‘From Nought to Nirvana? Sorry love - that session’s fully booked. You’re twenty third on the waiting list.’
I groan inwardly, but retain an outward appearance of Buddha-like calm. How will I ever achieve self-realisation if I can’t get on the bloody course? And I need to get there quickly, tick it off my to-do list and move on to decluttering the attic and sorting out Small Child’s verruca.
I’ve been coming to Spirit Mind Studio - Sheffield’s latest New Age venue for three weeks now. But my spiritual progress has been negligible. I’m always running late, missing the best classes, and spend more time finding the family’s dirty laundry than the soul within.
Refusing to give up, I scan the timetable for suitable alternatives.
‘How about Three Quick steps to Calm and Peace?’
‘No can do, duck - the teacher’s off sick with stress.’
‘Accessing your Inner Astrologist?’
‘That one’s cancelled due to inauspicious circumstances - a problem with Saturn, apparently. But I could squeeze you in to Dancing away Depression if you like?’
‘Oh, sounds promising. Upbeat tunes? Beyoncé?’
‘No. Whale music and sounds of the sea.’
‘I don’t think that’s me somehow. What else do you have?’
‘Well, there are always spaces on Mindfulness for Mums. And it doesn’t start while two o’clock, so you’ve got time to have an organic juice or one of them invigorating ‘erbal infusions first.’
I scratch my head and sigh. Mindfulness for Mums is the only class I ever attend. But there’s no option, so I settle down with a brew of Korean ginseng and ginger, distilled in a clear quartz singing bowl, and wait for the mindful mothers to arrive.
Soon, an entire range of northern motherhood is queuing outside the smoky-glassed studio. At the front, designer-clad, yummy-yogi-mummies pose Instagram-ready on one limb, followed by earnest-looking lycra-ladies with PhDs in meditation. Further along some give-it-a-go track suits line up open-mindedly. But I take my place at the back with the free-trial-membership-rabble in our jeggings and miscellaneous, baggy T-shirts.
Our instructor, white-robed and compassionate-eyed, bows us into the darkened, womb-like space, where we silently contemplate our mats, waiting for today’s words of wisdom.
‘Namaste beloved mothers. Let us begin the journey of letting go.’
I know the drill by now, so creak into lotus position, folding my flab, origami style, into my lap, before omming in lacklustre fashion as I settle down to clear my mind and rest in the moment.
‘Today, dear ones, we’re going to rid ourselves of unresolved psychological issues through a powerful visualisation.’
A bar of chocolate and a broken wedding ring flash unbidden into my mind.
The instructor chases away the image - ‘Now I want you to breathe deeply and follow the flow of your breath as it goes in and out. In and out...’
After several minutes of heavy snorting, I feel pleasantly light-headed.
‘Let those inner voices fade away.’
Bloody voices! Until I started mindfulness, they were just a background noise but now they’re forever thumping around in my head. There’s the Critic, my constant companion, with her mantra of ‘fat, forty, frumpy’, the Nag with her endless lists of ‘shopping, ironing, duty sex…’ and the Temptress with her seductive advice of ‘wine’s good for you, reality TV’s educational, running away - that’s the answer!’
‘They’re only thoughts and all thoughts drift by like clouds in the endless sky of your mind. Breathe out and let them pass.’
I exhale and the voices fade away.
‘Now think of a stumbling block in your life.’
Well, this is an easy task for me. I have so many stumbling blocks, I don’t know where to start.
‘And surround it with a halo of light.’
A half-burnt candle flickers pathetically in the draughty room of my mind.
‘Good. Really intensify that light.’
Deep breath. I can do this.
The candle becomes a small fire, then gradually a bonfire, then, before I know it, it’s a raging conflagration, burning up decades of failure. It’s surprisingly cathartic when, with a flash of golden light, those stumbling blocks turn to ash.
‘Excellent. You’re doing so well. Finally, send love to it and let it dissolve.’
I concentrate hard on dredging up some love. My head itches with the effort but my body relaxes and my mind quietens. All I can hear is the inhale and exhale of the room. All I can see is a comforting, velvety darkness. All I can feel is my body expanding into a loving unity.
For one beautiful moment, I feel a sense of peace, a second of stillness.
But then… Will Delightful Daughter, ever leave home? When, oh when, will Devil Teen stop being confrontational? Will Small Child finally settle down at school? Will my dad’s health get any better? Will I survive another twenty-five years of marriage? Will I ever find the peace and meaning that I’m searching for? Who am I, behind all these labels I’ve given myself over the years? Am I just Midlife-crisis Mystic or is there something more profound?
‘And now bring yourself, refreshed and calm, back into your body, back to the present and, when you’re ready, come back to the room.’
As I reluctantly open my eyes, I see the smiling face of my friend, Zen Mother, hovering over me.
‘I thought you’d fallen asleep! I didn’t want you to miss pick-up time.’
‘No, I was just savouring the calm before the storm.’
Zen Mother puts out a hand and pulls me up. She’s surprisingly strong for someone so petite. Her blonde hair is tied back in a sporty ponytail and her grey eyes, with their hidden sadness, look at me intently.
