Thursday, 29 December 2011


This has been a hard entry to write.

It's been ticking away in the back of my mind for several weeks now. Come clean, confess, discuss, a voice has whispered.

The Christmas period meant taking time off from writing, but if I'm honest the break was less to do with the busyness of family activities -- the tending to clamouring hyped-up children that makes this holiday so particularly un-restful -- and more to do with the fact that each time I attempted to write this post I felt queasy.

My discomfort is unrelated to the amount of mincemeat and cheese I have consumed recently, as is my wincing approach to the kitchen these days. But the source is indeed located at the fridge, which hums carelessly as though unaware of my torment. There, pinned in place by an array of colourful magnetic letters, is my marathon training plan, which I abandoned three weeks ago.

Just looking at what I've written makes me feel sick again. If only a salty glass of digestive medicine, or a chalky teaspoon of pink antacid gloop could cure it.

Outside it is iron-grey and hard cold. The tail-end of the month, the last gasp of the year. There is a sense of judgement all around: newspapers, television and online media are full of lists of what was good and bad in the last 12 months, who and what have succeeded and failed; assessments with the benefit of hindsight confidently outlining past events with a view to foretelling the next. Amid their chatter I have judged myself and I have found myself wanting. I am a hypocrite and a dissembler. Since extolling the life-changing and life-affirming joys of running here I have stopped running.

I'm not quite sure what happened.

At first I was under the weather and eased off. Then I was just exhausted, so indulged in a short break. My trainer had prepared a six-day-a-week plan which I just couldn't keep up with, so we changed it. After that, it was a busy period at work for my husband, who notched up so many late nights in his office that for me to actually leave our home full of sleeping children was impossible.

Then there was that terrible, terrible treadmill session, when my legs felt like they did not belong to me and would not move to my will, and my throat and chest burned with the effort and still I missed every time target for every mile on my training plan for that day. Soaked in sweat and dismay I thought: this is no longer what's helping me to keep going. It has become another task, another project to juggle along with all the other demands on my time, and another yardstick by which to measure my failings.

We are good at this, we women. In particular, there is a certain kind of mother who does this. When the job is not quite demanding enough, or when circumstances dictate that it must be downgraded, or even halted altogether, when the kids occupy every moment and their accomplishments, needs and desires rotate further up the list of priorities and the food shop and the laundry and the constant tidying and the to-do lists teeter higher and ever higher, the thing that is yours and yours alone -- the whatever it is you do to make time for yourself amid the hubbub -- becomes the thing that you do to prove to yourself that you still matter. That you've still got it. It becomes the thing that offsets that seam of gnawing constant anxiety, that thread of worry present throughout all the other activities, that voice that says "Is this it? Can I do more? Did I fail yet?" Thus the joy and the accomplishment of it turn to ash.

So I have stepped off the treadmill. I have looked through the pages of my diary and counted along to April 22 and so long as I start running again in the week of January 1 I still have time to complete a 16-week marathon training plan. I am not running and all I can think about is running. My not-running guilt is particularly toxic because the running is so interwoven with my maternal responsibilities: the act of putting one foot in front of the other has come to represent progress for Grace too, and when I am not doing it I feel as though the process of supporting her has also ground to a halt. But. When I think of putting on my running kit, something rebels and says no, not yet, I'm not ready again yet. On two occasions I have managed to get out of the door and jog six miles, which felt like utter fakery. According to the schedule on my fridge, I have missed three sessions of stamina-building hill sprints (find the nearest one and run up it as fast as possible, 20 times),  three sessions of speed-building interval training (walk, jog, run, sprint, over and over again) and two of those stomach-churning Long Runs -- I have not completed 11 miles or 12 miles over the last two Saturdays and am struck with fear to contemplate the 13 miles that is assigned to the day after tomorrow.

And lo, my body has taken control of the situation. It has succumbed to a thick cold that makes my teeth and eye sockets ache, my nose stream constantly, and my legs want no more challenge than that of walking upstairs to bed, where I am writing this. I am shivering despite the fact that the heating is turned up high enough to make the bedroom radiator groan and clank with effort and beads of condensation trace their way down clouded window panes.

While I hide under the covers and wait to get better and to run again, one thing above all else gives me hope. Over the last week or two a steady stream of generous donations to my fundraising pot has shown me that my family and friends still have faith. Their message that I won't let them down gives me the courage to believe it myself.

Monday, 19 December 2011

The lessons of a decade

These are the things I didn't know ten years ago:

that when I packed that little white suit and took it to the hospital, I really would be coming home with a baby girl in it

that my arms would know your size and weight from the moment you were given to me, as though I had always been waiting for you

that running my cheek across yours and inhaling your smell would be pleasure close to bliss

that you would still let me do this now

that you would always be so hard to wake up

except when you woke me first

that your eyes would be green and then brown and then topaz

that your eyelashes and nose would be exactly your father's and so too your expression of delighted mischief on learning another spectacularly bad joke

that I would be ready to fight tigers for you

but that balloons and hand-dryers would terrify you above all else

that I would come to know by heart the lyrics to many, many Disney songs and belt them out without shame

and that sometimes they would make me cry

and that sometimes sentimental adverts would make me cry

and that any books involving small girls in peril would make me cry

and that still I would underestimate how often the love of you would make me cry

that you would teach me how to draw the perfect mermaid

that you would teach me not to care when people look

that you would teach me infinite patience

and that you would teach me when it was time to start a riot

that I would always be a bit lonely when you weren't around

that being your mother would break my heart, several times over

and that being your mother would be the greatest achievement of my life

Happy Birthday darling Grace. Here's to the next ten years. xxxxxxxx

Monday, 12 December 2011

The art of tomfoolery

Grace is sitting at the dinner table with a scarf wrapped around her head. In front of her is a plate of my finest fish pie, untouched.

Opposite her and down at my side, Betty sits ramrod straight, holding herself tensely in anticipation. Her face, barely peeping over the tabletop, shines with merriment;  a tiny giggle, a bubble of glee, escapes from the back of her throat.

My girls are playing.

With a sudden flourish, Grace whips the material away from her face, revealing crazy eyebrows, crossed eyes and lolling tongue. On seeing this Betty gives a great shout -- delighted affirmation --  and collapses drunkenly against her seat, so overwhelmed by laughter that she can barely catch her breath.

At this point I intervene to ask if they will both please eat their food now, before it goes cold. Grace complies. Betty straightens up and reaches for her fork, but her eyes never leave Grace's face. With a stagey sigh, Grace flicks a strand of hair away from her shoulder and eats, but her eyes slide away with a deliberate skittishness that prompts another joyous gurgle from Betty, still watching eagerly for her next move.

Grace spears a piece of broccoli and goggles comically at it. It is all it takes for Betty to explode again into gales that leave her so weak she sags against me, hiccuping, afterwards.

"Come on now, enough," I say, a bit more firmly, and start spooning food into Betty, who is still prone and snickering softly beside me. Grace protests: "What? I didn't do anything!" but then breaks into a wide smile.

In the brief stillness, we all get on with the business of eating. Candles flicker on the table, the fire crackles in the sitting room behind us. Our reflections are ghostly dim in the subdued light, in the kitchen windows, splattered with rain from the storm outside. Across from me my husband catches my eye and smiles as he lifts his glass to drink.

My girls are playing and it brings me such pleasure that I hardly care, really, how much they eat, or whether they finish the meal at all. Hostilities have ceased. Grace has discovered that she can make Betty laugh. She has discovered how to watch her, to read her mood and coax those lovely noises of baby joy from her. Betty has discovered a clown, a tumbling jester behind her sister's often stern countenance. Suddenly the possibilities for revels seem limitless.

Once Betty's hiccups have abated, we move on to cake. Grace tells me a story as she eats, sketching out a scene between two of her latest imaginary characters. But as she talks, she draws everyone in: twinkling at Betty and her stepfather beside her, drawing gestures in the air and turning to us all to see what we think. She is holding court but she is entirely aware of all of us and taking her cues from our reactions. She smiles at Betty and sees her excitement as the little girl grins up at her, icing smeared across her chin. She smiles at me, and sees my enjoyment of her story warring with concern that she finish her meal.

As soon as they have cleared their plates and I have acknowledged their request to get down, Betty slips off her chair and trots -- pat, pat, pat in her slippers -- around to Grace's side.

"C'mon CeeCee," she says, and holds out her hand. Grace takes it and together they scurry into the sitting room. Just as they disappear from view I catch Grace executing a perfect pantomine pratfall onto the sofa, collapsing with an "Urgh!" that provokes an explosive guffaw from Betty.

So little, and yet so, so much. It is nothing. It is everything.

Monday, 5 December 2011

What have I got myself into?

So. Marathon training.

The clue's in the name.

When I decided to run the London Marathon I didn't give much thought to the process of preparation. Sure, I thought it would be pretty hard: you don't just get out of bed one day and run 26 miles without some kind of limbering-up process. (Well, you can, and people do; but they're usually the ones on a stretcher or on the ground somewhere around mile twelve.)

Way back in June I asked my friend Kate -- who has run the marathon in a time that makes grown men blanch -- what the training involved and just how tough it would be. She laughed and said: "You just run. And run. Then you keep running. And you eat lots of bananas."

So I started running. Somewhere in the early months -- back in summer, those lovely days of sunlight that I took so much for granted -- I realised that getting a marathon place wasn't as straightforward as I had expected. Naively, I had imagined some kind of scenario in which I would step forward proudly, perhaps slightly bashfully ("No, really, don't clap") and giving a gracious nod, announce my participation, upon which grateful organisers would deferentially usher me in, perhaps shaking my hand and patting my back.

In reality I had to put my name into a ballot, pay a fee  -- refundable, but only if I was too much of a miser to donate it to charity -- and hope to beat the odds to be one of the lucky ones. Everyone I told regaled me with tales of people who had applied for years with no success.

