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Tuesday, December 31, 2013

After five days pigging out on the sofa, it's time to wave goodbye to St Leonards...

... while we've still got the strength to lift our bingo wings.

If my new year's resolution is to land the lead role in the film of Giant Haystacks' life, then I've made a very promising start. But I'm slightly concerned that if I stay any longer, I'll be too fat to waddle into work, and might have to borrow Lisa's mobility scooter.

So we're heading home this afternoon. But while some of us are carrying a bit of timber in the form of too much chocolate yule log, the good news is that there's one area of my life which has been considerably lightened. Namely, my wallet. My car had its annual service in Eastbourne yesterday, and apparently a lot of my bushes had perished. So I think there's been some kind of famine. I also needed a new roll bar, which was surprising as I didn't know I had the old one.

By the time I left the garage, my wallet was a great deal slimmer than I am, but on the plus side, Toby left a lot of hand prints on the brand new Skoda Superbs in the showroom, so they'll be spending most of my money on cleaning.

In addition to that, I also lost a lot of weight off my shoulders yesterday by finally managing to sit down and write a 2,000-word conference report that I'd promised to do six weeks ago. Although the conference in question was slightly longer ago than that. Fortunately I have a good memory.

Anyhoo, five days is just long enough for Lisa and I to turn my parents' spare bedroom into a scene from 'The Hoarder Next Door', so I need to get packing. It's New Year's Eve, so naturally we have big plans for this evening. We'll be seeing in the new year with a range of food and drink, and a very close friend. Yes, that's right, we've got the Asda delivery man coming round.

I hope.

Sunday, December 29, 2013

I think it's the hard-drinking, party animal lifestyle which is stopping us all from sleeping...

That and the late-night quizzing. But despite Toby staggering around in bear feet with a bottle in his hand, we had a much better night last night. Possibly because we were so exhausted that not even a toddler with a pneumatic drill could have kept us awake for long.

In hindsight, we probably shouldn't have given him that drill, but health and safety aside, yesterday was a good day. After 48 hours with the 24-hour party people, Big Sis and her boyfriend flew out to Australia yesterday morning (that's not the good bit), which left the country a little less crowded, and gave the rest of us a bit of space to enjoy ourselves. So with the whole of Sussex as our oyster, I decided to take Amelie to the nearest branch of Asda for an argument.

I'm not sure if it was the lack of sleep, the lack of discipline, or just an overwhelming desire to annoy her father, but we almost came to blows in the lightbulb aisle, and I had to eat three mini doughnuts just to calm myself down. Fortunately we made it back in one piece, which was surprising as I was technically too tired to drive, and felt like closing my eyes on the straight bits, but having made up with Amelie, who admitted no responsibility for her actions and then asked for a cupcake, I decided not to learn from my mistakes, and offered to take her out again.

So as the afternoon wore on, Lisa, Amelie and I piled into my brother's car for a trip into Hastings town centre. It was a profitable outing, as I was able to pick up a few essentials in the post-Christmas sales, most notably this hair band for Amelie...

It's a hair band in a very literal sense, as it has extensions sprouting from the bows, to give the wearer a kind of sophisticated, upper class look previously only available to people like Toni Basil in the 'Hey Mickey' video.

Interestingly, however, that wasn't the most unexpected thing I saw in a shop yesterday. I also saw David Quantick. At least I think I did. I was in the Hastings branch of Marks & Spencer's, trying to prise Amelie away from the jewellery section, when a man walked past, pushing a buggy with a small child. My immediate thought was "Blimey, he looks a lot like David Quantick", at which point he spoke to a woman nearby, and I thought "Blimey, he sounds like David Quantick too".

Obviously my brain was telling me that the chances of a 52-year-old rock journalist walking through M&S in a dying seaside town three days after Christmas with a baby in a buggy, when he really should be at home writing the next series of TV Burp, were remote to say the least. So I instantly dismissed it as a possibility. At which point Lisa ran up to me from the ladies' slipper section and said "Hey look! Isn't that whatsisname?!!"

So I'm taking that as official confirmation. On my list of celebrity encounters, it's a case of David Quan:tick.

Saturday, December 28, 2013

You don't have to be mad to spend Christmas here...

No, actually I take that back. I'm not sure the sane would make it past the box of frogs in the hallway. The only time anyone seems well-balanced is when they're performing the one-legged section of Big Sis's Christmas dance routine.

Anyhoo, my family and I have been at my parents' house since Boxing Day, and if this were a Premier Inn, we'd have received a full refund. I'm not saying we haven't slept, but I would do if I had the energy. Unfortunately I can't blame the proprietors of this establishment, as the source of my sleep deprivation is my partying son, who's currently living it large during the daylight hours, and refusing to settle at night. Frankly the only thing he'll settle for is a plate of mince pies and sausage roll in each hand.

Amelie has attempted to send him to sleep with some soothing music...

But not even the lilting melodies of the Strangled Hamster Symphony were enough to do the trick. Although we did succeed in channelling the spirit of Sooty's friend, Sweep.

So Lisa and I are currently making our own zombie movie and texting my cousin Randy for advice. But in the midst of all that, we're also having a lot of post-Christmas, family-friendly fun. No, really...

That's me committing murder on the dance floor, and inviting people to come and have a go if they think they're hard enough. It was a pose which soon spread to other members of my family...

That's Big Sis being doubly festive. Not only is she wearing a statement jumper, but she's dressed as a principal boy from the waist down. Two minutes later she was slapping those thighs and asking the audience where the Christmas tree is.

As for gifts, my favourite present was a copy of 'Brass for Christmas' on CD, which was chosen for me by my niece, presumably because she heard me complaining that if my man-boobs get any bigger, I'll need bras for Christmas. Fortunately I was able to return that aurally offensive favour by giving my brother an Otamatone, thereby ensuring that he can take the sound of dying rodents with him wherever he goes.

