Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Medication. (This post is out of synch and was written after 'Empty Nest'

I came home from work a couple of days ago to find my son waiting for me in my bedroom. He looked very sombre.
“Sit down mum”, he said gravely. Oh God. I steeled myself for whatever bombshell he was about to drop. Gingerly, I sat down next to him on my bed.
“What is it darling?” I asked.
“What are these for?” and he handed me a packet of pills. Oh boy.
“Well, they, I mean I…”, I struggled to find the right words.
“They’re anti-depressants mum”, he said, his voice heavy with emotion, “They were hiding at the back of the paracetamol draw with your name on them. What’s wrong mum? Why are you depressed?”
“How do you know what they are?”, I asked him quietly.
“I Googled the name”. We sat silent for a moment or two.
“Are you going to kill yourself?” he finally stole himself to ask. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry.
“Oh my darling”, I replied and I wrapped my arms around him, “Of course I’m not going to kill myself. I was never going to before, I am not going to now and I will never in the future.”
I then went on to explain as best I could that it wasn’t a case of unrelenting sadness or a deep black hole that I was plunged into that was the reason for my prescription.
“Well why then? Do we make you unhappy? Do I? Does dad?”
I did laugh then. “No, none of the above. You drive me crazy. All of you. Your mess, your reluctance to tidy up after yourselves, your need for constant feeding, but you never ever make me unhappy. I couldn’t live without you all”.
“Well then, I don’t understand. Why do you need anti-depressants?”
This was going to take time. I needed to get comfortable. I peeled off my tights and then lay on my bed and snuggled him close to me.
“God ma”, he said, “Couldn’t you warn me when you are about he remove your hosiery. Can I open my eyes now please?”
“Yes, I’m perfectly decent”, I replied. He unscrewed his eyes.
“So, you were saying?”. I took a deep breath.
“I am not a psychiatrist my darling, so couldn’t tell you the inner machinations of my soul, but what I do know is that when I take my, for want of a better word, happy pills, I seem to feel less anxious than when I don’t. My anxiety sometimes gets the better of me and stops me from enjoying my life as I should. I fret and worry to such an extent that all rational thought goes out of the window”.
He was quiet and I could hear my heart beating.
“But dad worries. He worries about money and his job and redundancies. Is he on them too?”
“Not that I’m aware of but dad and I are very different characters and were he to feel that his health would benefit if he were on them, then that would be the sensible thing to do”.
“Do you feel ashamed?”, he asked in a small voice.
“There is a certain stigma attached to mental health and some people find it very difficult to disclose that they need medicinal help to cope with life’s challenges. I don’t exactly shout it from the rooftops, but nevertheless, I don’t see the point in pretending. I am more matter of fact about it. If I had asthma but refused to use an inhaler what would you think?”
“I’d think you were an idiot”.
“Exactly. Similarly if I had tonsillitis or a chest infection, I would be foolish not to take antibiotics. Therefore it stands to reason to me, that if my mind is playing up that I should take the appropriate medication to make it better. Am I making sense?”
“Kinda. I don’t understand why you feel anxious without the tablets though. What can you worry about so much that it makes you unable to function?”.
“Well, that’s the big question and one I’ve asked myself a thousand times. I’m older and wiser now though and I refuse to beat myself up about it. No doubt it has something to do with one of my closest relatives being killed when I was a child and, it has affected me since then by worrying myself sick about something tragic and shocking happening again. Of course, what I’ve come to realise is that you can’t control things outside of your control and, whereas perhaps a person without my experience would just not even imagine the unimaginable , I was wasting happy times in my life by just preparing myself, just in case. It is very wearing and a complete waste of time. It was stopping me being in the here and now”.
“You’ve felt like that all your life?”, my son asked me, aghast.
“No, not always, although I spent from that terrible day as a girl until the day grandma died, desperately trying to keep her safe, but it was always out of my control and in the end, she died anyway, when I wasn’t looking, when we were thousands of miles away living in America”.
He squeezed me. I carried on.
“The thing is, I want to enjoy your growing up, and that of your sisters. I don’t want the choices you make or the journeys you go on, blighted by my anxieties. That’s not to say, even if I were on intravenous valium that I won’t worry myself sick until I know that you are home and safe and sound.”
Just then Hubby walked into our room.
“What are you two in cahoots about?”, he asked. We told him.
“Oh, don’t worry about your mother”, advised Hubby waving at me dismissively, “She always was and always will be, as mad as a sh*t house snake”.

