Lego fun time
Lego fun time

I received a panicked text from F at around 1pm. ‘There’s something we’ve forgotten. I just know it.’

We were planning a joint birthday party for our two sons. We had been living and breathing the party for the past two months. I’d wake up in the morning to a flurry of emails from F, with ideas for party activities, goody bag fillers, decorations and cake recipes. I would reply, telling myself I wouldn’t spend more than ten minutes on the party planning before getting on with my day. There was writing to be done as well as bringing up my two active children. There was no way I was wasting my day in minutiae. Before I knew it though, half my morning would have disappeared. My days became full of plans, of budgets and contingencies. We met a couple of times a week for coffee and planning sessions, and as D-Day loomed, our coffees turned to drinks. We were both all too capable of micro managing – no compliment to either of us – but by the morning of the party, we were sure we had everything in hand. All that needed to be done was to get everyone ready.

‘Relax,’ I replied. ‘We’ve got everything in hand.’

‘I don’t know.’

‘What’s the worst that could happen?’ I asked, and in a moment of premature insouciance suggested that the greatest worry we faced was a catfight between the school’s two feuding mothers.

We arrived at the venue with a quarter of an hour to spare. We had hired out a soft play facility for the first hour of the party, with a room booked at a nearby restaurant for the meal and cakes. We hovered around the management desk, and reconfirmed our booking for the soft play centre.

‘Yes,’ the manager said. ‘You’re booked in from 4-5.’

‘There’s a party in there at the moment.’

‘They’ll be asked to leave before your time will begin,’ he told us confidently.

We nodded, straightened out our children’s hair, and waited for the guests to arrive. A few minutes before four, the manager approached us. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, ‘but it looks like the party in there has another hour left on its contract.’

‘But we booked the 4-5 slot.’

‘Yes you did,’ he agreed. ‘and we have them down as having booked the 3-4 slot, but they have a contract that says 3-5pm.’

We saw red. A couple of guests had begun to arrive, and we were faced with the prospect of telling them there was no party. That they would just have to loiter for an hour before returning for their meal. We expressed our frustrations to the manager, and he consulted his notes again.

‘And, I said. ‘I called yesterday to reconfirm. You said everything was in order.’

He looked up nervously.

‘You should have flagged up any problems then.’

‘Well …’ he hedged.

As we readied ourselves for battle, he blurted, ‘I will talk to the other party …’

There were at least 10 guests at the door by this time. We greeted them, and as we explained our predicament to them, my phone beeped. A last minute cancellation. F looked up from her phone in exasperation; she had had a cancellation too. We would have to change the table settings at the restaurant. Then we spotted a new problem. There were two unexpected guests in the throng. We had handed out invitations over a month ago, and set a two week deadline for RSVPs. We were providing customised goody bags, and had needed notice to organise all the details. Some guests hadn’t replied, and we had assumed they weren’t attending. Now we saw an unaccounted for mother-son duo happily tripping in.

‘Aren’t we going in?’ asked the mother breezily, pointing towards the queue by the door.

F and I looked at each other. Before we could reply, the manager returned and told us the other party was vacating the soft play facility.

We walked in, and as the children flooded in to play, F turned to me accusingly. ‘What’s the worst that could happen, you asked!’

‘My bad.’

‘The centre was double booked. We almost didn’t have a party. We’ve had cancellations and unexpected guests.’

But there was no time to talk. We had lost time in gaining access to the soft play centre and now we were due at the restaurant to sort out last minute details. We reorganised table arrangements and place settings, rushed to prepare an emergency goody bag for the unexpected guest, and before we knew it, it was time for the children to come in to eat.

‘I hope nothing else goes wrong,’ I said darkly.

The rest of the party passed in a blur. We seated the children and made sure they were fed. We averted seating plan disasters. We made sure the warring mothers were at opposite ends of the room. We spoke to friends and made sure they had drinks. We took photos. We didn’t notice when glasses of prosecco were pressed into our hands. We didn’t notice the children flood to the activity table we had so painstakingly prepared. For a brief, unseeing moment, we didn’t take in their sated smiles, their delight at the Lego and the worksheets and the face painter we had organised. We didn’t see their faces light up to see the Lego themed cupcakes we had baked for them.