My sister-in-law, meanwhile, was thrilled with her gift of a butterfly in a jar...

It's a fine line between enchanted and disturbed, and to be honest, she crossed it, but the fact that she hated the thing with every fibre of her being, doesn't necessarily make it a bad choice of gift. It was worth it for that photo alone.

As for Amelie, she was busy wiping the floor (in a very literal sense) with a range of opposition in the Gardner Christmas Air Hockey Tournament...

That's her coach in the background, operating a sweeper system in defence. Fortunately it wasn't needed. Despite the tissue-related sledging techniques employed by Big Sis's boyfriend, Amelie retained enough focus to see off the opposition, who reacted in a slightly over-the-top manner by leaving the country first thing this morning. Some people are just bad losers.

Friday, December 27, 2013

The day after Christmas, Mary and Joseph hit the all-you-can-eat buffet...

It's amazing what my Mum can do with five loaves and two fishes.

Thursday, December 26, 2013

I think Amelie enjoyed her Christmas dinner...

But not as much as Toby...

To be honest, I've never seen anyone enjoy a Christmas as much as that boy. While Amelie responded to her first gift yesterday morning with the words "This is the worst present I've ever had" (fortunately we blamed that one on Santa), Toby embraced the occasion with the kind of enthusiasm usually reserved for One Direction fans. From the moment he opened his first gift, he was laughing, shouting, dancing, smiling, and generally having a whale of a time. He even loved the toys inside our Lidl crackers...

Amelie's main present this year was an Innotab 3, which is essentially a toy iPad for people who can't afford the real thing, and don't have the blind luck to win one in a competition. We only feature in one of those categories, but we felt that if we gave Amelie an Innotab, it would free up the iPad for more productive uses. Namely, Candy Crush and Netflix. I spent Christmas Day afternoon loading up the Innotab with music, so that Amelie can use it as an MP3 player, and in return, she exploited its video capabilities by making a film of me looking bloated on the sofa.

As for our Christmas dinner, that was a case of Heston Blumenthal, eat your heart out. Which is the kind of thing he'd do. The meal was an an unremitting triumph from start to finish. The start being about 4:15pm, and the finish being three hours later when we finally managed to drag Toby away from the table and stop him licking all the bowls. Amelie might have claimed that she didn't like any of it, but Toby not only cleared his plate, he cleared the table, and was still going strong after his seventeenth helping. He's a boy after my own heart.

By the time Lisa and I settled down to watch 'Michael Jackson: This Is It' with a bowl of plum pudding and custard, Amelie had been asleep for two hours, I'd wanted to be asleep for three hours, and Toby was still partying hard in the bedroom. He might have been a dream all day, but he was a nightmare for most of the night. I'm not sure if it was the excitement of Christmas or the fifteen roast potatoes, but he was still raving in the early hours.

So despite not having touched a drop of alcohol, we all look a bit punch-drunk on Boxing Day. But like all the best party animals, we're always up for more. So we're off to my parents' house now to do it all again. I'm hoping to hit twenty stone by Saturday.

Wednesday, December 25, 2013

It's Christmas Day! And in an effort to be romantic, I've just asked Lisa what I have in common with this West Country cream...

She said "Extra thick?". I said "No, ideal for spooning". It's all down to the curvature of my spine.

But much as I'd love to snuggle up in bed with my wife right now, we have far bigger fish to fry. And a massive chicken to cook. Amelie was well prepared for Santa last night...

Even with her extra wide feet, we felt a stocking might not suffice, so we went with the giant gift bags instead. And it was a plan which paid off...

That was the scene first thing this morning. Obviously I didn't see Santa, but the word on the street is that he regretted eating that mince pie late last night. He'd already had Christmas Eve pizza with his wife, and the decision to add a mince pie at 11pm was one he almost paid for with a sick bucket.

But fortunately he kept it all down long enough to fill those sacks with presents (slightly fewer for Toby on the right), and as the sun came up over Brighton, the sound of furious ripping could be heard coming from our flat. Toby was particularly pleased with this piggy bank from one of Lisa's friends...

... while Amelie was so busy tearing open presents like some kind of whirling dervish on speed, that I struggled to get a picture of her in focus. Lisa, however, seemed pleased with her gift...

I gave her a 100-page A3 photobook of our wedding, plus a 'Phoenix Nights' DVD box set. So it was comedy all the way. In return, she gave me two ties from the Tie Rack closing-down sale. I rarely wear ties, but apparently they were almost giving them away, so it seemed like the perfect gift.

And on the subject of perfect gifts, Amelie taught us a thing or two by wrapping up one of Toby's old books and giving it to him as a present. Despite the fact that he already owned it, and had seen it a hundred times, he seemed particularly taken with it...

It's a shame we didn't think of that before spending a fortune at Amazon.

Anyhoo, as that photo demonstrates, Santa's sack is now filled with used wrapping paper, the place looks like we've had a herd of reindeer running through it, and we've spent the morning listening to Toby shout "WHAT'S THAT???!"...

And as Amelie's watch is now telling me, it's time I got the dinner on.

Tuesday, December 24, 2013

It's Christmas Eve! And traditionally, that's the magical time of year when I apologise to everyone I've ignored over the past twelve months. As a general rule, being friends with me is a bit like trying to contact the dead. It's mostly one way, and the replies you get are brief, vague and non-committal. You know I'm there and I love you, but you're lucky if I ever get in touch, and you only see me when you're drunk. I take ages to respond to e-mails too. Elvis is the same.

As for Christmas cards, that's a bit like sending a postcard to Terry Waite. You have no idea if it got there, and I'm generally chained to a radiator when I read them. But they do mean a lot to me, even if it takes me four years to acknowledge them.