Invisible Me.

My feet were soaking in a washing-up bowl of Epsom salts when Mags came calling. She plonked herself next to me on the sofa.
“Hard day then?”, she asked.
“You could say that”, I replied, wincing as the dog came to greet her and knocked the washing-up bowl, stubbing my tender tootsies inside.
“How long was your shift?, she added, stroking a very excited dog. I extricated my feet from the bowl, better safe than sorry.
“Eight hours”, I said, “And as if that weren’t bad enough, there was no bus, so I walked from the city centre back to Torpoint”.
“Bloody hell!” exclaimed Mags.
“My thoughts entirely. I walked pavements that I’ve never walked before”.
We were quiet for a moment, both of us trying to remember a dim and dubious past when we might, as young women, have zig-zagged home in the early hours after a dancing the night away in some Union St night club. I was relived that I could not recall even one time.
“Thing is Mags, as I walked, I had plenty of time to think and walking in the dark, in my polyester uniform, I was completely invisible.”
“You mean it was so dark, no-one could see you?”
“No, I don’t mean literally. I mean …” and I felt a little embarrassed to say the next bit.
“Go on”, Mags prompted.
“I felt poor”. There I said it.
“How do you mean?” Mags asked.
“I’m beginning to loose my identity as me, middle class mum, commander’s wife, graduate.”
“Because what we do for a living and what we wear so very often defines us. Hubby goes to work and everyone knows he’s the commander. His uniform, lest anyone has any doubt, tells them so. Similarly when I was a teacher, my clothes suggested I was a teacher because I looked professional. Students lent their respect. A white coat and stethoscope suggests a doctor. What we wear has a certain gravitas, or not as the case may be.”
“So?” asked Mags.
“So when is the last time you held any particular regard for a shop girl?”.
“Well, I’m always polite to them”, replied Mags, defensively.
“Always?”, I queried.
“Ok, not always, but some are hopeless and sometimes I’m in a rush, but Alice love, they are just sales assistants. Hardly educating the nation, or healing the sick or commanding the Royal Navy for that matter”.
“Just sales assistants? ” I said, “Which is why, as I sat rather dejectedly at the bus stop before deciding to travel by Shanks’s pony, I realised just how invisible I was. For want of a better word, I looked working class and thus not worth the time of day. Honestly Mags, I walked through parts of Devonport which were very rundown and dodgy, but I looked as though I fitted right in.
“Don’t be ridiculous”.
“Straight up. My make-up had waned, my hair was pulled back; if I’d walked into Iceland to get a few frozen provisions, the sales assistant there wouldn’t have bothered with me because I am now one of them. I can truly understand how you start believing how others perceive you. No wonder the unemployed feel so worthless. It’s how we’ve made them feel, ditto single mums and immigrants”.
“I never thought a Christmas job would have made you so political”, said Mags, sounding rather nervous.
“That’s the other thing”, I added, “I know in my heart of hearts that I’m earning a crust and busting my ass to earn some extra cash for a family Christmas, which rather ironically, because of the gruelling world of retail, I won’t even be a part of, but I’m also, after only a couple of weeks in the job, beginning to believe that I am not capable of anything more. Perhaps my colleagues and other low paid workers share that feeling”.
“But I thought you enjoyed it?”, said Mags.
“I the words of Abba, I do, I do, I do, I do, I do. I love the customer service, and helping old ladies in the changing rooms especially. In fact, I think department stores should specialise in services for the elderly. Have you ever given a thought to how knackering it is for old people to shop?”
Mags assented that she had not.
“Well, it is. Exhausting. For them to buy any new clothes they have to negotiate the crowds, find the item they want, queue to try it on, get undressed, put the new thing on and then, if it doesn’t fit, well suffice it to say that they are very relieved to find me. They hold my arm and we take time gathering several items, then I carry the things to the fitting rooms and stand outside the curtain whilst they undress. In a couple of cases, where the poor dears have been arthritic, they have asked me to be in there with them to help them dress and undress. It may be a drop in the ocean compared to teaching and medicine, but I get a wonderful sense of satisfaction that I have made one old lady’s day a better one.”
There is no time for personalised customer service these days though. Much like teaching, it is all about targets. Although I am delighted to help my old ladies, I am aware that I ought to be selling, selling, selling and with every sale, offering store credit cards, which for many families, especially at Christmas, will be a descent into the ravages of debt. Hubby walked in.
“Alice, sweetheart, whilst it is commendable that you feel pimping a credit card immoral, please keep your gob shut and hang onto this job. For once in your life, just smile and say to your superiors, ‘Certainly, Sir’”. Mags looked doubtful.
It was a phrase I’d have to practise; I reinserted my feet in the Epsom salts and mulled the rather obsequious, proposal.

