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.

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Is love finally in the air…?

I can barely believe what I’m about to say, so improbable does it seem. After months – nay, years – of tragic mishaps and countless calamitous rendezvous, I finally went on a date and … HE WAS NORMAL.

Incredible, right?

In fact, he was more than just normal, he was a very nice guy and we both agreed we’d be happy to meet up again. Cue the fireworks and streamers.

What’s even better is that the date was notable for its distinct lack of job interview-style questions: I still have no idea of his relationship history, job status or salary bracket, but I do know that he likes pisco sours and bodyweight training, is ambivalent about pumpkins and dislikes early morning appointments.

I’m looking forward to meeting him again.

But irrespective of whether the Great Date turns out to be Mr Right or not, the real gift this singular experience has given me is hope. It seems there are some interesting, fun, decent guys out there and I can start to envisage a future that may not involve being surrounded by cats. And thank heavens for that.

Anyway, since success breeds success, I suppose it stands to reason that the Phantom Texter should be back on the scene, keen to meet up and – no doubt – get down. He seems to have an uncanny knack of knowing when my attentions are drawn elsewhere and pops up at just the right moment to get me back on (his) track.

Now, you might think I’d be more excited about this – he is, after all, a devilishly charismatic gentleman, with more than a hint of sex appeal. But … let’s just say that his textual enthusiasm is well documented, but has yet to be borne out in real life.

It’s all well and good spouting on about how much you want to meet up … yadda, yadda, yadda … if you never actually get off your butt and make it happen. Castles in the air make a happy refuge in times of relationship drought, but sooner or later you need to back up those sweet words and empty promises with some real-life action.

In any case, I have a feeling that is going to be a good year.

It’s true that Cupid is a bit behind schedule, but I hope he has a trick or two up his sleeve. Because in terms of singledom, I’ve more than paid my dues. And besides, I bloody hate cats.

Another year over … and a new one just begun

2016. What a year.

A year notable mainly for the roster of esteemed celebrities who chose to shuffle off this mortal coil, starting with David Bowie and ending with George Michael via Prince, Leonard Cohen and Hilda Ogden.

Fortunately, my own 2016 was rather less eventful.

In fact, my 2016 looked almost exactly like its predecessor, give or take the continuous development of the little guy who, incidentally, visited his tenth country at the ripe old and of three – “and a half!” – and informed me that he’d be relocating to Spain, via Australia and Germany, on his fourth birthday.
I’ve applied for a deferral.

Actually, travel was responsible for most of last year’s highlights: Spain, Bulgaria, Lithuania, Spain again, Hungary and Germany. All fun, interesting trips … although, it has to be said, not always particularly restful.

When we travel in company, it’s a joy. But I’ve discovered that solo travel with a ‘threenager’ has its drawbacks: small humans tend to throw tantrums when it’s least appropriate and are guaranteed to fall asleep just before the plane lands, leaving you to haul a slumbering sack of potatoes – plus your handbag, your 10kg backpack, their mini-backpack and assorted hats, coats and gloves – down extremely narrow aircraft steps. Bonus points if you manage to pick up the pram from below the aircraft without dropping the infant.
Oh, and there’s no lift to the terminal so I hope you’re good with carrying that lot up the stairs?

Truly, I am a beast of burden.

Anyway, travel aside, the biggest excitement of 2016 has been buying a house. Well, waiting to buy a house. And not a whole house. Obviously.

(In this city? On a single salary? Don’t make me laugh.)

Actually, I’ve been waiting to buy the darned thing – that is, 30% of a shared ownership flat – since June. But here we are in January and … fingers crossed we’ll be done before February, or else the little guy and I will find ourselves sitting on a pile of boxes in the middle of the street.
But what of romance, I hear you ask. Did the fat little fella with a bow and arrow make a last-minute appearance, saving 2016 from the designation of romantic wasteland?
Reader, he did not.

Sure, the Phantom Texter popped up from time to time, promise much and delivering … um … absolutely nothing. But when that’s the romantic highlight of the year, you can be sure that it was a pretty poor vintage.

Actually, last year was possibly the most romantically bereft period of my life. No one notices a mum with a kid. And, let’s face it … if I’m not at work, I’m with the kid.
Not that I hold the little guy responsible in any way. He starts conversations with anyone and everyone – regardless of age, colour or gender – and many a happy exchange has been the result of his chatty nature. I just need him to focus his efforts on single men of a certain age and demeanour.

And here’s the rub: I just don’t know any single men.

Few friends from my single era remain, and every single one of my mummy friends is happily married. Single men are entirely outside my sphere of existence. I probably have a better chance of winning the lottery than meeting my other half.

