The Mother was always astonished at how much money she managed to spend over the summer holidays, helped in no small part by her children. Although neither child actually uttered the word “royalty”, she knew deep down they both expected to live like kings over those six long weeks. Any purchase that was vetoed during this time was meet with, “But, Mum, it’s the holidays.”
By the end of August, her kids were incapable of walking for more than 10 minutes without needing a drink from the shop. A drink from home was completely out of the question – it had to be “from the shop”. Heaven forbid that they bring their own bloody water bottles with them.
“Mother, it’s the holidays – one simply cannot drink tap water,” she could hear them thinking, in a south London accent. Once in a shop, although she’d hoped to get two 25p cartons of Sunshine Cordial, she suddenly found herself buying two Mars milkshakes, a packet of Randoms and a Crunchie. Plus a copy of Hello magazine and the Guardian. Well, she had to get something nice for herself; after all, it was the holidays! And, in the blink of an eye, she’d parted with a tenner before they’d even reached the park.
So here she was again, worrying about money, with the summer holidays about to roll out in front of her like a ceremonial carpet. It is a difficult time for most parents, but even tougher if you are skint. One of the many joys of temporary employment is no proper holiday pay.
Predictably, the dole had wasted no time in turning down her claim for benefit. The reason they gave was that she had a temporary job to return to in September, so currently, she was only available for temporary work. “Not good enough, Miss Knight.” The result – six weeks with no income: that seemed totally fair.
Fortunately for the Mother, perhaps foreseeing this moment, she’d applied some weeks earlier for a credit card. A credit card which was now in her possession. A nice, new, shiny card that had an introductory offer of a £1500 credit limit. Pay no interest for 12 months. “That will do nicely,” she’d thought.
The Virginia credit company didn’t want to know about her work history or her qualifications. They didn’t care who she shared her bathroom with or why she’d left her last job. Christ, they didn’t even check she had a job. All they cared about was luring her into their lair with too good to be true promotional offers. Then keeping her there long enough to hit those colossal interest rates and thus own her soul forever. But what else could she do? She couldn’t exactly take a trip to the food bank and ask what they had in the way of organic yogurts and smoked tofu. The Mother had got used to a certain standard of living; sadly, it was a standard way beyond her income.
It wasn’t just feeding the little blighters that seemed to cost a fortune in the school holidays, it was all the other bloody stuff they needed as well. Sunglasses, sun hats, suntan lotion, sandals, summer clothes, ice lollies. Water guns, Slush Puppies, goggles, and yet another bloody wetsuit. Why did they have to grow so bloody quickly? Half the stuff she ended up getting, she was sure she’d bought them last year. If Esme could actually be bothered to look in her half of the bedroom, the Mother was positive she’d find all this crap. Well, apart from the Slush Puppies, although…
By far the most expensive purchase for the summer for the Mother and her partner was the holiday. Depending on their finances, family holidays loosely fell into one of two categories: one, a holiday abroad where you stayed in a hotel; the other, a week at a caravan park in the UK.
Holidays in the sun
The first type of getaway meant putting a lot of money away in advance. Unless somehow, you got lucky. Say, for example, a large tax refund, or an unexpected death in the family, followed by a big fat will. After all, every cloud has a silver lining!
Once, several years ago, the Mother had received a vast overpayment of tax credits. When HMRC wrote to her asking for it back, she was already halfway to Morocco. Unfortunately, she was too old to go on the run, so spent the next two years paying it back. But still, it was a lovely holiday.
However, if you couldn’t afford that exclusive and elusive hotel on the Riviera, there was always the static caravan, just not on the Riviera. The Mother had her own personal and private opinions about this type of break. It was a view that was unlikely to appear in the Cribbins Holiday Park newsletter, but if it ever did, it would read something like this:
Warning: Caravan holidays and what they don’t want you to know
You arrive at your destination and start to unpack, and then it hits you – you’re going to be spending the next week in a box on wheels that is about a third the size of your own home (which in the Mother’s case was a two-bedroom). Yes, the kids both have separate rooms, but each room consists of a bed and a sliver of space beside it. A space so narrow even a tightrope walker would struggle to walk along it. That brings us on to the sleeping arrangements. The beds are OK if you are a size zero, but any bigger than this, and well, you’d better get used to not rolling over. On top of all this, although you have your own room, the walls in the caravan are made of paper. So even if it does cross your mind, you can forget about having sex.
But having driven through several counties to reach your new temporary origami home, it feels like a dream house. If you were Barbie, that is, but you’re not. As a result of the cramped living conditions, you end up spending every waking moment away from the caravan. Even if you manage to survive breakfast time “at home”, you can bet your life you’re gonna have dinner and lunch out somewhere, anywhere. Plus, every evening is spent at the clubhouse, playing fucking bingo or watching some godawful covers band. Because even this is preferable to staying in and arguing over what to watch on the retro TV. It is only when you are forced to watch a film that the whole family will enjoy that you unearth another problem. Almost every vaguely entertaining movie contains swearing, drug use, violence or scenes of a sexual nature. Christ, even The Goonies, mentions heroin.
Eating out every day isn’t the only hidden cost. Of course, staying in the UK, you might not get stung for a henna tattoo at the local medina, but there is always the problem of the weather. You know, for at least one day, it’s gonna rain. Which means you’re going to be spending that whole day at the local shopping centre. Unless, of course, your holiday destination comes with a games room equipped with a PlayStation and Xbox included in the price.
