A chip off the old block

It’s a drizzly Wednesday afternoon and I’m cycling home from work. I’ve been in the office on my own all day and, fearing mental insanity if I’m obliged to spend the evening alone as well, I’m whizzing along, wondering whether a friend with a recently broken ankle will be mobile enough to meet for a coffee.

(Of course, I won’t be completely alone; the small human will be with me. But, as entertaining as he is, his 7pm bedtime leaves a whole chunk of evening for me to twiddle my thumbs.)

Lost in thought, I overtake an older gentleman on a mountain bike. As is often the case when I overtake members of the opposite sex, he sharpens his posture … and quickens his pace. Since I don’t want to be stuck in the middle of the road, I accelerate again so that I can get past him and back to the kerb. But he accelerates too.

Struck by how farcical this is, I turn and catch his eye. He grins, and accelerates again. I burst out laughing but, stubborn mule that I am, I match him metre for metre … then pull ahead just a little. Purely in the interests of ending the race, of course.

By now we’re tearing along down the narrow side street and I’m grateful there are no pedestrians who might be about to risk their necks at this inopportune moment. The road is a patchwork of bumpy asphalt and I’m laughing so hard I can barely ride in a straight line.

Perhaps sensing that I’m not about to quit any time soon, my rival ducks his head as he passes an imaginary finishing line, and says, “Yesss! Made it! You have to take me out to dinner now!”

A small voice in my head says, “Made it? I thrashed you!” but I laugh and make my excuses, give a cheery wave and say, “Nice racing with you!” before I zip off to collect the wee one.

But speaking to a human, a real-life human – albeit in a ridiculous context – has cheered me up … and also made me aware of how little human interaction I sometimes get. Which, for a born chatterbox, is a very sad state of affairs.

Of course, I’m not on my own in this. There are probably single parents up and down the land lamenting the days when they went out every night and had scores of mates on speed dial, ready for a coffee and a chinwag. (There may be lots of married parents thinking the very same thing, but I can’t speak for them.)

The trouble with having a full-time job, a distant family and an absent parent on an ever-diminishing visiting schedule is that opportunities to hang out with other grownups are few and far between. And although I pick my son’s playdates carefully to allow me to mingle with the very highest calibre of bright, funny mummies (and daddies), it’s hard to have a proper conversation when you’re interrupted every two minutes to wipe a nose, administer a snack or kiss a scraped knee.

Even trying to invite said mummies round to our place is fraught with difficulty. Between work, family commitments and feeding schedules it’s hard enough to pick a date, never mind stick to it once it’s pencilled in the diary. Forgotten commitments rise up like a phoenix from the flames, people get ill and, sometimes, you just don’t have the energy.

Anyway, in the interests of staving off solitude for the evening, I decide to call the limping friend. I tell her about my high-speed cycle race.

“You mean,” she says carefully, enunciating every word, “you turned down a dinner date with a fellow cyclist?”

“What?!” I splutter. “You’re joking?! It was a throwaway comment!”

“You don’t know that,” she says, with a slightly smug air.

“I don’t need to know,” I retort. “Anyway, he was firmly in the niche.”

Ah, yes. The niche: my inherent attraction to gentlemen under 25 and over 55 – and total lack of attraction to those in between.

I can almost hear her roll her eyes at the other end of the phone.

“You’ll never get anywhere with that attitude.”

“Wait… what?!” I snort in indignation. “Never mind elderly gentlemen on bicycles! Can you come out or not?”

She can’t. She already has plans. Of course she does; she doesn’t have kids.

It’s getting late, so I collect the young gentleman and we treat ourselves to a bag of chips on a park bench. Because that’s the kind of rock’n’roll lifestyle we lead.

“Mummy,” he says, nuzzling up to me with one greasy paw clutching a bunch of chips. “This is nice, isn’t it?”

And you know what? It is. It really is.


Mamihlapinatapai on my mind

OK, I know what you’re thinking. Mamihla…. what?

