Tuesday, 28 July 2009


With Hubby’s new job reeling in my head and the subsequent relief of him not going away, I was very amenable to an email from my American friend Candy, enquiring at very short notice of the possibility of coming over for a week. Always happy to receive guests, especially old friends, I replied that I would be thrilled to see her and so, last weekend I drove to Bristol airport to meet her flight.
Never one to be caught short in the germ department, Candy travels nowhere without being armed by a handbag full of hand sanitizer; imagine her distress then when she walked through the arrivals hall, her precious bottle of disinfectant having been confiscated. She was almost in tears.
“Oh my God, I’ve just sat through an entire red-eye flight next to two vomiting little girls without so much as a dime sized amount of lubricant to kill any bacteria. And all this swine-flu everywhere, I feel as though I’m crawling with disease”.
I felt this was not a salient juncture in which to inform her that currently, Hubby was lying in bed, in a pool of sweat with a high fever, a cough, aches and pains and general malaise. To all intents and RN Medics purposes, he had a kidney infection. Hmm.
Candy and I visited the ‘bathroom’ at Bristol airport where she spent the next fifteen minutes scrubbing down. Any passing surgeon would have been happy to have had her handing over utensils at his/her surgery that morning, especially as she even whipped a neat little nail brush out of her bag. Finally satisfied that she was free of any germs, we left and drove home via Endsleigh Garden centre, where I needed to buy a few more fish for my aquarium. Candy was enthralled.
“Oh. My. God. I love it here. Look at this dear little teapot”. It took ages to climb the ramp up to the pet department as she stopped and admired every little plant and artefact, something she felt she should share with a member of staff.
“You sure have a fine store here m’am”, she told a vacant looking teenager who was holding a watering can with that expression of ennui that only a teenager can adopt.
“Ta”, came the British reply.
After we’d shared a scone and a pot of tea which she wiped out with a wet wipe under the indignant expression of one of the cafe staff, I went off to chose a couple of fine, piscine specimens. Carrying a large, water filled plastic bag, I returned to the rabbit section only to find Candy gone. After looking everywhere and paging her, I eventually located her in the loo advising two old ladies on the importance of personal hygiene.
Smiling apologetically and mouthing, “She’s American” at the poor dears, I led Candy out and home. As she emptied her suitcase to the general murmur of “Oh wow” and “Yu-um”, I was reminded of black and white war films where benevolent Americans are seen handing out candies and nylons to the indebted Tommy and his family. It begged the question had she brought any clothes?
As it turned out, nowhere near enough warm nor waterproof ones and the unfortunate woman spent the next few days next to perishing. No amount of my telling her, “But I can’t believe it! The weather has been scorching. The garden is in fact, scorched!”, placated her and we had to find her more bedding and a selection of jumpers.
On one day, when it was just very windy and cold and the rain held off until the afternoon, I drove her to Goodrington Sands to catch a steam train to Kingsweir, then a boat to Dartmouth. She was in 7th Heaven.
“Your country is just so beautiful Alice. It is a privilege just to look at it”. The youngest children had accompanied us as well, the holidays now being upon us and no matter how child friendly you think you may be, when yours have grown up and someone else’s are suddenly thrust upon you, one’s level of tolerance is not quite what it was and by the time the girls had almost given her a nervous breakdown in Simon Drew’s gallery, we left Candy to wander around by herself, whilst we went in search of some swings. It then rained and we sat on a bench under an umbrella in a park in Dartmouth, eating American sweets and drinking pop. It was a quintessential British scene.
At 3.45 as the water poured off our cagoule hoods and dripped off our noses we returned to the boat where my 7 year old made me laugh out loud when, looking up at a street sign she declared, “Why won’t they let you have boomerangs here mummy?” It was a No Right Turn sign.
The next couple of days were spent peering out of the window in the morning, listening intently to any weather report and changing our plans accordingly. Candy never sat on the beach, walked on the moors, nor swam in the sea. Her only ice-cream cone got soggy from the rain.
We did however and together discover things that I’d never seen or done before, like and I’m ashamed to admit it, visit the museum in Plymouth. Fantastic place. Highly recommended even if you just pop in the there for a quick perusal and a coffee. And it’s free. The admission that is, not the coffee.Hubby, much to Candy’s relief, recovered and she was able to sit on the sofa and converse with him without a handkerchief covering her facial orifices impairing their intimacy. I do believe she had a splendid time. She got tipsy on a cocktail of Plymouth Sloe Gin and champagne, had a curry and was on a winning team at a pub quiz. You don’t get that kind of bonhomie in central Pennsylvania. Believe me, I’ve lived there.

