Fourteenth Day of Advent: Henry Cat

I had wanted a pet ever since our dog died when I was about nine, but first parents and then husband weren’t keen. The mouse infestation proved the incentive husband needed to change his mind, and just over two years ago we adopted kittens, Henry and Percy. kittens1

From the start they were very different characters. Percy was an escape artist – as a tiny kitten, before he had had his vaccinations and was allowed outside, he managed to climb out of the bathroom window which I had left open a fraction, and scramble down the drain pipe. As soon as he was allowed out he would spend most of the day away from home, hunting and exploring. Then maybe two or three days at a time. Then he would only come home if it was raining. And for the last few months he hasn’t been home at all. I assume he is getting fed elsewhere, or has just adopted a totally feral lifestyle. We’ve done all the usual things to try and trace him, and he is microchipped, but to no avail. I just don’t think he was suited to a domestic cat lifestyle.

henry 1His brother Henry, by contrast, seems to think he is a dog. Certainly no-one has ever told him that cats are supposed to be independent. He is the most home-loving cat you can imagine. He isn’t supposed to go in the bedrooms as husband is slightly allergic to cats, and so I don’t want fur all over the beds. One evening when I was out, husband had gone into the bedroom and started ironing shirts. Henry miaowed outside the door for a while, cross at being left alone, but then subsided. A few minutes later he felt claws on his shoulder and a satisfied purring in his ear. Henry had gone downstairs, out of the catflap at the back, climbed over the wall and then up the drain pipe and in at the open bedroom window because he really didn’t like being left on his own.

If we go out at a time he wasn’t expecting we always come home to find him sitting in the hall waiting for us. henry 2

He is incredibly gentle and loving with Sophia, for which I am extremely grateful, and submits to all sorts of affectionately meant abuse. In fact he seems to welcome it, because he is well able to climb out of her way but rarely chooses too.

He tolerates his veterinary-approved, eye-wateringly expensive dry cat food, but his true love is Whiskas Chunks in Jelly. Opening a pouch of that brings him at a sprint from any corner of the house. He turns his little nose up at fresh chicken, salmon or sardines. He’s not even that partial t milk or cream. But Whiskas is his opium. He really should be on a TV advert for it.

He is satisfyingly cuddly, sometimes overly affectionate if I am trying to type or eat, and he is equally determined that all my attention should be firmly on him. If I have Anna on my knee for a story he will try and insinuate himself between us. He does henry 3relaxed and somnolent like you wouldn’t believe, and just watching him sleep can relax me.

The kittens came to live with us just after Anna started school, and the timing was incredibly fortuitous. At that point I’d had several miscarriages, and then had some tests which seemed to show it was unlikely I would ever be able to carry a healthy baby to term. My deep longing for a second baby seemed doomed to remain unfulfilled, and the house suddenly very empty with Anna out of it for six hours each day. The kittens, especially Henry, brought some life and warmth and cuddles when I most needed them, and they needed me which washenry4 hugely helpful.

I am a little sad that Percy has chosen not to live with us, but trying to make a fireside cat out of him always felt slightly like trying to keep a robin in a cage. But Henry is the most loved and loving of domestic cats, and I am so happy we have him.

A romantic evening

I may have mentioned a while ago that I was lucky enough to have Two for Joy shortlisted for the RNA Contemporary Romantic Novel of the Year Award. Monday just gone was the big night where we discovered who had won in each category (Contemporary, Historical, Comedy, Young Adult and Epic), and who had won the overall Romantic Novel of the Year Award.

This meant a big glitzy award ceremony in Central London, of the kind I’ve never been to before. Just planning what to wear was exciting – I don’t have many chances to dress up like that. In the end I settled on a black silk dress which I’ve had for years. It’s slightly fifties style with a very full circular skirt, the top layer of which is sheer, floaty tulle. I felt pretty sure that I’ve read numerous magazine articles over the years assuring me that you can’t go wrong with an LBD. I also have a narrow, emerald green belt which looked good with it, and I successfully (miraculously) bid for a  pair of patent leather high heels on Ebay in the exact matching shade of green. My final bargain was a £3 necklace, from the BHS sale of all places, a Y shaped one with delicate pale green crystal flowers and leaves which looked perfect in the deep v-neck of the dress.