Allow me to explain.

Because I’m a bit of a word nerd, I tend to spend quite a bit of time on dictionary.com. (Yeah, I know…) Anyway, I was hanging out there the other day when I found an article about terrifyingly specific words that don’t exist in English … which is where I met mamihlapinatapai.

Apparently, it comes from Yahgan, the language of the indigenous people of Tierra del Fuego, and it describes, “a wordless, meaningful look between two people who want the other to initiate something they both desire, but neither wants to start.”

It’s a pretty specific word, and I’m rather impressed that it exists – and I’m quite sure I’ve suffered from it on more than one occasion in the past.

Nowadays, however, I fear it’s more like hemi-mamihlapinatapai, or whatever it’s called when only one of you is being reticent about making a move and the other is wondering what they’re going to have for dinner tonight.

And, no, I’m not saying which side of that equation refers to me.

If I’m honest, though, I’ve pretty much stopped giving my single status any thought; there doesn’t seem much point. It’s a static condition – an ossified state that’s become so much a part of me that I may as well try to remove my head as try to change it.

On the rare occasions that I do think about it, I realise that of all the roles I play in life – parent, daughter, colleague, friend – my overriding identity is single mum. It’s who I am. It’s how I see myself, and I can’t imagine the day when ‘single’ isn’t part of that equation.

Sometimes, I wonder what will happen when the little guy has left the nest – or worse, entered the twilight zone of his teenage years, where parents become desperately uncool and hugs and kisses are distinctly passé.

At the moment, he’s an affectionate little being and I’m the lucky recipient of endless cuddles and daily drawings of hearts with ‘Mummy’ written on them. But one day, in a not-too-distant future, he’ll be rolling his eyes and sighing when I try to give him a hug … and I’ll be totally bereft.

Of course, it’s a natural progression, and a sign that I’ve done my job well if he leaves me behind with nary a backward glance … but I do wonder how it will feel to face that separation on my own, with no one to hug me in his place.

Still – who knows? – by then I might be married to a handsome prince and living in a thatched cottage with chickens round the door. And, if not, there’s bound to be some study, somewhere, that says single women have more fun, live longer and are more likely to win the lottery.

And anyway, one gorgeous guy in my life is significantly better than none at all – even if he does sometimes sneeze in my face when he sneaks into my room at 6am. At least he puts his socks in the wash basket and cleans the loo after himself.

I mean, really, with a guy like that, who could ask for anything more?

With friends like these…

“You mean to say,” asks my friend over a coffee in the park, “that’s there not a single man ON THE WHOLE PLANET that you find attractive?”

Her eyes are nearly popping out of her head as she stares at me, agog.

“That’s not what I said,” I reply. “There are many men that I find attractive. It’s just that they aren’t necessarily single. And the ones that are don’t seem to be attracted to me.”

She tuts in disgust.

“The trouble with you is that even when a bloke is super-keen, you don’t notice!”

I consider this.

Whilst there haven’t exactly been hordes of men beating a path to my door of late, it’s true that, historically, I have been a bit obtuse in that department. But there once was a time – admittedly many years ago – when I was confident in my ability to attract gentlemen that appealed to me. Now, my default is to assume that they just wouldn’t be interested … mostly because they’re not.

“What happened to that guy you wrote to on the dating site?” she persists.

“Didn’t reply.”

“And the guy you were spending all that time with?”

Ah, now this was a single gentleman that I did like. And I thought that he liked me. He spent enough time round at my place, anyway… initially, at least. He was even great with the little guy. But then one evening we went out together and I made the tiniest of advances … and was so firmly rebuffed that I didn’t dare try again. And that was that.

We’re still mates, and he’s still in the little guy’s Top 10 of favourite human beings, but I’m under no illusions about the fate of that friendship.

“Wasn’t interested,” I mutter.

“Whaaat?!” She narrows her eyes. “He spent all that time with you because he wasn’t interested?”