Thursday, 23 July 2009


As I sat, silently weeping into the sequins that I was hand sewing very shoddily onto my daughters dance costumes, Mags burst through the front door.
“Aha, thought I’d find you here”, she said, before opening the glass cabinet, withdrawing two wine glasses and then, like Mary Poppins, she dipped into her holdall and removed a bottle of rose, a squashy chill-pack squeezed onto the bottle, “Thank the good Lord for screw top wine bottles eh?” , she added before a little, grunting noise accompanied her efforts as she unscrewed the cap and poured out two very ample glasses. She took my needle and sequins away from me and replaced them with a glass. The wine was so chilled, rivulets of frosted water ran down the stem and as it trickled down my throat, the combination of the cool liquid and fruity bouquet was completely perfect and worked as a balm for my general state of melancholy.
“I feel better already”, I said.
“So, what gives?” she asked.
“Just thinking that the next time I have to prepare a costume for the girls show, it’ll be Christmas and Hubby won’t be here to see it. I’ll have been doing the donkey work for months and no doubt will be in some sorry state of disrepair”, I sighed.
“How do the kids feel about him going away?”, she quietly asked, almost too apprehensive to hear the answer.
“Well, the eldest just gets livid if Hubby and I have strong words with each other, as if every minute between now and the day he deploys we have to be like love-struck teenagers, snogging and swearing undying love. The irony if we did! They’d all be groaning and telling us we’re sick, blah, blah. God forbid I should get irritated by Hubby, because immediately our eldest daughter pipes up, ‘Just be nice to Dad ok?’, as though it were some bad omen not to be. It’s a strain. Then the youngest ones keep crying and trying to understand the implications of what seven months without daddy is really going to be like. The four year old just knows something ominous is afoot but obviously cannot foresee what that’ll mean, whereas her big sister has had her Hannah Montana calendar out and has realised that several significant dates will be celebrated without the company of her father. There you asked” and I downed my glass.
Mags poured me another.
“Hmm”, she said ruefully, “You are going to have to get yourself a plan. Have you considered meeting him somewhere?”
“Well I’ve thought about it. I think he gets some R&R somewhere along the line but as ever, the childcare logistics are too complicated, my in-laws couldn’t look after them for more than a couple of days and dad bless him, well...”
Mags giggled, “No Alice, much as I adore your father, I cannot see him looking after four children, a dog and three cats, which is why I’ve been looking at my diary. I get a week off in January and thought I could spend it here. I’ll come on my hols with the kids. We’ll have a blast.” I started to cry again.
“What is it now?”, she wondered.
“You”, I replied, snivelling, “You are such a great mate. You’d give up a much needed and well deserved week of annual leave just to give me a break? I makes me feel so humble. How could I possibly pay you back for that?”
“You do, you do. You are always doing little things for me”.
“I don’t think one can compare giving up a holiday with having one of the kids for tea or picking up a few specialist cakes from IKEA.”
“Just call me Mother Theresa!”, she laughed, and then, as if to prove her point, delved into her holdall again and pulled out a tub of glisteningly, oily olives and a packet of fancy nuts. It was a feast fit for kings.
By the time she left, the sequins had been chewed and subsequently and with much disdain spat out by the dog but at least I was feeling bolder.
“I’ll cope, it’ll be fine” I repeated to myself like some sort of fortifying mantra. Tea time came and went and I put the little ones to bed. The teenagers were around. Languishing. Hubby came home late. There was no denying a little kick in his heels.
“Hello darling”, he said, catching hold of me before throwing me backwards into a film star clinch.
“What’s the matter with you?” I could not but ask and, nice as it is to be a movie star, it plays havoc with your back and so, stiffly and clutching at my hip, I stood up straight again.
“Sit down. You are not going to believe what I’ve got to tell you”.
He was right.
“I’ll come straight to the point. The appointer called me earlier”. I let out a weird primeval, moan.
“Anyway. Thing is” and he grasped both my hands and looked into my eyes, “I’m not going to the Middle East. I’ve got a job nearby! Just up the road! Starting almost immediately. Two years!”
My heart beat faster than it ever has as my mind tried to absorb this information.
“I don’t understand”, I said, more to myself than to him.
“There’s nothing to understand darling. I don’t need to go into it all in detail. You’ll only forget it anyway. All you need to know is that it’s a great job and comes with a silver topped cane!”
My eyes lit up. “God Alice”, he laughed, "you are so predictable".
