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Edyth Bulbring

@ Sunday Times Books LIVE

Out, damn teens, hubby, pool!

The last few weeks of the school term are complete hell. I have a million things to do before I can go on holiday.

I stumble into purgatory with the writing of exams. This year, I’m in for Grade 8 and Grade 11. For the parrots of my generation, outcomes-based education is no walk in the park, especially if you live in Joburg and parks are for people snorting light bulbs and self medicating from brown paper bags.

The afternoon before the Grade 8 French exam, my teen Einstein discovers she has left her books in her school locker. And the locker is locked for the night. A friend down the road manages to photocopy some crib notes before supper. C’est la vie. Ask President Zuma: who needs to be globally competitive?

Teen Einstein also has some interesting learning methods before her Life Sciences exam. Radio Highveld is on full volume, she is cramming PlayStation while flipping through her file like Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man memorising the telephone directory. I close the door and self medicate on “dooswyn”.

My Grade 11 teen is writing English today. No stress, she works conscientiously throughout the year. Half an hour before her three-hour exam she is conscientiously studying the back of her eyelids. I wake her up and she gets to class with 10 minutes to spare.

In the car on the way to school, she is speed reading summaries of Macbeth and Life of Pi. Have I read the texts? She needs to know what the main themes are.

I have been studious. I am prepared. I tell her that Life of Pi is about survival through accommodation and compromise. Like tidying her room if she doesn’t want to get thrashed and grounded.

Macbeth is about an abused parent with three ignorant children who failed their exams and never made it to university. No, that was King Lear, I am confused. Macbeth is about a horrible woman who has ideas beyond her station and manipulates some poor sap to get her evil way.

I get home to find the children’s father stationed in bed. He has been sick for the past few days and his nose has been cluttering up my peace, snarfing its way through the toilet paper supplies. I am cautiously solicitous. I suggest he gets an X-ray. And bundle him out of my house with sweet kisses and a don’t-come-home-unless-you’re-dead.

Finally. The kids are at school, Macbeth is dispatched to his doctor and, at last, my home is mine. I go into my office and review my list of Things to Do Before I Go on Holiday. Top of the list is “finish draft three of manuscript”. I go outside and inspect my asparagus plants. They are growing. I pick the dead heads off the rose bushes and give up trying to remove a furry caterpillar from the bay tree.

I go back inside and flip through the manuscript on my computer screen. I despair. I consider rewriting the book in the present tense and changing the main character into a 450-pound Bengal tiger. I despair some more and check out my To Do List: “presents for the children’s teachers”.

I make a list of the teachers whose names I can’t recall. There is Mrs X who tells me seven times a year that the perfect boy child won’t sit still and do his work. I must do something. There’s the Grade 8 teacher who says that Einstein never comes to class on time. Can’t I do anything?

During the year, we have brain-stormed several options: their suggestions aretherapy, OT, structured play time. I’ve told them I’m still in denial about therapy and have no time for structured play – I have a manuscript to write.

My suggestions for them are culled from some tried-and-tested remedies from my own, happy, school days: detention – or hey – how about writing lines? I must learn how to be a teacher . I must learn how to be a teacher.

I cross off presents for recalcitrant teachers and go down the list: “costume for the perfect boy child’s school play”. The new jeans have been bought but need hemming. Mr Price doesn’t have kids’ sizes to fit perfectly rounded boy children. I delete: “fix sewing machine” and hack a half metre off the length of men’s jeans and tack a hem. No time, no time. I have a manuscript to hack and tack.

I am contemplating switching on my computer while I chat to the pool man about cutting down the trees to stop the baby weaver birds from dropping into the pool and clogging up the creepy crawly.

I weigh myself to see if I’ve shed 10kg so as not to mortify the teens on the beach. I weigh myself again and add: “buy full body wet suit” to the To Do List.

I’m thinking about the manuscript and peeling potatoes, when the teens drift in from school. They wreck the kitchen making brain food and go and study for the next day’s exams in front of the television. I cast an eye over my exam schedule. Tomorrow, I have Afrikaans and maths to fail.

I am mining my daily horoscope for divine inspiration, when the teens take advantage of the advert breaks in their television studies to come and subvert my destiny in front of the computer. Next week they are finished with exams. I can take them Christmas present shopping, to movies, for haircuts, leg waxes. I add: “get reduction in school fees” to The List.

I tell the teens I am very, very busy and can’t chat and dally. I really, really can’t. I have a deadline to meet and they have exams to pass.