I have to admit, it seemed odd to me. But what do I know?

“Apparently so,” I say.

My friend rolls her eyes in disgust.

“And did you challenge him about it?”

Challenge him?!”

I’m not sure what my friend has in mind, here. Ask him how very dare he spend time with me if he had no intention of making an honest woman of me? Maybe he just wanted to spend time with me. Maybe he was bored. Maybe he loves hanging out with the little guy. Whatever his motives, I doubt very much he’d change his mind just because I challenge him.

“You have to fight for what you want,” says Friend.

Now it’s my turn to roll my eyes.

“You can’t force someone to like you,” I say.

“Why not?” she says. “It worked for Belle.”

Actually, improbable as it may seem, it really did work for Belle.

Belle is a woman we used to work with, full of fun and raucous laughter, bustling and hugely efficient, but also feisty and maybe just a tiny bit pushy.

Anyway, despite having been engaged to each other for no short time, her other half took it upon himself to dump her. But she wasn’t having that. Oh, no. She hassled him and harried him and refused to take no for an answer. Now they’re married with two kids.

So yes, it worked for Belle, but that’s just not my style. I don’t want to be known as the woman who bullied someone into being with her.

“If I challenge him,” I explain patiently, “then I might lose a friend. And I’d rather have a good mate than a reluctant boyfriend.”

“So you’re just going to yearn quietly from afar?” says my mate.

“Yes. Well, no. I’m done with yearning.”

I can tell she’s about to berate me again, so I jump up brightly and suggest getting lunch. Which is, apparently, all that’s needed for the guy who’s been sprawled on an adjacent bench to come to his senses and join our conversation.

“Lunch? Yes please, darlin’!” he crows, before breaking into the sort of wheezy laugh that has you reaching for the Lemsip in emphysematic empathy.

I look sideways at my friend, biting my lip in an effort to suppress a rebuttal.

She smirks at me and, raising a suggestive eyebrow, whispers, “Get your coat love…!”

And I do get my coat. I get my coat and I throw it squarely at her head. And then we go for lunch.

What to do about Alan Carr

It turns out that second dates aren’t that easy to arrange. Or, at least, second dates without a four-year-old in tow.

Yep, I’m referring to Alan Carr.

You wouldn’t think it could be so hard for two grown-ups to arrange a get-together of some sort. But it is. And, I must admit, it’s mostly my fault.

Part of the problem stems from my reluctance to bother any of my mummy friends who already have two offspring of their own to wrangle with. The other part of the problem is my reluctance to pay the exorbitant rates demanded by professional babysitters: although we’re not flat broke any more, I can’t contemplate coughing up fifty quid on childcare before I even put a foot out the door.

And the other part of the problem – yes, there are three parts, OK? – is that weird, undefinable mummy-guilt that crashes down on my head every time I even think about dumping my beloved offspring on a babysitter just so that I can go out and – horrors! – have a good time.

Complicated, no?

Add to that a man who also has a social life of his own and … yeah, you can see why Alan Carr and I have yet to meet up again.

Mind you, it’s almost easier that way. Because if the next date goes well, I’ll have to think about the date after that. And the thought of having to go through this rigmarole EVERY TIME I want to leave the house pretty much kills my enthusiasm stone dead, right from the off.

The only time I feel completely happy about skipping off for a night out is when Nanna is here – a sporadic happening – or when the Baby Daddy visits, once every six weeks.

I do have one or two childless mates who, for some illogical reason, fall into the category of people I don’t mind hassling, but I usually prefer them to be on the night out with me, rather than guarding my snoozling child.

Anyway, it seems the only way that dating is likely to be a stress-free experience is if the gentleman in question is happy to pop round to mine for a cuppa after infant bedtime. Pretty much every time. (It’s a rock’n’roll lifestyle, I know. He might struggle to keep pace.)

Truly, I’m destined for an old age surrounded by cats.

