Tuesday, 24 June 2008

Time Travel.

The life of a military wife is, by and large, a nomadic one. One’s geraniums are just about growing, the children settled in school and one is finally invited to a neighbour’s soiree when suddenly Hubby calls to say he’s had a meeting with his appointer and ‘Abracadabra’, a few months later your possessions are in boxes, your children displaced and your nerves in wracks. This is why Hubby and I have made as few moves as possible. I just find the whole emptying of my home and forging yet another new life, exhausting. Not being the tidiest of people also plays a large part in my despair, so just clearing the decks before sorting, then packing, then shoving it in a lorry is more traumatic than it probably should be.
So, in 20 years of being together we have moved only five times, Hubby has commuted the other times. It has had its ups and downs most definitely, especially when the children were ill, or I was ill or my thesis needed writing or the bedroom ceiling caved in. At those times I would quite happily have lived Kyrgyzstan so long as Hubby was on hand to say “There, there. It’ll be alright”. I sincerely hope that a long period of time away from their father hasn’t affected the children. At the moment they seem fairly well adjusted, although only time will tell if they end up on a therapists couch, dolefully describing their father as ‘absent’. They may on the other hand just as dolefully describe their mother as ever present: omnipotent to the point of knowing their every thought and action.
Our twenty year anniversary next week when our eyes met over a crowded bar has not only made me reflect on the past, the choices we’ve made and the way we’ve chosen to live our lives but it has, oddly, coincided with the 50th birthdays of friends we have made whilst traversing the country care of the Royal Navy. So, armed with enough pharmaceutical drugs for Hubby’s tonsils we have put on our party clothes and gone back in time.
We drove to a village near Helston where several years ago, when my son was two and I was heavily pregnant with my daughter, Hubby was appointed to Culdrose. I was in my late 20’s and had left behind the city life in Portsmouth. I had also left dear friends that had shared with me the trials and tribulations of a first born child. With only one child in tow we often met in coffee shops and cafes or spent huge amounts of time in each other’s houses. We were very active within the National Childbirth Trust and our lives revolved around these alien infants of ours and our obsessive diktats on how these children should be raised. I never put our son down, never let him cry, fed him on demand, and took him swimming immediately he’d had his first inoculations. We went to a music group when he could barely sit up and where, although I would dementedly sing along to ‘Five fat sausages’ he just drooled and sucked on the maracas. His food was carefully prepared freshly every day and pureed and frozen. When Hubby deployed for eight months when our son was a baby, these friends chivvied me along and supported me until he returned.
To be suddenly wrenched from these friends and this lifestyle and start again in the Cornish countryside, seven miles in either direction from Helston or Falmouth was not easy. In fact only a few months later, just after our daughter was born, in pool in front of the Aga, I did not feel the elation I felt when our son was born. No doubt had I been featured in a lifestyle magazine it would have sounded idyllic. The archetypal earth mother and this was before Cath Kidston became fashionable. I made jam and baked bread but emotionally I was in dark, dark place. I felt trapped by the remoteness of where I lived and couldn’t communicate with anyone, who as far as I could see, were more than happy living in damp houses with no tv, growing their own and smoking rollies.
I wanted to go to John Lewis and take my lovely, Silver Cross carriage built pram along the prom. I wanted to go to the pictures and hang out with my friends. I wanted to wear clothes that weren’t ‘ethnic’. Instead, day after day I breastfed in a dark cottage willing the phone to ring and waiting for Hubby to come home from work. I never got accustomed to living that far west, although eventually I did make a handful of special friends, one of whom was in as dark a place as I. And it was her birthday party that Hubby and I went to last week.
Her twins, who once drove her crazy, are now strapping, gorgeous young men, her husband whom she barely tolerated, held her and hugged her and told her she was beautiful. Their house was enchanting, their wood draped in fairy lights as braziers warmed us from the chill and food and wine flowed freely. Most moving of all was when I arrived, the friends that I’d made when at my lowest, squealed when they saw me, running across the garden to embrace me. It was a wonderful night. Dancing under the stars with faces so familiar made me glad of the past, warts and all. To use the modern vernacular, I, along with my birthday friend are in a different ‘place’ to the one we were 13 years ago, due in no mean measure to the human spirit and its capacity for compassion and empathy that prevails even in one’s darkest hour. In my experience, implacable friendship flings open the dark, heavy curtains of despair allowing the light of happiness to flood in.

Tuesday, 17 June 2008

Still ill.