We go and make popcorn and watch South Park: Bigger, Longer & Uncut. We turn up the volume and sing along to the tunes. We are word perfect.

This article first appeared in The Times

My petit voyage to France

When I travel abroad with my family, I sleep badly. I have dreams about cheating in maths exams, or bunking confirmation classes and sucking face with old boyfriends behind the church. These dreams evoke a pastiche of terror and excitement – at some point I know I’m going to get bust. It’s the same with overseas holidays. Something always goes wrong.

My all-time favourite is returning to Joburg from Italy last year. Our luggage gets mysteriously checked through to Cape Town and I’m the donkey designated to bring it back home while the rest of the family skips off the plane in Joburg. Three hours later, the plane is still grounded as air stewards march up and down the aisles vainly searching for four missing passengers.

Yes, I am the person who holds up Turkish Airlines for six hours at OR Tambo until they manage to pick out thirteen suitcases from the container on the tarmac and boot me off the aircraft. Threats of Midnight Express and hisses from the other passengers still echo in my ears.

As we travel to France for a family vacation this year I know I’ve seen the worst. I can cope with any surprises. But the nightmare of me dancing on a table sans underwear should have warned me otherwise.

Two teenage girls, their brother, the children’s father and me arrive safely at our rented accommodation in a beautiful part of the Languedoc. It’s Cathar country, the place where brave heretics held out in fortified castles against Papist land grabbers until eventually they were brutally crushed.

A renovated water mill is to be our home for the next two weeks. If only we can get inside. We can’t find the keys under the rubbish bin next to the garage so we play treasure hunt for the keys. It’s a lot of fun, but after two hours of screaming hot and cold we contact the owners in England to give us some clues. They don’t pick up the phone. Like the Cathars of the Languedoc, the water mill resists our invasion.

It’s still early afternoon so the family goes food shopping, trusting that someone will arrive to let us into the house. I stay behind holding siege on the stoep, reading Peter Harris’s In a Different Time. We zoom up and down the highway to visit the Delmas Four in Pretoria Central together. With Peter at the wheel, I know all will be well.

Four hours later as the groceries melt in the boot of the car, we manage to push one of the teens into a window on the top floor of the house. She can’t open the doors from the inside and is now too scared to climb down again. We consider breaking down the door. I keep the faith with Peter, reading until it grows dark, waiting for the phone call from Lusaka that will allow my Delmas prisoners to appeal their death sentence.

A couple of hours before midnight we have given up hope on the keys. We are en route to find the only hotel in the Languedoc that is not fully occupied by enthusiasts attending a popular cycling festival. Then a call comes: the housekeeper has opened up the house. We have been given a reprieve.

Over the next two weeks we visit the Cathar castles and hear stories of how communities had noses, ears, tongues and lips chopped off, and eyes gouged out to set examples to other dissidents. I threaten similar action to the bickering brats in the back of the car.

To keep the peace after one too many tearful car journey, I am dispatched to sit in the back with the two teens while the tortured boy-child finds sanctuary in the front with his father. They show me no mercy. I learn the hard way about twenty-first century Chinese bangles; how to finger-flick a person’s ear to ensure maximum pain, and the delivery of agonising arm punches that leave interesting bruises.

We tire of tortured Cathars and their castles and visit the mysterious Rennes-le-Chateau, the inspiration for The Da Vinci Code and the place where priest Berenguer Sauniere discovered something which bore fruit to numerous theories about the Holy Grail. It’s all a lot of nonsense of course, but 20 000 people are attracted by the stories of buried riches and visit the small village every year. This year it’s 20 005 gullible people.

We discover our own treasure. In week two, the oldest teen spots three white truffles in the driveway to the house. They are worth a fortune. These mushrooms that look like an alien’s brains will pay for her gap-year and buy her a car and a villa in Cape Town.

She and her sister take the largest truffle to the pharmacy in the nearby village to seek positive identification. She carefully unveils it from the safety of her sock.

“What is this?” she asks the pharmacist in bad French. He stares in astonishment at her outstretched sock. “It eez a sock,” he tells her.

She goes red, shakes her head and points to the alien’s brain. She searches desperately for a credible tale to mask her embarrassment. “My leetel seester, she want to eat it,” she says in bad English, patting her mouth for emphasis and pointing at the sister glowering behind the shelf of shampoo.

The pharmacist looks at her and the leetel sister like they’re stupid, or British. “It eez not consumable,” he says, imitating the mouth patting gesture and shaking a warning finger.

They both take a while to recover from this setback and I am allowed to return to the front seat of the car. It’s going to be smooth sailing until we get home.