But, like the good Yorkshireman he is, Alan Carr is being stoic about it, and we’re still in touch … although I imagine I’ve been downgraded from a top prospect to my own special corner of the friend zone. Not that I blame him. From his perspective, it must look like he’s been sold a pup.

Still, I mustn’t get downhearted, because I’ve been the object of not one but TWO gentlemen’s attentions this week.

Yep, the mysterious owner of the-flat-two-doors-down – who hasn’t been spotted in the eight months since we moved in – finally made an appearance … and wasted no time in suggesting that he could, “knock me up for a drink” (a peculiar turn of phrase) next time he’s in town.

He seemed friendly enough, but since he seems to orbit this way … well, about once every eight months, I don’t suppose I need to get too excited, especially since he’s about 20 years my senior. He might be on a zimmer frame the next time he pops by.

Anyway, gentleman number two popped along with his son to buy my old vacuum cleaner … and, discovering that we were both single parents, suggested that I might like to meet him sometime – sans offspring – to, erm, chat about the trials of single parenthood.

Great, I hear you say. What’s not to like?

Well, there’s no delicate way to put this: he had a faceful of tattoos. He had a faceful of tattoos and that just doesn’t float my boat.

Lord knows, I’m not normally so quick to judge people on their appearances: I had dreadlocks for years and I’m no stranger to the odd tattoo myself. And yet … a faceful of tattoos is somehow a tattoo or two too far. It’s a demarcation line that says, you want to be perceived one way, and I want to be perceived another. And so I politely declined.

Still, it’s good to know I’ve still got it.

Mine may be a rarefied cachet, but it turns out there are plenty of youngsters, older gentlemen and social self-excluders who think I’m the bee’s knees.

And in the circumstances, I suppose I should be grateful for that.

Save me, Alan Carr!

I know in some ways it’s a bit daft, but every now and then I have a pang of guilt about the little guy and the fact that he’s growing up in a household that has no men.

I mean, sure, he’s under no illusions about who his daddy is – he sees him every six weeks – but … on a day-to-day basis, he’s missing out on all the things that boys do with their dads, from fixing and dismantling stuff to poking about under the bonnet of the car.

I know that plenty of boys grow up without a father around at all, but in our gang, we’re pretty much the only ones. (I recently discovered one other single mum – one! – after four years of searching.)

I also know that not all dad are practical gurus and that I’m quite welcome to get into DIY or bike maintenance myself, but whatever a parent’s skills are, by the very nature of the beast, they can never be as broad and varied as those of two parents’.

Now, generally speaking, I’m not the sort of mum who panics because her child hasn’t mastered quantum mechanics shortly after ditching the diapers … but I do sometimes worry that I can’t help the little fella with lots of things he might be enthusiastic about. Which might, I suppose, be one of the reasons why I find myself here, back at the speed dating again.

I know, I know. The devil made me do it.

Even though these soirées tend to be about as much fun as stepping on snails in the dark, they’re also the only practical way for a single mum to meet other singles – what with having approximately zero socialising hours and all. But honestly … why I do it to myself I just don’t know.

Masochism, maybe?

Anyway, so far I’ve sat through a full five minutes of Baz’s jalopy racing (Baz doesn’t know a thing about me beyond my name); an intense conversation with a Russian nuclear physicist whose greatest passion seems to be collecting beer mats (what is it about me and Russians?); and a highly jocular, if slightly forced, conversation with a guy from the American airbase who pronounced caramel as cormel … leaving us at cross purposes for a decent chunk of our allotted five minutes.

Yeah, I know… but these are the kind of conversations you have at speed dating events.

Anyhow, just a few seats away, coming closer with every round, I see a guy with a striking similarity to Alan Carr. And throughout the beer mats and whatnot, he becomes a beacon of homeliness; a cosy, Paddington Bear-type character that I’m quite looking forward to meeting … though not necessarily in a romantic context, it must be said.

He’s not exactly like Alan Carr. Obviously.

