Tuesday, 22 May 2007

Master and Commander

I like to think that giving Camilla that fudge last week clinched the deal. That someone mixing in Royal circles saw us and thought, “I say! That’s the wife of Lieutenant Commander Band. Jolly good show”. He told the Queen of our selflessness to duty, she thought, ‘Hmm, that’s the type we need’ called for her equerry, who informed the MOD, who in turn promoted my dear husband to Commander.
Hubby wasn’t quite so sure, “Nice theory Alice love but I think there may be more to it than that?”
“Oh, you mean all your hard work and devotion to the Crown?”
“Yeah something like that”, he laughed.
“Will you call me ma’am now and wear your brass hat in bed?”
“Dear God Alice I’m at work” he whispered loudly down the phone, “Will you please conduct yourself in a manner becoming of a commander’s wife”.
“Yes Master and Commander!” I giggled.
This news has made me reflective. Once I was a pretty, young officer’s wife, all apple cheeks and pink satin ball gowns, an ingĂ©nue when it came to matters Naval. When I met my husband, I fell for his height and handsomeness and the fact that he was a dab hand in the kitchen. We tolerated long separations due to global deployments and lost ourselves in each other when I flew to some far off distant land for a reconciliation that rarely saw us leave our hotel room.
It being an age before emails, the letters we wrote each other were long and loving and both he and I lived for the mail drop. Due to the nature of the mail and the fact that he could only post and receive letters in a bundle we would both have to number the envelopes so that we could read them chronologically. This was a must, due the number of couples who would spill their emotional guts to one another in one letter only to be dumped in another. If these were read out of sequence the effects were often quite traumatic. If however I thought that these long separations might have prepared me stoically for the time when, after having had my first baby, his ship sailed once again, then I was much mistaken. Nothing prepares you for that. Add subsequent children and living apart and eventually it is a real struggle to keep hold of what you once had. The demands of his career, the travelling, the children, the domestic over load, the little time to hold hands and really talk to each other may have wounded our relationship, though thankfully not mortally like many military marriages.
This recent news is yet another stage in our marriage not just to each other, but of Hubby’s to the Navy. His gag that I should not conduct myself in a manner unbecoming is not really a joke. If this were a sit-com now, I could show flashbacks of incidents that happened in years gone by that I will, most certainly, never get away with again. For instance, like the time when the police came on board Hubby’s ship to escort me off as I had entered the dockyard one evening without the all important Fleet Form 3 – having instead used my temporary pass as I was ‘temping’ there, or the time I removed my strapless bra at a Valentine dinner as it was digging into me and I couldn’t enjoy my food. The bra was very discreetly secreted into a waiting napkin then handed to tactful steward who removed it for safekeeping; or maybe the time when, after a few too many cocktails I threw up over a wall onto the parade ground at HMS Drake. Hubby, breathless with anxiety lest anyone should find out ordered the Dettol forthwith and bundled me, an ice bucket and Mags into a taxi and didn’t speak to me again for days. Or the infinite number of times when I have made social gaffes and Hubby has kicked me under the table. Getting up from dinner when one is bursting for a wee, is, as anyone who is intimate with naval dinners would know, almost a hanging offence. The only excuse to excuse oneself is being pregnant, only then will senior officer’s capitulate that a woman’s bladder is not what it once was and is prone to recklessness. Knowing this I once exploited this pardon for all its worth and, leaning over and whispering into the Mess president’s ear declared, “Hubby and I are expecting our third!” Undoubtedly he was so shocked that the woman sitting to his left had been knocking back the booze all night whilst a little foetus was inside her shouting “Cut it out will you?” that he was only too eager to let me leave the table. There was trouble later when Hubby came looking for me - on the warpath, “What bloody baby?”, “Sorry” I said sheepishly, “but I was desperate”. I should have known that was tempting fate and within a matter of weeks, I really was up the duff.
I wonder now, if, when at naval functions I will be regarded by young WAGS with the same guarded reverence I once held for the Commanders wives. Some were charming, others not so. Instead of gently advising me that perhaps off the shoulder dĂ©colletage was more appropriate for the service industry than the Royal Navy they would point it out loudly and acerbically. I shall be a far more benevolent old dowager. Never will I hiss when a young gal appreciatively strokes the mess silver nor passes the port in the wrong direction and never will I ever exclaim “Good lord!” when an equally bright young thing sips the port before “The Queen”. Forgive me ma’am and thank you for the promotion. It’ll help with the mortgage no end. I remain your loyal servant..

