The write career

I’ve never really had any kind of career plan. The question I dreaded most in job interviews or appraisals was “Where do you see yourself in five years’ time?”, because I never had a clue. When I was 24 and working for an NHS primary care trust in Birmingham I was called into the Chief Exec’s office – he was newly appointed and enthusiastically having ‘development’ meetings with various middle managers. He asked me the dreaded five-year question, and some mischievous impulse led me to reply that I hoped I’d be a stay-at-home mum looking after my four small children.

I don’t think this was the answer he was expecting; I was a graduate of the NHS  training scheme which is meant to be the breeding ground for the future top managers in the health service. My ambition was meant to be to be a chief executive myself by 35. But somehow, although I enjoyed a lot about my various jobs firstly in the NHS and then in healthcare regulation, and got promoted to head of department level fairly quickly, I just didn’t have the burning desire to progress higher.  I preferred the hands-on, people-facing side of my job, and for a while flirted with the idea of training as a doctor, until it turned out that the lack of science A-levels would be a problem. Who knew?

I wasn’t entirely serious about staying at home with four children either, though. I knew I did want a baby, in fact those who know me best are amazed I managed to wait until I was 27 to get pregnant, but I didn’t see myself as a fulltime mum. Before Anna was born it seemed like it would be a waste of my education, and I assumed I would be bored out of my mind.

After she was born things felt very different. We were lucky that, with a bit of creative accounting, we thought we could get by without my salary and so, unlike many parents of my generation, we did have a genuine choice to make. And when it came to it I just couldn’t make myself think it was a good idea to go back to the office. Was I bored? Yes, literally to tears sometimes. When the initial state of being comatose with tiredness had worn off. Do I feel that my education was being wasted? Well, you certainly don’t need a degree in English Language and Literature for round-the-clock breastfeeding, attending Rhyme Time at the local library, or making shapes with play dough. Would I swap a moment of these last four years at home for any job you could offer me? Absolutely not.

smgibsonladyatdeskHowever, by the time Anna turned two I was starting to feel the need for more mental stimulation than life with a toddler can provide. I had an idea for a novel, and my mother-in-law offered to look after Anna one afternoon a week so that I could write. One thing no-one tells you about having a baby is how much more efficient it makes you. I’d toyed with the idea of writing before, but it had never got further than a few scribbled ideas in the back of a notebook. With only three or four hours a week to call my own my motivation increased tenfold, and I found I was easily able to manage a chapter in that time. As my enthusiasm for writing  and involvement with my characters grew I started despatching husband and daughter off to the park or a museum on Sunday mornings so that I could snatch a couple more hours with my computer. By Anna’s third birthday I had 75,000 words of completed novel. I say completed; it actually then took another few months of polishing before my agent started approaching publishers. The first few said no, which didn’t really surprise me, it always felt like a dream that couldn’t possibly come true. And then Hodder and Stoughton made me an offer. Of actual money. They were going to publish my book AND pay me for it. That day in September 2012 is up there with my daughter’s birth and my wedding day as one of the best in my life.

And it’s just got better and better. I now get to say, as I did this week, “I’m afraid I’m busy on Wednesday, I have a meeting with my publisher.” I’ve met lots of lovely people at Hodder – my editor, the foreign rights people, the publicity people – who love books and reading as much as I do, and, even more amazingly, love my book. Two for Joy will be published on 6 June, and that is now near enough that I can start to believe it’s really happening. Especially as I have a print-out of the gorgeous front cover in my handbag, and heard this morning that proofs are already being sent out to journalists and reviewers.

Having one book published is certainly no guarantee of fame or wealth. Or, indeed, of having a second or third book published. But what I do feel, for the first time, is that I know what I want to do, and by happy chance writing is a career allows flexible working from home, thus combining very happily with motherhood.

In the meantime, in between meeting my publisher (got it in again!), coming up with ideas for promoting my first book, and blogging, I’m also hard at work on my second novel. And as for that five year plan – well, I want to emulate my literary heroines such as Lisa Jewell, Erica James, Katie Fforde and Elizabeth Noble, and become a successful writer bringing out a book a year. I’d also love a second baby at some point, although my husband seems strangely reluctant on the third and fourth…

Back to my roots

Liverpool SkylineHome is where the heart is, so they say, and as my husband and daughter live with me in London then that is undoubtedly my home. London is my home by inclination as well, and the things which a lot of non-Londoners dislike about the city – noise, busyness, number of people – are lifeblood to me. Although I wouldn’t mind slightly cheaper houses. However, I’m a Scouser by birth, and not a Londoner, and my parents and several close friends still live in Liverpool, which means that a small piece of my home, and therefore heart, remain in the amazing city I was born and spent 18 years in.

