One in a Million.

Today I got home, grabbed my camera, and shot right out again. Nature had slapped me in the face and got me thinking. Today’s lesson in life, provided courtesy of the flora and fauna of the local vineyards, is as follows: If you are tempted at times to see yourself as plain, ordinary and insignificant in the great scheme of things, think again. You are an essential part of the big picture. You’re one in a million.  Here’s the proof.  Have a beautiful day.

ORDINARY?

                                           ORDINARY?

 

EXTRAORDINARY.

                                             EXTRAORDINARY!

 

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Hello, I have storks in my garden……

Looking out of the window and discovering a face staring down at you is one thing. Discovering that the visitor is the equivalent of Sesame Street’s Big Bird and that he’s brought his pals along with him is even more amazing. Check out these storks, who have migrated over from Africa and have apparently decided to spend the night in my garden, just in front of my bedroom window. I hope they won’t be leaving any parcels on the doorstep when they leave…..

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Who’s coming for a walk?

As I have said so many times before, the best things in life are free. Do you fancy a short break from whatever you’re doing? Come on! Let’s go for a walk together with Smelly Dog. The Tramontane wind has driven the clouds away leaving beautiful, luminous blue skies, and it would be a crime not to make the most of it. Wherever you are – Britain, Serbia, Australia, Malaysia, Canada, Indonesia, Germany, India, Croatia, Italy, Dubai or elsewhere – drag on a pair of trainers, an anorak and a warm hat, and join me in my playground: the gorges de l’Hérault in the south of France.

The vineyards are waiting solemnly for the sweltering heat of the summer. Their gnarled, knotted branches thrust out of the freshly churned earth in disciplined lines, pointing defiantly at the sun like accusing, arthritic old fingers.

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Walk through the olive yard over a soft carpet of green, and turn suddenly when you hear a loud buzzing beside your ear. Apologise profusely to two bugs who – for lack of a better expression – are full of the joys of spring, and feel uncomfortably like a voyeur as you admire the petrol-like reflections on their kingfisher blue and turquoise wings. Then wonder how Mrs Bug manages to hang on to that olive leaf with Mr Bug flapping away on her back like that. She must be one tough lady, with claws that would scare the pants off Godzilla.

Oops, sorry to disturb you....

Oops, sorry to disturb you….

The fruit trees are blossoming in line near the stone cabanon. Their branches are swaying in the wind, and they look like giggling girls all dressed in pink and lined up to square dance.

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Turn and walk up the uneven limestone lane, and look up to see a vivid yellow, sunny mimosa tree swaying in the wind. Close your eyes and breathe in its heady fragrance. Look closely at the blossom – the perfectly round balls of delicately perfumed colour perched along delicate stems take you back to the illustrations of your childhood Dr Seuss books. Look closer again, and wonder at the perfection of the tiny filaments that each offer up pollen to visiting insects. Then get taken by a childish desire to draw beaks on them and turn them into chicks.

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Drop your camera lens cap on the ground in your hurry to change lenses. When you crouch down to pick it up, bump into Billy Idol the caterpillar making his way with difficulty through the grass as his punky hair-do gets tangled up in the greenery. Maybe he’s on his way to the hairdresser’s to ask for a short back and sides.

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As you stand up, you get knocked over by Smelly Dog, who has bunny-hopped through the long grass towards you. I could swear she’s laughing….

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Lie in the grass with Smelly Dog, soak up the sun and let your senses sharpen. Take in the undefinable, fabulously pure blue colour of the sky. The plaintive cry of the buzzard. The bossy chatting of the tits and finches, the rasping smoker’s cough of the crows. The far-off sound of human voices chips into the natural concert: the wine growers must be coaching up their protégés to produce the best wine for the coming season. The distant, gut-wrenching howls of hunting dogs as they move in on their prey in the forest. The wind rustling the leaves in the olive tree above you. The smell of the mimosa and of freshly-ploughed earth. The surprising chill of the gust of wind that hits your cheek as the Tramontane reminds you that winter is not over. Not yet.

Now let’s go home for a hot chocolate. Thanks for the company. And please don’t remind me that I’ve forgotten my camera lens cover: I know. It’s still in the grass with Billy Idol.

In The Doghouse.