There was one occasion when the kids were much younger when the Mother and Jason had spent a week on holiday in Wales. The five-star hotel in Cardiff Bay perhaps? Or a luxury lodge in an enchanted woodland? No, a budget caravan next to an RAF base where the sound of bombing and shelling could be heard all night. To make it even more gruesome, they had traveled there by coach.
The Mother could still remember the journey, all eight hours of it. When they finally did arrive, they had to wait for another hour for their accommodation to be ready. And by the time they finally stepped inside their mobile home, it was getting dark. This was probably a good thing because it gave the Mother a few seconds to brace herself before setting eyes on their accommodation. When the Mother did face her fears, daring to turn the light on, the caravan interior was revealed in all its glory. She could still see it now. The grotesque plastic ’70s pictures on the wall. The hideous tatty brown sofa and the tiny corridor which housed the kitchen. She wanted to cry.
The only thing that held back the tears was the fact that she had not paid for the holiday, not one penny. Her partner had paid for the whole thing. If she’d started crying, she knew she’d look like one ungrateful bitch. So she managed to contain herself until she made it to the safety of the toilet cubicle. Once inside, she just wanted to sob. But of course, as is traditional in caravans, there was not yet any bloody toilet paper.
Of course, this is all grossly unfair; some sites the Mother had stayed at were beautiful, the expensive ones mainly. The resorts with amazing views of the beach, the ones with a spa and a jacuzzi, and then there were the camps with subsidised bars, always a bonus. Plus, not all caravan parks had bingo every single bloody night at the clubhouse, no, honestly.
Her grandma would say “You get what you pay for,” and where else could you stay for £20 quid and a few tokens out of the Sun? Also, it would be misleading to say that there weren’t at least some advantages to holidaying in the UK. One of these was the whole experience of going out for dinner. Dining at Wagamama with your kids might set you back a few quid, but it’s never going to be as stressful as eating out abroad. For the Mother, going to a restaurant in a foreign country always followed the same pattern. And every time, she wondered why she put herself through this ordeal.
Roughly speaking, it went like this.
1 Find a restaurant – obviously, somewhere authentic where the locals go. Not one of those horrible English restaurants that cater for tourists.
2 Try to work out what meals they offer using your pidgin Spanish/French.
3 Explain to your children on a loop that the restaurant does not serve chips, pasta or pizza. Tell them they are abroad and suggest perhaps they try the local cuisine.
4 Try to order your meal, making a pathetic attempt to speak the lingo. Your accent and vocabulary are so shit, even you’re not sure what you’ve asked for.
5 Your dinner arrives, you begin to eat it, it’s delicious but you massively over-ordered. You notice both your children are pulling faces at the food as well as each other. After several empty threats from you, one child begins picking out bits of food with their fingers and sniffing it before they eat it. The other is still refusing to eat so much as a single mouthful.
Order another drink to cope with stress. Hope that by the time you’ve finished your second/third/fourth glass of wine, your kids will have finished their dinner.
7 Pay the bill, panic about how much money you have spent, and give the children a lecture about wasting food. Tell them it’s their fault if they are still hungry and that you’re not going to have anything until breakfast time tomorrow. This includes ice creams and sweets.
8 Buy the kids some ice creams and sweets. After all, it is the holidays.
Another huge benefit of staying in the UK is that you will invariably travel to your destination by car, coach or train. While contained in a vehicle, it is virtually impossible for your children to spend money. (Notice the use of the word “virtually” here.) But getting a flight anywhere often means a lengthy wait at an airport. This can only mean one thing – shops. Not just shops but cafes, bars, restaurants, pop-up toy stands. Even a flipping vending machine which sells overpriced electronic gadgets.
So here you are, at the airport, your luggage is on its way to the hold, and you still have a couple of hours to kill. In those two hours, your children come up with a myriad of things you need for the holiday, and you can’t just blame it all on the kids either. You thought you’d packed everything you needed too. But then you spot a pair of lovely white linen trousers in FatFace, just £80, that you simply cannot go on holiday without. And why shouldn’t you treat yourself to a new bikini? And, wow, that perfume smells fabulous. Before you know it, you’re reaching for your emergency credit card. Who knew it would be so easy to convince yourself that all of these plus a Dior lipstick count as essential items?
The Mother was well aware that she was part of the problem without anyone daring to point this out to her. She had set the bar high for herself, made a rod for own back, whatever you want to call it. When the school year had finished, she wanted to kick back and live like a B-list celeb. She wanted excitement and entertainment every day. But her income wasn’t equal to her desires. Her children, at least in part, had picked up those expectations too, and also expected the moon on a fucking stick. Thomas Cook adverts didn’t exactly help either.
By the last week of the summer break, you’ve exhausted every possible form of entertainment, and every day until school starts is now spent in the park. Luckily, you’re not the only one there; the adventure playground is awash with skint, exasperated parents.
Also at this point in the holiday, the food cupboard resembles Old Mother Hubbard’s. Plus your TV starts telling you about all the things your kids will need for the start of a new term. Blazer, shoes, PE kit, lunch box, pencil case – fuck off. Also about now the credit card bills have started to waft through the letterbox. They lie unwanted on the carpet like old sweet wrappers. And though they might eventually be picked up, they’re not going to be opened any time soon.
You and your partner decide that you can’t afford or justify a holiday next year. Instead, you agree to have several days out in areas of natural beauty in the English countryside. You’re sure you’ve got a National Trust membership card somewhere. By January, the weather in Britain is utterly shit, as is the political situation, and you are beginning to feel depressed. Even the pub is cold. So you begin to scan the internet for cheap flights, casually asking your partner, “How old is your Aunty Iris now? She must be at least 95. We must go and visit her, you know before it’s too late.”