In the sticks: Yes, children, your mother is a bag lady

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The Independent Culture
WHEN I was married, which feels like several incarnations ago - the sort of thing you might uncover after hypnosis - preparing for the start of the new school year was like the mobilisation of the Russian Army for the First World War. Six weeks was the bare minimum to allow supplies and transport to be in a stage approaching combat readiness. Everything had to be bought, name-taped, washed, ironed and ready almost before the end of the summer term.

However, in my unmarried incarnation the skills of advance uniform preparation have dropped away. So this year, we have spent the summer in our little island of fields and garden without a thought for the coming term and the morning routine of public appearance in the village. School, shop and other parents have seemed as distant as the Antarctic, which is how I came to start pre-school preparations at 8.03 am on the first day of term.

Skirts, trousers and shirts were easily tracked down, in a ball in the same bedroom corner where they'd spent the last two months. It was the smaller items, which have lives aside from the sartorial, that were more tricky. Shoes can be goalposts, missiles or marble boxes. Ties can be garrottes, climbing equipment or skipping ropes. In this instance Buster and Bunny's knotted ties were holding up a corner of the tent in the garden. Their spectacularly unpaired school shoes were: 1) under the dresser with a mummified orange and a set of fairy lights; 2) in the dog's mouth; 3) on top of Bunny's wardrobe after a fight; and 4) in a patch of nettles. Both sets of plimsolls were at the bottom of the pond following a re-enactment of Titanic (Barbie as Kate Winslet and a small earless teddy as Lennie the heart-throb).

Yet in spite of these seemingly insoluble problems we made it to the school gates on time, and the only real blots on the uniform horizon were the squelching noise that Buster's left foot made (the shoe having been in the nettle patch for some time) and the hole in Bunny's skirt where the nail-varnish remover had removed the material as well as the green nail varnish.

I'd been so absorbed that morning in my children's relaunch into the village school scene that I'd forgotten about my own own new role on this stage. As of the start of term I am secretary of the PTA. I was supposed to be standing at the door of the school, casual yet efficient - clean at the very least - with a letter of welcome for all the new parents and a cheery reminder of the date of our first meeting of term. I hadn't done the letter, I couldn't remember the date and, as for standing at the door, I was wearing a pair of Doug's boxer shorts and a jumble sale T-shirt bearing the encouraging logo "Suck This".

From the cover of the car seat I looked out at the other mothers - clean and efficient to a woman - with their neat and name-taped children. I felt my mother spinning in her grave and my former husband spitting in contempt.

I snuck back through the lanes determined to word-process letters, mail- order grey skirts, pair off socks and put on some real clothes. But it was such a lovely day, sky the colour of faded denims, and Doug was already potting and digging and mulching to full-on Radio 1 . So instead I wrestled with the bindweed in my borders, swore at the nettles and held bits of wood together for Doug to nail. It should have taken just a couple of hours, but then I heard the weather forecast and realised this could be the last blackberry-picking and lawn-mowing day for some time. I did get as far as the real clothes because I needed protection from bramble thorns, so I had my own jeans and one of my dad's shirts on when I picked the kids up at the end of the afternoon.

Sadly, I'd forgotten something else. Outgoing PTA secretary Carrie and her Polaroid camera. She handed me the two Tesco carrier bags of PTA paperwork. "Just stand against the wall over there." she said. "Look I know I'm not quite up to speed, but a firing squad is a bit premature," I said. "In that patch of sun. Lovely. This is just so that new parents know who to ask about PTA stuff." She beamed, cleanly and efficiently pinning the new photo to the parents notice board.

So, new parents, the bag lady with the green and purple blotches, the section of straw bale on her head and the buttonless Fifties dress shirt is your new PTA secretary. Welcome!