I then realised (it's all in the research, folks: aren't you glad I've done yours for you?) that if I wanted to run the marathon for the National Autistic Society, I needed to apply to them separately. So again I stepped up, filled in the form, and waited to hear trumpets. Thank you very much, they told me, we'll be making our decision in a couple of months and we'll get back to you.

So I ran the Royal Parks half-marathon to feel like I was doing something while I waited: to get strong for Grace, to tell people what her life is like, to run away the stress, to secure that place on the NAS marathon team and to prepare for the biggest physical challenge of my life.

And here it is.

What they don't tell you is that marathon training is basically running in the dark. (Unless you don't work and can fit it in during the day, in which case you have it easy my friend: go and look for running sympathy elsewhere.)

There are several options around running in the dark. You can run in the dark in the morning, before work, when the streets are cold and silent. You can run in the dark in the evening, once work is over and the kids are fed and bathed and put to bed, when the streets are cold and silent and every window you pass frames an imagined scene of cosiness and languor. You can also pretend you're not running in the dark -- there are a couple of options here. You can run on a treadmill with the light on, forcing wakeful cheer as you grind away on the spot in the spare room and outside the streets are cold and silent apart from slightly hysterical marathon runners who are at least breathing fresh air and watching passing scenery rather than that unloved armchair and the clothes rack. Or you can run outside with your eyes shut. This one doesn't work.

The exception to running in the dark is the weekend, when you get to stride out under brighter skies (or grey skies, or rainy skies, or windy ones.) This is bliss, not least because running in daylight means parks and woods are safe again and you can pace to the sound of leaves crunching or birds singing: even in inclement weather the drip of rain on trees and grass is infinitely preferable to the dreary patter of it on pavements. The downside of this is that it's your Long Run (this is the only run that other runners want to know about: "How far did you go for your Long Run?" "Long Run this weekend? How did it go?") So after a while running in daylight seems like less of a gift when it means you have to keep going for 10, 11, 12 miles. In the New Year these runs will reach 18, 19, 20 and I will have to set aside three hours or more and take a packed lunch.

But here's the thing. It's very, very hard, and it's daunting, and quite often these days I have a feeling in my stomach close to fear or panic when I consider what I've got myself into (six million television viewers in the UK alone are enough to give you stage fright, even if you are going to be running alongside 34,999 other people.) But then I will go out for a training run, and out of nowhere, magic happens.

It might be that I remember the money I raise will go towards giving worried parents advice via the Autism Helpline, or pay for a friend to regularly meet someone who has autism, or give practical support to someone with autism who is looking for work.

It might be that while I'm slogging along painfully I remember that Grace often feels the same way as she struggles to get to grips with school work, or understand the social cues of her friends, and that she doesn't get a day off, or the option to stay at home and eat chocolate on the sofa.

Or it might just be the huge adrenaline rush that kicks in sometimes and makes me laugh aloud with joy as I sprint and remember that the last anti-depressant I took was six months ago.

So yes, marathon running is excruciating, and monotonous and humbling.

But it's also the best thing that's ever happened to me. So if you'll excuse me, I've got to go and eat some bananas.

Monday, 28 November 2011

The note

It's a small piece of paper. A bit crumpled around the edges. Beige. The handwriting is careful: sloping letters linked by curls at the bottom of each one, done with the care of a child just learning to join them up. Looking at them, you can imagine the tip of a tongue protruding as the author presses down with the brown felt tip pen, leaning a little to the right. It would be perfect, but that the exclamation mark has been smudged.

Grace brings it to me in the kitchen of our home. She is white-faced. She holds it out to me and tells me that she has just found it in her schoolbag. I watch a torrent of emotions chase across her features. She laughs, then frowns. As she turns to me she is angry, uncertain, disbelieving. I read the note and look up at her and open my mouth to speak.

Then: fury. Flinging herself at me with a howl of pain she snatches the note from me and tries to pull it to shreds while rushing back across to the bin on the other side of the room. I run after her and turn her to me, grabbing for the note, hating it but wanting it and needing to preserve it, thinking fast: I have to show this to the school tomorrow, she mustn't destroy it. My daughter's face is a mask of anguish. I hold her to me. She is hot, raging, sobbing. She smells of fresh laundry and school and hormones and pain. She recounts another huge row at school, the one with the horrible child, the one that got worse and worse until she lashed out. Her voice is muffled: she speaks into my chest, hiding her face in hurt and anger while she tells me how she stamped on his foot and pushed him.

Then we have the conversation. The one we both hate, and know by heart.

I tell her that I love her, and will do everything I can to help her, and that I know how hard this is. Then I tell her that as soon as she touches or hurts someone then no matter what they have done, no matter how they hurt her feelings, no matter that they laughed, or poked, or whispered with others and narrowed their eyes -- no matter any of this, it's game over when she hits them.

She breaks away from me and screams and stamps her feet and shouts at me. They're stupid, they're horrible, they've all got it in for me.

Listen, I tell her. We all have jobs to do. Mine is to look after you and to sort this out, to talk to the school and make sure they fix this. Their job is to stop the bullies and to protect you in class. You have a job too, I tell her. Your job is to count to ten and walk away. You have to try, I tell her.

I can't help it, she throws back at me. She is calmer now, but still red in the face. Her hair stands out from her face in teary furious knots. I've got A- A- Aspergers -- and she is sobbing again.

For a moment neither of us say anything.

My daughter looks at me. What is the point of me, she says flatly.

I force a smile and tickle her cheek and pull her to me. I tell her all the wonderful, marvellous things that are the point of her. I fold her in a warm hug, but inside I shiver.

Later that evening she comes down from her bedroom. I have just finished writing a long letter to her headmistress and I am sitting on the sofa listlessly watching a mediocre film.

Grace appears in the doorway in pink rumpled pyjamas, the eyemask she needs to wear pushed up onto her forehead. She looks soft and pink and very very young. She says to me: I've been thinking and they're right. I am mean. I shout at people. I wish I wasn't here.

I think of the run I failed to get up and do this morning, the strength training session I failed to do a few days ago and I remember what the point of it all is and I am heartbroken to have been given this kind of reminder. I am frightened for her, and I am frightened that I can't fix this for her.

We curl up on the sofa and eat sweets and eventually start to giggle occasionally at  the silly film. For a blissful while we are just us two, mum and daughter and she is just a nine-year-old who can't quite mask a fleeting smirk when I say that yes ok she can stay up a bit later. I would give anything for it to be just this, and only this.

Tuesday, 22 November 2011


A little while ago my husband looked closely at my face and said: “Let’s go away for a few days.”

Now I am walking along a coastal path with him, holding Betty, who is pressing her face to mine, imparting sticky, snotty kisses while with both hands clutching at the wind in her hair. A seagull flies low overhead and we look up and she laughs to see its downy belly and yellow feet. I feel her arms around my neck and her feet in little boots kicking my hips while I fold my arms under her bottom. Her tiny white sharp teeth and rosy tongue are those of a little animal. I realise how much I adore her and I feel a sudden terrible pang for Grace.

We have left our older children – Grace and her step-brothers J and D -- with their other parents, our former partners – such a modern family, we – and have run away, mid-week, mid-November, mid-term. We are staying on an island on the Atlantic coast in a tiny, exquisite jewel of a house which belongs to a friend of my husband. It is decorated in shades of mushroom and oyster and duck-egg blue. The brass-framed beds are heaped with ivory quilts and white lace cushions. A row of dearly dented copper pans twinkle in the postage-stamp sized kitchen. On one wall is a limited edition black and white photograph of a very young Brigitte Bardot, all hair and mouth. Betty stands in front of it and points and says: “Grace.”

That night, in the bedroom we are all sharing I listen to Betty chatter in her sleep: alternately sunny and stern and anxious. I get up four times to stroke her cheek and smooth her hair when her murmurings take on a more plaintive tone. When I get up the next morning I drink two mugs of hot bitter coffee so strong that it leaves a dry residue on my teeth. Then I go for a run. I have to do seven miles: marathon training starts for real in two weeks and I have to keep up a basic level of fitness. My eyes look like poached eggs and my gait is shambolic after five minutes. My husband pedals alongside me on a rented bicycle with Betty grinning from the back seat beneath a helmet that makes her look like a mushroom.

It is a glorious morning. The sun is bright and the dark blue sea flutters and glitters to my right as I crunch along the white gravel path. The air is sharp with the tang of seaweed and oyster beds. We pass bushes of grey-green foliage. It is almost not credible that we are six weeks from Christmas. I am sweating in my running top and struggling for air. I force myself to run straighter, more upright. I clench my stomach muscles and move my arms like pistons. At elbow height Betty continues to smile cheerily at me. I push away thoughts of how on earth I will keep this up for 26 miles and try to live in the present.

London – dark, cold, rainy, with the hole in our bedroom window and our condemned boiler and my file spilling out reports on Grace -- seems a lifetime away. We are flat broke, but we broke into our savings and bought budget airline tickets to get here. I feel worried and guilty thinking about the money we have spent, that we can scarce afford, to get away from the lifestyle that we can scarce keep up. I think of the cost of Grace’s birthday party in three weeks’ time. I think of Grace. I have left the coast road and am running past white walled streets and out across long flat vineyards where orange leaves tremble on the breeze. My husband calls out exclamations of enjoyment at the day, at the scenery, at the buildings and landscape. We pass a cluster of old men pointing giant, ancient shotguns into a copse where unfortunate fowl are hiding. A little later, we pass a church where Mass is just ending and the last strains of plainsong enchant us.