In French, there is a great expression : « Qui aime bien, châtie bien ». This directly translates as « the more you love someone, the harder you are on them », but it is generally translated into the English expression « spare the rod and spoil the child ».  This is particularly true in my case, and on the rare occasions that I’m in a paddy with P.F, my revenge can be terrible. Before we got married, I was so mad with him that I waited until he was fast asleep then took a handful of shaving gel and gently smoothed it up his lower leg before shaving a strip wide enough for a Boeing to land on along the length of his shin. Needless to say, he couldn’t wear shorts for a while. Other favourites include drawing on him with marker pen and putting ochre coloured pine cones that strangely resembled cat poo under the quilt on his side of the bed. M.M is one volatile chick: get her angry at your peril.

 

One weekend back in December, P.F was in the dog house for reasons that will not be explained here, but have nothing to do with buxom blondes, betting or swapping my mother for six camels. I was so majorly miffed that when I stopped the car at a red light and saw a beaming bride in the car next to me on her way to her wedding, I was inches from dragging her out of the back seat and telling her to hitch up her soft, ivory silk meringue and run as fast as her legs could carry her in the opposite direction. Yep, I was mad.

 

My revenge tactics have mellowed with time and three children, so come evening, I decided to gather up the three P’s ( my pride, my pillow and my PJ’s) and relocate with them to my daughter’s bedroom. The classic withdrawal tactic, in every sense of the word.

 

Contemporary rendering of a poster from the Un...

 

I would remain there until I found the infamous flegme britannique the French mistakenly think is part of my genetic make-up. This term has nothing to do with coughing up phlegm, as we could believe. It in fact refers to the British reputation for being cool, calm and collected, having a stiff upper lip, and otherwise keeping our emotions in check, with dignity, whilst the world goes to pot around us. You know, the behaviour associated with the handlebar moustache-toting, G&T drinking, croquet-playing colonial Brit who is capable of walking on a mine, picking up the leg that’s been blown off and popping it under his arm saying « I’ll sew it back on later, old boy. Now, shall we join Brenda and Rory for a cup of tea? ».

 

Taking refuge in Little My’s lair was not my most original solution for revenge, but getting mad had made me tired, the leather sofa was cold, and smelly dog’s basket was too small for the two of us. Little My was delighted to have company, and we had a girly nail-varnish session before tucking ourselves into bed. After the light had been switched off, we chatted for a while. The subject was fear, on her initiative. It was the second time she had asked me what my biggest fear is, apparently not having believed my initial reply a few months before that parents aren’t scared of anything, because it’s our job not to be sissies. We grab our trusty swords and barge right into battle, defending our kids from everything from monsters under the bed to Gargamel’s bad moods and zombies climbing up the façade of the house. Like the wish you make when you get the biggest bit of the wish-bone in Sunday’s roast chicken, I was going to keep it for myself. But Little My was intent on sniffing out my Achilles heel, and went about it with more determination than Rupert Murdoch on a hunt for a headline.

 

Joan of Arc

M.M escorting Little My to school in full Maternal defender garb. (Photo credit: brx0)

 

She insisted, her little voice carrying clearly through the dark, stable as a rock and pitched with seriousness. I deftly returned the ball with another question: what was her worst fear? Her answer surprised me : « Being the last survivor of our family. I’d hate it if you were all gone and I was on my own ». We’d already been down this road once as we drove through the winding Esterel mountains (see here for details).

 

Dammit, I thought, as I snuggled her in my arms under the Babar quilt.  In the end we both have the same fear, that of outliving those we love. Our reasons were different, though; a ten-year-old imagines the terrifying concept of being alone. Parents imagine the suffocating pain of not having been able to protect their child.  So I finally bit the bullet, and admitted to Little My that my biggest fear is to outlive my children. She was satisfied, said goodnight, and the page was turned.

 

The very next day, a young man entered Sandy Hook school and killed twenty children and six adults in a senseless killing spree. I thought of the parents and families of these twenty-six victims, for whom my own fear has become a reality. Our overwhelming instinct, the pit-of-the-stomach, primitive impulse of parents to see our offspring survive and have a chance to grow old, is frustratingly not enough to protect them in the world we have built for them. I yearn for a world where I can believe in the reassuring, story-book normality of being parents who can disappear from the picture knowing that their children have become self-sufficient adults. Unrealistic, yes. Puerile, yes. I miss that time when I had no knowledge of how unfair life can be, when my memory was untouched by the knowledge that humanity can be so cruel and twisted.

