How long before we go back home?

A lazy fortnight with the kids and a computer in a rustic seaside cottage. All the ingredients for a perfect summer idyll, thought Julie Myerson
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Indy Lifestyle Online
It seems like a good idea. School holidays are six weeks long, I have three small children and my work is more or less portable - I just need my old Amstrad and enough quiet. "The kids and I will rent a cottage in Suffolk for a fortnight," I tell Jonathan, who has a deep-rooted need for the city. "You can have some peace."

He narrows his eyes. "How will you work?"

"At night," I say brightly. "All those empty hours when they're in bed."

"Won't you be too tired?"

"What? Just lying on the beach all day?"

"You'll get lonely, I know you."

"Not with my children," I say hotly.

I phone some Southwold letting agencies. It's May. "People tend to book in October," they explain, as they tell me there's nothing. But then a friend helpfully pulls some strings and finds us a place near the pier. It looks out over the creek and is available for two weeks in August. I send off my deposit without delay.

"The last people left it in a bit of a mess," says the agency when we trail in on a hot Saturday afternoon to pick up the key. "Pulled the curtain rail down - can't fix it till tomorrow. How about some sticky tape meanwhile, in case you want to put something over the window?"

We drive to our house and find the front door ajar and an old woman sitting on the sofa eating a boiled sweet. "Don't mind me."

"Who are you, Old Plankton?" asks four-year-old Raphael, pushing his beloved furry toy shark in her face.

She's the cleaner's mother. Soon the cleaner comes to take her away. "I've spent three hours," she says, "and it's still a mess."

"What's a mess?" Jacob's face lights up.

"Nothing," I tell him. "Let's explore."

OK, so the first glimpse of No 57 - ugly, squat, pebble-dash, depressingly Fifties - doesn't fit my romantic Virginia Woolf ideal but it's biggish and, dusty dried flowers and repulsive brown Seventies landscapes apart, it could be worse.

Half an hour later, the kettle's boiling and long-life apple juice has been poured. "Well, here we are, kids," I announce superfluously.

All the china's cracked. There are crumbs in the carpet, a beaded fringe for a bathroom door and great, black, sudsy wads of someone else's hair sit menacingly in the plug hole. The garden - well, bald mud areas - smells of Spry Crisp 'n' Dry. Raphael removes his trainers and runs around in his socks.

The grill doesn't work, the top of the fridge is drowned in condensation and the oven is black. Chloe finds a half-bottle of peach liqueur in a Co-op bag down the side of the sofa. "How many days before we go back to London?" she asks.

When I try to open the back door to retrieve Raphael's trainers, the handle comes off, so the door won't open. "That's it," I tell the kids. "We're complaining first thing in the morning."

"It's a luverly house," Jacob sighs, pushing away his fried fish fingers, "though I must admit I'm not feeling very well."

"What kind of not very well?" I whip out my Boots forehead strip thermometer: his forehead reads 101 degrees.

Lying tense and lonely under a foreign duvet at midnight, I tell myself that it is good for Jonathan and me to be apart. For two weeks I can drink skimmed milk, have endless lavender-scented baths, write my novel and watch rubbish on television. Two weeks.

Then the scratching starts: a clawing, rat-sound somewhere near the top right-hand corner of my window. It starts, then stops, then starts again. I turn on all the lights and lift the curtain - nothing. I fall asleep with the covers over my ears, and dream the creek is haunted.

Next morning, we buy Junior Disprol for Jacob and go straight to the letting agency. I sit the children in a neat row on the floor and grimly catalogue the house's faults. I am brilliant: I don't say "sorry" once.

"How awful," says the blonde lady in the brown suit. "Poor you."

"So I want that door handle fixed right away. Raphael needs his shoes."

"Of course he does," she soothes, "you're on holiday." She confesses this is the first time they've let this property. "But we did a check," she assures me, "and all the mattresses had proper safety labels. What a shame you're not in No 51 - such a stunning property. The master bedroom has a four-poster bed and a bidet right bang next to it." She sighs rapturously at this idea.