So with that in mind, I'd just like to thank all the people who have sent me handwritten messages of hope this Christmas (I got nothing from Santa). Lisa sent out a batch of Christmas cards which were only marginally bigger than stamps, but I'm ashamed to say I didn't write in any of them. Not that there was much room. I'm confident that when the kids leave home (or are taken into care) I'll be able to sort my life out and actually make time for all my friends, but the fact that I struggle to do so, and yet still have people sending me stuff in the post and writing me e-mails, means a huge amount to me and is a source of much happiness, comfort and gratitude. Although I rarely find the time to say so.

This Christmas I've had stuff in the post from Brighton, Bristol, Bletchley, Burgess Hill and Great Bowden, so there's clearly some kind of pattern emerging, and the 'B's are a hive of activity. But whilst those people might have received precious little in return (and in some cases, even less) their generosity has touched my heart, and made me vow to be a better friend in 2014. In fact, I'm determined to visit all five of those places in person. The first one shouldn't be a problem.

In the meantime, it's a well known fact that Christmas is traditionally associated with great art. Since the Renaissance, we've been treated to awe-inspiring works of festive adoration by the likes of Leonardo, Raphael, and other members of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. And I'm pleased to report that this Christmas is already following in that fine tradition. It goes without saying that Amelie can knock out a nativity scene in under two minutes...

... which is why most of them are now in the bin. She's churning out religious iconography like it's going out of fashion. But at the more exclusive end of the market, I'm pleased to say that we've received another festive masterpiece from The House of Cheshire...

Not quite as festive as the 2011 effort, but this one's in colour, and has a deeper message.

In an unexpected twist of festive fate, however, both of those works have been placed firmly in the shade by the almighty shadow cast across Christmas by this piece of seasonal art...

I think it's meant to be Lisa in a sophisticated scarf. I won't reveal the artist's name until I find out if he's got an agent, but I can tell you that he's good with video too...

Although he won't tell me how he did that. It helps if you've got a twin though.

Anyhoo, with only one more sleep to go until mayhem, I'll leave you with a festive message from my daughter...

She spelt all of those words herself. Which is why they're not easy to decipher. But here's wishing everyone a very Hapie Crismus. I'll see you on the other side.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Christmas can mean different things to different people, but in this house it means sticking pens to your pyjamas with sellotape, adding a bulldog clip, and then making faces in front of a pink tree...

It's what I like to call a tip-top felt-tip top. She's working on a pencil skirt for the new year.

Anyhoo, festive fever is now gripping the Gardner household, and I've just been wrapping presents whilst singing along to Radio 2. They've replaced Jeremy Vine with The Beatles, so I was covering expensive tat with overpriced paper, and singing "The best things in life are free...". That prompted Amelie to stop me and say "No Daddy, the best things in life are chocolate", and she's got a point. Although in reality, we're both right. The best things in life are free chocolate. Which is why we're going to my parents' on Boxing Day.

As things stand right now, we're in the middle of a festive double-header of torrential rain and gale-force winds, but just 24 hours ago, it looked like this...

That's Amelie running towards the road in the background. It was the only way of staying warm. Other than hiding under the duvet, which is what Lisa was doing at the time.

You can see from that photo that very little's changed in the past five years. I'm determined to get my money's worth out of that buggy, and we're not chucking it until it looks as rough as I do, and Toby's running towards traffic like his sister. We should probably wash the cosy-toes though.

Anyhoo, the kids and I had the entire park to ourselves yesterday afternoon, which just goes to show that people aren't as stupid as you may think, and can recognise sub-zero temperatures when they see them. Lisa waved us off from the safety of her electric blanket, with the words "There's a huge pile of washing I need to sort out. Don't expect me to have done any of it by the time you get home".

You've got to admire her honesty. And I can confirm that she's a woman of her word.

Sunday, December 22, 2013

In the future, most of Amelie's letters are likely to come from the police, the Crown Prosecution Service, and the producers of 'Surprise Surprise' to say they've been unable to trace me, but for now, she's getting hand-written mail from the North Pole...

The delightful thing about that video is that nine days after Toby nutted her in the face, you can still see Lisa's black eye. Although it's faded into a bit of a stripe now, so she looks more like Adam Ant.

Anyhoo, it's a miracle that anyone can hold a fountain pen whilst wearing gloves in the frozen north, but somehow, Santa has managed to cobble together a few words especially for Amelie this Christmas...

The bigger miracle, of course, is that she's also made the 2013 'Nice List', which I think is some kind of administrative error, and is likely to be revoked by the end of next week. But for now, she's thrilled, and can't wait to get back to school and tell all her friends. It's all part of the magical Christmas experience we've got lined up for her this year. I'm off down the food bank now for our turkey.

Friday, December 20, 2013

If you've ever wondered what I look like when I'm at work, here's your answer...

That photo was taken at lunchtime today by a senior clinical photographer as part of her study on the effects of mulled wine on the ability to diagnose retinal disease. I can't tell you what the results are, but I'd like to apologise to all the patients I graded this afternoon.

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Whilst at Amelie's school nativity last week, I bought two strips of raffle tickets to raise funds for homeless pregnant women at Christmas. Apparently two quid will keep them in myrrh for a month. Sadly, they didn't draw the winners while we were there, but when I got home from work the following day, I was greeted with the news that I'd hit the jackpot.

I'd actually won two prizes. Mainly because no one else entered. The first was a Cadbury's selection box, and the second a bottle of wine. Unfortunately they gave them both to Amelie to bring home, so by the time I returned from work, there was hardly any chocolate left. Frankly I was lucky she wasn't drunk as well. Lisa snapped up my Crunchie, which meant that by 6pm, my jackpot prize amounted to a finger of Fudge. It was just enough to give my kids a treat. But I ate it myself instead.

Fortunately, neither Lisa nor the children drink alcohol, which meant the bottle of wine was untouched, which was handy as Lisa had already stated her intention to give booze to Amelie's teacher for Christmas. The woman could probably do with a stiff drink after a term with our daughter. Naturally I saw an opportunity to save myself some money, so in the spirit of Christmas and goodwill to all men, I offered Lisa my free bottle of wine.