The last stop is a night in Paris. We are returning from breakfast when the leetel sister realises she has locked the card-key inside the room. No problem, the manager gives her another to open the door. She plays silly buggers with the card, shoving it in and out of the slot watching the light click on and off. It’s a pack of laughs until the light stops flashing. Five cards later, the manager calls someone to break the lock in time for us to liberate the luggage and catch the plane home.

On the plane I fall asleep and dream that I’m caught smoking in the aeroplane toilet. My filthy habit causes the plane to crash. I am falling through the sky into the sea and me and the family are stranded on an island.

We have discussed this scenario on the holiday – we are flying Air France after all. The consensus is that I am the expendable participant in Lost: I can’t cook, I’m directionally challenged and I nag. I will be eaten first. The disgusting boy-child will be used as fish bait.

I blame my nightmare on JM Coetzee’s Disgrace, which I read on the train between Perpignan and Paris. It’s about a horny old professor who euthanases unwanted animals. Nicely written with an incongruous plot.

I try not to fall asleep again. I watch movies and allow one child to spread himself all over my lap. And another to use my head as a pillow. I think about getting home. I think about opening the door and hugging the cat. I wonder where I put the house keys. I flash back to the sight of them on the bedside table in Paris.

At home, the leetel sister is shoved onto the roof of the locked house and manages to break a window and let us inside. We are home safe.

Learning about snow in South Africa

When I was very young and my teeth didn’t look like Granny’s old piano keys, I learned about skiing from the Peter Stuyvesant adverts. It looked as easy as smoking.

Years have passed since I traded in my Stuyvies for a nicotine patch. I’ve wised up to a lot of things: men with gapped teeth will break your heart; and smoking is a filthy habit that’s hard to break.

The other thing I’ve learned is that there are two kinds of people: cold weather people and hot weather people. I fall into the second camp. Cold weather makes me sad. I suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Despite this hard earned wisdom, I allow myself to be dragged off into minus degree territory at mid term break. Experiencing snow has topped my children’s wish list for so long it could no longer be avoided – unlike the tree house and orthodontic treatment to straighten their teeth.

Our destination is Rhodes, a tiny Eastern Cape village at the foot of Tiffindell Ski Resort. If God doesn’t provide snow, the snow machine will do the business; a win-win situation.

The day we arrive God is working over-time and the heavens are spitting out horrible white flaky stuff. I arrange myself as close as possible to the coal stove in the kitchen of our rented house and send the children off in search of their snow experiences.

I watch them from behind my thermal vest having the obligatory snowball fight. After a few minutes their hands are red and numb. They cut corners on building a snowman and hijack one across the road from our house. They kick off his head and play soccer for a while until Frankenstein across the road shouts at them for destroying her creation and behaving like bladdy vandals. The last snow activity left to us in a long, long week of zero degree temperatures is skiing.
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Shaking Hands with Justin Cartwright

I went to the Franschhoek Literary Festival determined to meet Justin Cartwright. I was going to shake his hand and the two of us were going to talk about his books. I would share my insights with him, and he would find them fascinating.

We would end up collaborating on a new bestseller. Bulbring and Cartwright. Like Ben and Jerry; Laurel and Hardy. It was simply a handshake away.

I spot him at a cocktail party the first night I arrive talking to a woman with moist eyes. She is doing most of the talking. I stand awkwardly on the edge of her breathless monologue wishing I had a tray of snacks in hand to give my presence some sort of legitimacy. And to stuff a cocktail sausage in her mouth so I can get my handshake in.

He gets dragged away by Christopher Hope before I can do my big introduction. Just for that, Christopher will never get to shake my hand.

I find solace in the company of Aparna Swarup, the artist and wife of the Slumdog author and diplomat. I shake her hand several times and avoid being introduced to her husband whose poor hand I decide needs a break from being quite shaken and shook up all night.

Later, he whose name will be linked with mine on the Booker short-list passes me on his way out. I launch into an emotional praise song of Masai Dreaming. I tell him of how I postponed the heartbreak of reaching the end of the book by making tea. Of how I would read a few more pages and then make a wee. I am not as eloquent as I planned.

I conclude from his glazed expression that he thinks I’m a deranged poet. He escapes me before I can explain that I am in fact not Lebo Mashile, she of rhyming chiming thrusting bosoms and open hand shakings to the heavens. I simply want to thrust out my hand and shake his, the way I had shaken Lebo’s earlier (she who is lovely and not deranged).
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