‘Were you avoiding me earlier?’
‘No, I just didn’t want to queue jump.’
‘Ok, so are you enjoying the classes? Have you had your Tarot cards read yet? Do you think you’ll join once your trial’s over?’
‘Errr - kind of - no - not sure. I only seem to get to this class and membership’s a bit pricey. How about you?’
‘Yeah, I’m loving it. I go to all their yoga and qi gong classes. You should try those sometime.’
‘Mm, maybe. It’s just trying to fit everything in round work and family. It’s hard enough escaping to our philosophy class on Wednesdays. Anyway, look at the time. We’d better hurry!’
As I dash into the yard, just seconds before the bell goes, I catch sight of Bubbly Brazilian, swaying gently to silent samba rhythms beneath headphones clamped tightly over her waist-length hair. She’s in head to toe yellow and orange - a brilliant splash of sunshine on this watery-grey, spring day.
I circle round so as not to startle her and, on seeing me, she gives a shriek of delight, an exuberant ‘Olá’ and folds me into her ample bosom.
‘I’ve missed you, my dahleeng! I’ve been waiting too long to hear your expert analysis of the royals’ latest escapades. When I saw that front page photo of the Duke and Duchess, I did a double-take. I could’ve sworn it was an older version of your daughter. She’s the spitting image of Kate!’
But before I can launch into a detailed critique of my favourite royals, we’re rudely interrupted by English Rose, the missing member of our Mothers’ Musketeers.
‘God, tell me they haven’t come out yet. I couldn’t get the bloody caramel in the millionaire’s shortbread to set.’
English Rose collapses against the wall to catch her breath, her creamy skin flushed prettily pink underneath her chestnut bob. Looking at her I experience a stab of un-friend-like envy as I note her slender figure and line-free complexion. She looks barely more than a girl herself, despite having four robust and boisterous children who run her ragged.
‘The bell went a few minutes ago but our lot aren’t out yet,’ I tell her.
I’m about to enquire after the fate of the shortbread but my attention’s caught by Zen Mother at the far side of the playground. She’s comforting a lone, distraught father. His tie-dye T-shirt, clogs and goatee beard mark him out as Luke’s dad.
I ask Bubbly Brazilian, the fount of all playground knowledge -
‘What the hell’s going on there?’
‘Oh, poor dahleeng! The jungle drums say his wife’s left him… for a woman! Apparently, it’s rocked his world and his manhood. But Ethan’s mum’s such a sweetie, she’s taken him under her wing. Nothing fazes her.’
Knowing that Zen Mother has no partner on the scene, I ask -
‘Is she making a move on him then?’
‘No, no, my dahleeng. She’s far too self-contained to want a man. She’s just encouraging him to breathe and making him batches of lentil casserole.’
At that moment we’re bowled over by the arrival of Sage, Clementine and Brie, three of English Rose’s mob, all clamouring to be fed immediately from her Tupperware box of goodies. They break the news that our lot will be out late because Mrs Stickler is issuing a note.
I scratch my head. Surely not another cause-for-concern-letter? I try to remember when I last forced my water-phobic son under the shower. But then I relax - it must be a whole class issue. Maybe it’s a ban on the latest card-trading fad?
As the torrent of children, released from their day’s imprisonment, floods out from the dilapidated Victorian building into the potholed, inner-city yard, I scan the faces anxiously for Small Child. He’s my youngest - a school refusenik - a solitary individual with specific interests that none of his classmates share.
And finally, there he is, at the very back of the line, scratching his head forlornly and limping on his verrucaed foot. His face lights up when he sees me.
‘Mummy! Did you bring my Lego tractor down with you?’
‘I did sweetheart, and I brought you a piece of my flapjack as well. Go off and play for ten minutes if you like.’
So off he hobbles to the rusty equipment already swarming with kids releasing their pent-up energy. Even with one leg out of action and a hand full of Lego, he scales the climbing wall in seconds. Meanwhile, I sink gratefully onto a nearby bench and tuck into my own piece of flapjack.
Before long I’m joined by English Rose. With a withering look, she hands me a dark green stone with flecks of pink in it.
‘One of yours, I think. I picked it up after you’d been for a coffee the other day.’
Blushing slightly, I thank her and put it quickly into my pocket. Then she spies what I’m eating.
‘Oh, your famous flapjack. It’s to die for! You must let me into the secret one of these days.’
‘I promise I will. One of these days. Only not just yet. You have to give me a break - after all, you’re the Kitchen Goddess whilst I’m Mrs Distinctly Average. This is the special recipe that allows me to shine. I’d like to keep it that way for now.’
Unperturbed by my mean-spirited answer, English Rose offers me her Tupperware treasures and I make a start on her melt-in-the-mouth shortbread. I know I shouldn’t give in to temptation. Over the last few years, a roll of flesh has been creeping over my waist band. But I’m ten years older than all my friends and, unlike them, I’m no single lady out to impress. Long-term marriage breeds indifference to a husband.
I stick another piece in my mouth and scratch my head contentedly.