“I think it’s quinsy”, said Hubby, sounding as though he had half a dozen cotton wool balls down his throat. I hung my head in despair. Due to a major relapse, the continuing saga of his sore throat, well, continues. I don’t know what we are going to do when he retires, because quite frankly I am finding it very difficult to have him in the house all day.
“Who are you on the phone to now?” he croaks, or, “Why are you on the computer again?”, or, “Sitting down again?” or, “You drink a lot of coffee”. My patience packed its bags long ago. He has been banished to the basement where the poor sod might have taken his last groggy breath for all the attention he received from me. It was a full day before I ventured down to see if he needed anything, but, as he’d armed himself with bottles of water, even more antibiotics and codeine I considered that he would make it through the night.
By Tuesday I was demented, the daily sight of him struggling to talk as he laid on the sofa, his hair growing gradually greasier and his stubble well past the designer stage, I felt as though I were living with a depressed vagrant. No amount of cajoling could elicit in him an interest in anything to eat and the curdling noises that were coming from his throat were turning my own stomach. The children have sidelined him or, when he was in the basement, gone down only under duress.
The RN has rung intermittently where he has murmured instructions to his staff, before falling back again against the pillow exhausted. So, I Googled quinsy. The symptoms seemed horribly familiar, especially the swelling in the neck.
“Perhaps you ought to go back to the sick bay?”, I suggested, my heart racing. My God what had I done? Ignored the symptoms of a serious illness where the word abscess and surgery are bandied casually? So much for ‘in sickness and in health’. A fair weather wife indeed.
“Will you drive me Alice?”
An hour later, after Hubby had once again been probed and swabbed, he was declared safe of the dreaded quinsy but very much down with a virulent strain of tonsillitis.
“Go back and rest sir. I’m signing you off for quite a while”. Hubby must be been ill as he didn’t put up a fight, nor did he fret about his next assignment, which is due any day. Instead we came home where he returned to his blanket without so much as a whimper.
By Thursday there was an improvement which unfortunately became even more maddening by his scrutinising my every move. The Red-Head was not at nursery due to a cold and my son had gone to school in a foul mood, having overslept on the morning of a modular Maths GCSE exam. I was not in a jolly place. Then, just as I was about to spit feathers as Hubby suggested I hang, quite rightly, although I did not want to be told, the washing out and not use the tumble dryer on such a sunny day, the telephone trilled.
Hubby got to the phone before me, where he proceeded to tell whoever it was how awful the past week had been and how remiss I’d been as wife and nurse. It could only be his mother. Ten minutes later he handed the phone to me, “For you” he said. Oh Boy.
“Hello?”, I offered cautiously.
“Not better yet then?” It was Mags. I laughed with relief, “Slowly on the mend but still driving me spare”.
“I’ve got to go to St Ives on business this morning and wondered if you fancied coming for the ride?”
“Would I ever!” Within the hour I had put a sandwich in the fridge for Hubby – just in case, rearranged the school run, slathered sun block over the Red-Head and shoved some beach towels into a bag. “Tan I take my bad too?”
“But I’ve got everything we need in this bag darling?”
Her lip started to wobble and, as her runny nose was a losing battle, I did not want to add to the secretions with tears.
“Ok, ok”, I capitulated, “Take your rucksack too”.
The roads through Cornwall are greatly improved and we whizzed along although the Red-Head sat demurely in the back, her rucksack very properly positioned on her lap.
I hoped she didn’t feel sick. “You alright there sweetie?” I called back.
I craned my neck and she smiled back at me beatifically. I know her well and that is her dangerous face. She was up to something, but I couldn’t work out what.
“There’s a wonderful restaurant just off this road. I’ve got an expense account. Fancy it?” asked Mags. I may be on a diet but it would be churlish to pass up the offer of a free lunch, so I nodded my head furiously.
There are parts of Cornwall where the credit crunch has yet to bite given that the restaurant was full and the menu boasted a salad at £18. That must be some bloody rare lettuce.
“I’m very sorry. The sun seems to have brought everyone one out” said the maitre d’ smiling, “We can offer you a table inside”. This seemed a terrible shame given that the restaurant terrace overlooked a turquoise sea and so we returned to the car. A low-fat sandwich on the beach would suffice.As I lifted the Red-Head up into her car seat, I said, “Give mummy your bag for a minute while I do your straps up”. She shook her head and clung on to her bag resolutely. Highly suspicious. I peeled her fingers away and undid the zip, where immediately a little, grey kitten broke free. “This begs the age old question”, said Mags, “Kids, cats, rucksacks, wives. How many are going to St Ives?"