Unfortunately, she saw me as a gift horse and looked me in the mouth. At which point she insisted on researching my freebie online before agreeing to pass it on as a gift. The wine in question is 'Canti Vino Bianco', canti being Italian for songs. Presumably of the drunken, offensive variety. I assured Lisa that it must be top quality, as surely no one would donate anything but the best to a school raffle, but she chose to look it up online nonetheless.

She found this review. Which is not what you'd call glowing. In addition to describing the wine as bland, the reviewer states that "there is a distinct whiff of eggy sulphur above the glass which at least does serve to warn the pallet of the assault that is to come". They should read that out at AA meetings to help people cope with their cravings. It's certainly put me off having a drink.

So the upshot of all that is that I had to drive my family down to Asda last night to buy some decent wine for the school staff. I also bought some wellies which I didn't realise I needed until I saw them. It was the same with the Hello Kitty hat I bought for Amelie and the zebra night dress for Lisa.

We eventually returned home at seven-thirty, well past Toby's bed-time, at which point Amelie, who'd received at least three impromptu gifts from Asda, decided to play around at the front door and pretend to be invisible. Despite the fact that I can usually see straight through her, on this occasion I refused to play ball on the grounds that she was late for bed on a school night and we needed to get in. Which prompted her to stomp indoors in a huff.

Five minutes later, she handed me this...

Obviously I'd like my daughter to be joyful and contented with life, but the fact that she can write "I am not happy" in joined up writing before she's five-and-a-half, is something I'm immensely proud of.

Monday, December 16, 2013

As William Shakespeare wrote in his famous nativity play, "some are born great, some achieve greatness, and some have Christmas thrust upon them"...

I think that's definitely a case of the latter. Although she might appear slightly less startled if she didn't have markings that look like raised eyebrows.

Fortunately, the Santa Cat above was bred to be man-handled by maniacs. That's Rozi, one of Shimmy's three kittens, who grew up in these capable hands...

She's developed quite a tan in the last eighteen months. I think Andrew must be grooming her with Fake Bake.

Anyhoo, festive felines notwithstanding, our entire weekend has revolved around cats. This was the scene in St Leonards on Saturday afternoon...

... which is enough to break your heart. Amelie seems to have coped remarkably well with the death of Chloe (she was sadder at the end of Charlotte's Web), but the sight of her laying flowers on our little cat's grave is enough to reduce me to tears. And not just because that bouquet cost me a fortune.

We actually had two reasons to visit my parents on Saturday. Paying our last respects to Chloe was the first, but the second was equally important...

Frankly we'll go anywhere for cake. And I think that's Shimmy on the coasters.

The fact that I know a 37-year-old called Sylvia might come as a surprise to some people. Particularly my Mum, who generally feels about twice that age (even if she doesn't look it). But that's what happens when you ask Amelie to put the candles on your birthday cake. She's succeeded where L'Oreal has failed, and taken years off her grandmother.

It's not actually my Mum's birthday until tomorrow, but as the old saying goes, when life hands you lemons, make lemon drizzle cake. So having been dealt a week of cat death, heavy colds and black eyes by the fruit machine of fate, we spent the weekend stuffing ourselves with baked goods. We've eaten so much lemon drizzle cake, we've had about ten of our five-a-day.

Saturday's effort came from Waitrose, via my Mum, who's gone a bit more upmarket since she read about our dealings with Asda, and having polished that off with a rendition of 'Happy Birthday', we followed it up with a trip to Stefan & Andrew's yesterday afternoon, where we were presented with some gorgeous home-made brioche and... another lemon drizzle cake. And I have to say, Waitrose might know a thing or two about food, but they can't compete with Stefan's master baking and Andrew's packet mix. If I was Paul Hollywood (and I could be if I wanted), I'd put them straight through to the next round, and force them to bake for me every week.

Luckily, the Gardners are excellent house guests. I've got a highly contagious head cold, Lisa looks like a mugging victim, and we have children who'll smear food all over your new leather sofa. It's a miracle we don't get invited out more. The one positive for our hosts is that we're always late, which cuts down on the amount of time we spend ruining your flat.

As usual, Stefan & Andrew put up with us with good grace, and even gave the kids gifts (possibly in the hope that they'd go home and play with them), so Toby's now the proud owner of a tractor and trailer, while Amelie's making her own farmyard and reading the book on the left. She's taking it as written confirmation that she's on Santa's route this year.

Toby was quite taken with Zita & Rozi, but sadly failed to get his hands on them, while Amelie realised that the best way to hunt big game is with a camera. So as Toby's bottle of water leaked out of Lisa's bag and onto the leather sofa, where it soaked nicely into the chunks of brioche he'd stuffed between the cushions, Amelie snapped the Santa Cat photo above. Yes, that's one of hers. So if it goes viral, she'll get all the royalties. She can use them to pay for a new cat-flap. I've heard of Santa getting stuck in the chimney, but Rozi snapped off the old one trying to get out.

Saturday, December 14, 2013

I took Amelie to her swimming lesson after work yesterday, and as we were trudging home, me with a heavy cold and her with wet hair that I couldn't be bothered to dry, she turned to me and said:

"Daddy, do you know the One Direction song which goes 'You don't know you're beautiful'?"

I lied and said no, so she sang it to me. She's only five. I find that slightly worrying. But more worrying still is that I asked her where she'd heard it, and she said "School". Catholicism ain't what it used to be.

But in other, equally surprising news, the council delivered this letter to us yesterday...

I don't know what's more shocking: the fact that Lisa's clearly got herself a mobility scooter without telling me, or the fact that she still insists I do the shopping, despite having transport of her own. I presume she sticks Amelie in the wheelchair, Toby in the basket, and then heads down the hill to the bingo. To be honest, I shouldn't be that surprised. She's just bought herself a wolf fleece, so a mobility scooter was the obvious next step.