One of the casualties of my post-child life is time to get ready. I remember as a teenager that the getting ready was the best bit of a night out. My group of friends would all get together, usually at Julie’s house, and we’d do each other’s make-up and borrow each other’s clothes while singing along to the radio and gossiping about who might pull who. It’s been a while since I did that, but until Anna was born I used to enjoy a long soak in the bath, carefully blow-drying my hair, painting my nails, experimenting with make-up before I went out. Now, not only do I not go out that often, but when I do I normally have to get ready in about ten minutes flat while simultaneously reading Anna her bedtime story and feeding the cats.

I was determined that this time it would be different. The event started at 6pm, and I’d arranged for my friend (thank you Haf!) to pick Anna up from school and give her tea. I’d booked an appointment for 3pm to have my hair blow dried, and then I could spend an hour or so pampering and preening and trying out my new Benefits make-up. Ha ha ha.

The day didn’t start particularly well when I came home after the school run and supermarket shop to find Percy (the black catten) playing with a dead mouse in the hall. I’m not unaccustomed to dead mouse disposal, but am a little out of practice, and Percy wasn’t particularly keen to relinquish his new toy. Playing tug of war with a dead mouse is pretty grim. And then afterwards I noticed that our mail on the doormat was rather bloodstained. I picked it up gingerly and contemplated throwing it straight out, but then noticed one of the items was a new cheque book, so that had to be de-enveloped and disinfected. I then felt rather unsettled because I wasn’t sure whether this had been a visitor mouse, an outdoor mouse or, most disconcerting possibility, a resident mouse. I had to go on mouse patrol, Dettol spray in hand, checking for ‘signs’ as the disposal people euphemistically call them. They mean droppings. When they say have you noticed any signs, they mean check behind your fridge and along the worktops for mouse poo. Thankfully there were no ‘signs’ on Monday, so I’m keeping my fingers crossed that this was a one-off mouse, and that his fate will filter down the mouse rumour mill to deter others. In medieval times traitors’ severed heads were stuck on spikes over the gate into the town as a dire warning. Maybe that’s what I should have done with our dead mouse…

Anyway, after this I wasn’t feeling particularly glamorous, so I decided to go for a walk and have lunch in a cafe to try and recover my equilibrium. It was while checking my emails that I saw the one from my publicist checking that I was ok to be at the venue for 4.30pm for photos and interviews before the main event. Arrgghh! Given that, a) This was the first I’d heard of a 4.30pm start, b) It was now 2.30pm and I was in jeans and a possibly-mouse-bloodstained-tshirt with unwashed hair and no make up, and c) It would take me an hour to get to the venue, I could say with a fair amount of confidence that a 4.30pm arrival was not going to be ok.

Feeling rather stressed I quickly got in touch with the event organisers and explained there’d obviously been a mix up, and managed to get my deadline moved to 5.15pm. I then raced home and got ready in the twenty minutes I had to spare before my hair appointment. I then painted my nails while my hair was dried, and booked a taxi to take me straight from the hairdressers to the station. And made it just on (the revised) time.

I’d been so stressed by the time problem that at least I’d forgotten to be nervous, which is probably just as well. Suddenly I was plunged into a very glitzy, chandelier bedecked room, with views over the river and the London Eye, and uncomfortably aware that I knew no-one. Within seconds I was having my photo taken with the other shortlistees, including Lisa Jewell, who is one of my alltime favourite authors. Afterwards I got chatting to her, and Jenny Colgan (as you do) and was completely charmed by how lovely, and nice and normal they were. And how patient they were with my starstruck babbling. Over the course of the evening I also chatted to Veronica Henry, Chris Manby, Katie Fforde and lots of other lovely and talented writers. And drank quite a few glasses of bubbly.

I didn’t win the award. Veronica Henry won both my category and the overall award with the fabulous A Night on the Orient Express. I’m thrilled that a book I really love won, and, cliche though it may be, just felt so honoured to have been there, to have been shortlisted, to be a part of it all. And in one of the best bits of the evening, I discovered that if you want to turn a roomful of (mainly) female authors who are (mainly) over thirty into what seems like a group of ten year old girls at a One Direction concert, then you need to give Helen Fielding a lifetime achievement award and let her make a speech. She’s just as funny as you would expect, and hearing her talk really was the icing on the cake of an amazing evening for me.