Cake time

We did notice with relief that here were no other disasters.  The children were happy and occupied. There were no tears or tantrums. There was no clinging to parents. The parents were happy socialising too. There were no catfights.

And as the guests began to leave, the compliments began to flow. And we finally saw – in spite of the foreseen and unforeseen disasters – that the party had been the happy, relaxed occasion we had hoped it to be. We piled into our cars, the children fell fast asleep, and we realised this was now our moment.

F and I slipped out for a quick meal. ‘What’s the worst that could happen,’ she said to me, and we both laughed. We no longer needed to anticipate catastrophe.  The sun was still out, the weather was mild, and our worries were behind us. A passing child waved to us, and as we smiled back at her, we realised that this was finally our moment to savour the party that had consumed us so entirely and for so long.

My Weekend Away

I could have picked a better time to go away.  The groceries I had ordered hadn’t arrived, and the meals I had planned to leave for them hadn’t been prepared.  My family – husband, 5 year old son, 2 year old daughter – would have to fend for themselves.  I imagined them eating junk all weekend – pizzas, burgers, endless sugar.  And they weren’t in the peak of health either.  My son had a cold, and my daughter was in the middle of potty training.  The cold could be dealt with, but it was the potty training that really worried me.  I was certain my husband would buckle under the pressure of accidents, dirty laundry and our daughter’s tears, and that he would soon have her back in nappies.
‘Don’t worry,’ said my husband, as I packed. ‘We’ll be fine’.
I closed my eyes with dread.  I would have my weekend’s break to write in, but I fretted I would return to baby armegeddon.  I imagined soiled carpets; unwashed dishes; my children noxious from too much sugar and too much TV.
And then I left.  After about an hour, I checked in on things at home.  They were sitting around the kitchen table, eating fruits and reading a story.  So far, so good, I thought.
I got to my station.  My phone reception started waning.  I reached the retreat I was booked in to for three nights, and here too, there was no reception.  There was some internet access, so I could keep in touch with my loved ones, and a landline where they called me once a day, but that was it. No mobile reception; no texts; no endless Twitter updates.  No keeping in touch with everyone.  I grumbled for a while, but in hindsight, this communication blackout was the biggest boon to me.
For better or worse, the members of my family were shackled to each other.  They would survive a few days without me.  In any case, there was nothing I could do about it.
I set to work.  My lovely hosts Deb and Bob at Retreats for You took care of everything.  Forget helping lay the table, we were actively – and assertively – discouraged from even tidying away our dirty plates.  We got three generous meals a day as well as far too many sweet treats.  All food preferences were catered for.  On my stay, there were coeliacs, vegans, and mere eccentrics like me – eating chicken and fish but no red meat – and Deb somehow managed to cater for all our requirements.  There was a roaring fire in the living room; there were hot water bottles in our beds at night.  There was good wine and stimulating company at night, and we were free to have our meal served in our room if the muse proved intractable.  There was a library filled with books, our clothes were washed for us and our jugs of water automatically refilled.  There were bracing walks at our doorstep if we needed inspiration.
All our needs were taken care of, and all we needed to do was to write.  In the beginning, it was hard.  I found I had the attention span of a goldfish, and I suppose our lifestyles – with a million competing demands on our attention – are to blame.  I always thought I was good at multi-tasking, but perhaps I was sacrificing my focus.  Now though, I had no distraction.  No excuse not to work.  Not one single one.
So I wrote.  Haltingly at first, but then with increasing fluency.  I went for walks, I ate too much, and I finally sorted out the plot of a novel that has been inhabiting my consciousness for the best part of a year.  I now know my protagonists’ names.  I know what they look like; I know how they interact with each other.  I know what drives them.
For my new knowledge of this world of my creation, my eternal thanks go to the gracious team of Deb and Bob.  They allowed me space to escape my worries and to inhabit my characters’ worlds.  They let me loose on their house in a dressing gown and slippers, and they let me imagine for four heady, treasured days.
And my children?  They had a blast.  They went to the park, practised their tennis, spent time with their father.  They did eat more junk food than I’d like, but then it was a break for them too.  And my daughter is still out of her nappies.  There have been accidents, but everyone has survived.  And as for me, I’ve been able to breathe in my book’s air, and that is worth more than I can ever express.