But I should hate to think I have yet another year of singledom ahead. Sure, I get along fine on my own, but a partner in crime would be nice … if only to help me carry the kid off the plane. (I jest.)

So join me as I raise a glass to the nascent year, and cross your fingers too. Surely there’s someone out there for someone like me?

I guess I’ll have to wait and see.

Happy birth… oh, never mind

Guess what? It’s my birthday again. And this year I’m overwhelmed by a feeling of … indifference.

In years gone by, my day of birth was a cause for excitement and celebration – or at least a couple of good nights out with my mates.

In more recent times, it’s been an uncomfortable reminder of the passing years, and the ever-diminishing possibility of becoming a mum again.

But this year … this year I just feel largely … disinterested.

If truth be told, I’m more excited that I’m having a night out. It’s been nearly THREE MONTHS since I had a night out on the town with my mates – or what’s left of them.

(I did manage to sneak in one or two cocktails with a dear old friend when I went to visit my mum, mind. And thank goodness I did, or my sanity would have been completely out of the window by now.)

I know I bark on about it all the time, but the single hardest thing about being a lone parent is the isolation: you’re either in full-on mummy mode or sitting by yourself on the sofa, whiling away the hours until bedtime.
So the opportunity to leave the house AND hang out with grown-ups seems like a miracle of bounteous good fortune.

Truly, I am blessed.

The weird thing is, I’ve kind of forgotten how to snazz myself up for a night out. As I realised when I was trying to envisage some kind of outfit that would be suitable for a celebratory soirée, my work wardrobe is far more daring and sexy than my civvies. Scary, right?

Obviously, I’ll be going with mates who won’t care if I turn up in a bin bag, but since this is a rare opportunity to get my gladrags on, it’d be nice if my imagination could stretch to something more than jeans and a Primark tshirt. But I seem to have become the antithesis of glamour.

For example, a friend recently bought me a voucher for a photo shoot, complete with makeover. Now, I admit that I’ve never been much of a glamour puss – para boots and dreadlocks were more the order of the day for me – but I think this experience underlined how very little primping and preening happens on my watch.

Although I’d stated my preference for minimal make-up right from the start, the young lady still trowelled on what I considered obscene amount of gunk and goo … resulting in a less-than-ecstatic response from yours truly.

In fact, I looked so continually horrified at every stage of the makeover that the young lady eventually threw her hands in the air and, with good-natured exasperation, capitulated to my desire for, “less eyeshadow, please”, “not that much blusher!” and, “my own lipstick might be a bit less … red”.

I think the defining moment was when her query about whether I did my own eyebrows was met with a blank stare. Do…? Eyebrows…? She knew then that she was dealing with a rank amateur.

(The photos turned out great, by the way. And I looked like myself. Or rather, a very smooth version of myself.)
Anyway, this all goes to show that maybe I should up my game. Women of my age surely need all the help we can get with our je ne sais quoi … not to mention our dwindling appeal for the opposite sex. (Ha! As if any of them are looking.)

So tonight I’m going to push the boat out: I’ve already painted my nails (whoo!) and I may even apply some foundation. (Steady on…)

So if you spot a gussied up dame, caked in panstick and swanning about like Zsa Zsa Gabor with a cocktail in her hand, that’ll be me. Pop over and buy me another, why don’t you?

Cheers!

The storm before the calm

Sometimes, being a single parent is hard.

Sure, you have to watch the pennies, so any luxuries tend to be on a smallish scale; there’s no one to take a turn when your kid is waking every hour because they’re too hot/too cold/in desperate need of a tissue cos snot is bubbling out of their nose; and there’s no one to help you wrestle your pram, luggage and wailing, overtired infant down the stairs at those end-of-the-world airport gates that Ryanair seems to favour. But, hey, plenty of people in ‘traditional’ families have those kinds of problems too.

No, the thing that I really miss in my one-parent wonderland is someone to share a glance of understanding, or a roll of the eyes, when things get tough.

And when I say, “get tough”, I’m referring specifically to the Age of Infinite Tantrums.

I feel bold enough to talk about it now that it has – dare I say it – passed (for this week, at least), but … my goodness! … the AIT has pushed my mummy powers to the absolute limit. In fact, I’d go as far as to say it’s been my toughest mummy challenge to date.

Now, I know that tantrums are pretty testing for any parent. But imagine that, on certain days, the only person you speak to outside of work is a grumpy three-year-old.

Next, imagine that, on other days, the only person you speak to AT ALL is a grumpy three-year-old.

Challenging, right?

Enter the Age of Infinite Tantrums.

Suddenly, everything you say or do has the potential to provoke a full-on, face-down, snot-streaming tantrum. You cut the toast the wrong way … despite the extensive survey you undertook, knife poised in mid-air. You took a shower. (Yes, I know. You do that every morning but .. how could you?) You cleaned you teeth first. Waaaaaahhh!