I’m writing this post at my parents’ dining table, shortly before going to the station to catch my train back down South. I’ve just had an amazing few days catching up with the people I love up here, and am feeling rather sad at the prospect of leaving. Although also looking forward to seeing my husband, who didn’t come up this time, and to seeing how the mice have been getting on in my absence. Probably started legal proceedings to claim squatters’ rights.

The overwhelming thing which always strikes me when I’m back in Liverpool is the friendliness and warmth of the people. I was in the Liverpool branch of Cath Kidston yesterday, buying a laptop sleeve, if you’re interested. In the few seconds it took to process my credit card payment, I’d exchanged life histories with the girl on the till. She was genuinely excited about the fact that I’m about to have a book published; I was interested to hear about her ambitions to move to London and study art. In my experience that level of easy friendliness with strangers is very uncommon in London, and I didn’t find it particularly prevalent in Oxford or Birmingham in the three years I spent living in each of those cities respectively. Slightly subjective analysis, and rather limited scope for a truly scientific study, but I’m going to ignore that and press ahead with my conclusion that there is something particularly special about Liverpool.

Anna and I have both been spoilt to death by my parents – lie-ins, roast dinners, homemade cake (me), endless stories, new books and clothes, lots of loving attention (her); and the free babysitting on tap which enabled me to have a fabulous day catching up with friends.

N, with whom I’ve been friends since we met at nursery aged 3, lives in New Brighton now, so I had a lovely trip to the seaside in the almost-Spring sunshine for lunch, some girly pampering (my third ever manicure!) and a lot of chat. New Brighton has changed a lot since my nanna used to take me there as a little girl – still amazing sweeping views over the Mersey estuary back towards Liverpool, but now a whole pile of trendy bars and restaurants to go with it. The guy who did my nails was making me rather jealous by describing how he walks his dogs for miles along the beach every morning – the one thing which challenges my commitment to London living is the temptation of living by the sea.

I then hopped on the train back to Liverpool city centre and did a little light shopping in the brilliant Liverpool One with my birthday vouchers. I love Liverpool One as it combines indoor and outdoor, shops and leisure opportunities, the new space with the old, far more effectively than most modern shopping centres, meaning that it feels like a real living space, rather than a soulless temple to the gods of retail, and has enhanced Liverpool city centre, rather than detracting from it. Coincidentally, my ex-next-door-neighbour in London was part of the team of architects which designed it.

I then got the bus down to a little neighbourhood Italian, Santino, on Smithdown Road (not far from Penny Lane, for those whose geographical knowledge of Liverpool is mainly influenced by the Beatles), and met J, J and L – friends from secondary school, which scarily means that we’ve known each other for over 2 decades now. I don’t see them very often, but there’s a lovely relaxed familiarity with people you’ve known for so long, and we had a really fun evening. Although I did get into trouble with the chef for being unable to finish my huge portion of delicious linguine ai gamberi.

And then, in a further hark back to my schooldays, my dad picked me up, and as I went home and to bed, awash with sentiment and Pinot Grigio, I pondered a little on the emotional difficulties, but also the privileges, in having two cities I call home.

Good housekeeping?

dustpan--brush-plastic-blue-PfO

I read an article last week claiming that women should stop nagging men to do more housework, because a study had shown that cleaning reduces men’s testosterone, and therefore their libido. So if you want a healthy sex life, don’t make your man clean the loo.

Well fine, I can well believe it. But, funnily enough, scrubbing the floors doesn’t really turn women on either. Housework, however necessary, is fundamentally unerotic. I think the problem is, for women at least, that a dirty house is equally off-putting.

I’m feeling very fed up about the amount of housework I do, but also about how that compares to the amount of housework I probably should be doing. My husband works fulltime, in a busy job, and commutes for an hour each way. I work part-time from home, and look after our daughter. Fairly obviously more of the responsibility for housekeeping devolves on me, and I’m happy with that. Some of it, such as shopping for food, and cooking, I enjoy. Well, actually, they’re the only aspects I enjoy, but still.