Anyhoo, it might be a case of mistaken identity, but it's reassuring to know that the council would be willing to fit a ramp up to the second floor. I might ask them for a helter skelter, so that I can leave for work a bit more promptly.

As it happens, Lisa doesn't need a mobility scooter to fit in on this estate. Not only has she got a cheap fleece, but she's now sporting a black eye. She couldn't be more council if she tried. Toby was on her lap yesterday, when Amelie decided to tickle him, with the result that he threw his head back into Lisa's face, leaving her with a major bruise around the eye. She looks like she should be in a refuge for battered wives.

So I'm taking her out today to cheer her up. On the condition that she doesn't wear that fleece. She asked me yesterday if I'd whisk her away for a few hours of fun and relaxation. Well, her exact words were "Get me out of this hell hole", but I think that's what she meant. So we're driving over to my parents' house to lay some flowers on Chloe's grave, and wish my Mum a happy birthday for Tuesday. I think one bunch between the two should suffice.

Friday, December 13, 2013

Much like my choice of jumper and my criminal activities (which can be one and the same thing), when it comes to my accomplishments, I like to make a statement...

Or at least publish one on my blog. Let's face it, it's not every certificate which features a still-life photo of some fruit and an insulin pen. But as the document above demonstrates, after countless weeks of intensive study, tireless learning and lucky guesses, I've officially graduated from the University of California, San Francisco, and gained the kind of qualification which is recognised by virtually no one. Although by the time I've dressed it up a bit on my CV, it'll look like a PhD.

My overall score for the course was 95%, which just goes to show what you can achieve by cramming a week's worth of study into half a day every week, and with that statement of accomplishment, I'm now officially qualified to diagnose, treat and take advantage of opportunities in the field of diabetes. But only if there are no doctors, nurses or Girl Guides present, all of whom outrank me as healthcare providers.

I received that certificate via e-mail on Wednesday night, so I got up yesterday morning with a renewed sense of confidence, and headed up to London for a very special meeting with some important people at a world-renowned venue...

Not that venue, obviously. It's Christmas, so they were fully booked. I actually spent the day at the Royal College of Physicians, a place I visited almost three years ago, but this time, instead of the lecture theatre, I was locked away in a boardroom upstairs. Quite literally. We struggled to get the door open, and almost had to phone the fire brigade. This is the boardroom in question...

In reality it doesn't look exactly like that. I stole most of the pens, so the table's slightly more bare now. But that aside, I spent five hours in that room yesterday, thrashing out important business with like-minded eye spies. Last time we met, it was agreed that we should all dress down at the next meeting, and not feel the need to wear work clothes. So I put on a short-sleeved shirt and blue jeans. The person who made the suggestion came in a suit and tie. Everyone else wore work clothes. I looked like the tea boy in a room full of doctors.

So having spent the day being a commoner in one of the Royal Colleges, I decided to get off the tube train one stop early and walk across Green Park towards Buckingham Palace. I wanted to get a photo for Amelie. It's where she'll be living when she marries Prince George.

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

I'm not sure if everyone is on a secret mission to reduce me to tears, but Amelie's decided to document the week's events in her school journal...

That's her saying goodbye to Chloe for the last time before we left for the vet on Monday. And this is me looking sad at the surgery...

I think she's had some kind of remote viewing experience, as she wasn't actually there. She's nailed it pretty accurately though.

But if that's not enough to tug at your heart strings, try this one on for size...

That's Chloe's final resting place. And my parents have done her proud. Admittedly, it does look a bit like the corner of 3rd & Bird, but it's what Chloe would have wanted. So I'd just like to thank my Mum and Dad for their efforts. I'm unbelievably touched, and will be visiting it often.

Of course, in the great circle of life, a tragic death is often followed by a joyful birth, and this week is no different. No sooner had we bid a fond farewell to Chloe, than we were welcoming the baby Jesus into the world. Yes, Holy Mary, Mother of God, it's Amelie in a bed sheet...

I'm joking, of course. That's actually the outfit worn by Kylie Minogue in the 'Can't Get You Out of My Head' video.

This afternoon was Amelie's first ever school nativity, which, in a break with tradition, was entitled 'A Little Bird Told Me', and starred a robin and a flock of sparrows. I thought that was a bit unusual, until one of my colleagues told me that her daughter's nativity was called 'A Midwife Crisis'.

Upon arrival at the school, Lisa and I were forced to sign a legal document promising that none of the photos we took would end up on the internet, so I'm already risking prison by publishing the picture on the left. I'm banking on no one recognising the hands and feet in the background. Although as they're all Catholics, it's possible there might be stigmata.

The play itself was very good, and featured a number of songs, all with highly enthusiastic actions, which were performed by a cast of almost ninety, most of whom were playing trees, rooftops, oceans, mountains and birds. The part of Mary turned out to be a fairly minor role, although not as minor as Jesus, who barely got a look in, and was reduced to being shaken vigorously by his mother during the final dance routine.

Lisa and I had front row seats, but sadly on the wrong side of the hall, which meant that most of my photos of Mary were blocked by her husband. It was obviously quite a controlling relationship. I did, however, get a nice video of Amelie's headgear coming off, and her attempting to get it back on whilst doing the actions to 'We Wish You a Merry Christmas'.

All in all, it was a triumph. But as the Baby Jesus will tell you when he grows up and starts doling out advice, there's no rest for the wicked. Amelie's doing it all again tomorrow. And if Lisa's anything to go by, the second birth will be a lot easier.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

I got back from Crowborough at 5:20pm yesterday, which gave me ten minutes to collect my cat, gather my thoughts and head back out to the vet. But it was long enough for Amelie to stop me in the hallway and hand me this picture...

That might look like Eve climbing Jacob's ladder in the Garden of Eden, but it's actually us in happier times. Amelie's picking apples, Chloe's in fine health, and Lisa is pregnant with Toby. Which explains why she's bulging at the seams.