There is no television in the house and no phone or internet reception. That evening we listen to music and drink wine and watch candles flicker on the exposed sandstone bricks of the sitting room. I am very happy and very in love and I cannot shake the guilt of being here without Grace instead of being there to pick her up from school and ask questions about her day with a casualness that belies an intense anxiety and a mental check-list of how she did in lessons, in the playground, at lunchtime, now. My husband listens patiently while I stutter to him how I am feeling. Gently he tries to tell me in a nice way that it’s not all about me, actually. That I am doing what I can and that I can only do that and that she is getting on fine and that she’s with her dad and things are progressing and that I should give myself a break.

But still, the guilt insinuates itself into my enjoyment of this enchanting place.

The next day Betty is in a grotty mood when she wakes from her afternoon nap. She plays with her dollies on the sofa, trying to cover them up and tuck them in with a blanket that is far too big. Her movements are jerky with impatience and she is muttering under her breath. I listen in and realise she is saying: “fucksake” in exactly my tones. I am mortified and guilty all over again. Is this what I am? A muttering, cursing grouch? I am red with shame while my husband stifles laughter. Ridiculously, the guilt has become yet another thing to feel worried and resentful  -- and guilty -- about. I must find a way to break free of it.

We go for a drive as the sun is setting, our little rental Renault belting along narrow roads the length of the island. Suddenly we leave a cluster of buildings and shoot out into miles and miles of salt flats silently reflecting the damson twilight. The land seems vast and endless; the skies stretch above and around and they are all there is. I feel tiny and insignificant. Finally, I can breathe.

Monday, 14 November 2011

Is There Anybody There?

This is how I spend my time.

Today, at work, I sat in a shuttered meeting room in front of a neat line of empty chairs and a tripod-shaped phone that squatted on a polished table like a robotic claw. I took off my watch and regarded it, aware of my empty desk elsewhere in the building, an abandoned chair and an impatient flashing cursor at the top of a blank screen. I decided I had ten minutes to complete the task I had set myself before what could pass for a wee-and-a-cup-of-tea break started to look like a more suspicious dereliction of duties.

On the table in front of me there was another report bearing my daughter's name and the stamp of the local borough and a long list of names of those who had been sent copies. The report was seven pages long and it said that on top of the recommendations of the last two reports (to whit: assess my daughter for dyscalculia; call in the local authority's anti-bullying sub group; provide a safe room to which she can go when she needs to; give her extra time for tasks but keep subjects to a 15-minute limit; review class social dynamics and underscore positive peer reactions to her) we should also now refer her to occupational therapy to look at sensory issues and how they might be affecting her work and behaviour. The woman who wrote the report suggested that certain hypersensitivity to touch and noise was at play in Grace's underperformance and disruptive behaviour, and also some hyposensitivity. I didn't know what that meant.

On another page, the assessor had written: "There may also be issues with her vestibular and prioprioceptive senses."

I didn't know what that meant, either.

I scanned the front page of the report again. The author's name was written there, and her title. There was no contact number, no address. I rifled quickly through the pages again. There was no contact number anywhere.

So I started by telephoning the council switchboard (using my personal mobile phone, not the claw) and asked to speak to the author of the report.

"We haven't got anyone of that name listed."

"She's written a report about my daughter -- "

" -- Putting you through to Childrens' Services."

A pause.

"Hello, Childrens' Services."

"Hello, I'd like to speak to (name)."

"I don't know her. Hold on, I'll look her up."

"I think she's on the advisory team."


"I've found a number for her -- here it is --"

"Could you put me through please?"

"Could I? Oh. (Doubtful) Er. Hang on."

Pause. Click.

New voice: "Hello?"

"Hello, are you (name)? I've got your report about my daughter."

"No, I'm sorry, I'm not her."

"Ah. I was put through to you by Childrens' Services."

"Sorry. What's the name of the person you want? I'll look her up."


"Here she is. Ah, no, that's my number. They've put my number here. That's why you can't find her."

"Right. She works for the advisory team. Do you know that number?"

"I can look up someone else on that team. Perhaps they can help. Maybe she's left or something."

"Ah. Ok. Thanks."

Pause. Click.

New voice: "Hello?"

"Hello, I'm looking for (name)."

"Hang on."

Muffled discussion in the background. I heard the name of the woman I was seeking being said by several voices in varying questioning tones. Then one exclaimed: "Oh!" and pronounced the name in recognition. My shoulders sagged with relief.

The voice came back to the phone: "She's not based here. I'll have a look on the system."

I waited in silence, the minutes passing.

"Are you there? She's at (this) school. Call this number."

I hung up. Eight minutes had passed. I redialled.

New voice: "Hello?"

"Hello? I'm looking for (name). She's written a report about my daughter but I can't seem to find her."

"Can't you? Awww. She's here. Hang on."

I waited in silence and as I waited I thought of Grace's face looking out of the car window in profile against the peachy dusk as we drove home last night. I thought of her saying blankly, still gazing out, apropros of nothing: "I don't deserve my friends Mummy. Because I get all cross and I lose my temper at them and shout. And they're just nice."

When the new voice came on and said: "Hello?" I breathed in and forced a friendly, all-the-time-in-the-world, polite tone into my voice and said:

"Hello? (name)? I've got your report about my daughter and I wondered whether you might have a few minutes for a chat. I've got some questions, you see."

The next report is due in my email inbox tomorrow.

Monday, 7 November 2011

Oh, belt up

Betty is hiding under the covers.

Beneath the purple velvet throw, a shape on my bed squirms and stifles giggles. Grace and I, advancing on tiptoe on either side, glance at each other and nod conspiratorially, smiling. With a whoop, we dash to reveal her but at just that moment my two year-old daughter flings back the covers and sits bolt upright, hair a perfect dandelion of static, shouting and pointing at us: "Found oo!"

We collapse on our knees, protesting that that's not how the game goes. Beaming and magnanimous, Betty beckons us in. "C'mon: hiding," she says to Grace and me. We get into bed on either side of her and she flings the coverlet over our heads.

In the dark, everyone's giggles subside. In the silence I can hear the slow breathing of my big girl and the rhythmic wet tug of Betty sucking her fingers. I can smell the top of Betty's head and the sweetness of her breath. Grace's hand curls around to find mine and I kiss her slender fingers, stroking a rough patch over one knuckle.

Cocooned and peaceful I reflect on my day, which has been thoroughly rotten but also revelatory.

It started this morning as I travelled to work pre-dawn, surrounded by grey commuters, watching warped reflections in the curved train window and fretting about the state of my bank account. As I sat, stiffly working through the same sums in my head and failing repeatedly to find a bigger total, my co-travellers shook out newspapers and gravely consumed articles about economic crisis, spiralling debt, political unrest. I thought about my below-inflation pay rise (make that sub-zero, below-inflation pay rise) and the contrasting mountainous peaks of our household outgoings. Beside me a young man read a book called "Think and Grow Rich", underlining in blue pen passages about using the subconscious to bring lucrative ideas to fruition. His fingernails were bitten to the quick. The time was six thirty in the morning. The carriage smelled of recession.

Work was better, enlivened by lovely colleagues and appreciation of what I do and the kind of black-humoured desk banter that supports and salves and acknowledges the really gloomy stuff only by poking fun at it.

But then there were the phone calls, the same tedious, depressing phone calls. The latest meeting, the latest conversation about the latest report, the latest tiny, tiny, suggestion of a baby-step towards progress. Redoing the numbers in my head again and wondering about paying for extra help if it might help Grace faster. Redoing my work shifts in my head again and wondering how to ask for the next bit of time off for the next appointment, or presentation for parents, or training that I dare not miss as I attempt to garner information and points. Debating carrying my tombstone-heavy laptop all the way home again in case Grace has had another bad day at school and I have to work at the kitchen table tomorrow in between visits to the school office.

And then someone told me to belt up.

Have you ever asked for help, wailed about being stressed, gone on and on and on about the injustice and the fatigue of it, got angrier and angrier and then been told: "Oh, belt up"?

Neither had I.

Boy, was it liberating.

Because actually, it's what everyone else has been saying all along. Translated, the government has long been telling me to belt up, to tighten my belt, to cut back, to manage. The local authority has long been telling me to belt up, to go away, to take my complaints and my needy daughter and just put a sock in it. The school has said to me belt up, we know, we're working on it, we can't perform miracles. In the business world in which I work the current mantra is: look, it's rough out there, we like you, it's time for everyone to make sacrifices: now take this and belt up.

It's just that so far everyone has been a bit more polite about it than that and I, sap that I am, have responded to their bland words by wrinkling my nose and making vague noises of displeasure and shuffling away to groan quietly to myself. Faced now with a direct insult I pass quickly through shock, then outrage, then anger so pure I think I might have a heart attack.

But now I can see the world for what it really is and the true nature of the abuse that's been coming my way for a while now. It's not personal. It just is. I can laugh and shake my head and counter with the knowledge that I have a secret weapon that will see me through. Later this evening, when the girls are asleep and my husband is back from work, I will go running. Quickly, before I can change my mind, I will change into my thermal long-sleeved top, my running tights, my shorts; I will don jumper and hat and socks. Outside it will be black and cold and squally with rain. I will wince and angle my head to avoid the worst of it and I will run and run and run and sometimes when the traffic is loud I will shout rude words and roar like a madwoman and no-one will hear me.

But I will not be silenced and I will finish this marathon.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Feeling the fear, and doing it anyway

I am walking through central London, along a busy road that in some respects has remained unchanged for hundreds of years. This long, straight thoroughfare has brought millions of people in and out of the capital, to the Inns of Court, to the hospital for the poor, to the City -- or to the gallows at Tyburn. (Now Tyburn marks the start of the A5 which leads among other places to St Albans and another kind of suburban death.)

I digress. I'm in the mood to wander and fret and pick at random thoughts, because the alternative in front of me is too intimidating to confront just yet.

Back to Holborn. The road is an assault on my senses in every way. In my ears, the ringing and drilling of workmen across the way; in my eyes an explosion of blooms in a flower stall in front of me -- crushed purple velvet of langorously regal iris beside perky peach-fringed dahlias; in my nose the acrid exhalation of cigarette smoke from the besuited, marching man in front of me.