 

Then came the sudden, sobering realisation that petty squabbles and momentarily distancing yourself from someone close is a reckless thing to do, as it would be terrible to never be able to say it didn’t matter.  So now however mad I am, I’m sleeping in my bed. Time to check out some tribal patterns to shave on P.F’s shins, I guess…

 

A view with a room.

One of the things I love about blogging is the interaction with other bloggers. “Homesick and Heatstruck” recently published a bittersweet description of her balcony in Dubai, in which she describes not only the environment she sees from it, but also the sounds and the smells that invade her senses, and the thoughts and feelings that assail her there as an expat girl far from home. She suggested that I do a similar post to share with her. The view from my balcony is completely different. So here it is, H&H!

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Little My on her balcony this morning. © Multifarious meanderings

Little My has the best bedroom in the joint, in so far that she has a real Romeo and Juliette -style balcony. Any budding Cyrano had better watch his step, though; the first poor soul that dares climb up there to recite poetry to my daughter may well find himself facing her disgruntled father, armed with a Black & Decker drill.

Juliette Little My was on her balcony this morning when I sneaked up on her and took this snap. She was soaking up the view and the first rays of sunshine. Arms resting on the black wrought iron and eyes fixed on the horizon, she was dreaming as the wooden shutters with flaking grey paint creaked gently beside her in the spring breeze.

She had just watered her new babies – two garden boxes of delicately coloured, overtly feminine carnations. I pointed enthusiastically at the garish, fun pansies at the garden nursery yesterday, but Little My had already been seduced by their girly neighbours with frilly leaves and was enthusiastically cooing “Ooh, Mamaaaaan, elles sont trop belles!” I couldn’t say no.

I joined my daughter outside, and turned my face to the sun. Closing my eyes, I enjoyed that childhood thrill of seeing nothing but red through my eyelids as I basked in the sunshine. Closing your eyes accentuates the smells and the sounds around you. The smells: fresh earth as PF gardened below, wood smoke as the neighbours burned their garden cuttings, the aroma of fresh coffee wafting out of the neighbour’s open door. The sounds: Bigfoot and Rugby-boy laughing as they threw the rugby ball to and fro. The occasional blaring of car horns on the village bridge, signalling the presence of intrepid baguette hunters returning home from the boulangerie in their battered Citroëns. Smelly dog growling suspiciously at the sound of footsteps, perceptible only to her, as morning walkers wandered down the lane.

The loudest noise by far was the staccato of sparrows, finches and blue tits chirping indignantly in the huge cedar tree. I opened my eyes and saw why: the magpies were winding them up, balanced high in the tree and machine-gunning them with their raucous, rasping chatter.

The branches of the cedar tree practically touch the windows of our house, and the morning chorus usually wakes me long before the alarm goes off. As spring moves on, the sound of nature increases until it becomes part and parcel of life inside the house – particularly at night. We have a pair of nightingales that nest nearby every year, and soon they will be back. They aren’t called nightingales for nothing. Firstly, Mr Nightingale sings to seduce Madame nightingale. Daddy nightingale sings perfectly, and very loudly, from the branch in front of my bedroom window…. All bloody night. Every night, until the sun comes up to put us out of our misery. Last year, he did it for six long weeks, and only stopped once his kids had their pilot’s licences, Biggles goggles firmly strapped to their heads for take-off.

Now I love birdsong, don’t get me wrong. But a little like having Pavarotti rehearsing La Traviata at the end of your bed at three in the morning, you can get too much of a good thing. After two weeks of constant nocturnal birdsong, even David Attenborough would end up having visions of nightingales on skewers turning over a hot camp fire. I can hear you all telling me I’m a fiend. Well, listen to this and imagine listening to it all night, then think it over.

My other favourites are the owls – at the end of the post there’s a picture we took of the cute little guy who got hooted through to independence by his mum and dad last year. He was sitting on the wall and scared the pants off me when he glared at me on my way home from the boulangerie one evening.