However, when I think about the things I do every day, just to keep the show on the road, and then the things I do every week or so to keep us vaguely civilised, it amounts to an awful lot of time. And then when I list the things I don’t do at all, or hardly, but probably ought to, then it looks like managing one 3 bedroom terrace really is a fulltime job, and it’s a job I have no appetite for whatsoever.

So here’s my daily list:

–       Unload dishwasher from previous day and put dishes away

–       Make breakfast for me and daughter (husband deals with his own)

–       Clear breakfast things away, wipe down kitchen surfaces and table

–       Make beds

–       Put on load of laundry

–       Clean filters on tumble drier

–       Plump up cushions, smooth throws etc

–       Collect up dirty cups etc from all over the house

–       Put away clean, dry laundry from previous day

–       Make lunch for me and daughter

–       Clear lunch things away, wipe down kitchen surfaces and table

–       Sweep kitchen and dining room floors

–       Attempt to tidy up (ie, at least return things to the room they’re meant to be in)

–       Make tea for daughter

–       Clear up tea things, load dishwasher, wipe down kitchen surfaces

–       Wash up anything that can’t go in dishwasher

–       Load breadmaker (not every day, but at least twice a week)

–       Make dinner for me and husband

–       Collapse exhausted and thank goodness that the after dinner clear-up and bin-emptying are husband’s jobs

And my weekly list:

–       Vacuum

–       Dust

–       Clean bathroom

–       Clean downstairs loo

–       Clean fridge

–       Give kitchen a proper clean

–       Wash kitchen floor

–       Change beds (in theory. Actually it’s once a fortnight, but in my head it’s once a week)

–       Sort through post, action bills that need paying etc, put things for filing in pile to be ignored to be dealt with at a later date.

–       Make any admin phone calls

–       Hunt down all the toys and books that have gone missing and ended up under beds, down side of sofas etc

–       Take all the shoes that have migrated into the hall back upstairs and put them away

–       Plan our meals for the week and make a shopping list

–       Do the supermarket shop and put everything away

And then things I do once in a blue moon (and, according to Aggie and Kim should probably do monthly, if not weekly):

–       Clean windows (actually, I’m lying. I never do this really. I just think about it once in a blue moon)

–       Clean under furniture

–       De-cobweb ceilings and shadowy corners and dust anything higher than head height

–       Clean under/behind kitchen appliances

–       Turn the mattresses

–       Disinfect the bins

–       File paperwork

–       Clean rugs

–       De-scale kettle

–       Clean grouting in bathroom

–       Sort through Anna’s clothes and bag up things she’s grown out of

–       Polish shoes

–       Clean out kitchen cupboards

–       Wash throws from sofas

And then there’s the things I never do at all:

–       Ironing. Husband irons his work shirts, but everything else goes resolutely unironed.

–       Do something to look after our wooden floors (I actually don’t know what I should be doing, but suspect it should be something. Waxing? Polishing?)

–       Wash down walls with sugar soap. I had no idea I was meant to be doing this, but apparently so.

–       Scrub skirting boards

–       Wash duvets and pillows

–       Wash curtains

I really hope I don’t lose half my readership for being a disgusting slattern. And I hope any friends reading this aren’t put off visiting such an unhygienic household. Especially given the mice situation. The thing is though, I spend enough time dealing with categories one and two – if I started doing category three more frequently, or category four at all, these are the things I suspect I’d miss out on:

–       Baking cakes, muffins, biscuits and lots of other delicious but unnecessary treats

–       Hours spent reading to and chatting with my daughter

–       Curling up with a good book myself

–       Chatting to my mum, or a friend, on the phone

–       Having a glass of wine with my husband while we talk about our days

–       Spending weekends exploring London with my husband and daughter – discovering hidden green spaces, quirky little cafes, interesting museums

–       Having a half hour walk every day after nursery drop off

–       Writing my blog

–       Catching up with friends via Facebook, email or text

–       Playdates with my daughter

–       Meeting up with friends

And to be honest, that last list is the list of things which make life worth living. If I stopped, or reduced those, and instead made time to clean the windows or turn the mattresses, would I be happier? Would my family be happier? I strongly suspect not, and yet I still have a vague sense of guilt, which I’m trying to expunge with this post. And maybe that’s the crux of the matter. Why do I feel guilty? Why do (some)women feel somehow that their sense of personal worth is connected to the cleanliness of their houses? I really don’t think that it’s something that worries most men. Maybe housework, rather than fat, is the real feminist issue.