I am numb to it all, moving like an automaton on heavy legs, thick with a fear that will overwhelm me if I acknowledge it. I turn my face up to the sky, hoping for a breeze that will bring me round. The street of tall red-brick buildings blurs and shifts, as though invisible stagehands are spinning levers to bring the set behind me whirling past while I stand, frozen, centre stage.

I am rooted to the spot by fright. I have suddenly realised the scale of the tasks I have set myself and I am terrified.

I think of the latest report on my desk at home, by the latest educational psychologist to assess my daughter. Its list of conclusions are wearily familiar -- such experts, these, who queue up to tell me about the child I know inside and out -- but its list of recommendations are new. They spell the next Sisyphean task for me: getting the school to understand them and put them into action and getting the local education authority to understand them and give us help to put them into action. The thought of it makes me gulp with dismay and weariness.

I have to change the system, then, if this one is not working. I look down at the books I am carrying: pages of advice on campaigning and advocating and pressuring. I have spent the day learning how to be an ambassador for my daughter and for others with autism and Asperger's Syndrome. I have watched and listened to a presentation about the government's proposals to overhaul the arrangement that provides special educational support to children who need it. The proposals are in many ways as deeply flawed as the current framework but some suggestions, if thoughtfully transacted, may mean real improvements. The thought of reading through the consultation paper, as I must do if I am to get this right, and of squinting and re-reading and making notes until I understand it; of finding ways to poke and prod and cajole a whole new set of people with the power to change my daughter's life makes my brain feel even thicker and more useless, my legs even more leaden. I am not good enough or sharp enough to do this.

But I must summon energy from somewhere, if only because I have to run 26 miles and raise two thousand pounds, in order to help to fund the organisation that is advising me and others like me on how to get educational support, on how to mobilise my local community, on how to woo my local MP, counsellors, decision-makers and media. I have to alert a wider audience to what life is like when you have autism or Asperger's and the system lets you down and the wider public is indifferent or intolerant. And I am doing this in an economic climate in which I would normally hesitate to ask anyone for two pounds, let alone attempt to amass two thousand.

In sum, I have set myself the following tasks: to rid my daughter's life of pain and uncertainty, to change the law, to run a marathon.

Now the muttering, fluttering agitation within rushes close up and shrieks in my ears and eyes and nose and mouth: "Are you entirely mad? Do you realise what you're attempting to do?"

I reach the mouth of the tube station and stumble down the steps, tired and overwhelmed and frightened by the responsibility and the scale of the undertaking ahead of me. At the entrance to the ticket barriers a man is playing the flute. He has a puff of fair hair, a jaunty tee-shirt and patched, flared jeans. He looks like a children's television presenter from the 1970s but for his melancholic expression. He is playing the Beatles' "Yesterday" and the tune winds down the tunnel after me, clinging to me in woebegone wisps.

Then something happens. I am humming the tune in my head, guiltily enjoying the self-pitying refrain, when another voice inside my head steps forward. It is assertive, primary-coloured, loud in my ears with a nine-year-old girl's bluntness and a forty-year-old's vocabulary. It says: "Bugger that. Yesterday was shit. Let's sort out tomorrow."

So I get on the tube and it whisks me along and along and up and north to my home and my girl and my wonderful, scary, promising, rewarding next challenge.

Monday, 24 October 2011

Window on another world

There's one day every year to which Grace counts down with unparalleled shiny-eyed fervour. It's not Christmas, or her birthday, or the start of the summer holidays, though of course all of these are also preceded by repeated questioning, date-checking and suppressed thrills.

Her anticipation of this year's event started precisely one day after last year's event. On that day Grace drifted dreamily past me, trailing her fingers along the furniture, her mind turning on internal images of the night before. I asked her if she was alright: she barely heard me. When I went upstairs later to monitor her progress towards bed, I found her at the sink in the bathroom, gazing into the mirror at herself, her tortoiseshell eyes lit with the amber light of her imaginings. As I entered the room she turned to me and said, as though continuing a conversation started much earlier: "... so then, Mummy, next year I can be - "

Halloween is the night when Grace can just be. She is able to step into the characters she draws with such skill and wit; into the pictures she summons inside her head to fortify herself daily. She can be the other person she conceals so fretfully and often unsuccessfully, existing as if behind a torn veil for the rest of the year. Halloween is when, as her favourite character of the moment puts it: freaky is cool. Grace's otherness can rule.

While other children give flight to their fantasies on October 31, Grace simply steps forward from the wings where she has been waiting, waiting, waiting. She basks in the spotlight and adores the attention but even as she laps it up the praise for her creative presentation puzzles her (though lately I think she begins to understand the misunderstanding, and there is a trace of condescension in her gracious acknowledgements.) She is not putting on a character. She is her characters. She sings, she snarls, she pirouettes, twists and strikes impish poses. She is otherworldly and on this one day a year the freedom to exist beyond the constraints of our bland, neuro-normal world brings her a joy that observers can only imagine.

A few months ago I walked down the local high street with Grace. Rather, I walked down the high street behind Grace, who skipped and hopped ahead of me, moving to a tune inside her head. As I watched my daughter dance gracefully and entirely unselfconsciously down the road I felt for a moment as though a window had opened and I could almost hear the melody quicken; the notes swoop; the strings build to a crescendo. The moment was broken by the sound of slow, sardonic handclaps. A man in a shop entrance yelled after her and cocked his head at me: "Nice moves she's got there, eh?" Grace stopped as abruptly as a puppet whose strings have been cut. She rushed up to me and clutched my coat, tucked herself in under my arm for cover. "Why is he laughing at me?" she hissed embarrassedly up at me. "Why?"

I shushed her and clucked and gestured surreptitiously at the man and said: "Because he's rude and he's got no imagination."

Inside, I was remembering the very first Halloween when Grace dressed up. She was two and a half and we were living in Washington, in a picket-fenced suburb which was transformed that night by flickering pumpkins and candles and strings of fake cobwebs festooning the plentiful trees and bushes that lined the avenues. That year she had fallen for the Little Mermaid. (We did not yet know that it was the first of a series of single-minded obsessions, nor what that would signify.) To delight her, I ordered a mermaid costume from an online party store. When it arrived it was more Rita Heyworth than Ariel, but no matter, she donned the sequinned, fishtailed frock and the bright red bouffant wig and with an expression of ecstasy immediately launched into a word-perfect rendition of her favourite song from the Disney movie.

Her father has lovingly stored the video film we have of her from that night but I can remember every moment of her performance. She recited every single word, despite not understanding many of them (and having to pause now and again to spit out tendrils of her voluminous wig, to muffled parental giggles off-camera.)

She was gorgeous throughout but the final moments of the song have a bittersweet resonance as they play in my mind. She sings: "When's it my turn? Wouldn't I love, love to explore that world up above? Out of the sea, wish I could be, part of that world."

Monday, 17 October 2011

Everything is different, everything's the same

I spent the first days after the race in a teary, exhausted haze. I wanted to talk about it constantly and relive every moment. Then I would want silence and solitude to rest and consider. As in the days immediately after childbirth, I was worn out and exhilarated and bruised and hyper. A laugh would end in tears. A groaning shuffle to the sofa would transform half-way into a waltz and a whoop.

My husband was very patient.

I had a sense that everything had changed. I was giddy with the promise and potential of what I had found: a role in which I could make money -- in the old-fashioned way, by sweaty toil -- to be spent on improving life for people with autism and Asperger Syndrome. By running the Royal Parks I collected some £1200, which with a charitable donation from my workplace was likely to reach £1800. When I told the staff at the National Autistic Society I could feel my voice tremble with the pleasure and passion of it. I had done a good, good thing. I posted pictures of myself everywhere: captured in a snapshot on the finishing line looking pink and flushed and ecstatic in my NAS running vest. I debated on Twitter whether my finishing time was honourable or not. I wrote Facebook captions full of exclamation marks about how wonderful it had been. I emailed friends and family under the auspices of saying thank you to point out again how much I had raised and how hard I had worked. And, of course, I blogged about it.

I was high on my own success.

Meanwhile, Grace continued to go to school every day. She seemed calm. She was drawing a lot and her mania for Monster High seemed as strong as ever. Most sentences started with a description of a new character she had invented, or a dream that she'd had about them, or a play that she'd written about them. But there were long, lucid-enough periods in between. And our scuffles over homework were muted.

Then one evening when I was putting her light out and tucking her in to bed she started to talk in torrents. A girl at school -- whose behaviour had been making me quietly uneasy since the start of term -- had gone for her. Following weeks of spiteful asides and snidely determined whispers engineered to undermine Grace, this child had fronted her out in the playground and told her to stop making claims on any of her friends. They were, she proclaimed with relish, only being nice to her because she had Asperger's Syndrome.

With her hands over her face, weeping and rocking under her duvet Grace recounted to me her reaction. Spinning with dismay she had shouted back. And, bless them, several of her friends had stoutly declared that this was not true. Later, with the conscientiousness of nine-year-olds, they recounted in detail to Grace everything that this other child had been saying about her over the weeks, all of it pure poison.

Any parent will know the sick, dark feeling that spreads like an inkstain over your heart when your child tells you they are in pain. Mine was extra bitter, with a side order of shame and remorse. All the while I had been congratulating myself on changing the world, Grace was trudging through a parallel universe where everything was just the same.

I have talked to the school. I am watching that child like a hawk. I am listening to my daughter.

And after some time off, I am running again. This time I am training to complete the London Marathon in April next year, hoping that some of the millions of people watching the event -- even more than usual I hope, in an Olympic year -- will see the name of the charity written on my chest and will want to know more and want to help.

I have remembered who and what I am running for.