Amelie told me that the picture was to cheer me up. Which had the effect of reducing me to tears. So I gave Chloe a quick cuddle, popped her in her basket, and headed straight out. I was the last appointment of the day at the surgery, and the twenty minutes they kept me waiting was spent trying to hold myself together. It's almost two years since they told me that the best case scenario was for Chloe to live another year, so I've known this was coming for a long time, and I thought I was very well prepared. In fact, if you'd asked me a week ago, I'd have said I wouldn't be upset at all.

Suffice it to say, I was wrong. By the time I walked into the consulting room, I was so choked up that I was reduced to communicating with the vet in sign language. At first she thought that Chloe might just be in the end stages of kidney failure, which is what they always expected to happen, but in the end, it appears to have been a stroke after all.

The vet brought in a chair from the waiting room, and let me sit with Chloe on my lap while they administered the injection. I was warned that they often get a moment of euphoria as the drugs take effect, and that Chloe might sit up for a second. As it transpired, she cried out unexpectedly and struggled, which took the vet by surprise, and was slightly heartbreaking. The vet, who was very apologetic, told me that's highly unusual, and suggests there was something wrong with her brain, which wasn't responding in the normal way. So a stroke seems quite likely. She assured me that despite that reaction, Chloe wouldn't have felt any pain.

I hadn't planned to take Chloe away with me, as we don't have a garden, and I had no intention of driving over to St Leonards that evening for a burial at my parents' house, but when it came to it, I just couldn't leave her. Having sat there for five minutes, stroking my cat as she slipped away, I was overwhelmed by the feeling that I had to take her with me. Frankly I would have driven to Scotland and back if I'd had to.

The vet, who was lovely, arranged Chloe on a towel with her paws carefully positioned to look like she was sleeping, then wrapped her gently and put her back in her basket. The cost of all that loveliness was £63.66, which I still feel is excessive, but the care I received was faultless.

Ten minutes later, I was driving in the direction of Hastings, from where my Mum kindly came and met me halfway. Chloe's now at rest in their garden, where Amelie can lay flowers on her grave.

She had a full life, and was the world's most patient cat. She's been Amelie's straight man...

... her fall guy...

... her reading companion...

... and her dance partner...

And she's never once complained. When I adopted her from Colchester Cat Rescue on 15th September 2001, four days after 9/11, I was in a very different place (and I don't mean Suffolk). Chloe's been with me through the most significant changes of my life, and I've known her longer than I've known Lisa. Which is why I always gave Chloe first dibs on the sofa. She'll be greatly missed by everyone in this family.

Not to mention all her fans online...

48,000 people can't be wrong.

Monday, December 09, 2013

As it transpired, I felt a lot better yesterday, and by the evening was back to full health, so I'm ruling out cholera in favour of one of those lovely, well-timed illnesses which ruins your weekend, but leaves you perfectly fit for work on Monday morning.

Unfortunately, not all members of my family are enjoying the same state of rude health. Amelie was up for part of Saturday night with terrible earache (I blame that swimming pool), Toby's had a temperature, and the kids have both been coughing. Even Lisa, who's usually more disease-resistant than a genetically modified plant, has woken up today with a sore throat.

But sadly, the more serious situation is with Chloe. After twelve years, two house moves and a few front pages, I think today will be her last day by my side. It appears that she had a stroke on Saturday, and this one was even more damaging than the ones she gets from Toby. By yesterday morning she'd stopped eating, and was only able to walk clockwise on legs which kept giving way.

Our veterinary practice doubles as the emergency vet for Brighton, so they're open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. I phoned them at 9am yesterday to ask for advice, and they said they could see her on Sunday, but I'd have to pay their out-of-hours consultation fee. Which is £73 plus VAT. I think Dignitas charge less.

With 'treatment', I was looking at a bill of £100-plus, which is money I don't have, so I took the difficult (and possibly heartless) decision to wait until today. I have an appointment at 5:40pm, although I'm writing this thirty miles away in Crowborough, so I hope my last patient's not late.

When I left for work this morning, Chloe was weak and disorientated, but apparently comfortable. I wouldn't expect that a vet could do much, but even if they said they could, I think I'd say no. She's almost twenty years old, has had a more exciting life than I have, and I think she deserves a rest.

Saturday, December 07, 2013

Not only is Amelie good with letters, but she also gets awards from people who aren't...

Obviously I'm pleased that Paul Smith is still finding the time to pop down from Carnaby Street to sign Amelie's swimming certificates, but the fact is that Lisa e-mailed him months ago to tell him he was spelling her name wrong, and it's clearly made no difference. If things carry on like this, we'll be able to use her old swimming bag after all.

But still, the good thing is that she's making remarkable progress. Back in August, she could swim eight metres without armbands on her front, and eight metres with ¼ armbands on her back. Now she can swim eight metres with a float. Give it another three months and she'll be doing a width on a lilo.

Unfortunately, although they say swimming is good for you, it appears to have finished me off completely. I've felt quite ill today, and whilst it's true that I spent a lot of time yesterday eating out-of-date cheesecake, I prefer to blame my sickness on the hour I spent at poolside. I think I've got trench foot and cholera.

As if a parents' evening wasn't enough, Amelie had her first school disco yesterday. Lisa's Mum had been visiting for the day too, so having returned home from work, I had just enough time to give my mother-in-law a lift home, before heading up to the school to find my daughter performing Gangnam Style, and attempt to drag her off the dance floor and down to her swimming lesson.

Personally, by the end of a working week, I barely have enough energy to lift expired dairy products out of the fridge, but despite doing a full week at school, Amelie came bouncing out of the hall after an hour's rave, and happily accompanied me down the hill for some more physical exercise. She told me there are two 'E's in lemonade, and at that disco, I think she meant it literally.

Unfortunately, once at the Brighton Swimming Centre, Amelie insisted that I spend the lesson on a bench at poolside, rather than up in the viewing gallery, which to me is a bit like sitting in the Rainforest Biome at the Eden Project. I found the heat and humidity oppressive, and by time we left, I was gasping for air. As was Am, after jumping off the diving board.