When we were thirty-two

Today is my birthday eve. I write this whilst consuming the last brownie I will ever eat as a 32 year old. Well, unless I go and order another one, they’re very good.

Thirty-two was a pretty significant age for me, in both positive and negative ways. And while I believe that New Year’s Resolutions are for September, I think that your birthday should be the opportunity to review and reflect on the year just gone. And now that I’m a blogger well, hey, why not inflict these musings on the world at large. It’s my birthday and I’ll indulge in self-absorbed naval gazing if I want to.

So, here’s my list, in chronological order, of Significant Things that happened to me while I was thirty-two:

1) I co-hosted my first children’s birthday party. Somehow, without my really being aware of it, the decision was taken that for a 4th birthday party, two children, some cocktail sausages and a cake wouldn’t really cut the mustard, and we were looking at something on a different scale altogether. Thankfully it was also decided that Anna would share her party with her best friend, and so there were two sets of parents to share the pain.

2) I discovered, to my delight, that I was pregnant. I had a scan, saw my baby complete with heartbeat, and everything seemed to be going well until…

3)…I had a miscarriage. Except I didn’t properly. A scan showed that that miraculous little heartbeat had stopped, but the pregnancy hadn’t ended naturally so I needed an operation charmingly known as Evacuation of Retained Products of Conception (ERPC). This was undoubtedly the worst day of being thirty-two, quite possibly my worst day ever. Yet I still think back almost fondly and nostalgically to it because, despite the pain, every day which has passed since that cruellest April has taken me further away from having my baby growing inside me.

4) I learnt, or re-learnt, just how lucky I am in my friends and family. While I felt like my world was crumbling, they stepped in and picked up the pieces for me and, most importantly, continued to provide Anna with the love and stability she needed.

5) I should have gone to Copenhagen, but was otherwise engaged (see above), and ended up going to Amsterdam instead for a bank holiday weekend. It’s a beautiful city, and we had a lovely weekend, but I suspect it will be a long time before I can think of it and not feel sad.

6) We successfully negotiated the school admissions system, and my daughter was offered a place at our first choice school. I have never known relief like it.

7) I had my first book, Two for Joy published. The launch was so special and memorable, it kind of felt like getting married all over again. And once more I realised how blessed I am with my family, friends and community.

8) We went to Nantes for a wonderful holiday with Anna’s best friend and his parents, and made the discovery that 4:2 adults to children is a very pleasing ratio, and one which allowed for a far more relaxed holiday than we’ve experienced of recent years.

9) We went to Corsica, just the three of us, and had a perfect, golden time. We ate lots of seafood, spaghetti and ice cream, went for gentle walks, swam in the sea and read lots of books. It was total bliss.

10) I waved my daughter goodbye on her first day of school. I’m still finding it hard to make the adjustment to the fact that this little scrap of a person who, surely, was a baby just yesterday, now has an independent life of her own. But she does, and I’m so proud of her for how well she has adjusted to it. And that her teacher described her as one of the most imaginative children she has ever met.

11) We adopted two kittens. It’s hard to believe that they’re only seven months old tomorrow, because it feels like they’ve always been part of our family. We’ve adjusted to eye-watering vet bills, ruined furniture, muddy paw prints on kitchen floor and the changing of litter trays. They’ve adjusted to our unreasonable refusal to let them eat our dinners off our plates (fish pie is their favourite) and to my daughter’s (and mother-in-law’s!) insatiable and determined desire to cuddle them whether they want to be cuddled or not. Like all the best relationships, compromise and understanding is always the key to success. Which leads me on to…

12) I celebrated my 3rd wedding anniversary, which was also the 14th anniversary of getting together with my husband. Mathematically able readers will spot that we’ve been together since we were eighteen, and, cliche though it undoubtedly is, I love him more and more each year. Becoming parents added a new and hugely positive dimension to our relationship as loving our daughter so much made us love each other all the more. And his extraordinary tenderness and caring has enabled me to cope, just about, with the loss of three pregnancies. I try not to plan for my daughter’s future too much because I don’t want to fall into the trap of living out my ambitions through her, but I do very much hope that she ends up in a relationship as happy as mine.