Tuesday, 15 May 2007


“Mmmm” I slumbered.
“Alice!”, Hubby’s voice was more urgent and he put his hand on my buttock. I slapped it.
“Not now”, I groaned, “I’m fast asleep”.
“I need you”.
“That’s all very flattering”, I mumbled into my pillow, then squinting up at my clock, saw that it said 5.55. “But it’s the middle of the bloody night. Later.” and I pulled the duvet over my head.
“Alice please”. God, this man was persistent, was the poor chap that desperate?
In an act of ultimate benevolence, I capitulated. “Come on then”, I said, “Get on with it” and puckering up, waited for the beast to pounce.
“Alice what are you doing?” I opened my eyes. Hubby hadn’t moved.
“Waiting for you big boy”, I drawled sexily, or so I thought.
“Why are you talking like some 70’s hooker? I’m not after your body. I’m in agony; I think I’ve got kidney stones or cancer”.
“Huh?” Why was he waking me in the dead of night to tell me this?
“You’ve got to help me. It’s excruciating. Go and Google the symptoms.”
“Are you completely off your head?”
“Please. I can’t stand it” and as he rolled towards me to make his point, he let out an almighty “aaargh”.
“Where is the pain?”
“Here, just under my ribs on the left side of my back” and as he once again groaned, I sat up.
“I’ll be back in a minute”, I said wearily, pushing off the duvet cover. Hubby rolled to his right, as he did so, I saw something silver lying on the mattress.
“For God’s sake, you haven’t got kidney stones; you’ve been lying on the nail clippers all night. Look” I brandished them at him.
“Oh”, he said, crestfallen. “You sure Alice?”
“Quite sure. Feel for yourself,” as I showed him the indentation of the clippers in his back.
“Well bugger me. It was agony. I’ve been lying awake for the past couple of hours, too terrified to move. I had to wake you in the end”.
“Evidently”. I flopped back on my pillow.
“The thing is Alice, now that I’m so happy to be given a second chance at life, well, it seems churlish not to celebrate, if you get my gist”.
“Forget it. Keep your hands to yourself”.
“Spoil sport” and he rolled over in a huff. Just as I felt the delicious balm of sleep once more envelop me, one of the children stood by my bed. I couldn’t figure out which one it was and was loathe to open my eyes again, lest they think, ‘Hurrah mum’s awake’. Eventually and for the second time that night I gave in. Without opening my eyes I growled, “Which one of you is it?”
“Me”, said the second daughter, “Is today the prince day?
“No darling, there are three more bed-times until we meet Prince Charles. Please go back to bed.”
“Can I watch Cbeebies?”
“Yeah Cbeebies”, her little sister had joined her. I poked Hubby very firmly in the kidney, “Your turn. Put the TV on for them”.
Groaning, as though fast asleep the fraud, he dragged himself out of bed.
“Prince Charles?”
“Yes daddy. He’s going to walk about with a duchess.”
I pity His Royal Highness. There must be little schoolgirls everywhere, who, brought up on fairytales and promises of dashing princes, are bitterly disappointed in the real thing. My own daughter’s was palpable. Looking at her face I knew she was expecting the Prince look: cape, cod-piece and crown.
“Where is he?” she kept asking, jumping and down, the rain sluicing down her kagoul.
“Over there love”, I pointed out. A medium sized man in a suit, albeit bespoke, was not her idea of castles and love everlasting.
“Where Dutch dress mummy?” asked the Red-Head. I was at a loss.
“She means duchess”, explained her sister.
“There sweetie”, I said, “The lady in the blue coat and see-through umbrella.”
God bless Camilla, how many mere mortals, weeks after strenuous gynaecological surgery, could be found traipsing around a soggy Cornish fishing village, trying their best to look coiffed and delighted as yet another small boy, who would be far happier to meet Dr Who, presented her with another cellophane covered posy?
The entourage was low key and we were not herded behind barricades by bolshi policemen. In fact, these policemen, having a day off from apprehending drunken sailors looked quite excited by the novelty of it all and were therefore quite encouraging to the schoolchildren. Then again, with the weather being awful there wasn’t exactly an unruly mob in Cawsand Square and we were able to get a good look.
“Where is her fur with the dots?”
“They keep their ermine for state occasions darling” I tried to explain. One of the teaching assistants standing next to me was getting more and more agitated.
“Are you nervous?” I asked.
“Just realised we haven’t got anything for the kids to present to Camilla. What shall we do?”
“Something from the shop on the square?”
“I didn’t bring my bag”.
“I did” and I shot into the shop and spotted the perfect gift: a box of Cornish fudge with Cawsand written on it. She wouldn’t forget where she’d been that day at least. I got it to my daughter just as Charles and Camilla walked past. In her pink, squelchy mac she stepped forward and proffered the gift.
“This isn’t fudge is it?” asked Camilla smiling.
“Yes”, whispered my daughter, “I’m sorry about your hysterical tummy”. Camilla smiled quizzically.
The teaching assistant looked at me, “Did she just say hysterectomy?” I shrugged my shoulders, “Out of the mouths of babes and sucklings…”