A Mouse in the House

Free Cartoon Mouse Clipart IllustrationWe moved house in June, and within a few weeks I spotted our first mouse in the house. And then the second, third, fourth etc. To be fair, I’m no expert in distinguishing between them, so at first I was optimistic it was just one very active mouse.

I did some internet research and found out that mice are unhygienic horrors. I panicked. I Dettoled the floor, the work surfaces, behind and under appliances, put all our crockery and cutlery through a hot dishwasher cycle, and would give husband and daughter a quick swipe with an antibacterial wipe if they stood still long enough. I then repeated this routine every morning, but still felt grubby and beleaguered.

A quick message round to a local parents email group I’m part of revealed that we were far from alone in our rodent induced woe. Unfortunately, my innocent question as to how we rid us of these turbulent beasts didn’t receive any particularly encouraging responses. It seemed to boil down to ‘you can’t, unless you get a cat’.

At this point we had no intention of getting a cat, so I decided some mouse traps were the next best thing. I did feel very morally dubious about them – I’m an ex-vegetarian, and typical wussy city dweller. I eat meat (free range and organic, natch), but believe me, if I had to kill it myself, I’d go veggie again quicker than you could say lentil bake. On the plus side though, my research had led me to the conclusion that chocolate spread was the most efficient bate, and as you only need a tiny bit on the mouse trap, it would have been downright wasteful not to use the rest…breakfast times were greatly cheered for a couple of weeks.

And so we embarked on our double-life as mouse-killers. I say double life, because my daughter, raised on a literary diet of cute anthropomorphic mice, could not be allowed to find out what her parents were up to. Every day at dawn my husband would creep downstairs to empty the traps (I’m a feminist, sure, but clearly a very hypocritical one, as I have to admit, this felt like man’s work to me). It turned out there was definitely more than one mouse.

This was not a pleasant period. We both felt racked with Lady Macbethian guilt, and the mice (with a few dear, departed exceptions) were still running amok in our kitchen. Scuttle scuttle.

Then a chance conversation with a friend revealed the name of a Mouse Killer Extrordinaire. He was summoned. He arrived. He was French. He called me Madame, which I rather liked. He left poison (and, unnervingly, instructions on what to do should daughter unwittingly consume said poison. “Eet zhould not be eenough to keel a bebe.” he reassured me). He then returned a week later and spent several hours filling up every tiny hole and gap in our Victorian terrace. The mice departed forthwith.

True, there were some disconcerting moments, such as when I witnessed the death throes of a hapless mouse, and then tried to remove the body without Anna noticing, all the time continuing a phone conversation on an extremely serious issue with the Chief Executive of a charity I was then trustee of.  Or the time I noticed a funny smell coming from behind the fridge and thought some food must have fallen down there, got my dad to pull it out, and found a decomposing mouse. Sorry, Dad. But generally, things were back to normal, and we put it out of our minds.

Until one evening a few months later when I was reading peacefully until I saw a familiar flash of mousy brown out of the corner of my eye. This time, we took no prisoners. M. le Mouse Killer was recalled immediately. It’s interesting, and rather frightening, how quickly moral qualms can be eroded. This time I felt far less guilt, and also far less repulsion. This was now simply a problem to be dealt with.

M. le Mouse came, acted, declared the house rodent free once more, but told me that in a house of this age, the only sure-fire way to a mouse-free future was acquisition of a cat . Husband felt this was rather in danger of going down the Old Lady Who Swallowed a Fly route, but did concede that if they returned again then we would probably have to consider it.

I’m sure you can guess what happened next. Yep, they’re back.

So now, the cat issue.

There are lots of points in favour of getting a cat. I would love to have a pet, and a dog simply isn’t an option at the moment; Anna would adore it, and I firmly believe that children (especially only children) should grow up with a pet in the house; and s/he would hopefully scare the mice away.

However, the points against are that it would be someone else for me to clean up after(!), it would reduce our flexibility for holidays and travel, my sister-in-law is allergic to them, so the cat would have to be sent on vacation and the house thoroughly de-catted before she came to stay, and our furniture would probably get trashed. Or more trashed than it gets anyway with a three-year old and all her friends tearing round the place.

It has been pointed out to me that I could solve all these problems simply by considering the mice as themselves as pets, thereby removing the need to remove them, or to add another animal to the equation, but I’m not really convinced of that viewpoint. So, the dilemma remains. And in the meantime I’m back to my frenzied disinfecting routine.