I woke up at 6:15am with a splitting headache, possibly because the kids were already up, but as the morning went on, my headache got worse, and I've been feeling sick all day. Which was a bit inconvenient, as I'd promised Am we could put up the Christmas tree, and she's a bit like the Mafia when it comes to broken agreements.

Somehow we managed it, although with Toby constantly pulling down the baubles, it was a bit like painting the Forth Bridge, and I had to go to bed for an hour afterwards. To add to our troubles, Chloe's been acting oddly today, and has been staggering around the flat in a daze, as though she doesn't know where she is. And she hasn't even been swimming. So that's a bit of a worry. As things stand right now, Lisa's the most lucid member of the family, which is a measure of how bad things are.

Friday, December 06, 2013

My favourite joke from last summer was this:

Q. Why did 80,000 people boo George Osborne at the Olympic stadium?

A. Because that's its maximum capacity.

Obviously summer has now turned into autumn, and after the chancellor's statement yesterday, you'd expect this to be a winter of discontent. But not so. True, I've been informed that I now have to work for another 28 years before I'm allowed to curl up and die, but firstly I take that as a vote of confidence that I'm doing a good job, and secondly, after Amelie's parents' evening on Wednesday, I'm confident she'll be supporting us long before then.

Admittedly, there's not a great deal of discussion you can have in ten minutes, so I wasn't able to ask if they can recommend her for a full-fee scholarship to Roedean (preferably with 7-day-a-week boarding), but we did get a wholly positive report. Apparently she's good with letters, numbers and phonics, has an excellent vocabulary, wide general knowledge, and will put her hand up to everything. Which is how the Birmingham Six got into trouble. In fact, the teacher said that if she wants a sensible answer, she always asks our daughter.

At that point, I stopped to check that she had the right parents, before contesting her earlier comments that Amelie's always kind and thoughtful, by suggesting that she might be more like Gripper from Grange Hill. But apparently not. The teacher admitted that Am can be a bit bossy at times, but said that it never strays into bullying, and is simply a case of being confident.

Lisa's main contribution to the discussion was to ask if our daughter is shy, which made me wish Amelie was there to say something sensible, but judging by the way the teacher rolled her eyes, looked incredulous, and said "No?!!!!" as if she was some kind of lunatic, I don't think we have any reason to worry.

In addition to ten minutes with the teacher, we also had the chance to look through Amelie's 'Learning Journal' which was a record of her first term at school, complete with photos of her looking pleased with herself. Whilst doing so, a 7-year-old boy from another class wandered past, saw one of Amelie's pictures, and said "Oh! She's playing Mary in the school play!". So clearly her fame has spread to year 2. We confirmed that yes, she is indeed that celebrity, after which I asked him what part he's playing. He replied "Bird 3". Which is clearly better than Bird 4, but not something to shout from the rooftops. Although I think that's what the role involves.

Anyhoo, it seems our daughter's well on the way to fulfilling her dream of being a doctor during the week and a hairdresser at weekends, so we should be living off her income and looking great within twenty years. Which is just as well, as her brother's spending his time strangling cats by the front door...

... and looking like a loon...

... so she might need to support him too.

Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Lisa and I are due at Amelie's school in half an hour for our first ever parents' evening. We've been given ten minutes to grill - and be grilled by - her teacher, so Lisa's preparing a list of questions and I'm wondering what we can use as a bribe.

But while Lisa fits a hidden camera into a ten-gallon hat, and mikes herself up in case of trouble, I feel I should write the final brief chapter in our long-running Asda saga.

Keen shoppers will remember that we left the story last week with our groceries delivered and a promise from Asda to refund half our bill. Well the good news is that they did a lot better than that. I checked my credit card account on Thursday to discover that they'd refunded the total cost of our shopping.

That's the good news. The bad news is that I then checked my debit card account to find that they still hadn't refunded the cost of the original, undelivered, and subsequently cancelled order. So although I wasn't down on the deal, I wasn't actually up either.

I waited another day, but when the money still hadn't appeared on Friday, I rang India for (if you're counting) the 10th time in eight days. The nice lady on the phone checked my account and assured me that Asda had never actually taken that money, they'd only 'reserved' it. Apparently when they authorise your card, that money is ring-fenced but not taken, and there can be a delay before the funds are released back to your account.

She suggested that if there's a problem, then it's my bank which is at fault, not Asda, although as I don't bank with RBS, that didn't seem very likely. I did nothing until Monday of this week, but when I still wasn't in receipt of my money by mid-afternoon, I phoned the debit card hotline. They seemed to suggest that it might be Asda's fault that the funds were still marked as reserved, so I've no idea what the truth is, but ultimately it didn't matter. They were able to release them for me, and when I checked my account yesterday, the money had been returned.

So all's well that ends well, and I'm happy with the outcome. Although when it came to getting the shopping this weekend, I drove down to the marina in person.

Tuesday, December 03, 2013

It's a well known fact that the face of the Virgin Mary is usually only visible in toast, tortillas, pretzels, grilled cheese and root vegetables. But with the school nativity now only eight days away, I've decided to break with tradition by publishing this picture...

That's the Virgin Mary's first ever school photo. And she's looking slightly deranged. I think they've photoshopped her a bit too. She's definitely more bronzed than usual, and she appears to have had botox.

Unfortunately, despite landing the most pivotal role in the school play (aside from Jesus and Santa), Amelie has decided that she'd rather be a rooftop. Two of her closest friends are playing a tree and a bit of guttering, And Amelie's discovered that those being roofs get to have birds dangling above them, which is apparently far more appealing than holding the son of God, and doesn't make your arms ache.

Obviously we're refusing to let her change roles, as it's important she learns that you can't back out of childbirth a week before it's due, even if you never see the father. But we're bracing ourselves for trouble. I think there's every chance she'll throw the baby Jesus to the ground, kick the ass up the bottom and start climbing the nearest stable.