Monday, 10 October 2011

Race Day

I woke at 5.30 to the sound of rain pelting down in the darkness outside. Every possible cliche went through my mind: was I tough enough? Was I brave enough? Was I completely mad? After so many months of training I would find out what I was really made of. It felt like being sixteen again and waking on the morning of my first exams: the performance I put in over the next few hours had the potential to change the rest of my life completely. Nine months ago I was lost and broken: flattened by the circumstances of my life to such an extent that my doctor was using words like 'depression' and 'nervous breakdown'. Now, having mapped out a route back to sanity and purpose, to looking after Grace and looking after myself, I had to travel the final, toughest part of the journey.

And I had to do it alone. I planned to leave well ahead of the rest of my family and see them later by the side of the route. I wanted to be alone in my final preparations. I shivered, and got up and got ready.

Before departing I looked into Grace's room to say goodbye. Her hair was fanned out on her pillow; her duvet a tangle of knots. Against the noises from the rest of the house that signalled it would soon be time to rise, she clung tightly to sleep. I went to her and kissed her eyelids gently and she murmured: "Please run slowly Mummy, because when you're finished and we come back, I've got to do my homework."

Downstairs as I stood by the front door, Betty bounced up to me in her pink sleepsuit, her hair a wild mess, chuckling. "Runrun, Mummy!" she exclaimed, pointing at my now-familiar clothing. "Runrun!"

On the tube, the overhead lights were harsh against the darkness of early morning. Some way down the carriage sat a grumpy-looking man in a tiger suit pretending to look at a map of the race, betrayed in his small piece of theatre by the nervous flicker of his eyes. My running partner Karen and I sat side by side, swaying with the motion of the train, watching him and giggling nervously. I suggested that perhaps his discomfort stemmed from the fact that he'd discovered there was no way to pee while in his suit. She thought that perhaps he wasn't running at all, and just liked to go out as a tiger on Sundays. The train nosed deeper and deeper into central London, where more and more runners boarded. By the time we arrived at our final stop, we were all wedged close and starting to sweat: all these participants who had been dutifully hydrating themselves ahead of the race according to sporting advice, were now sweating it out instead inside a hot tin can.

Outside the sky was steely, though the rain had stopped. We walked and talked nonsense to each other, babbling to cover our nerves while observing the scene in front of us: crowds of runners converging on the race point, queuing to check bags, to use toilets, to visit the rows and rows of canvas tents that flapped in a cold breeze that brought with it the scent of Deep Heat. We stood on the edge of it all for a moment and watched. Stewards wearing thin plastic anoraks and tangles of coloured lanyards and passes around their necks patrolled the queues for the toilets, braying metallically through megaphones that there were separate urinals for men around the back. About half of the men who were lined up peeled off in grateful relief to look for them. Those still waiting for the stalls coughed and shuffled their feet. A sense of nervous anticipation lay over the scene like mist.

As we made our own preparations I eyed the crowd. Everyone looked lean and limber. In front of me stood a man wearing a see-through white tee-shirt that clung to his every rippling abdominal muscle as he brushed his hands through his Hollywood hairdo and stretched expansively. Beside him stood a golden woman with a long vanilla plait of hair and honey-coloured sinewy legs who looked like she'd never broken a sweat in her life. My heart started thumping uncomfortably. Where were the reassuringly chunky ones? Where were the runners that looked like mums who ate chocolate? Where were the ones with slightly mottled purple legs and a bit of a wobble round the middle? O god -- what had I done?

But then it was time to run. Joining the blue-banded runners aiming for a time somewhere between two and two and a half hours, Karen and I stood shoulder to shoulder in a crowd at least fifteen people wide that reached down the avenue as far as we could see. A sudden bang -- the official starting gun -- elicited a round of exited applause and some whoops. And then we stood for another five minutes, hopping from one leg to another and shuffling along bit by bit as stern-looking people around us checked water bottles, food supplies, headphones and playlists. And then there was the start point and the big red digital clock.

I don't remember much of the first three miles. We were moving, running, looking at each other occasionally, raising eyebrows and smiling and not thinking much. The first part of the route took us out of the path and down along the side of the river towards Temple. It wasn't very nice -- a long, straight road past bands of runners already coming back up the other side. I was starting to feel uncomfortable and realised I'd put far too many clothes on. Karen and I kept pace, watching what those around us were doing. To my immediate right an odd character loped along, wearing 70s Dunlop 'bumpers' as my Dad would call them, that he flopped down hard with every huge stride he took. Every ten or so strides he would stop and walk, wiping sweat from his face. Then he'd start up again, flailing and thumping along. To Karen's left was a wheezy breather: a man in a pale blue tee shirt with a similar complexion who looked to be in extreme discomfort after three and a half miles.

At this point I decided I wasn't going to last the whole run if I didn't take off some layers, as I was starting to feel horribly hot. Glancing about I saw that although the runners were still bunched tightly there were few spectators along this less picturesque part of the route. Quickly and still running I peeled off my vest, emblazoned with the National Autistic Society logo, and then took off the surplus tee-shirt I was wearing beneath it. At that point I glanced up and realised there were about 300 people watching from a bridge above. Karen laughed and handed me back my vest as we ran beneath the bridge to cheers and whoops from the spectators.

Around five miles Karen got a stitch and slowed. I stayed just ahead of her as we moved through Theatreland and turned left at Trafalgar Square, glancing back regularly to check her progress. "Go ahead," she mouthed, waving me on.

And then we were back into the park, streaming around the front of Buckingham Palace and down along a packed road of runners and spectators, flags flying, drums thrumming, cheers and whistles urging us along. I knew my family and the NAS crew were waiting at 7 miles and ran craning my head to see them. Suddenly to my left there was my sister, anxiously scanning the crowd. I jumped and waved and ran to her and she spotted me, and her face immediately lit up and then contorted into tears as a rush of emotion hit her. My mum and dad and little sister and baby niece all yelled my name and jumped up and down with glee. Delighted and thrilled, I moved up a gear and rocketed past them grinning, to where my husband stood with the kids and the NAS staff, all waving madly and cheering. Moving faster now I could see Chris, and the boys and Betty and there, there was Grace -- her sweet, sweet face and her hair blowing in the breeze -- looking happy and anxious and pleased all at once. A huge sob escaped me. I blew kiss after kiss at her as I ran past. How could I have thought I was alone?

Suddenly I had wings. From miles seven til ten I was absolutely flying: totally wired and excited and fuelled by a massive adrenaline rush. I could do this. And more: I was loving it. I overtook people, motored through the bends and handled several inclines with ease. I caught up with the pacesetter bearing the flag for 2hours 10 minutes and passed him. It was beyond wonderful. My legs were like pistons. I felt sure and strong and absolutely invincible. The hair on the back of my neck tingled with the pleasure and excitement of it. At ten miles I saw my husband and kids again, calling and clapping. Grace had her arms out over the barrier, reaching to me. "Mummy!' she shouted. "My mummy!"

At this point I thought: we look comfortable. I'm running with a pack of proper runners, and we're easing along. Then I noticed the people on the other side of the barrier, pushing back up the hill. These people were ahead of us. Some of them did not look comfortable. Some of them did not look well at all.

We surged downhill and turned -- it was ten and a half miles along and suddenly I did not feel like an Olympian any more. My legs felt thick and my feet were landing heavily. I was starting to feel a bit sick. At mile eleven I was suppressing extreme discomfort and the first whisper of panic. At mile twelve I suddenly remembered that the race was not 13 miles at all, but 13.1 miles. Suddenly that 0.1 mile was a game-changer. I couldn't possibly run more than 13 miles. I would never do it. People were passing me now on either side: people who had kept something in reserve. They were checking their watches, nodding with satisfaction, going up a gear. Neat ponytails bobbed in front of me. Straight-backed muscle men went into fifth gear and whooshed past. I let loose a torrent of obscenities under my breath. I'd done this all wrong. My run was more of a stagger by now. Beside me another runner slowed to a walk, shaking her head with regret.

I told myself: I will not walk. I will not.

Ahead of me was a sign announcing that there was 800 metres to go. It might as well have said another 8 miles. By now I was weaving with exhaustion.

Then came a sign saying 400 meters, and I thought: maybe.

Then came a sign saying 200 metres and I could see the finishing line. I experimented, asking my legs to move faster. They did. I asked them to go faster still. They did. I straightened my shoulders. I was running, properly running again. The crowds of spectators on either side of me were three-deep and roaring approval. A massive grin split my face. I was purely, blissfully happy.

As I went over the finish line my body suddenly spasmed with sobs. Around me people bent over and grabbed their knees, or clutched each other in ecstasy, or shook hands and blew out hard. The first person I saw in the crowd was my sister. I made my way to her on legs made of water and she held me fast while I cried. "My sister," she told me. "Oh, my sister." We were both crying and laughing. My mum was there and hugged me. My dad appeared, so moved he could hardly talk. My little sister hugged me so tightly that what little puff I had left was expelled and I had to ask her weakly to let go now.

It was an age before my husband found me. The wheel had come off Betty's buggy and he and the children had to struggle with it across miles of mushy park grass to get to the end point. Grace was crying with frustration at being unable to find me in the crowd. Betty was wearing a National Autistic Society tee-shirt the same size as her. The boys looked weary. My husband looked weary. But then they saw me and rushed to me and I was enveloped in love and kisses and congratulations.

From the tangle of arms and heads, Grace's face emerged. She gazed up at me. I will remember that look for the rest of my life.

Saturday, 8 October 2011

First date nerves

I've woken with sweaty palms and a jittery stomach, struggling to remember what's approaching to make me so nervous.

This morning the baby didn't rouse me, nor did my alarm. I'm under the duvet looking up at the fingers of pale light along the edges of my bedroom curtains and slowly remembering that I don't have to get up. I don't have to do a long run today. I have to rest.

The race is tomorrow.