In May the midwife toad chorus starts up, echoing back and forth along the stream as soon as night falls. I love that time of year, sleeping with the windows open and listening to the wind in the branches and the concert of toads, owls and crickets. I feel like I’m on a Disney Princess trip every time, and secretly hope that I’m going to open my eyes to see a frog playing a banjo on my windowsill.

Then the cicadas will kick in for the sultry, hot summer afternoons. And we’ll have to keep an eye out for the bats: they find their way in, but can’t find their way out. The cat goes mad, Rugby-boy laughs himself stupid, and Bigfoot runs around in circles filming the thing.

So there you go. Hope you enjoyed the view from M.M’s pad. I’m sending birdsong your way, H&H, and hope that this post gave you a bit of a hoot until you get some real birdsong to listen to.

Tawny owl baby- last year's recruit for the local wildlife brigade. © Multifarious meanderings

Tawny owl baby- last year’s recruit for the local wildlife brigade. © Multifarious meanderings

Got the school holiday shakes?

It’s the second week of the February school holidays. That moment when the sun suddenly and inexplicably disappears to the very same place we were four days ago, 800 km away, when the weather was awful but we didn’t care. The moment that the heavens open and it rains day and night, the fire splutters and dies and my offspring prowl dangerously along a well-trodden migratory line between the kitchen and the TV, leaving small, telltale piles of dirty crockery heaped around the living room like the signs of discontent left by a malevolent, incontinent cat.

Any maternal attempts to simultaneously keep them occupied during the day and keep up with the house plus my own work fail dismally – on all counts. Bigfoot, Rugby-boy and Little My complain that most of their pals are all whooshing down the ski slopes with their politically correct parents, gaining their piou-piou, bronze, silver and gold consumer badges then pigging out on tartiflette and raclette whilst my poor offspring are being fed survival rations of macaroni and ham for the umpteenth time. So I pour myself a glass of white wine at the end of the day, listen to the Rolling Stones’ “Mother’s Little Helper” full blast in the kitchen and wonder if that bra-burning lark really got us girls anywhere. Does anyone else out there in blogging land identify with this?

Indiana Jones

Super Teacher on an imaginary school outing (Photo credit: Eva Rinaldi Celebrity and Live Music Photographer)

The next step is that the maternal brain goes into meltdown overnight, and feverishly mixes real life, fantasy and work into a fascinating cocktail. Last night it dished up a fabulous dream in which I accompanied a very good friend of mine on an outing for his infant school class. He ran along creaking, half-rotten wooden bridges spanning underground galleries, transformed into the Indiana Jones of the French teaching world. Backpack bobbing up and down on his back, he happily encouraged the crowd of four-year-olds and volunteer mothers gingerly following in his wake to be brave. He gave the kids rewards of Smarties and pieces of banana when they successfully leapt over the three-foot hole gaping over an abyss then promised to take them to visit a bison reserve for their next outing (I’ll leave you to guess what the work, fantasy and real life is in all that. As I said in my previous post, I love my job.)

Yup, holidays are an upheaval. As all parents know, the school holiday means increased numbers at home. Like the legendary Mohammed and the mountain, if your kids can’t go to school, the school must come to your kids, and the population of our humble abode increases daily as Bigfoot, Rugby-boy and Little My’s mates adopt us. I have learned to smile sweetly at the mother who says apologetically: “He loves coming here, he says it’s so lively compared to our place!” The word “lively” is an understatement: Armageddon has all the noise factor of a library in comparison with our house.

So last night, Little My invited some friends round for a sleep-over. They disappeared into the woodwork like cockroaches, only appearing to glean a tray of food to wolf down in front of the TV. I must admit I was choked up to see them lined up in bed, surrounded by brightly coloured debris of dressing-up clothes and guffawing at the film of their school trip two years ago, saying how “little” they were at the time.

Rainbow Jelly!

