Nineteenth Day of Advent: My home

Since I had Anna, one of the elements of the Christmas story which really resonates with me is Mary wandering around Bethlehem, knowing that she was about to give birth, but not knowing where, or having a place to keep her new baby safe afterwards. I can’t imagine many things worse. It wrings my heart to think of how many parents across the world are still in that situation today.

However, this blog is focussing on the positives, and the things I personally have to be grateful for.

My house, the warm, cosy, comfortable, secure home, where we can bring up our daughters safely is very high on the list.

our houseThis house has felt like home since the first moment I stepped over the threshold. We had been looking to move for a while, feeling that, with an almost three year old and the possibility that we might have another baby at some point, we were outgrowing our tiny two up, two down terrace. Anna and I came to view this house one cold, snowy February evening not long before her third birthday. She was grumpy because the only time I had been able to schedule the viewing clashed with her teatime. We both had cold wet feet from wading through the slush to get here. And yet, the second I walked in, these minor irritations vanished and I knew we had found our forever home.

As the estate agent showed me round I abandoned my little notebook with lists of all the things husband and I had considered ‘essential’ or ‘desirable’ in our new house and which I usually ticked off, as I looked round. Instead I was mentally decorating and arranging our furniture. At the end of the 20 minute viewing I made an offer of the full asking price, even though my husband had never seen it. Our marriage doesn’t normally operate like that; the opposite, we normally talk and discuss at length until we reach a consensus. This time though, rather like when I met husband himself, I just knew it was right.

This being the London property market there were quite a few ups and downs before we actually exchanged contracts (by which time husband had actually seen, and luckily loved, the house!). During the process we got to know the couple who were selling it quite well. They are artists, in their late fifties or early sixties, and were taking early retirement to go and live down on the Kent coast. At the moment our solicitor phoned to say we had completed, husband and I were standing in their (now our) dining room, drinking champagne with them. Having had that friendly relationship with them adds to the warm and positive vibes I always get from our house.garden1

I love my home in all its guises. When it is being trashed by Anna and her friends playing ‘landslides’ (all the sofa cushions, pillows, blankets etc in the house piled up in the middle of the living room so they can throw themselves off the denuded sofa onto it), or when, as now it is calm and quiet because husband has taken Anna to her swimming lesson with Sophia in tow so that I can have a blogging break. And make macaroni cheese with pancetta, spinach and sweetcorn for tea when they get home. I love it when it is full of friends or family eating and laughing and enjoying themselves, and I love it when it is just me and my husband sharing a quiet dinner together or Anna and I having a hot chocolate after school, or Sophia determinedly learning to climb upstairs and down again with me shadowing her protectively.  I love it in summer when the doors stand open and we can eat in the garden, and I love it at Christmas when it is full of fairy lights and holly from the tree in our front garden. I love that both my girls have their own room with their own soft warm bed and space for their own little treasures. But I also love that one of the rooms is big enough that, if they wanted to, they could share it when Sophia is older. fireplace

I love the feeling of peace and security which envelopes me here, even if things in other areas of my life are going wrong. I love that the house is a constantly evolving reflection of our changing lives. The spare bedroom became a nursery. Husband has had a lot of work to do at home lately, so a corner of our dining room has become a home office (aka totally disorganised pile of papers with a laptop teetering on top). Baskets of baby toys are now in the corner of most rooms, and are about to be joined by a bright yellow, plastic, ride-on duck. Ahem. Anna’s toys take up less room now, but her shelves of ‘chapter books’ are continually expanding. There is an ongoing tension between my need to at least attempt to keep things relatively clean and tidy, and my family’s need to leave as many of their possessions as possible scattered over the floor. Luckily, though, I am not a real neat freak (stop laughing, Mum), and so generally we have a slightly chaotic but cosy and comfortable home which makes us all happy.

The delights of being cosy

It’s now quarter to two in the afternoon, and hasn’t yet got properly light today. There’s been a constant drizzly rain and, according to my friends on the BBC Weather page, the temperature isn’t going to get above 5 degrees. This is a day when I am very glad to be able to stay indoors the entire time, with the exception of a couple of brief school-run forays.
fireplace

In a way I’m quite pleased that the weather has taken a turn for the worse. I’m about to give birth, so I don’t want any dramatically bad weather thank you very much; snow drifts, freezing fog and black ice can all stay well away, but the unnaturally warm weather we’ve had recently seems, well, unnatural. It feels like we’ve been cheated out of autumn really. There haven’t been any crisp frosty mornings, or excuses to scurry home quickly and curl up by the fire with a mug of hot chocolate (although I might have done this anyway). I haven’t even been upset that my enormous baby bump stops me fitting into my favourite jumpers, because I haven’t needed them.