Oh God. I swallow down a sudden blockage in my throat. I feel as though I'm preparing to go on a date with someone I really, really like: the anticipation is overwhelming, as is the worry things won't turn out the way I'd hoped. All the signs are that it will be great fun, if occasionally awkward or effortful. I'm having to bat away self-deprecatory imaginings: what if we don't get on? What if all my preparation was in vain? What if I have spectacularly misjudged this and the whole thing is a total disaster?

My mouth is dry. I fling the covers off and go to the kitchen to make coffee.

Downstairs I count out spoonfuls of dark brown powder and wait for the kettle to boil, half-listening to the rolling water and tapping my fingers on the counter as my thoughts turn. Of all the mornings in the world not to be running, this is the very worst. Now more than ever I need the soothing anaesthetic of a steady pace, a thumping heart; the back-and-forth piston of my arms and the sound of my own breathing loud in my ears. I need to be distracted by physical effort to shut down this noise in my head.

I pour the coffee and sip and pace. In my skittish state the hot, bitter liquid goes straight through me and I have to bolt for the bathroom. I realise I am actually trembling.

From upstairs comes the sound of baby Betty waking up. I hurry to prepare the breakfast things, glancing up and out of the window as I do so. The grey sky looks back at me neutrally. There are no birds, no neighbourhood cats stalking through the bushes. Even next door's rag-tag bunch of kids are still indoors and silent. The suggestion of a breeze lifts one or two leaves on the willow tree. I am aware of an intense feeling of anticipation. Even the garden seems to be holding its breath.

Breaking the silence, my phone pings with another good-luck message from a friend. I mutter ungraciously under my breath. I wish I hadn't told anyone now, I think, blatantly ignoring the nonsense of this. (The kindness and generosity of my friends and family means the National Autistic Society will reap £1,000 when I cross the finish line on Sunday.) If only nobody knew what I was up to and I could slope off and do this thing with no expectations.

And another thing -- what on earth am I going to wear? The heatwave has passed, thank goodness, but it's not entirely clear whether autumn has properly arrived either. I scroll feverishly through weather forecasts, which mention a cool start, a warmer morning, possibly rain, possibly winds. Layers? A hat? Never has my wardrobe caused me such anxiety -- except perhaps for the last big date I went on, which happened almost exactly four years ago and resulted in the biggest love of my life.

Thinking about this I brighten and straighten my shoulders. I'm a good judge of character. This may be the first time I've done this but I've been around the block enough times to know when I'm onto a good idea.

And besides, how many dates involve thousands of spectators cheering you on?

Monday, 3 October 2011

Once more, with feeling

Of course, I spoke too soon.

I thought that it would get easier. Instead, I'm just getting used to how hard it is.

I'm writing this long-hand in my notebook, journeying home, as my fellow commuters read and doze and sway. One sitting close to me takes occasional glances at my notes. I do hope she isn't moved to ask if I'm alright. The first sign of sympathy is likely to start me wailing.

I'm slow and thick-headed and have been all day. This morning I felt the way I used to early on Saturdays in my rambunctious twenties: exhausted, dry-mouthed and headachy. Yet I had consumed no alcohol and knew I could not sleep it off or wait for the next day's fresh optimism and energy.

On Friday night Grace cried and cried as she recounted the latest incident of classroom teasing. On Sunday night, having steered her through an anxious weekend and hours of impenetrable homework, I cried and cried as I sat upright in bed in the darkness, unable to sleep for worrying about her. This morning, as we perched knee to knee on tiny chairs in her classroom, her teacher blinked back tears as she apologised for the way she had handled the incident.

It feels like Wonderland, as though like Alice we are all bobbing about in a sea of our own tears; struggling through the brine in a crazily distorted landscape and confronted with endless un-solvable riddles.

On Friday afternoon Grace's class was doing computer work, sorting through photographs of their recent school trip and writing up their reports. One of the pictures showed Grace in an ungainly pose, snapped with an expression that rendered her ugly. Observing her discomfort, a classmate gleefully decided to download the photograph as a screensaver. Grace shrieked and slapped her. The classmate slapped her back. Grace burst into tears, drawing the amused attention of another pupil, while another still printed off the photograph and started waving it about. At this point Grace bolted out of the class, hurt and embarrassed and furious and entirely unable to process the experience. It is bafflingly unclear to me how the incident went undetected by her teacher -- but it seems she was busy with another pupil, and it did.

I'll run through this. I got up that hill last week; I completed nine miles in unseasonal heat with insufficient water on Saturday. The half-marathon is in 6 days. This is just another stage in my training: another lesson in staying power.

Grace has been volatile all weekend: both in need of soothing routine and fretfully chafing at any constraints. In the car on the way to her drama club on Saturday afternoon, she picked up the thread of her story again, and told me how she tip-toed back into the class and told the teacher what had happened, confessing to her own part in shouting and hitting. The teacher warned the class that anyone talking from then on would miss playtime on Monday. Shortly afterwards, Grace whispered to her neighbour that she liked her drawing. The teacher promptly banned her from Monday play.

Grace reached the conclusion of her story and once again I found myself sitting in the car with her -- so many of these scenes involve us sitting in the car -- trying to staunch her great, gusty sobs and trying again to persuade her everything would be alright. I swore to her that she'd get her playtime back. I swore to her that I would take her to school and not leave until I had rebuilt it as a safe place for her. It felt like being confronted by that hill at mile 8 and wondering how the hell I would keep going.

This morning I went to school with Grace, feigning light-heartedness as we walked there, while inwardly boiling with fury and questions: how did her teacher not see this? Why was this incident not shut down instantly? Had she read Grace's file? Had she undergone training? Had she any idea of the misery that Grace endured over a long, long weekend of knowing that she would still be in trouble on Monday? I wore heels and a smart dress and carried an impressive handbag stuffed with papers and books on Aspergers: a mother's battle outfit.

I had anticipated another long wait in the school office, sitting on the grey felt chairs and reading for the hundredth time on the wall opposite, the laminated school rules about being nice to each other, while beside me the gluey liquid of the ceramic water feature trickled and plopped. I expected faintly defensive staff and a subtly different version of events. Instead I was greeted promptly by Grace's teacher and the school's special needs co-ordinator and whisked into an empty classroom where they both hastened to apologise and reassure and tell me the incident had been dealt with. It was clear both had discussed what happened and felt bad about not having dealt with it better. Grace's teacher paused several times to swallow hard and control the glistening of tears as she told me how fond she was of my daughter and how bright and funny she was. At the end I stood up and shook hands and left.

It was singularly depressing, unutterably wearying. I am sure they will do their best. I am sure it will happen again. In the meantime I will keep running. At least I'm starting to learn where the hills are.

Sunday, 25 September 2011


These days, I am never quite sure who I will meet when I run.

I don't mean the passers-by: late commuters turning into their driveways, shoppers alighting at bus-stops; dog-walkers and ramblers; allotment gardeners and parents in the swing-park.

No, I mean versions of me.

Often, when I set off, I have butterflies, a nervous tightening in my stomach and a prickle in the palms of my hands. As I close the garden gate and set my watch to record my time and distance, I wonder: which one of me is doing this run? Will I run it with ease and set a new time? Or will I have to talk myself through every mile? Does triumph await? Or misery?

Almost without fail, the first three miles of any run are hard work. While my mind is wiping itself clean of the day's tension and filing notable events away, my body is fighting me. Ugh, here we go again, it tells me. Are you kidding? After the day you've had? Why aren't you on the sofa? As I push on through those first minutes I am wholly and entirely engaged in psychological games with myself. "You can do this bit," I say, as the first hill arrives. "Hills, pfft, this is nothing. Remember the one on the heath last week. You've done this one hundreds of times now. "

But having done it before is no longer a measure of reassurance. It's become a challenge. There is so much at stake now. There is so much riding on this. The half-marathon is two weeks away. I have raised around £1,000 - a sum that makes me blink with wonder. People are expecting this of me. Grace expects this of me. Failure, as the Hollywood-style voiceover intones in my head every time I run, is not an option. To stop would be disaster. To slow down, a defeat. I am often nauseous with fear and the panicky thrill of second-guessing my abilities.

Last week, after I had finally finished the round of homework, dinner, bath and bed with my daughters, I opened the front door to run and realised it was entirely black outside. It perfectly encapsulated my mood. What I am engaged in now is not the stuff of balmy evenings and soft summer mornings. It has become something darker and more complex. There are struggles here. Something is being forged here. Even my appearance is changing. I'm not a middle-aged mum in tee-shirt and shorts: I'm a serious runner and now I have to dress as one in long tights, warm long-sleeved athletic tops and reflective jacket. I rarely run less than six miles and regularly run more than ten. I am starting to understand why the language of the running community has such an intense ring: we are warriors, athletes, philosophers. Long-distance running is both a mental and physical challenge and only the fittest survive. I am proud of what I am achieving here, and also scared by it. Each time I run further and faster I wonder at my achievement and frighten myself at the thought that I may not be able to better it.

On Saturday morning I had to run 12 miles: the furthest distance I have ever had to run. I set my alarm but awoke before it went off, feeling fretful and uneasy. I ate to fuel my body, gaining no pleasure from the cereal and banana that I struggled to swallow. I set off and for as long as I could manage, I avoided looking at my watch. I barely glanced at my surroundings or the path that I was following. I was entirely lost in a multilayered, schizophrenic, mental debate, telling myself I could do this while feigning a light-heartedness -- take it easy, stop worrying -- that made other me's shrug with annoyance even as others still tried to calm my jitters. At eight and a half miles I encountered a hill so steep I could almost have leaned forward to kiss the road before me. I willed myself to keep going, to somehow get one leg in front of the other again and again, to straighten up and relax my shoulders and suck in big lungfuls of air. A third of the way up it, blind panic set in. With nearly four miles still to do I simply couldn't see how I would complete this run. It was like turning over an exam paper to discover that none of the questions corresponded to those I had prepared for: I felt like simultaneously bursting into tears and being sick. Resorting to tiny, staggering granny-steps I shambled somehow to the crest and back onto the flat.