It's a sunny, breezy day. People are walking their small dogs and reading the Times. Red-haired children in Breton T-shirts scuttle along North Parade with bags of bacon rind for crabs.

We take buckets and spades down on to the shingle and the kids dig and paddle. "I feel like I've kind of got a headache all over my whole body," says Jacob, who shares my own fascination with exacting and imaginative descriptions of symptoms. He curls up on the towel and I hire us a windbreak (pounds 1, plus pounds 1 deposit).

But each time I get one post into the shingle and bash down with the mallet, the wind tears away at the other three and the whole thing collapses. Raphael and Chloe look on bleakly.

A man in black swimming trunks jogs over and snatches the mallet from my hands, "I can't watch you any longer - it's too bloody painful." He looks like Dustin Hoffman, only taller. I thank him shyly, and notice that he has a wife and kids. I feel suddenly obvious and alone: too old to be a nanny, too inefficient to be a divorcee.

Along comes a young man in a red sweatshirt with a clown's face and backwards- facing baseball cap. He hands us a leaflet: Southwold Scripture Union Beach Mission - Beach Activities, it says. "We're just over there," he points.

A crowd of friendly, soft-voiced youngsters in red sweatshirts, perched on stackable plastic chairs, are painting children's faces - and there's no queue. Chloe's turned into a tiger, Raphael a pirate. "There you go." The friendly, bearded face-painter holds up a plastic hand mirror, "Ooh argh!"

"That's not very good," frowns Raphael, who's used to a higher standard (more commercial) of face-painting, and his mouth wobbles with the threat of tears. "You cry," I warn him quietly, "and I'll take your cuddly shark away."

Jacob says he's feeling better so we leave the Scripture Union and head for a tea shop. The children get scones and - great excitement - individual pots of jam and cream. "Just a little bite," I tell Raphael, taking a casual nibble of his scone.

Extremely bad move. All the rage he's been harbouring all afternoon, all the suppressed disappointment at his wonky stubble and eye-patch, quivers to an unpleasant climax. His mouth spills open as the tantrum whirls around the subdued tea rooms.

"I don't want it now!" he pushes the tainted food away.

"Shh. Be quiet!" I'm torn between silence and control, and they rarely go together for me, "OK, fine. I'll have it then."

"I want my sco-one!" (This a scream.)

"Have it, have it," I hiss. Grey heads turn.

"You've bitten it," he sobs and face-paint and tears slide off his cheeks.

"No shark," I threaten, blotting his dissolving face with a paper napkin. "I mean it - that shark will go in the bin."

Looking at me defiant, he plonks the scone in his apple juice. "Fine, that's it." I fling money on the table and drag him away screaming.

We proceed along the sea-front - Raphael sobbing, Jacob insisting he's going to be sick, Chloe demanding to know how many hours of the holiday are left - until we find a bench.

We sit there for a long time. I count to 100. I begin to remember why we came on holiday.

"Look at that." I put my arms around my children and we watch the sun slide into the sea. Raphael and I give each other a kiss and he sucks his thumb soberly, one furry shark's fin stuck up his nose. An old man comes up and, attracted by this melancholy family tableau, starts telling us his life story. He says he's a retired Polish sea captain and shows us his St Christopher's medal. "Where's your child?" Raphael asks him, eyes wide with exhaustion and grief.

"My child's in heaven, since you ask," the man answers, waving his walking stick at the sky. He limps off across the green, talking to himself.

When the sea has swallowed the sun, we stand crammed together in a phone box and call Jonathan. "The house is ugly and smells and there's something scratching in the loft," I tell him. "The Scripture Union painted our faces and Raphael had a tantrum in a tea shop ..."

"And we met a man whose child lives with Jesus!" bellows Chloe.

"Is it nice where you are?" I ask him.

"Heaven."

That night Jacob is sick seven times.

1996 Julie Myerson. 'The Touch', by Julie Myerson, is published by Picador

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