A monster rainbow jelly. Ours wasn’t like this. (Photo credit: fifikins)

This morning, I was clutching my first cup of Yorkshire brew and recovering from my strange dream when three little girls appeared in their PJ’s. Little My opened the fridge, and clapped eyes on the jelly she had made the day before in her friends’ honour, only to be forgotten after stuffing themselves with home-made burgers and chips. She pulled it from the fridge and proudly exhibited it to her pals, who all cooed in awe. Little My was proud to introduce her friends to her gastronomic roots, however unusual they may appear to her Gallic chums. She drew herself up to her full height and said “Look! If you shake it, it wobbles!” A murmur of appreciation swelled in the room as she delicately made the jelly shiver. Then it happened. Three eager, synchronised pairs of hands shot out to shake the plate, and the collective force launched the beast into the air. It took off like a drunken UFO then plummeted downwards, sliding down the sheer cliff face of the tablecloth before disintegrating into a gelatinous red pile of roadkill on its impact with the kitchen floor.

The sound of hastily scrabbling claws announced the arrival of our canine cleaning service. Smelly Dog’s radar can pick up on something falling on the kitchen floor from the other side of the house, and she is there, wagging her tail hopefully, within seconds of anything leaping off the table. (Please note that nobody is ever responsible for anything falling earthward in this house: food is either driven to suicide after being cooked by MM, or it has a lemming-like attraction for the void.)

Smelly Dog careened around the door, ears flopping and expert eyes searching as she tensed her body to pounce on her prey. Screeching to a halt beside the pink molehill, she sniffed suspiciously at the jelly then lifted her head. She fixed her Nutella eyes on mine with a mixture of disgust and disappointment before returning to her basket with as much dignity as a dog can muster. Proof of the pud: A dog can happily eat cat vomit, but refuse jelly.

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Smelly Dog pretending to be cute soft toy after eating all of PF except his head (kept for afters, see far left of picture).

Bigfoot had invited his chosen counterpart around for the afternoon, and had even tidied up his lair, proof of unconditional love. I don’t think she’ll be back for a while. PF pulled out his favourite power tool and got stuck in for the entire time she was here, apparently set on sanding a spyhole in the wall to check that they were behaving themselves. Much to Bigfoot’s embarrassment, I did however tell chosen counterpart that she can come back whenever she wants, if it means that I’ll be able to get a foot inside Bigfoot’s room to hoover once she’s gone.

I’m an optimist. That’s why I continued to work throughout the afternoon. Working from home seemed a good idea, which it is  – when the kids are at school. Only four more days, then they’re back to school and I’m back to normality. Bad mother and fully assume it, check.

Ode to a birth scene scriptwriter.

Thirteen years ago, I was sitting in my bed eating bananas and vanilla ice cream and soaking up my three-year-old’s delight at discovering that his baby brother had shifted from my stomach to his cot whilst he was asleep.

Luckily, mini-Bigfoot was unaware of the collateral damage that Rugby-boy had left behind him in his haste to check out the world: a bleak, perineal Hiroshima, roped off below the sheets with crime scene tape and plastic cones. Rugby-boy is a kid who decides and acts without further ado. His birth was no exception, and he achieved an average cruising speed of one kilogram per hour to be on time for his first scrum with life.

CRIME SCENE DO NOT CROSS / @CSI?cafe

The aftermath below the sheets….. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

For those of you who are worrying about getting a tear-jerking, blow-by-blow account of the sad demise of my pelvic floor, fear not. I have no desire to put anyone off having children, as there is so much more to discover after birth. The delights of an overnight transformation into a cross between Lolo Ferrari and a Friesian cow, for example. Discovering that you too can be a night owl, albeit a reluctant one. Learning how to single-handedly unfold a stroller in the rain with one hand, screaming child under your arm and Tesco’s shopping bag clenched between your teeth. Dealing with toddlers who have no issues with incontinence in public. The list is endless.

However, I do have one small request for any scriptwriters who could be reading this: Can you get a real woman to write the birth bits in your films and TV series, please? You know, someone who has actually been through the reproductive equivalent of crapping a watermelon at least once in her life without the help of gas, epidurals or being hit over the head with a heavy object?