It’s like stepping on snails in the dark.

Yup, tantrums always suck and I’ve done my bit of standing by, trying to look nonchalant while my small human lies petulantly spread-eagled on any number of shop floors, but I thought we were doing pretty well; we were getting through the terrible twos and the subsequent ‘threenager’ years relatively unscathed.

And then the AIT struck: two solid weeks of tantrums, every morning and every night.

“Two weeks?!” I hear you sneer, “Two measly weeks? Big deal!”

I know. I know. Two weeks. It’s not long, right? But, dear friend, kindly reserve judgement until you’ve walked a mile in the moccasins. And once you’ve experienced it, try doing it on your own.

Truly, despite my overwhelming and unerring love for the little fella, I thought I may boot him up to the moon through sheer rage, frustration and puzzlement.

Furious internet research furnished me with gems such as, “stay calm; your child needs reassurance that these big feelings are OK – that he is OK”.

Now, this works fine for the first forty minutes (yup, forty) but by the time the little guy reached his zenith – an impressive one hour twenty of full-on, eye-popping screams and snot-smeared rage – I was feeling, let’s say, a little ragged.

Even bundling him onto the bike for some cool, soothing air had little to no effect; he was thrashing like a freshly caught salmon. In fact, he was thrashing so hard I thought we were going to crash the bike.

So, dear lady who stopped to talk to me despite my hysterical son and my tear-filled eyes, I know I said thank you at the time, but what I really meant was THANK YOU. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU.

Because not only did your presence distract my beloved infant, finally stemming the near-eternal tide of tears, but it made me feel that I wasn’t alone. And that made it a whole lot easier.

But the tantrums kept coming.

And then, ten days after The Great Tantrum, we had an evening of my calm – an evening devoid of purple-faced rage and pencil throwing.

The next morning, as soon as I went to wake the little guy, I knew I had my boy back. There was no grumpy face, set in pre-whine mode, just a cheeky little phizog beaming up at me.

“Mummy,” he said, “I’m not going to have a tantrum today.”

And he didn’t.

Of course, it would be lovely to say that that was the end of it … but, naturally, it wasn’t: this is real life. The next day, the mere thought that I might be brushing my teeth first enough to set the little guy off. (For the record, I wasn’t; I was getting some trousers from the little guy’s wardrobe.)

Truly, these are testing times.

Still, as they say, insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results, so I now have a whole new raft of infant-tackling tactics in place, and my fingers firmly crossed.

But if you see me wrangling with an apoplectic infant, please be brave enough to look over and smile, or give me a sympathetic roll of the eyes.

In the absence of a stiff G&T, it might just be what I need to get me through the day.

From Russia with love

So here we are in Lithuania – me, the little guy and Nanna, on a three-generational holiday. And in the great tradition of our three-generational holidays, we’re staying in a hostel.

We’ve spent the morning traipsing round Vilnius’s finest kid-friendly attractions, so we’re taking a well-earned rest in the common room with a beer, a glass of milk and a cup of tea, respectively.

The little guy is – naturally – showing off his finest Spiderman moves, attracting the attention of our fellow hostellers, so we take time to say hello and introduce ourselves. We meet a young girl from Oregon, USA, who’s worked as a nanny and has clearly got the measure of my overly bouncy infant; a young guy from Korea who’s just graduated and is taking time out to travel round Europe; and an older guy who tells us that he’s from a place on the Russian border with China, and his town is half Russian and half Chinese.

“Interesting,” I say. “I’d never really thought of the two populations living side by side…”

But I don’t get to ponder this further, because the Korean guy starts talking about his plans to go to Warsaw and it turns out that’s where the American girl is headed, too, so they start talking about that, the conversation ends and the little guy and I head off to hang out on the beanbags with Nanna.

Cut to three days later.

I’ve just realised that I’ve miscounted the nappies and we’re two short, so I’m on a late-night mercy mission to the local supermarket. (I’ve become a bit casual since the little guys switched to teeny tiny pants during the day; I somehow forget that he still needs them at night.)

While I’m perusing the aisles in search of Baltic bum wraps, Nanna is putting the little guy to bed in our four-bed dorm – which, since there are three of us, has effectively become a private room. She’s just changed into her nightie and is about to read the first of three bedtime stories.

Suddenly, without as much as a cursory knock on the door, Russian Guy bursts into the room, burbling about how he’s leaving this evening and asking, “Where is your daughter?”

My mum – quite politely, given the rather startling circumstances – explains that I’m out and will surely be back soon.

Exit Russian Guy.