The next two and a bit miles were manageable, but I had started to feel pain in my right knee -- where I fell by accident a couple of weeks ago -- that gradually got worse and worse. By 11 miles I had shooting pains the entire length of my right leg, from groin to instep. Every step made me grit my teeth and close my eyes.

I have no idea how I completed that last mile. Putting the key into my front door was like coming round after a period of unconsciousness. I was shaking. Climbing the stairs to the bathroom took me ten minutes. I ran a bath and sat on the floor watching the bubbles form, aware of every tendon and joint in my body. I was still on the edge of tears as I struggled to undress. Somehow I hauled myself into the bath and sank below the lavender foam, feeling it pop in my ears and float through my hair as the blessed heat of the water soothed my muscles.

When I came up for air, I was grinning.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Such devoted sisters

Grace's new school year has started well. She looks relaxed and happy when I go to collect her, striding out of the classroom on long, tawny legs and flicking hair out of her eyes with the self-assurance of a sixteen-year-old. The school trip was a huge success: while I fretted and paced (and ran) she scaled tree-tops and swam lengths and filmed a bunch of lopsided, giggly dorm videos of herself and friends. The first maths classes this week have passed smoothly -- a major accomplishment for her -- and she has established a pattern of playing with two or three classmates in rotation at break, an arrangement that means she has a willing accomplice for her repeated games of Monster High every interval.

But the next hurdle has already appeared.

With Grace chatting easily beside me in the car, I park outside the home of Betty's childminder and right on cue my toddler runs outside, splendid in her pink hoody, baggy jeans and sparkly trainers. I jump out to get her. Betty pauses on the path, her dandelion white-blonde hair caught in a sudden breeze. She is scanning the car. When she spots Grace her shoulders slump.

"No Cee-Cee," Betty says, and turns back to her childminder. I scoop her up and kiss her. I tell her hello and I missed her and not to be silly. I tell her lovely Gracie has missed her too. "No Cee-Cee," she says again, but this time she sounds resigned. I take her over and open the door and put her into her car seat and buckle her in, saying brightly: "Hello Cee-Cee!" for her. Grace smiles tentatively. Betty looks at her shoes and says "Hello Cee-Cee" in a tiny voice.

Back home Grace announces that she is going to do her piano practice and disappears into the front room. Betty potters and chatters while I cook, bringing bits and pieces of coloured plastic for me to admire and occasionally giving a brisk tug on my trousers to express her impatience for food. The meal is soon ready and I ask her to go and tell Grace to come and get her tea. She won't. I ask again. She takes a few steps and then stands silently with her back to me. I ask her three times, to no response, and then tell her to please do as she is told. She runs into the front room and lets fly a barrage of angry noise, nearly-words expressing fury at Grace, who flies into the kitchen like a bat out of hell, tears streaming, to shriek at me: "I can't take any more! I'm sick of this! She hates me!"

I scold Betty, who bursts into tears and buries her face in my legs, and try to soothe Grace, who is entwined around my arm and neck, still wailing. I shuffle over to the dinner table, making soothing noises and somehow sit them both down. They are quickly distracted by the lasagne I have placed ready for them and start to eat. After a pause, Betty starts to chatter again and to try to tell me about her day. "Man," she begins. "Grandma man." She gets no further. Grace explodes into laughter and points at her, exclaiming how funny her lack of words makes her sound. Betty knits her brows and frowns deeply at Grace, hurt and cross. Grace is oblivious. She throws her head back and laughs and laughs. I ask her to be quiet and explain how Betty might be feeling as she struggles to explain herself. Betty tries again. Grace sets off laughing again. Betty is beside herself with irritation and the effort of making herself understood and starts to yell at Grace again. I count to ten in order not to raise my voice and wonder guiltily if Betty is taking her cue from me, given how often I shout at her big sister myself.

After they've eaten Grace goes off again to finish her music. As I stack the dishwasher Betty trots over to me.

"Worried," she says, and frowns again. I close the dishwasher door and click it shut and say: "Why?" "Baby," she says simply and I sit on the floor so that she can clamber into my arms and be rocked. With her head in the crook of one of my elbows and her ankles crossed in the other, she nibbles a biscuit and gazes up at me. Behind my back I can feel the warmth and hum and occasional clank of our plates being rinsed by the dishwasher. "Are you ok?" I ask Betty, and stroke her little ear. She burrows further into my arms and nibbles one of them experimentally, grazing it with her baby teeth. "Worried," she says again, conversationally. "Don't be," I tell her, "I love you." She looks up at me again, with her father's startling blue eyes, and says: "Too, Mummy."

Later, as we prepare to go upstairs for her bath, I ask her to go and say goodnight to her sister, who is watching a film. Betty runs to Grace on the sofa and kisses her with a loud smack. Grace, delighted, immediately asks her: "Do you love me Betty? Do you? Do you?"

Betty doesn't answer but runs away, casting a naughty smile over her shoulder. Grace throws a cushion after her in mock frustration. Then she turns contentedly back to the television.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Captain, she can't take much more

I can't bear it. Emotional overload has hit and my systems are crashing. My eyes leak tears, constantly. The smallest kindness causes me to hiccup and fumble for a tissue. I love my daughter so much that it has rendered me incapable and thick-headed.

I have things to do. This must stop. The last time I burst into tears in a supermarket it proved to be the final confirmation of a six-month-long depression. This is not that. Granted, I am back in a supermarket -- Sainsburys seems to trigger crises for me -- but this time I have just waved Grace off on a three-day school trip and I am so apprehensive for her that I can feel the fault lines cracking along my heart.

I prepared so well in advance. I washed and ironed and packed and bought little treats and smiled and reassured and giggled along with her in excited anticipation. I tucked a letter to her inside her bag, along with contraband sweeties (It's here) This morning I brushed her hair and kissed her cheek and stood shivering beside her in the shadow of the school coach for 20 minutes, so early were we.

She is tall, my girl. Slim and elegant she is head and shoulders above her classmates. She holds herself well -- may she never adopt the embarrassed hunch of long girls waiting for a short world to catch up -- and this morning in the fizzing crowd of excited classmates she bent her head again and again to hear what was being said around her, exposing the vulnerable nape of her neck in a way that made my stomach tighten. A friend bounced up to her side and asked if they could sit together. Grace said yes, so long as she could have the window. It was agreed. Then -- suddenly -- the teachers were all there and it was a scramble to get on the bus. I hugged her and smiled and watched as she got on the coach and discovered that her friend had changed her mind and wanted to sit with someone else. Through the tinted windows of the coach I couldn't make out Grace's expression but could see only a solitary silhouette waving alongside the rows of excited couples on either side of her.

I blew kisses and mimed hugs and mouthed: "Never mind. It's ok" and forced a bright smile as the teacher went to sit with her instead. The coach pulled off and I turned away in grief.

This is ridiculous. I know this is ridiculous. She will be caught up in the events of the next three days at the outward bound centre and she will come home with long, rambling tales and an unused toothbrush and mud on the knees of all her trousers.

If only she would come home with a chum, a little soulmate to understand her and hold her hand and be trusted with her heart.

When Grace was ten months old and I was returning to work I would have to leave early in the mornings before she was awake. I would sit in the back seat of the taxi carrying me into the city and away from her and I would cry with the loneliness of leaving her and the worry of how she would learn to make her place without me. I thought it would get better and I would get stronger.

This weekend I trained for the half-marathon that is now only 4 weeks away. I was staying with my parents, on the edge of the Peak District. My father had mapped a ten mile route and accompanied me on his bike. I had a cold and within five minutes of starting felt an ache in my chest and down my throat and into my ears. The road wound uphill and across the moors. Blasted by the wind and assaulted by each gradient I spent an hour and forty-five minutes sobbing quietly behind an expression I kept as neutral as I could while I willed it to be over.

Grace is not a marathon or an endurance event. She is the bright finish line and the cheering smiles at the end and I will keep going for her.

Monday, 12 September 2011

A letter to my big girl

Hello darling puss,

I wonder what you will look like when you open this letter. Will you open it during your journey, I wonder, when you're still all smart and clean and shining with excitement? Or will you open it after you've arrived at the outward bound centre, and you're rosy-cheeked from running around. Perhaps you're sitting on the bunk bed you chose. Maybe you're just back from the swimming gala with your hair wet (make sure you ask a teacher to help you with those knots!)  Maybe you're opening this after you've done the assault course and there is mud under your fingernails. Or maybe you're opening this just before you do that big scary zipwire and you're feeling a bit worried about it. Have you got butterflies in your tummy? Don't worry - you'll love it once you're up there!

One thing I hope is the same whenever you read this -- I hope you've got a big smile on your face and that you're enjoying yourself. I am missing you and thinking about you and I'm so, so proud of you.

Do you remember what we talked about before you got on the coach? How are you getting on with your friends? Please try your hardest to be kind to them. Remember, they'll be just as nervous and excited as you are. They might be feeling a bit worried, or a bit homesick. If you are feeling a bit anxious, then I bet you they are too. If you're not sure how they're feeling, just ask them. If you're wondering why they're behaving in a certain way, just ask them. Maybe there's something in particular you want to tell them. Think to yourself first: how would I feel if someone said this to me? If you think you'd feel ok then go right ahead.

I'm sure everything will go really well. But just in case: if something happens that makes you feel angry or upset, close your eyes and count to ten slowly. Imagine I'm there and giving you a big cuddle. Breathe in, breathe out. Now imagine what I might say. Imagine that feeling of having got it all off your chest. Imagine a feeling of peacefulness. Breathe in, breathe out. There. Is that better?