The image you give of childbirth is far from the reality of things. In films, the episode begins with our pregnant heroine walking across the tidy room without a whining two-year-old clamped to her leg. She serves herself a glass of San Pelligrino, then dramatically clutches her perfectly round stomach, tastefully encased in designer maternity clothes. There are no visible stretch marks, and no extra weight is to be seen anywhere on her delicate frame. She isn’t wearing an engineering feat of a bra designed to transport two fully-grown elephants under a Chinook helicopter, and her ankles show no signs of containing enough water to top up the local council’s swimming pool. Her toe nails are both cut and varnished – schoolboy error, Mr Scriptwriter. Everyone knows that from six months onwards, pregnant women cannot reach their feet without having previous training in either yoga or contortion. So excuse me guys, but your scenario is already a bit shaky.

English: View of Hoover Dam with jet-flow gate...

Ship ahoy….. breaking waters. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Oh, honey, my waters have broken!” she bleats to a husband who is not at work, not painting the garden shed and not surgically attached to his pillow with drool at one in the morning.  Whilst all she had to do was think about giving birth for the flood gates to blow like the Hoover Dam, my amniotic sacs were all so resistant that they could have been patented by Pirelli.

“Honey”, alias SSOH (Seriously Significant Other Half) immediately carries his wimpering wife (henceforth referred to as “WW”) into the car – mysteriously devoid of plastic toys, DIY material and food wrappings – and takes her to the maternity ward.  Compare this with my three successive gems for each birth: “Just let me have a shave and a shower first”, “Are you kidding? I’ve only just got into bed….”, or “Great! I’m so excited! Home births are cool. Want a cup of tea?”

Back to our model couple. SSOH drives to hospital whilst WW moans  “It’s coming! It’s coming!” At no point does she burst into hysterical tears, insult him, or underline the fact that giving birth is the only time in your life when you understand that biologically speaking,  you really are an animal. Mother Nature takes over, and there is nothing you can do about it except step back and let her get on with the show. I never thought I had a real muscle in my body until my uterus came out of the closet and showed me what it was made of. If my biceps could work as efficiently, I’d be a force to be reckoned with. It’s the Arnold Schwarzenegger of M.M’s organ mafia. A lean, mean muscle machine so efficient that after Rugby Boy’s birth I asked the midwife to check that it was really just a placenta and not my entire innards that had followed him out backstage.

English: PEARL HARBOR, Hawaii (May 4, 2007) - ...

What a uterus really looks like (photo credit: Wikipedia)

Back to our perfect couple, who arrive in hospital and get immediate service from doting staff. WW gets a wheelchair and a private lift, and does not have to stand in the public lift like M.M, muttering obscenities in English as bewildered French strangers clutching bunches of flowers look on.

Now comes the bit I love in films. Cue sappy music. WW dons sexy gown with delicate black print that ties up at the back then exchanges romantic niceties with SSOH, confirming their everlasting love and underlining what wonderful parents they are going to be. (Easy: they know full well that we will never see the episode thirteen years later when a teenaged John Junior sniffs glue with his pregnant girlfriend behind the garden shed.)

The nurse gently interrupts their poetic pukesome pre-parental prelude and reminds WW that she has to push. Obviously, this is something you do on command in films. Personally, when the midwife had the bad idea to tell me not to push, I told her to push off: One of the few joys of childbirth is that it is the only time you can not only insult complete strangers and lacerate your husband’s palms with your fingernails, but you get away with it too. I informed her that my body had been taken over by alien forces and would be doing what it bloody well wanted to do until further notice. Maintaining that a birthing mother can switch pushing on and off on demand is as ridiculous as saying that you can stop a runaway steamroller rolling down an embankment using no more than optimism and a tooth pick.

WW pushes twice on demand, accompanied by unconvincing and dramatic moaning, and Perfect Offspring is born. PO is suspiciously clean, has dry hair and appears to be rather oversized for a newborn, although WW no doubt has a luxury womb stretching up to her tonsils and equipped with fridge, wide-screen T.V and politically correct toys to get him in the starting blocks for Montessori schooling. WW clutches her offspring and beams gormlessly at her tearful, emotional husband. She is perfectly made up, has beautiful hair, is not dripping with sweat and is not threatening to alleviate her child’s genitor of his reproductive appendages with the obstetrician’s torture kit in a bid to avoid making the same mistake again.

So sorry, guys, but there are a few major discrepancies with real life that need seeing to before you have a watertight birthing scenario. Let me know if you need a scriptwriter. In the meanwhile, I’d happily go back ten years in time and sign to do it all again. But my way, not yours.