He’s presumably less funny … and almost certainly less gay, given that he’s elected to spend his evening at a decidedly hetero speed dating session. But nonetheless, I can’t deny I’m expecting some sort of similarity. So when he opens his mouth and a deep Yorkshire baritone comes out, I nearly fall off my chair.

“I didn’t expect that accent,” I say.

“It’s the Alan Carr thing, isn’t it?” he replies, quick as a whip. “Everyone says that. They’re expecting a mincy mockney then this voice comes booming out.”

“You do have a bit of the Alan Carr about you,” I say, as if I’d just thought of it. “How does that work out in the world of dating?”

“Not as well as you might think,” he says, grimacing.

“Well, at least you seem to fall into the ‘normal’ bracket,” I reply. “You’re not into jalopy racing, are you?”

He shakes his head.

“Beer mats?”

He starts to laugh. “You’ve had a good night, then?”

“The best,” I say wryly.

Around us, everyone is starting to pack up and leave; our five minutes are up and the event is drawing to a close. Nearby, the Russian physicist hovers expectantly.

“Oh lord,” I say, tilting my head in his direction. “Beer Mat Man. Save me, Alan Carr!”

And do you know what? He does.

He holds my coat for me, then pulls my arm firmly through his, gives Beer Mat Man a robust nod by way of farewell, and marches me out of the door.

We hold our poise until we’re well clear, then burst out laughing.

“That was impressive,” I say. “Truly masterful.”

“Oh aye,” he smiles. “Alan Carr doesn’t mess about.”

Then he pulls me close and kisses me, and I think, you’re darned right: Alan Carr really doesn’t mess about.

I’m looking over a four-leaf clover

Not that long ago, there was a Very Important Anniversary that I may have neglected to mention. A very special day that was celebrated with cake and treats and a day out at the miniature railway.

Yes, as incredible as it may seem, the little guy is now four. FOUR! Can you believe it?

Who would have thought, when I brought that wrinkled little being home from the hospital (and then back to the hospital, and then home again) that one day, he would be FOUR?

I mean, I know most infants start off small and get bigger – I’m smart like that – but really … four kinda took me by surprise.
Because four means big boy: lanky limbs where chubby little arms and legs once were, and a burgeoning eloquence offset by grammatical eccentricity and unfathomable logic. (Sample quote: “Mummy, can you imagine if a tiny queen comed while we were sleeping and magicked avocados all over the world and they were rolling everywhere??”)

Anyway, four also means that the boy will be off to school in September, so our days have been full of form-filling and teacher visits and the ordering of special sweatshirts with the school badge on the front.

Of course, while I’m feeling slightly sentimental about it all, the little guy is charging towards it like an enthusiastic rhinoceros … which is, I suppose, the best way for things to be.

But between school and my new job (did I mention I had a new job?), our days as a Travelling Twosome are numbered. Now that we’re limited to school holidays instead of, well … any old time … and I’m working five days instead of four, our globe-trotting escapades will have to be reined in.

Which is why we’ve just squeezed in a highly relaxing week in Timișoara, an absolute gem of a city that’s full of beautiful architecture; green, leafy parks; and plenty of Italian ice cream shops.

Aside from the little guy stepping on a bee, necessitating rather more carrying than I’d hoped for, Romania’s finest really did deliver on fun, sun and … well, not sand, but let’s say … mellow vibes.

And the mellowness even extended to the Romanian menfolk: this was the first holiday in moons where I was not accosted by buoyant balloon sellers, Freddie Mercury fanatics or anonymous Russian admirers. It’s no wonder I’m keen to go back.

Still, if the truth be told, I’m being pretty much universally ignored by the male half of the species, full stop. Clearly, I’m not known for my raging success on that front, but things have been quieter than ever – though for once, I’ve probably noticed less.

Because although I’m still as single as can be, I’m in a pretty good place right now: we have a comfortable home, I’m in a decent job, we have good friends and the little guy is healthy and happy. And I’m pretty grateful for all of that.