The Royal Navy though, is not. I have given up my university course, my children have been in various states of distress, our wills have been written, my marriage tested and found to be intermittently faulty. All for nothing. They don’t even play mind games like this in Abu Ghraib.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009


I’m not quite sure how it happened, but Hubby said something along the lines of, “If you can find a babysitter, you can come to a cocktail party in Fowey with me.” That’s big of you, I almost said, but, given we’ve been so remote with each other recently, I thought it best to accept the invitation graciously and, if only for a few hours at least, give the impression that we are an impregnable, united force.
I rang my mother in law and wondered if she’d be kind enough to be in situ overnight to facilitate us in a night away.
“Only if you take the appropriate precautions with you Alice. I have nine grandchildren as it is and Christmas on a small pension no joke and then, when you see these young girls walking around, pushing designer buggies you wonder how they do it. When I had mine, I had an old pram that did them all. Now I see double buggies, one half pink the other blue. And not a wedding ring in sight. No wonder this country is in crisis. It makes my blood boil”
I held the phone away from my ear and let her carry on. Her rant was on a roll of boulder sized proportions. My attempts to hinder her would be as futile as Sisyphus’s so, rather than interject her metaphoric rhetoric I let her run out of steam before concurring that:
“June Whitfield would have made a perfect prime minister and I don’t doubt that we wouldn’t be in the mess we’re in had she been, but the fact of the matter is Dorothy, is that your son has been surgically sorted if you get my drift and so you really needn’t worry about the patter of tiny feet.” Mollified, I was offered no further contraceptive advice.
The following day, I sheepishly announced to the PTA that whilst my services would no longer be available at the summer fair I would still fulfil my duties in making sweets to sell and visiting the butcher for meat for the BBQ. Then I awaited the arrival of my mother-in-law, lulled her into a false sense of calm by way of a cup of tea and a slice of cherry Genoa before showing her the ropes. Even though she looked bewildered by my timetable of events and baulked after reading ballet, jazz, trampolining, dog feeding and walking, how to get to the summer fair and what was in the fridge for supper, Hubby and I fled the house like proverbial rats from a sinking ship.
With a reception on board HMS Monmouth to prepare for we had little time for extra-marital activities but as we had a whole night to enjoy we didn’t frenetically scramble to tear one another’s clothes off. To be honest when one of you is in a very expensive Gieves and Hawkes naval uniform that is more than a little tight, then to remove it would take patient easing and gentle pulling anyway and not a passionate and reckless undressing. Poor Hubby, it was a baking evening and as I sat sipping a cool, glass of white wine in a very little, black dress, I could not but feel for him in starched shirt and heavy black wool suit, let alone a gold braided hat and honestly thought given the perspiration running down his collar that he would melt away very soon.
My hand firmly gripping his arm, I gingerly teetered down the perpendicular hill in Fowey to the jetty to meet the other guests and climb on board a little boat to carry us out to the ship. One chap, wearing a very natty brooch, held a playing card. ‘Ah, entertainment’, I thought. I knew this wasn’t going to be a run of the mill cocktail party but even so I was very excited by the prospect of a few tricks.
“Are you a magician?” I asked. He at least afforded me the gallant courtesy of not calling me a dumb-ass by gently informing me that he was in fact The High Sheriff of Cornwall and his natty brooch on closer inspection was plume of feathers. An inscription of Ich Dien under it somewhat gave the game away.
“Ah”, I said, before I felt Hubby’s vice like grip escort me away. The playing card remains as surreal a mystery a week later.
On board, the Royal Navy showed off ‘one of its most versatile ships’ by providing delicious nibbles, plenty of drink but also by way of presentations and demonstrations of its steely, crunchy capabilities. From the general murmur of impressed fascination I think the guests left feeling they were receiving value for money and that they are more than adequately protected by Monmouth’s crew and commanding officer, who incidentally is a man with quite exceptional, blue eyes.
By the time Hubby and I had secreted a Chinese takeaway into our hotel room and scoffed it lying on our tummies, I felt horribly full and insisted, much to his protestation that Hubby and I go for a walk. It was late and after an hour of brisk marching, Hubby pleaded with me to go to bed. We fell asleep immediately, both of us assuming we’d still have the morning together to enjoy but I woke up with such a stiff neck I could barely move my head and Hubby clutched at a terribly bad back. Any attempts at any shenanigans, thwarted.
We returned to the ship for Captain’s lunch at midday and found to my immense delight that Tim Smit, uber eco-warrior and genius behind the Eden Project was another guest. I have waited years to ask him this, and you have only me to thank if you see one, “So Tim, there’s only plants. We need an element of surprise. Any chance of the odd maquaque or a marmoset or two?”