13) Concerned that even my ‘fat’ clothes were feeling tight, I decided to buy the first set of scales I have ever owned (well, first set for weighing me as opposed to ingredients for cakes for me to eat) and confront the horrible truth. It was pretty horrible. I have very mixed feelings about weight and dieting, and I deeply resent the idea that women’s worth is somehow linked to their dress size. However. I don’t want to put myself at increased risk of cancer, heart disease or diabetes through insensate greed, and my BMI and waist measurement were warning me that I was in danger of doing just that. So I joined WeightWatchers and have lost 18lbs. I’m now the same size as I was before having Anna (hello lovely leather pencil skirt I could never bring myself to throw away), and, although far from skinny, my BMI is now a healthy 23 and I feel absolutely great.

14) I signed a publishing contract for my second novel, To Have and to Hold, which will be published in June, and I wrote the first few chapters of my third book.

15) I hosted Christmas, and discovered that it’s all a lot easier when you’re not ill. I baked, cooked, cleaned, shopped, cleaned, tidied and even wrapped a little, and it was all very lovely.

16) I joined with the rest of the family to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday. We had a great time, ate a lot of cake and, hopefully, made my dad feel a little bit spoiled as 99.9% of the time he is the one looking after the rest of us. My dad is a long-term and passionate supporter of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and, incredibly, the weekend he celebrated his 60th birthday they won their match 6-o. That really was the icing on his cake.

So there we go. My year in a nutshell. I was going to come up with 32 things about being thirty-two, but, re-reading this list, I now feel that 16 is more than enough. The other things which have made up my year are the day to day activities, shopping, cleaning, cooking, reading, playing with my daughter, baking, curling up with my husband, a dvd and a takeaway, chatting with friends, writing, walking, gardening, tidying, days out in London and further afield, visiting my parents, eating cake…and if I have a wish for my 34th year, it is that none of those things change.

Hair today

I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks because I’ve been incredibly busy finishing my second novel, To Have and to Hold. I say ‘finishing’, what I actually mean is producing a sufficient number of words of sufficiently high standard to submit to my editor before my 15th October deadline. There are then many more iterations before it actually becomes the novel which will, all being well, be published next May. And I’ve done it. A few  people are reading it through for me, and then no doubt there’ll be changes and corrections, but right now I can bask in a sense of achievement, and relax after the enormous stress I always feel when I’m working to a deadline.

Prior to becoming a writer I had no real idea of the length of time it takes for a book, even a so-called finished book, to actually make it into print. I’m not alone – when I’ve mentioned to friends that I have to finish my next book by mid-October, the most common response is “Oh, out in time for Christmas, then?” Not quite. Although, when Hodder and Stoughton get to the point where they’re advertising a ‘new Helen Chandler’ for Christmas then I’ll know I’ve really arrived. And in the meantime, Two for Joy would, of course, make a wonderful Christmas present for yourself or someone else…

So today is pretty much the first day since Anna started school that I haven’t dropped her off at 9am, raced home, written madly for five hours and fifty-five minutes before racing to pick her up again. I went to the hairdressers to have my hair restored to its, ahem, natural blonde, as in the five months since I last had highlights an alarming amount of brown root had begun to appear. People often comment that Anna and I have exactly the same hair, and they’re right – texture, colour and style are all pretty similar. The difference is that I have to pay best part of £100 four times a year to keep mine looking like this, whereas her blonde highlights in light brown hair are entirely natural. As indeed were mine aged four.

Then I came home, ate lunch, did a load of laundry, fed the kittens, baked a cake for a friend to say thank you for a favour, and now I have just under half an hour to blog before pick-up time. Six hours can vanish pretty quickly, I’m discovering.

I now have two kittens climbing all over me and my laptop, indicating in their not-very-subtle fashion that they’d appreciate a bit of attention, so I’d better go.  Any typos this week, blame them.

