Another span­ner in the works

The Daily Telegraph - Saturday - - Front Page -

Ihave been try­ing hard to cook nice things. For some this is sim­ply an op­por­tu­nity for com­edy. “I see the lat­est su­per­mar­ket data shows the ‘big shop’ is dead,” my part­ner Su­sanna says from be­hind her iPad. “Fam­i­lies of­ten don’t know what they are eat­ing un­til 4pm the same day.”

“So what?” I say, fid­dling un­cer­tainly with a gar­nish.

“I of­ten don’t know what I’m eat­ing un­til I’ve fin­ished and you tell me what it is,” she snorts.

I let her have her mo­ment. I am on a mis­sion. You see, I seek the re­spect and ap­proval of her youngest, Natasha.

Since we moved in, her el­dest, Freya, has blended ef­fort­lessly. She will ask for a lift. She will ask for a cup of tea. I feel ac­cepted. The blended fam­ily works.

But Natasha won’t ask me for any­thing. Even if I am sit­ting right next to the ketchup bot­tle, she asks her mum to pass it to her. If I ask whether she’d like her favourite, mac­a­roni cheese, she an­swers her mum. It wor­ries me.

“I don’t think she’s happy,” I tell Su­sanna.

“She’s fine. Just keep plug­ging away,” she replies. So I make mac­a­roni cheese. Un­for­tu­nately I am am­bushed by one of my chil­dren ask­ing why I am mak­ing a spe­cial meal for a child from another blood­line and so, by the time I pull it out of the oven, it looks like a piece of ev­i­dence from an air crash in­ves­ti­ga­tion. “The right mo­ment will come,” Su­sanna soothes, as I hack it from the pan. Next day I get another

chance.

It’s sunny and Natasha is ey­ing the bikes out­side. One of them has a punc­ture. I see her bite her lip and make a phone call. Im­me­di­ately af­ter­wards I get a text from Su­sanna say­ing, “Stand by.”

Natasha walks into the liv­ing room.

“Michael, do you know how to fix a punc­ture?”

In my head all I hear is the Dam­busters theme. I throw down my work and go at the bike with span­ners and tyre levers.

It takes five min­utes, quicker than I could have hoped. In fact, it’s too easy. I just don’t feel heroic enough. And so I raise the sad­dle. I test the bell. Then I give a short talk on the Tour de France, fo­cus­ing on how there is no shame in even the proud­est rider lean­ing across and ask­ing for help from the support ve­hi­cle from time to time.

“I’m only go­ing to Pri­mark,” Natasha says, to­tally be­mused.

Through the back door I no­tice Rosa, my youngest, watch­ing with a scowl.

“I can’t be­lieve how you’re act­ing like Natasha is sud­denly the most im­por­tant per­son in the world,” she hisses.

I know this has to be han­dled care­fully. I try to think of an anal­ogy a 21st-cen­tury kid will un­der­stand.

“You know when a mo­bile phone company of­fers an amaz­ing new tar­iff to new cus­tomers only?” I ask. “Well, you are an old cus­tomer. Spe­cial treats aren’t in your deal.”

She slopes off. I wheel out the pris­tine bike.

Natasha looks pleased. She flashes a brief smile and then rings her mum to say thank you for get­ting me to fix it. A bit oblique but I take it as a sign of progress.

And then she sets off down the road and I en­joy a bliss­ful in­ter­lude of sat­is­fac­tion.

I am the hero who holds this blended fam­ily to­gether. A max­i­mum 30 seconds later there is a blood-cur­dling scream and the sound of a high-speed im­pact with a wheelie bin.

“She’s crashed!” Rosa cries, run­ning out­side. I follow at an am­ble. To be hon­est I am think­ing, “I’ve done my bit, I can’t be held re­spon­si­ble for a child be­ing un­able to steer a bike.”

Rosa drags the bin off her and brings her home with a skinned knee and the plas­tic wrap­per from a rather de­li­cious tar­ragon and thyme chicken ready-meal stuck to her fore­head.

“How the hell could you not miss a wheelie bin?” I ask when she is on the sofa, Bil­lie lick­ing her clean.

“I didn’t. I crashed into it on pur­pose. It was ei­ther that or head down the hill with­out brakes.”

I don’t like the look in her eyes.

“They’re def­i­nitely un­done,” cries Rosa, ex­am­in­ing the twisted ma­chine. “Are you sure you re­con­nected them after chang­ing the tyre?”

I go cold. Even a bit faint. I have had a few “se­nior mo­ments” re­cently: car keys left in the door, cauliflower cheese left in the oven. But noth­ing ap­proach­ing neg­li­gent man­slaugh­ter.

All par­ents fail. I know a mother who jumped onto a bouncy cas­tle, launch­ing her four-year-old into the ceil­ing of a play cen­tre. I know a fa­ther who fell asleep with his daugh­ter on a train and woke up to find the starv­ing child try­ing to breastfeed from the woman sit­ting next to him.

Mis­takes are in­evitable. But now Natasha trusts me less than ever. She even flinches when I pass the salt.

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