Ten minutes later, Nanna is just snuggling down under the covers when Russian Guy bounds in again, explaining that he’s leaving now and he’d like to leave his contact details for me.

My poor mum, from her supine position, is forced to extend a hand to receive the scratty bit of paper with Vladimir’s email, WhatsApp and Viber contacts, popping it under her pillow whilst meekly promising to pass it on to me.

Which she duly does … and seems vaguely surprised when I immediately ‘file’ the details in the nearest waste paper bin.

Now, I’m sure that Vladimir was a nice bloke, but our interaction was so brief, I don’t think I’d pick him out of a crowd.

Admittedly, from one point of view, I could be passing up the chance to meet a rare and intriguing character who could just be the man of my dreams. But from another point of view, he’s an odd kind of dude who’s barely exchanged ten words with me yet expects me to leap at the chance to stay in touch.

Later that evening, I’m out with one of the girls who works on reception, having a beer and telling her about Vladimir and his granny-bothering.

“I have a habit of attracting oddballs,” I say, as we grab our coats and start walking back to the hostel.

Barely have the words left my lips when a large, bearded guy – all hair and eccentricity – dances up to me, yelling, “WELCOME to Lithuania!” before blowing me a kiss and wafting away.

The girl and I look at each other, and burst into incredulous laughter.

“You’re not wrong,” she says. “All the weirdos come your way.”

And all I can do is nod in agreement.

Getting it wrong … AGAIN

For a good while there, I had a dilemma. A dilemma that was fully occupying the angel and the devil that sit on my shoulder, and it concerned the Phantom Texter.

We had become close. Perhaps closer than is advisable with someone who is, on paper at the very least, married.

Of course, he never quite managed to explain the doubtless complicated nature of his marriage. (Of course.) But we’d been corresponding for more than six months – with the occasional, 100% platonic get-together for coffee – and, as a consequence, we had become close.

Which is fine and not fine, because it’s hard to know at what point a friendship crosses the line and becomes an inappropriate friendship, even without physical contact.

When the angel was in charge, the simple answer was: when the conversation includes something your partner wouldn’t be happy with. But the devil reckoned that all’s fair in love and war and besides, since when was it my job to be someone else’s Thought Police?

Now, it’s true that since we’re both grown adults, he should be responsible for his own actions. But it’s also true that 50% of the conversation was mine – so 50% of the culpability surely rested at my feet, too?

I can’t help feeling that things would be far more cut and dried had I not been single for so bloody long and he were not the first man in many, many moons who was so appealing. Which I know is no excuse, but the little devil was leaning in and wheedling, “This is your time! Here – finally – is a dashing man who’s into you! You deserve him. Take him! Go on – reach out and grab him!”

Then, of course, the angel would push a hand into the devil’s face, shove him out of the way and says, “But he’s not YOURS!” … and round we’d go again … and again … until I had no idea which way was up and which was down and what the heck was right or wrong.

After a while, these shenanigans made me realise that my so-called morals were rather more elastic that I thought; they were being gradually eroded by familiarity and conversations that were once the very definition of chaste became markedly less so.

Of course, I knew it was morally wrong, but I can’t deny it – my day was brighter when I heard from him and gloomier when I didn’t. And somewhere in my head an alarm bell began to sound: that way danger lies.

But you know what? There were always innumerable obstacles to our get-togethers: extensive work trips, meetings here and there and recurrent bouts of debilitating illness … all genuine events, to be sure, but this guy was so rarely available he made Halley’s Comet look like a regular visitor.

Then, one day, something changed. The dashing gentleman was, as usual, beset by “issues” that required sympathy from me … but, this time, I had an issue of my own.

Was he concerned? Worried for me? Keen to help? Ummm. Not really. He seemed rather keen to get back to talking about his problems. And, actually, he seemed to have very little time for corresponding with me in general.

At first, I wondered if he was OK. I gave him space; tried not to care when he ignored my news or didn’t reply for three days because he really did have a lot on his plate. (He truly did – and still does.)
But suddenly it occurred to me that if he really cared about me, I wouldn’t have to be wondering about his state of mind; he’d let me know for himself. And he wouldn’t feel the need to push me out when things got hectic because I’d be central to his wellbeing.

And then a powerful – but admittedly quite belated – bolt of lightning flashed in my mind: he’s just not that into you. And I realised that it’s a lesson I’ve learned before, but obviously not that well.

You can’t care about someone who doesn’t care about you: it’s not that he can’t call because he’s really busy, it’s that you’re not an important enough part of his day. And if he hasn’t got ten seconds free to send you a text, well … you can work that one out for yourself.

And then all at once, the angel and the devil stopped their clamour; everything fell silent and I realised that there was no dilemma to speak of; no dilemma at all.