberry sauce sandwiches intended to be eaten right now for lunch.

Who buys these things? Why in the name of all that’s sacred would anyone decide that the day after Halloween would be a good time to scoff one of these with their breaktime coffee?

I’m sorry Greggs. It’s just wrong***.

*On New Years Eve. See under ‘Communism’ and ‘institutionalised athism’.

**She’s recovering nicely, thanks, and plans to direct from a chair.

***And there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere too.

On watching your language.

The Star likes music, especially when people are singing.

Unfortunately, you suffer from a complete disinterest in the lyrics of songs.

So although you’d like to entertain the Star by warbling along with the radio, you have been forced to find a station which has more of an emphasis on instrumentals than on words. Classic rock stations are good for this. The songs are, after all, tailor made for singing twangly wah wah guitar solos and tisch tisch badabadabadabada drum beats while miming madly all over your bedroom.

And the Star certainly enjoys an energetic bout of air guitar.

Your personal favourite is Riders on the Storm by the Doors.

Riders on the storm.

Dum de dum dum dum.

Riders on the storm.

Bedoop doop de diddly doop.

La la la la la born.

Diddly. Diddly. Diddly. Diddly.

Te tada dada da. Da da da da da da da horn.

Riders on the storm. 

It does tend to go on a bit though and the Star prefers something shorter and snappier with more actions.

And you like to oblige. Unless you are in your Dad’s car with your brother doing the two hour journey to S________ with no chance of a nap in sight, in which case the family will join forces to steamroller any protests by belting through at least 20 verses of The Wheels on the Bus Go Round and Round.

Adding, of course, whimsical little lines like ‘The mobiles on the bus go bingly bingly bong’, making up verses for everyone there (‘Mummy’s Brother on the bus strokes his beard’) and always remembering your personal favourite ‘The teens on the bus go stab stab stab’.

You are reliving your childhood. Yes, as well as a complete absence of colour TVs, your family were the last to get any kind of music equipment into their car. Yes, you did all sing heartily on long journeys. Yes, clearly you do miss this.

It also seems to be coming in handy in that you are finding the words to nursery rhymes fairly easy to recall.

Up until quite recently, the Star’s audience participation was limited to finding Mama and Papa extremely entertaining. Now he has started clapping wildly at the end of each song. This goes down a real storm at baby rhyme times let me tell you.

Today he actually started doing the rolling arms bit from Wind the Bobbin Up.

And while teaching the Star to get in touch with his early industrial roots is entirely uncontroversial* you may have to start reconsidering using sex and drugs and rock and roll to keep him entertained.

And then there’s this Russian ditty:

Рыжий Рыжий, канапатый,

убил дедушку лапатой.

– А я дедушку не бил!

– А я дедушку любил!

(Carrot top, carrot top, freckle-face,

killed Grandad with a spade.

‘But I didn’t kill Grandad!

I love Grandad!’)

The Star is especially thrilled by his Papa’s accompanying highly enthusiastic killing-Grandad-with-a-spade motions.



*Although perhaps you shouldn’t sell your Star too short. These formative experiences are so important. Instead of lowly worker songs, something with more strut to it might be appropriate. Rule Britania, anyone?