Another spanner in the works
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
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.