Tuesday, 8 May 2007


Lying on the sofa the other morning, revelling in the fact that with the Red Head at pre-school I could lie there and look out of the window and very decadently just ponder, I pulled out from under one of the scatter cushions – the very same cushions that Hubby has deemed ‘pointless’- an old copy of the Sunday Times Style magazine, unwrapped a Turkish Delight and sunk my teeth into both.
Inside the magazine was an article on celebrity mothers and their ilk and I was told in no uncertain terms that ‘shabby chic’ is the look one must adopt if one is ever to be considered a ‘Yummy Mummy’. From what I could gather from the fashion journalist, to achieve this look, which must be thrown together as though one has not bothered at all, when in fact one has bothered an awful lot, is that one has to wear a holy trinity of garments: a cheap or high street item, something vintage and something designer. I sighed and looked at myself, my skirt – from Tesco’s was certainly cheap and most definitely high street and the pink t-shirt I had on, which I bought when breastfeeding my first born 14 years, was unarguably vintage. Two out of two so far; I looked down at my feet which were shod in Birkenstocks – ha result, ‘designer’ flip-flops, sadly however, also cheap and vintage having been bought second hand on eBay last summer. I closed the magazine in despair, jostled with my stomach, prodded it, squeezed it, held it in but whichever way I looked at it, neither it nor my clothes could ever be considered yummy.
Sighing I dragged myself off the sofa, picked up my keys and handbag and went to retrieve the Red-Head. It being a glorious day I couldn’t bear to go home and sort out the airing cupboard or scrub the skirting boards, nor did I really want to spend the afternoon saying no to Cbeebies or chastising my child for making a mess every time my back was turned, so, instead of driving straight home from pre-school, I drove over the Tamar Bridge, up the A38, across Marsh Mills roundabout, through Plympton, stopping to visit my brother at his car show room before driving on up to Saltram House.
As my tyres crunched on the stately gravel as I pulled into my parking space, a feeling of doom was cast over me. The car park was heaving, and spread on picnic rugs around the grounds were a host of golden mother’n’kids, beside the pond, beneath the trees, fluttering and laughing in the breeze. Ten thousand saw I at a glance, tossing their highlights in sprightly dance.
My own child, having been in pre-school all morning, looked, as my brother rightly pointed out, eccentric. Skinny at the best of times, she is recovering from yet another vomiting bug that has rendered her ‘fragile’. Her arms and legs are like sticks, her bottom totally flat, yet she is very tall so clothes literally hang off her – (the fashion journalist would be rubbing her hands in glee). On this particular occasion she had on a paint encrusted t-shirt, a pair of her elder sister’s leggings and her hair, beautiful always, was today, up in a crazy bun on top of her head whereas some stray tendrils, curly and sticky with marmite were dangling down either side of her face like an orthodox Jew.
“Sit on a blankie mummy”, she demanded pulling at my skirt for me to sit down.
“We don’t have a blanket darling”, I said.
“Me jumper”, she suggested. There was no getting out of it, she wanted to mingle with the Golden Mummies and their children, so with a heavy heart, I went to the boot, unearthed an old fleece jacket that had seen far better days and lay in out on the grass. I lowered myself down and watched the ease with which little children make friends. Within seconds she was playing with a group of boys and girls, picking daisies with them and shrieking with giggles and pretending to hide when a helicopter flew over. Of course I was now in the unenviable position of having to make small talk with the mothers. Their rugs without exception were Cath Kidston, as were their picnic bags and flasks. One woman, I kid you not, had brought her golden retriever, who very regally hung out of its Cath Kidston floral dog basket with a very superior expression. After twenty minutes of excruciating chit-chat where I gleaned that they all worked part-time in something noble or at least interesting, they called their Boden clad kids over for their picnic. Now as a girl of the 60’s, the picnics I was brought up on and thus attempt to replicate for my own family are cheese-spread sarnies, hard boiled eggs and a twist of salt, sausage rolls, a flask of tea and some crisps. If we were lucky, a Penguin biscuit would be lurking somewhere at the bottom of my mother’s duffle bag.
Not so these picnics. The mothers removed from their floral oil-cloth bags items of food that would have had my own children recoiling in fear and dread. The woman on my left took out a Little Trading plastic tub wherein lay some spelt bread and in another plastic container was a tangled mass of sprouting mung beans and celery. The other mum opened a tub of organic, roasted red pepper hummus and a packet of sunflower seeds. Peppermint tea was the drink du jour. My own child looked bereft. “Me lunch too mummy”, she said.
“I haven’t got a picnic sweetie”, I said quietly.
“Would she like some seeds?” asked one of the mums graciously.
“Yuck”, said my child rather too emphatically, “Not me seeds, me Quavers”.There was a gasp. Had she said Turkey Twizzlers they couldn’t have been more shocked.