‘Mmm, this shortbread’s heavenly. Who needs a man when chocolate does the trick? Still, now there’s a spare man in the school yard, might you be interested?’
English Rose snorts.
‘Luke’s dad? He’s a bit too vegetarian for me. I like a man who appreciates real food - a rare steak and a full-cream, pepper sauce. Plus, I’m always suspicious of beards. What are they hiding? I can’t be doing with a weak chin - reminds me of my ex.’
‘Well, it’s been two years since you kicked him out. Isn’t it time you were moving on?’
‘Yes, I know. But I’m having more fun cooking up desserts in the kitchen than I ever would cooking up a storm with a man.’
And it’s true, English Rose seems so much happier since she got divorced. And Zen Mother’s priority is her son - no man has yet scaled the walls she’s built to protect them both. As for Bubbly Brazilian, she’s perfectly content with her bachelorette life style. It makes me nostalgic for my own single days - the era of carefree travelling - a different time zone from my current endless wheel of duty and domesticity.
My reverie is interrupted by Bubbly Brazilian, who’s finally succeeded in hauling Cristiano away from his favourite game of football. She’s marching towards us, with a look of disgust on her face, waving Mrs Stickler’s note in front of her like a red rag.
‘Have you read this, my dahleengs? It’s a nightmare and absolutely no joking matter when your hair’s as long as mine!’
My heart sinks…
The silver lining is that a diversion to the chemist allows me finally to pick up a verruca treatment for Small Child. But my arrival home with a metal comb and a bumper-sized bottle of nit lotion doesn’t go down well with my older two.
Devil Teen, with his mousy mop of curly hair, is unimpressed.
‘Oh God, mother. Little poo-face strikes again. We’ve only just got over the trauma of thread worms.’
Delightful Daughter is horrified.
‘Noooooo! This cannot be happening. I’ve got a bar shift in two hours. How can I de-louse myself in time? Give me that bottle. I hate my life!’
But before I can hand it over, Devil Teen starts another argument.
‘It’s not fair, mother. Why should she go first? Just because she’s the eldest, she thinks she gets precedence. You should handle this in a democratic manner and draw lots for the order.’
‘Ignore him. I haven’t time to mess about. He’s just being difficult and ‘apparently’, he’s got no homework, judging how he’s been on the PlayStation non-stop since he got home.’
As Delightful Daughter snatches the bottle from my hand and storms to the bathroom, Devil Teen makes an obscene gesture at her back and kicks his little brother for causing the problem in the first place. I slip off to the kitchen to sneak a biscuit from my secret, Will and Kate commemorative tin, cleverly hidden from the scathing eyes of my anti-royalist partner. For a blissful minute I daydream about life before children, of freedom and exciting adventures. Then, fuelled by a sugar high, I gather myself together and prepare to do battle with the head lice.
An hour later, with children fed, I make my usual call round on my father. A handsome man in his day, with an impressive Roman nose, he’s been dogged by ill-health as long as I can remember. After my mother’s funeral the widows of the neighbourhood descended upon him with food parcels and comfort. But his lack of communication skills turned even the die-hards away.
He shuffles to the door in obvious pain.
‘Hi dad. You ok? Is your leg ulcer playing up?’
He runs his hand through his now thinning, white hair.
‘A bit, love. Never mind. You?’
‘Could be better, dad - long story. What have you been up to today?’
‘Great - did you buy anything special?’
‘Some pikelets - had one with jam just now.
That’s nice. Did you do anything else?
‘De-frosted the rhubarb. You can make us a crumble for Sunday.’
‘Oh, sure. Maybe you could learn how to do it?’
‘No, love, match will be on.’
‘Oh, okay then.’
‘And Blades are playing now, love! So, settle down, if you’re stopping. Half-time’s nearly over.’
As we sit in silence on the settee, I wonder how on my earth my mother kept her sanity all those years - no conversation from the man apart from food and football. Marriage! It’s a strange old institution, binding together the most unlikely of couples. And I should know with my own mixed marriage of Yorkshire and Welsh heritage. As newly-weds we used to celebrate our differences, but now rugby and the royal family are a source of constant irritation.
As I wonder what changed, those inner voices in my head chip in with their two-penny-worth.
‘Well, look at you. No surprise he’d rather watch rugby.’
‘If only you’d tidy the house, you’d make him happy.’
‘He’s not the only fish in the sea, you know...’
Then suddenly there’s another voice and I realise with surprise that it’s my father.
‘Sorry dad. What did you say?’
‘I said your mother says you mustn’t be too hard on him.’
‘Welsh husband. Mum’s worried. Said - take care of each other.’
‘Dad, what are you on about? You know mum died nearly ten years ago! Are you talking about a dream you had?’
‘A dream, love? Yes, your mum was always my dream girl. Pass me those tablets now… GOAL!’
As I hand my father his tablets, I wonder whether perhaps his leg’s infected. Blood poisoning can affect the brain. I’ll ring the district nurse in the morning to check up on him.
But on leaving the house, a knot of panic lodges in the pit of my stomach.