Hello Kittens

This is Day Five with our new kittens, Percy (black) and Henry (tabby) and I’m already forcibly reminded of those early days with a newborn baby, though with a few notable exceptions.kittens1

One similarity is the clearing up of poo. Thankfully Percy and Henry are pretty well trained, but their arrival chez nous was rather complicated by the fact that Percy had had a little accident in the cat carrier on the way here. He’s a very fluffy kitten, with quite long hair, and it took ten minutes of my friend holding him over the sink while I attacked him with baby wipes to get him clean. Possibly she was marginally less wriggly, and definitely less fluffy,  but it was very reminiscent of my husband and I trying to change our 8 week old daughter’s very dirty nappy in an old-fashioned train toilet with no changing table. The difference, of course, is that at 10 weeks old the kittens are litter trained bar the odd accident, and it took me three years to get my daughter to that stage.

Another similarity is the struggle to give medicine to a small animate being who doesn’t want to take it. We had to give our kittens three doses of worming medicine on three consecutive days. Day One I cheerfully grabbed a kitten, grabbed the syringe, and then realised I had no free hand with which to open mouth, and, in fact, that one hand was proving grossly inadequate to restrain a kitten who had clearly got the idea he wasn’t going to like this. We tried again when my husband got home, and dose one was (eventually) successfully given. Day Two was even more problematic. I stupidly let my husband toddle off to work at 7.30am, forgetting that he had an evening event and wouldn’t be home before 11pm (way after my bedtime), and the kittens hadn’t yet had their daily dose. I tried to draft Anna in to help me, but frankly (and, arguably, predictably) she was about as much use as a chocolate teapot, because every time the kitten wriggled she just let go. A cat-owning friend who also has children at Anna’s school volunteered (translation: was guilt-tripped) to come home with me to help, and embarrassingly she was the one who got scratched. I felt very bad. This morning, Day Three, husband tried to make good his escape with an airy ‘see you tonight, darling’, but I was ready for him. Deploying tactics similar to those used on the kittens I prevented him leaving until the third (and thankfully final) dose had been administered. It was him who got scratched today. Not by me, I hasten to add. I’ve now been advised by another cat-owning friend that wrapping a towel around is the best way to contain them, and I will definitely try that in future. On the cats, rather than my husband that is.Percy

The third similarity I’ve noticed is probably just me, but, as when Anna was a baby, I keep panicking that the kittens have stopped breathing. They’re still very small and so need a lot of sleep, and they seem to sleep so deeply, and breathe so shallowly that I start to panic, and find myself lying next to them, hand on back to try and feel breathing, or hear signs of life. I know. It is just me.

The final similarity is cost. Thankfully we have a free at the point of need NHS which takes care of a baby’s health needs, whereas kittens have to be expensively treated at the vet’s. However, medical care aside, one of the things I remember about being pregnant is that when someone tells you you need a piece of kit – cot, pram, sling, high chair, bouncy chair – without much questioning you simply hand over your credit card, only to result in shock-induced early labour when the bill finally comes through. Same with the kittens. The vet told me they needed flea treatment, worming, vaccinations, specially formulated kitten food etc etc, and it all seemed eminently reasonable. Until I saw the bottom line. Eek. A baby might actually be cheaper, at least I could breastfeed them.

Other similarities are more akin to looking after a toddler than a newborn – insatiable curiosity, determination to make a beeline for the one thing you don’t want them to have, manic jealousy of any animate or inanimate object they feel is getting too much of your attention. The kittens are constantly trying to bat my hands away from the laptop, just as Anna used to do.

The biggest difference is that you don’t have to get up several times a night to feed and comfort kittens. I was worried about leaving them on their own at night, but as my husband has a cat allergy and so we’re keeping them out of the bedroom, there wasn’t any real alternative. And they seem fine. They have the run of the kitchen and dining room, with their bed (as yet unslept in, they prefer our furniture of course), litter tray, food and water and seem perfectly happy with that. Henry

And they’re utterly adorable. They always sleep curled up together, which is incredibly endearing, and when they’re awake they either go completely crazy chasing each other’s tails, which is also very cute, or they’re mega affectionate, and climb on to my lap for cuddles and strokes, purring like mini steam engines. Last night I had what is perhaps the ultimate comfort experience as I sat, in my pyjamas, eating a bowl of homemade chilli, watching Great British Bake Off, with two sleeping kittens on my lap. Autumn evening bliss.