Monday, December 02, 2013

I'm not saying we're slow, but two months after Amelie's birthday, we discovered on Saturday that the camera we bought her came with some free downloads from the 'Vtech Learning Lodge'. Which, as the name suggests, is an educational resource for those who like beavering away with technology. It meant we were able to expand Amelie's mind by downloading an effect which makes her brain look bigger. Hence yesterday's photos. There's another one which is meant to make you look like a goggle-eyed monster, but I think it must be faulty. I tried it on Lisa, and it didn't seem to make any difference.

Anyhoo, two months might seem like a long time to wait for the full birthday experience, but I've waited twice as long for this...

That's my 40th birthday present from Lisa. So it's just a stage I'm going through. But on that stage are the mighty Deacon Blue, pictured there 25 years after I bought their first album. Which makes me feel old, so I've no idea what it does to them. Although I definitely caught a whiff of Werther's Originals at one point.

Thanks to my mother, who kindly volunteered to be locked up with our children for six hours, Lisa and I were able to turn Sunday evening into date night. So in addition to a concert at the Brighton Centre, we also had a slap-up meal in town. Obviously when you're taking a beautiful woman out on a romantic date, it's important to spare no expense. But personally I prefer to spend as little as possible in case she refuses to see me again. So we rejected Jamie Oliver's restaurant in favour of Donatello's, where you can get a two-course meal for £7.25.

To be honest, it wasn't the quality of food which made the evening (clearly - we only spent £7.25), it was the company. Since our second child was born, I've had more stress-related headaches than I've had hot dinners with Lisa in restaurants, so simply having the chance to spend an evening alone with my wife was a blissful experience.

And it was only made more blissful by the music. I did have a slight moment of panic as we approached the back entrance of The Brighton Centre, only to pass Dougie Vipond and Gregor Philp, drummer and guitarist of Deacon Blue, heading in the other direction. I wish I'd had the presence of mind to stop and ask them to pose for a photo with me, but when you're arriving to see a band, and are passed on the pavement by two of them leaving the venue, you're more concerned about whether the show's going ahead, or whether they're off down the pub to get pissed.

Fortunately, I needn't have worried. The concert kicked off on time with support band The Hazey Janes, which is what Tarzan sees when he's drunk. They sounded a bit like this...

... and were actually very good. I was only saying to Lisa before the show that I can't think of anything I want for Christmas (as I clearly have it all), but I'll now be asking for a couple of their albums. They've actually released four. And, as Lisa put it, "they still haven't given up".

Our seats were in the second row of the balcony, immediately behind a middle-aged couple (to be honest, we all were), and oddly, having sat through The Hazey Janes, they walked off during the interval and never came back. Lisa thinks they were Janes' relatives, and had no interest in Deacon Blue, but I prefer to think that the audience were all of an age where bad eyesight combines with easy confusion to produce people who think the support band is the main act, and promptly go home.

It was good news for us though, as it meant we had an unobstructed view of the stage. And Deacon Blue were well worth seeing. This is the fifth time I've seen them play live, and almost certainly the best so far. Here's Dougie playing an old speaker while Lorraine examines a lemon...

I took that photo during their performance of 'Starstruck', a gorgeous little song which forms part of Deacon Blue's first ever Christmas single, which is released in a fortnight's time. After a quarter of a century, the urge to create a pension plan in the form of a festive hit was clearly too great a temptation, and Ricky Ross has come up with this little number...

That's 'You'll Know It's Christmas', and personally I think it's the new Fairytale of New York. Drunk people all over the country will be singing that in a few years time. Admittedly, Ricky's face doesn't really do cheery, and is more suited to tragedy and hardship, but I think that's got Christmas hit written all over it. They've even filmed some arbitrary snow. And it has sleigh bells, goddammit. Although the best thing is that the YouTube play button makes Ricky Ross look like Rudolph.

Anyhoo, suffice it to say that the concert was great, and the evening was better. And I have my wife to thank for both. Although having been woken up early this morning by Amelie slapping me in the face, pulling off the duvet and turning all the lights on, I'm not sure I could do it very often.

Sunday, December 01, 2013

The Gardners: A Highly Evolved Family

Is tonight's date still on..?

Friday, November 29, 2013

There's nothing more terrifying than a thug in a hoodie coming towards you down a dimly lit alleyway...

Although when he keeps doing impressions of The Fonz, it does takes the edge off the terror.

Anyhoo, that's Toby showing off his fancy footwork in the hallway this evening by walking on his hind legs. Which is a phrase Lisa used the other day. The encouragement comes courtesy of Amelie, who's been even more trying than usual today...

I'm not sure why the symbol of a 'nice job' is the see-no-evil monkey, but it's a church school, so they're clearly big on holy primates. The fact remains, however, that while Toby's been stringing a few steps together, Amelie's been joining up her writing. Or at least trying hard to do so. They're both such high achievers. Give them a few months and they'll be sprinting and churning out novels.

On the subject of Amelie's educational achievements, she's had a couple of rehearsals this week for next month's nativity, and whilst the rest of the class appear to be playing houses, oceans and mountains (Faith gives a moving performance in that role), Amelie's being pushed to the very limits of her thespian endurance. She's currently complaining that her arms are aching from holding the baby Jesus. He's clearly a strapping lad, and she needs God to give her strength. Or possibly a buggy.

Anyhoo, all of that aside, the biggest news of the day is that Lisa and I have now been together for exactly 9½ years. So another six months, and we'll be eligible for parole. By happy coincidence, I've taken Monday off work so that we can celebrate with a long weekend and a meal/concert combo on Sunday. It's officially my birthday present from Lisa, but I'd rather focus on our relationship than my age, so I'm letting her share it with me. And frankly I can't wait. It's been a decade to remember, and I love her very, very much.