Tuesday, 10 June 2008


Unfortunately for Hubby, this week has demonstrated all too explicitly, that I am in no way cut out to be a nurse. I’m not so bad with young children when all they need is a few tablespoonfuls of Calpol, a cuddle, the telly and some jelly. My patience starts to wear thin as they get older, no doubt my teenagers will attest to this as their streaming noses get short thrift and I bark “Get a tissue” at them before they are packed off to school with a couple of sachets of contraband Lemsip smuggled into their backpacks. Sick adults on the other hand just irritate me. I’m not so callous as to extend my impatience to those with appalling and life threatening diseases, certainly not, in fact I’d be the first to make a casserole and weep and wail over the inflicted, but anything else that just requires serious antibiotics and I am downright cruel. My Poor Dad, who suffers from asthma, coughed his lungs up for two years until a new doctor prescribed the correct dose of Ventolin for him. In those proceeding years though that cough drove me to distraction and it was all I could do not to snap “For God’s sake Dad put a sock in it”.
Pity poor Hubby then. It all started on Friday when he picked me and our youngest up from the Aquarium in Plymouth. We’d had a wonderful time, the place was almost empty and so had the place and the experts to ourselves. The 4D cinema was thrilling. Perhaps on reflection a little too thrilling given that within seconds of donning our 3D glasses we were speared by a twenty foot stork’s beak. Even the dads screamed. My children were both on my lap in a heartbeat. After a talk on sharks and spending pocket money in the gift shop, we were ready to leave. Generally on a Friday afternoon, after a long week, Hubby is shattered but full of beans at the prospect of being able to stay under the duvet after 5am. Not so this day. He looked very gloomy as we dived from the pouring rain into his car.
“Why the face like a slapped arse?” I asked.
“I just don’t feel quite right Alice. Hot one minute shivery the next”.
“Never mind”, I said breezily, “A hot toddy and a night in front of the telly will put you right”. I had other plans, like a night out with Mags to see Sex and the City. She’d had a lousy couple of weeks and I was not prepared to curtail my plans to dole out tea, toast and ibuprofen to a dose of man-flu. By the time I returned however, buoyed by sex and fashion, Hubby was in an arm chair, sweat dripping down his forehead, his teeth chattering.
“Not feeling any better then?” I asked with gentle disdain. He shook his head.
“It’s my throat”, he indicated with a shaking hand, “It really hurts”.
“Shame. You probably need a good night’s sleep and a heavy dose of pain killers”. I went into the ‘drug drawer’ in the kitchen and raked through our packets of various strength analgesics and wondered how many I could give him without causing him long term liver damage.
I returned to the sitting room with a glass of water and three horse pills only to found that he had vacated the chair leaving a damp patch were his head had been. I pursed my lips grimly.
Walking into our bedroom I found him under the duvet, shaking like a shitting dog. This was going to be a long night.
“Here we are”, I said cheerfully, “Take these pills and try not to keep me awake”. Famous last words. What with his sweating which, quite literally, wet the bed, his rigor and his snoring due to his obstructed throat, by 3 am I quite honestly wanted to obstruct it further and have done with it. With incredible self restraint I instead took myself out of the marital bed and lay down next to the Red-Head who herself was having a restless sleep due in part no doubt to the jaws of a 3D, great white shark engulfing her.
The following morning all was not as it should be. We have a routine on a Saturday that Hubby gets the papers and pastries and then we all troop – I say all, I mean the four of us, the eldest we rarely see before 11am - into the dining room to feast on croissants, pain au chocolat, pain au raisin and warm baguettes. As Hubby was in no fit state to gather said breakfast and as the six year old had already helped herself to a bowl of chocolate Weetos, and as my diet prohibits anything nice to eat, the family made do with Weetabix and a cup of tea.
I looked in on Hubby who gasped something about, “Agony. Any chance of water and more paracetamol?” I sighed, evidently the weekend was going to be more of the same i.e childcare, laundry, cooking and cleaning, interspersed only with the diversion of running up and down the stairs to administer to the ailing.By Sunday evening I was climbing the walls. Having spent the best part of a day in Tesco’s, I was in a foul mood. The children bickered over their dinner and Hubby sat up in bed peering forlornly into a bowl of tomato soup. He remained there, apart from visiting a doctor for antibiotics and the verification of septic tonsillitis, for three days. It is the first time in 20 years that I have known him take any sick days at work. I knew he was on the mend however when, after bringing him yet another ice lolly, he slapped my bottom and said rather lasciviously, “No chance of you dressing up as a nurse then?”