Tuesday, 1 May 2007

Shirley Valentine

“But without me?”
“Without you”. This conversation was beginning to sound like a Nilsson love song yet it was the ‘but’ in Hubby’s question that made him sound so pitiable.
“You don’t like holidays”, I tried to explain, “You go mental every time you see me look at a brochure. The words ‘half board’ and ‘all inclusive’ make you shudder, hey even our honeymoon had to be booked in secret and resulted in us traipsing around the flea bitten Chambres d’hotes of Brittany. It was never an auspicious start to this marriage.” As always, our conversation is conducted on the telephone, only this week even that has been sporadic due to Hubby being on a course somewhere where there are few mobile phone masts, excellent for the environment, rubbish for the domestic nirvana of Mr and Mrs Band.
“We’ve never got any money Alice”.
“You’ve been saying that since the mid 80’s. Had I not insisted on a week here or there over the past twenty years both you and I would be burned out shells”. He went quiet for a minute, maybe to actually digest what I was saying, after all his agenda is a killer. Night after night he finishes work way past 8pm, by the time he arrives back at the Wardroom dinner has been cleared away and so he returns to his cabin to heat through a carton of Covent Garden soup. This is not an occasional event but a nightly routine. On a Friday afternoon he drives that God-awful journey from Portsmouth to Plymouth only to find a wife chomping at the bit for adult company and a share in the domestic workload. Four children jump on him and badger him with their various emotional and monetary demands, then, once he has sorted out his laundry on a Sunday evening and packed his bag, he retires but not before setting his alarm for 4am to make the return journey to Portsmouth.
Last week was even worse. He left Portsmouth late on Thursday night, arrived home after midnight, succeeded in having breakfast with us before setting off to a local Naval establishment for a day’s debriefing, on his return, extraordinarily, we managed a brief sojourn to the pub. This was tempered however by the fact that on Saturday morning he was once again awoken by a 4am alarm call, this time to travel somewhere near Swindon for a weeks residential degree course. How can anyone sustain such a gruelling schedule? It’s totally bonkers but will he have any of it? Nope.
“Where do you expect this money for holidays to come from? How many times must I remind you about the mortgage, the bills…” I sighed, I’d reached stalemate. Like I said it is a fruitless argument, one that I have never succeeded in winning in all these years which is why, for the first time I have made an executive decision and have booked a holiday without him. At Whitsun.
It seems a perfect opportunity. Hubby will be away at work, my dear old Dad, having taken the eldest daughter last October to Egypt, feels it is her brother’s turn for adventure and so, whilst they are happily ensconced in Rome – perfect for both, plenty of culture (Dad), fashion (Son), pretty girls (equally), my girls and I will be in northern Brittany in a mobile home – with decking, on a campsite.
“But it’s abroad Alice”. The phone line was so bad I could barely make out what Hubby was saying.
“I won’t be board. I’ll have the kids to keep me busy”.
“ABROAD”, he yelled down the line.
“Anything could happen to you and how would I know?”. For the love of God. I was going to Perros Guirec, 47 miles away from Roscoff. I explained as such.
“It’s nearer than Exeter”. He was slightly mollified by this, until once again he remembered the finances.
“Tell me you haven’t paid for this with our joint account.”
“I haven’t”. He sighed in relief. The fact that my credit card was in meltdown I chose to ignore. That wasn’t the last of it though and I thought it best to tell him then and there, strike while the iron’s hot, make hay while the sun shines, etc.
“By the way, I’ve also booked a weekend away by myself”. I waited for the outraged reaction but it eluded me.
“Alice, I only have one minute’s credit remaining. I’ll call you later.”
So, I had a day in which to compose an explanation of how, after having my haircut, I’d been inspired to spend a weekend in the South of France in August – totally and utterly alone. My opportunity came as I was dishing up the children’s dinner. I find it hilarious to shout out “Table 2 away” as chefs do in restaurants when plates are ready to be carried into the dining room. The children find it far less hilarious and so grumpily, they came into the kitchen to receive their dinner. I took the call from Hubby.
“What did you say earlier?” Here we go. “Diana was cutting my hair and happened to mention that her father runs a B&B in Southern France with his friend. I looked at their website. It’s fantastic. I did something spontaneous. Booked a room for a weekend, and then booked a flight.” Attempting to soften the blow I added, “I got a flight back from Standsted to Newquay for 99p!” There was an ominous silence.
“Is this a Shirley Valentine moment?”
“Only if I don’t come back”. There was a pause. “You need a break. You could come too”.
“To France? In the middle of August? Ten euros for a bowl of fish soup?”
“Bouillabaisse”, I corrected.“Whatever. Nah, give me Cornwall any day”. So, this time I have.