Tuesday, 7 July 2009


Back to life, back to reality. My post holiday feeling lasted a matter of minutes before Hubby felt the need to unburden himself. We were literally sitting down at the dining table having just driven back from Exeter airport; the weather was as sunny as it was in Menorca, the windows were flung wide open onto the garden and my own olive trees were bowed as though in deference to the heat. Hubby had prepared a selection of delicatessen-worthy salads, the bread was Continental and chewy, the cheese Continental and creamy. All was well with the world.
I was relaxed, contented and brown. The girls were excited to be home and regaled their father with all sorts of stories, some taller than others. As I munched and dipped and sipped my cold beer, I gazed at them all lovingly. Perhaps moments like this are memorable because they are so few; it is as though we instinctively know that we must take a snapshot of them to save to the hard drive in our minds, before they are deleted forever. Hubby, who up to that point was relishing having his girls back, had one on his lap helping herself to his salad and the other attached to his thigh, beaming up at him. Did he sense my gaze? Was he aware of my watching them? Did he feel the time was right, or that it was best to spoil this perfect moment lest I became too happy? He looked up at me, his expression solemn.
“I’ve heard from the appointer”. That as any military wife will tell you, is all you need to hear, that or “I’ve heard from drafty”. It all means the same thing. Change. The need to once again readjust one’s professional and domestic life to fit in with the needs and requirements of the Royal Navy. Undoubtedly to some who have recently lost their jobs in this recession, I will sound churlish and ungrateful. After all my mortgage is being paid, I have a good standard of living, my children rarely go without, and we can and do entertain friends regularly. But still, at the mention of the appointer’s name my stomach instantly went into knots and my once delicious salad was now a bowlful of slimy, inedible leaves, the delicate garlic dressing which had evoked the epitome of Mediterranean al fresco dining, now smelt pungent and made me feel instantly nauseous.
“Oh yeah”, I said so articulately, “And what did the appointer have to say? Keep it to words of one syllable. I doubt I could take on board your naval acronyms at this point. Tell it as it is”. So he did.
“Mid August. Middle East. Seven months”.
“When mid August?”
“You actually have to go on your daughter’s 14th birthday. Actually on that day? You can’t postpone it by a few hours”. You could tell by his expression that he’d never even made the connection between the dates.
I got up from the table. All my plans were immediately stymied. My mind raced as I recalled all the things I’d intended to do in the next few months. How could I now take up my place at university? It was going to be a full on, one year intensive course. It would have been hard enough with Hubby at home, my children wouldn’t have seen much of me, but at least we would both have been around to work out the logistics of various extra- curricular activities the children enjoy. My assignments would have been written at the weekends. This would now be impossible. How on earth could I leave a four and seven year old to fend for themselves whilst I holed myself up writing essays? My place would have to be deferred if the university would accept it. Even my cafe job, which I love, seemed another headache to organise. Hubby’s leave would have taken up the month of August; ergo I wouldn’t have to think twice about childcare. Now my basic salary would be used up paying for someone else to look after them in the holidays. Who that someone else would be, I had no idea. My mind flitted from one thing to another. Hubby came looking for me and tried to put his arm around me, I shrugged him off.
“I can’t even do something as trivial as the quiz anymore”, I said, a distinctive lump in my throat.
“Of course you can”, he replied.
“No actually I can’t. Thursday nights are when our son has band practise. It’s a rush as it is. I teach from 4.30 to 5.30, then I throw food down everyone’s throats, then I drive our son to the train station in St German’s, then I go home and clean up, put the kids to bed, you come home, I go out and whilst I am at the quiz you fetch him from Saltash. I can’t be in two places at the same time and it goes without saying that band practise will come before the quiz”.
“Will you be home for Christmas?”
“We’ll come out to you then”.
“I can’t even get into the loft. How will I get the decorations out? What if there is an emergency? What if the kids are ill? What if our son fails his GCSEs? What if his school won’t have him back?” The what ifs have gone on and on, most of them I haven’t even voiced. It’s just pointless. I have no control about him going whatsoever. It’s a fait accompli.
We’ve reached an impasse. Hubby and I just skirt around each other now, neither of us willing to communicate our deepest thoughts i.e my bitter resentment and fear, his anger at my being an ‘unreasonable basket case’. My life once again, is on hold. It’s good training for him though. By the time he goes, he will be accustomed and inured to living in a hostile environment.