Monday, 2 June 2008


Entertaining four children during any holiday is hard enough but when it is also drab and raining incessantly then the possibility of a tranquil few days are impossible. For some reason best known only to a higher order or more likely a couple of bottles of wine culminating in recklessness, decades seem to span my youngest and eldest children. So whilst the youngest are quite happy with a sheet over a couple of dining chairs to make an indoor tent, I still have two kids who humph around the house complaining how bored they are and how dull their lives are oh and how every other friend is on holiday somewhere exotic.
“You must have plenty of revision to do”, I suggest to my son. His reply is only to roll his eyes as though to say, “Change the record love”. If only he would apply himself to mathematical data with the same feverishness he does his bass guitar then perhaps next year he might do very well at his GCSE’s but then rock music or sex or perhaps a perilous combination of the two have been the undoing of many a young man and quite honestly I’d far prefer he be undone by his music than the dubious charms of a teenage girl.
“Well”, I continued, “Are you going to do any?”
“I’m on top of it ma. Just going to do a bit of jamming” and within minutes the house reverberates with the vibrations of very loud rock music.
His sister on the other hand is far more high maintenance, demanding to be entertained and taken out for the day because, “It’s not fair”. It is my turn to roll my eyes and sigh. Mercifully my in-laws step into the breach and offer their babysitting services that I may indeed take the eldest daughter on a little sojourn.
Bath seemed the perfect place; a little culture interspersed with some high class shopping. I attempted to book rail tickets on line and even though my IT skills extend to using the internet to shop and book tickets for various events, buying a rail ticket was a hornet’s nest. Eventually I gave up and resorted to the old fashioned telephone. Rather incongruously I got through to India, where a very polite lady informed me of train times and varying degrees of ticket prices. It must be very odd for her to discuss the nuances of Worle and Yatton but then nothing is straightforward any more. I finally gave up on this method too and visited Plymouth Railway station to speak to someone in person. Three minutes later the cheapest fare had been found, the seats reserved, the railcard handed over, payment made and tickets presented.
The following day, my in-laws in situ, my daughter, her friend and I got up at some god awful hour, and caught the train to Bath. Hubby’s parting words of “It’s very near the end of the month Alice, I doubt our bank account is healthy, spend accordingly”, did little to encourage me to spoil myself and so, apart from buy lunch and three tickets for the Fashion museum I was very restrained.
The girls however, their purses bulging with unspent pocket money had other ideas and whilst I would have liked them to take a peep at the more exclusive shops, they are ultimately, provincial Cornish girls who are more than happy with Top Shop and River Island. When you are young though and in possession of a killer figure, thirty five pounds goes an awfully long way and a fabulous dress was bought for the same price as a scarf in Jigsaw. So I left them ‘trying on’ with the same zeal as though a much loved hobby and meandered. I hadn’t gone far, when I had to jostle for position on a narrow pavement as an elderly gentlemen attempted to pass me. Neither of us did a good job of avoiding each other and our shoulders collided. I turned around to apologise only to have him shout “Look where you’re going”.
“Excuse me but you bumped into me”, I replied very politely, given the circumstances.
“Don’t give me any of your fucking mouth”, he roared. I was astounded. He had looked so pleasant, around 76years old, flat cap, shirt and tie, blazer, slacks and yet here he was, a grandfather figure, directing profane language at a woman.
“How dare you speak to me like that”, I replied hotly.
“Ah fuck off you fucking mother’s...” and then he used the 'c' wordI was stupefied. Standing alone on the pavement without a soul to defend me from this mad man I was genuinely frightened. Only he continued with his barrage of disgusting insults, finally walking away with “And you’re a fat fucking c**t as well”, hanging in the air. I’d like to say that my stoical reply was, “Oh really? Well I’ve lost 14lbs if you must now” but of course I didn’t. I just stood there trembling and biting my lip as tears fell down my face.
“Pull yourself together Alice”, I said to myself, “You can’t show the girls”. I couldn’t help showing the girls though, as they wondered why my eyes were red. It’s taking me a while to recover my joie de vivre and I’ve repeated the story so many times that my daughter is telling people, “She’s getting it out of her system, it’s her therapy. Out with anger, in with love”. Maybe she’s right but what with all the appalling stabbings of young men and violent and abusive behaviour becoming the norm, Britain at the moment seems a nasty and malevolent place. My only comfort has been that my children have shown me enormous kindness and my grandfather, the epitome of a gentleman renowned for his integrity and dignity, must be turning in this grave.