The weather today, though, isn’t the kind that invites you to wrap up warm and go for a long invigorating walk. On the contrary, it positively begs you to get home, shut the door and ignore the world outside. I had a fairly long and boring list of jobs for today, luckily all home based, and I’ve been working my way through them whilst also indulging myself with some cosy, feel-good moments as well. So far these have included:

1) A long, long cuddle with one of the cats. Henry Catten is a confirmed lover of hearth and home. On a warm, summer’s day he might venture as far as a sunny spot on the patio, but he wouldn’t dream of leaving the house on a day like today. And, of course, if he’s home and I’m home, then he won’t be able to think of a single reason why I shouldn’t devote myself to him entirely.IMG_0002

2) Turning on the central heating at 11am. Normally if I’m at home all day I’m running around doing jobs, and so manage without heating until well into the afternoon. Today, though, I was feeling particularly self-indulgent, and so on it went. Luckily for both our gas bill and my environmental conscience, it was hardly on at all through October and November, so we’ve surely got some credits built up now.

3) A nap on the sofa. Well, I am very pregnant…

4) Beans on toast for lunch. Total comfort food.

To round things off, I’m contemplating turning on all the fairy lights and cranking up the Greatest Christmas Hits album while I try and get ahead of the game with some present wrapping, hot chocolate for two when Anna gets home from school, and possibly, just possibly, syrup sponge and custard for pudding this evening. Just to balance out the healthy stir-fry I have planned for a main course.on the third day of christmas cover

I hope you’re all able to indulge in a little cosiness as well. In a shameless plug, I will point out that my new novella, On the Third Day of Christmas is published today, and would arguably provide the perfect accompaniment to a cold, wet evening snuggled by the fire. You know it makes sense.

Summer holidays

chateau-de-pornic-201-1A couple of months ago the seven weeks of school holidays loomed very large in my mind. Don’t get me wrong, I love my daughter to bits, but now she’s used to the stimulation and companionship of nursery I was worried that seven weeks home alone with mummy would prove rather wearing for both of us. In my panicked efforts to avoid this, and to catch up with various friends and relatives, I seem to have inadvertently organised the Helen & Anna Summer Roadshow.

Two weeks into the holidays and we’ve already clocked up a day trip to Cambridgeshire and a week in Nantes. Tomorrow we set off for the North West leg of the show – a weekend in Manchester with my brother and sister-in-law, and then five days in Liverpool with my parents, sans husband as he doesn’t get a seven week holiday. There’s then two days to catch our breath before we set off for a week’s family holiday, another home exchange, in Corsica. After that we have ten days at home before rounding things off with a couple of days on the Kent coast.

Our day trip to St Neots gave me the opportunity to catch up with my best friend and her husband and baby son, and then (almost as exciting) a trip to the Cath Kidston Factory Shop which is a 10 minute drive from hers. I acquired a red spotty tray, some baby blue melamine salad servers, a retro luggage-label style travel first aid kit and a strawberry print purse. Very restrained, I’m sure you’ll agree.

Nantes is a really vibrant city, which actually reminded us quite a lot of East London, and my Liverpool home, with its self-confident reincarnation of an old dockside economy into an artistic and cultural hub. It’s also only a half hour drive from the seaside – beautiful stretches of sandy, salty beaches. This meant I could indulge my passion for swimming in the sea which was fabulous, but had a downside in Anna’s throwaway comment of “Isn’t it funny the way wearing a swimming costume makes your tummy look like there’s a baby growing in it, Mummy?”. In an older child that might have been cheeky, but this was said with complete innocence and, thank God, a complete lack of consciousness that a rounded stomach might not necessarily be a positive thing. I’ve decided to take comfort from the fact that this observation clearly means that I don’t look pregnant the 98% of the time I’m not in swimwear, and to renew my resolution to do more exercise once Anna starts school.

We went with friends whose little boy is Anna’s best friend from nursery, and they had such a lovely time playing together:

“Daddy, when me and S are staying in the same house, it’s just like we’re twins, isn’t it?”

Add that to the fact that the home exchange family whose house we were staying in had left us with custody of their two cats, two chickens, two fish and one bunny rabbit, not to mention sandpit, paddling pool, trampoline, swing and slide, and you begin to see why we’re developing a miserable conviction that no other holiday we take Anna on will ever quite match up to this one. Although I was reassured yesterday when she confided, “Mummy, I really, really, really like holidays, but I like our house most of all.” Phew.

 

 

 

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.