Looking back over the last four years, I can see that things haven’t always been so easy: we’ve moved house five times; tightened our metaphorical belts on several occasions … and I’ve endured LOTS of days without speaking to another human being.

But here we are, my little man and I, carefree and content. And if we’re counting our blessings, we might just run out of fingers.

We’re lucky to be where we are, and I’m lucky to have my quirky little guy, rolling avocados and all.

Going back to my roots

It’s a beautiful afternoon. The sun is beating down, the sea breeze is raking my hair … and I’m heaving a snotty, wailing three-year-old past the hawkers and traders ranged along the seafront.

The infant is flopping about like a freshly caught mackerel and getting heavier by the second, when an elderly gentleman with a kind face and badly broken teeth waves a yellow balloon in our direction.

We’re in Budva, a small but attractive medieval town on Montenegro’s Adriatic coast. A town which just happens to have its very own Blackpool-style promenade, where said gentleman is obviously big in the balloon trade.

“Oh, no thank you,” I say, as I hurry past, wondering how on earth he could think this was the perfect balloon-buying moment.

To my surprise, Balloon Man breaks into a trot alongside me, cooing to the boy and insistently waving the balloon, saying, “It’s free! No money. Here … good boy. Stop cry. Take balloon.”

I slow my pace, wondering how to proceed: it’s very kind of him to offer the balloon – and churlish of me if I refuse – but really I don’t want to reward my son for throwing the mother of all tantrums.

I hesitate, but it turns out that my vacillations are redundant, since before I can say a thing, Balloon Man is beaming and the boy is clutching the balloon in a grubby paw.

We thank Balloon Man and continue on our way; the wails subside to snotty hiccups and, once the little human has completely calmed himself, I insist that he returns to say thank you for his gift. And herein my mistake…

Balloon Man waves away our thank yous and tells me that his son lives in America; he has a grandchild the same age as the little guy whom he rarely sees as he’s afraid of flying. So far, so platonic.

But then Balloon Man asks me the whereabouts of my husband, and I explain that I don’t have one – which is clearly a concept beyond his ken, because he begins to berate the errant husband who has wantonly abandoned me and my son … before asking where we’re staying and suggesting that perhaps he could come and see us some time.

Luckily, I’m able to say that we’re just visiting Budva for the day; we’re actually staying in Kotor.

“I drive to Kotor,” he says, optimistically. “I look for you when you come back for bus!”

And he does.

He spies us en route to the bus station and comes to the playground where the little guy is playing, hovering hopefully while I studiously ignore him. When it’s time to pass his stall again, the little guy conveniently bolts, and I have to run and grab him before he finds himself under a car. Balloon Man watches wistfully from afar.

The next day, Nanna, the boy and I are on a boat trip around the bay of Kotor. The infant has been adopted by a Kosovan family, and is being petted by their kids when the captain’s mate – a rangy young gentleman and a recent graduate in economics – takes me by the hand and invites me to the bow of the boat.

We sit with the wind in our faces, soaking up the sunshine and chatting. (Another tourist asks if he can go up front too, to take photographs, but is tersely rebuffed by the captain.) He asks where we’re staying, and wonders whether we might meet up for a drink one evening.

And it’s then I have a flash of realisation: my niche!

As a woman with a child, I’ve been ignored by men for so long that I’d almost forgotten about my ‘under 25, over 55’ niche – and my apparent inability to attract any man outside those parameters. But here it was again, alive and well and living in Montenegro.

For a while there, it looked as though the Great Date may have derailed my ill fortune, but the second date was … nice … and then he disappeared on a six-week academic tour. And, if I’m honest, I forgot all about him.

After that, life has been so busy with one thing and another, I’ve barely had time to consider my single status. Still, when all’s said and done, I suppose there’s some sort of reassurance in knowing that times may change, men may come and go … but no matter what, I’ll always have my niche.