You're going to get the opportunity to do so many new things my love. Relax and enjoy them. And don't worry if you don't feel like it, or if you're not sure what you're supposed to be doing. Just ask a teacher. Ask Mrs M. I've talked to her and she knows that sometimes you need another explanation. She'll be looking out for you.

If you start to feel tired and like it's all too much, ask a teacher if they can find you a quiet spot for a while. Take good care of your drawing things so that you've got them to hand if you need to relax for a bit.

You're going to roll your eyes when you read this next bit! Please try not to disappear off to Monster High or Phantom Manor. I know you're really into them right now and some of your new characters are just fabulous. But you won't get a chance to really take in all the fun stuff that's there if you're playing with DracuLaura and Grace Reaper! So imagine they've taken the bus to their own outward bound adventure and are away too for a couple of days. When you're all back home you can compare experiences!

Now I think this letter is long enough, don't you? So I'll finish now. But not before I ask you to remember one last thing: I love you darling. You are my precious pet, my little chum and the Grace of my heart.

Have a wonderful time.


Sunday, 4 September 2011

Dispatches from the front lines

We have been in Normandy, fighting battles.

The enemy approached across a lush landscape of orchards and cornfields. Wave after relentless wave bore down on us, drumming through clustered stone hamlets and lashing hedgerows and lanes.

In the face of such a deluge we sought many and varied strategies, tilting at one idea after another and fighting down panic. We began with straight confrontation: on the first day of our holiday we put on our armour and clad in anoraks and sensible shoes marched past the pool and sun loungers to find other entertainment. We went to Avranches, explored the cathedral and perused the botanical gardens under lowering skies. We admired the Mont St Michel shimmering in the distance across the bay, tethered by a silver ribbon of river across the mudflats. Then we went home and dried off.

The next day we tried ignoring the bombardment. The kids gamely unpacked toys and played in the sitting room of our cottage, marching Lego figures across decorative rugs and carved occasional tables whose every corner was a reminder how much nicer it would be to be outdoors. The bickering began. In a sinister twist the game was renamed Lego Riots. Hastily, we made sandwiches and put everyone into the car for a trip to picturesque Villedieu-les-Poeles, famed for its copper pots and pans. We walked through the market, bought sausages and cooed over fluffy ducklings in crates until baby Betty, wrinkling her nose at the animal smell, urged us on. The drizzle was low-level but building, as was the bickering. I slipped away into a gift shop and bought ceramic bowls painted with figures in regional dress and finished with our names in flourishing Gallic script. I willed us to be a happy family as I watched the shop assistant stack and wrap and bind us in protective bubble-wrap.

At lunchtime we hid out like maquis in the massive, silent Forest of Saint Sever. My husband carved up sausage and handed around bread to dejected troops as huge raindrops plopped onto us from the canopy above. By now Grace was retreating further into her herself, irritated by any request or interruption to her internal stream of thought in the absence of any compelling external activity. My younger stepson D, bruised by Grace's bluntness and tired of playing nice, was a tinder box in the dampness. J, my elder stepson, alternately teased the others and then retreated aloof behind his Beast Quest books. The in-fighting started in earnest.

This was not the holiday I longed for. This was not the giggling bonding with Grace in the pool under the sun, dipping and ducking and twisting to catch her ankles in the turquoise blue. This was not lazy and relaxed. Our cottage smelled increasingly damp and sour with boredom and disappointment. The next day the boys insisted it wasn't really raining and lobbed a tennis ball disconsolately back and forth in the wet garden, then played half-hearted games of Monopoly before falling out. Grace circled and paced. She hates ball games requiring co-ordination and loathes board games using numbers and other people's rules. She could not settle to read. Even drawing could not hold and soothe her. All she could think of was when or whether she would next be able to get into the swimming pool. She asked me over and over and over. By nine-thirty one morning I found myself counting the hours til dinner when I could have a drink.

On day five we tried another tactic -- outrunning the rain. We drove for an hour flanked by dark clouds then suddenly shot free of them and pulled ahead. A cheer went up in the car. We found Fougeres, a charming medieval town laid out on different levels like a game of snakes and ladders, with steps leading to dead ends and turnings that brought us back to where we started. And then there was the castle: a giant ring of crenellated fortress walls dotted with wild flowers and strung with piebald turrets from which the children chased bats.

By evening the enemy had found us again and the rain came all night like handfuls of needles thrown at our windows. The next day we surrendered entirely and sat watching the miles of rainclouds that stretched in every direction. The kids refused to get in the car but gave up asking if they might be able to swim. My husband and I defused quarrel after row after scratchy argument. My heart was in my boots. I had set such store by this time together with no homework and no chores and no work stress. But Grace was as detached as ever, furious and cutting whenever I asked her to take part in tedious family routines and no closer to the boys who could barely be in the same room themselves for five minutes before locking horns.

I tried to get away and run but could only manage a short, slow slog, hampered by rain and hills and a lack of form after a recent virus. I am rubbish at everything, I wheezed to myself.

Back at the cottage, as I started to think about what I should begin to pack first, the sky began to brighten. I ignored it. But then the sun came out -- tentatively, like it knew it was in trouble -- and we all rushed outside, turning our faces up to it like sunflowers. The cheering warmth was divine. We scurried to the pool, where Grace, J and D leapt in with whoops and splashes and started to shove each other around like old comrades. My husband bobbed gently around the shallow end with Betty, beaming, fastened around his neck. Like atoms, my family spun and bounced and separated and then clustered together in the middle of the pool, arms around each other, hugging and kissing while I watched from the side with a lump in my throat.

Within thirty minutes it was raining again. But this time the sun remained, stubbornly undimmed. We ate dinner with all the doors and windows open, beneath a rainbow.

Friday, 19 August 2011

You've got a friend in me

Grace is having dinner with her friend M who has come for a sleepover. This is Grace's first sleepover and she is very excited. Together the girls have unpacked M's overnight bag and between them they've negotiated who gets which bed (with only a little input from me.) I've cooked lasagne after checking it's M's favourite too, and lined up chocolate mousse for pudding.

The two girls sit at the table. Grace eats with gusto, pausing now and again to look up and grin at her friend and remind her: "You're sleeping with me tonight!" M sits opposite, curled on her chair like a mermaid, knees underneath her. She picks daintily at the food and, smilingly polite, tells me how tasty it is. We are going on holiday in a few days and she's curious to find out more. Curling her hair neatly behind one ear she asks Grace: "When you go on holiday, where will you be staying? Is it an apartment? Will you be self-catering?" Grace looks at her blankly and shrugs. "It's a house. Come on, we're watching a film after."

My heart is in my mouth throughout this conversation. Observing Grace navigate the minefields of early friendship and social interaction has me on pins: it's like watching nuclear diplomacy. I have been told by various assessors over the past few years that she has poor communication and comprehension skills, an inability to empathise, delayed development.

But Grace is far, far more complex than the sum of her assessments. She fully understands how people feel -- she feels the same way herself. She worries about getting it wrong. She worries about people not liking her. She frets about being popular. She is desperate to have her own best friend the way most other girls in her class do. She just can't read people's moods or understand why they might behave in a certain way; she cannot comprehend the impact that her actions might have on the way outsiders relate to her. She is not an emotionless android. She is not Rain Man. I've lost count of the number of times she has thrown herself into my arms weeping and shouting "I feel horrible!" when she realises that yet again she has caused hurt or offence.

Now the girls are sitting on the sofa watching their film. We've created a home cinema environment: the curtains are closed, the lights are out, and Grace and M are munching brownies in the dark and watching the characters find themselves in a casino. M turns to Grace and says: "Which would you rather go to? Las Vegas or Los Angeles? Los Angeles has Hollywood but Las Vegas is so pretty with all those lights. Do you know about gambling?"

Grace barely glances at her and for a moment I wonder if she has tuned her out to watch the film. Then she gets up and drifts over to the other side of the room where she starts to dance and sing to herself. M watches for a moment, then turns back to the movie. It's impossible to tell what she's thinking. I want to say to her, Grace isn't being rude -- she just doesn't know the right answer.

Thinking about this, I'm suddenly twelve again and in the bedroom of my schoolfriend Tracy Fleming. I've got butterflies in my stomach and the sure knowledge that if I don't stay on my toes I'll be toast. Tracy is firing questions at me and watching me as closely as a cat. The trick is to get the answers right but not so right that Tracy is wrong, and not so wrong that I look like a loser. Most of the questions are about just how long I've liked Duran Duran, which songs I know the words to, and which member of the band I fancy. The answers (I think) are: not as long as she has, none of the ones she likes, except maybe one, and anyone as long as it's not John Taylor. I fail. (I cannot dissemble about John Taylor.) Tracy's flashing displeasure follows me up the hill as I trail home and I brace myself for her mocking laughter at school the next day.

I digress, but only a little. M is far kinder than Tracy ever was. But making and keeping friends requires a particular alchemy that we all -- bar a few very lucky ones -- struggle to perfect. Don't we?

The next morning M's mum arrives to collect her, bringing along her younger sister. S is a pert child who fizzes with curiosity. She skips into the room where Grace, Betty and M are playing. At that moment Betty squawks at Grace for handling a favourite toy and S laughs and exclaims: "She doesn't like you, does she?" and Grace bursts into tears. My reaction is pure instinct -- I am across the room in seconds, ferocious and firing at S that was a nasty thing to say while cupping Grace under the chin to bring her eyes to mine.  "She didn't mean it, it's not true," I tell her. Grace hiccups and looks uncertainly back at me. I can see her wondering. Meanwhile S is round-eyed, frightened and in tears. I apologise to her mum, who is very nice about it. There's some slightly awkward conversation. I'm mortified. How is Grace going to steer through social situations when I am still crashing around like this?

The next day I text M's mum to check in and test the water. She tells me to stop worrying and that M had a great time. Grace is invited to stay the night at their house in a few weeks.

I wonder whether my nerves can stand it. And what kind of music M's mum likes.