A Brief Interlude

So, before I donned my polyester uniform and started my new role as shop girl, it was Hubby’s birthday. I surprised him by taking him away for the night to Center Parcs.
“Alice”, he said, “We can’t afford it”.
“Yes we can”, I answered imperiously, “I’ve been saving my two pound coins for it. Besides it’s only an over night spa break”.
So, with little more than a clean pair of knicks, a toothbrush and a pair of pyjamas, which elicited the most predictably lecherous comment of “You won’t be needing those, nudge, nudge”, from Hubby, we got in the car and left the small children in the care of the big children.
It was only mid afternoon when we arrived, but almost dark yet, having been to Center Parcs once before with the children we knew the routine, or so we thought.
“You’ve come to the wrong entrance”, said a bookings clerk with a clipboard, “You should have come in through the ‘Spa Break’ entrance”.
“Oh, sorry”, I said apologetically.
“You passed the sign further down the drive. It’s hard to miss”. Hubby and I looked at each other and giggled. She was very strict.
“Turn around and go back down the drive and then enter through the staff entrance”. We nodded meekly. Finally, after a lot of “No, up there”, “No, turn left”, “No. Stop. That’s only for bikes”, we found our accommodation. It was an apartment which was more than adequate for our needs. I had no plans in cooking.
The bath was deep and the bed very comfortable.
“But this is two single beds pushed together” said Hubby, much chagrined.
“Well that’s ok”, I replied, attempting to hide the relief in my voice, “I won’t be far away”.
After unpacking our small overnight bag, we walked to the swimming pool. We were at a loss.
“It’s weird without the children”, said Hubby. I nodded.
“Let’s go down the rapids”, he suggested. Really? Did I have to?
“C’mon, don’t be such a spoil sport” and without so much as a by your leave, Hubby hurled himself over the wall and into swirling water beneath. I attempted the same leap but, never particularly athletic, got rather mortifyingly stranded with one half of my body dangling over the wall and the other half dangling the swimming pool side. Try as I might, I could not engender the oomph to get over it. Thankfully, an elderly and rather well built gentleman saw my predicament and chucked me over the edge and into gushing water. I screeched and screamed and choked and coughed most of my way around.
“Wait for me”, I kept calling out to Hubby as though my life depended on it, “Please wait for me. Glug, glug, glug”. Every time I caught sight of Hubby, decorously going along the rapid in front of me, he was helpless with laughter.
It finally ended with me being deposited rather unceremoniously in a deep pool, sideways. When I looked up, Hubby was waiting for me looking like a tall Daniel Craig, dripping, sexily wet, his hair raked back from his face. I emerged from the pool like the Kraken, hair plastered to my face, swimsuit barely covering the essential areas, bruised with eyes bloodshot from the prolonged dunking in chlorine.
“Glass of wine?” Hubby mouthed. I shook my head vigorously.
“Huh?”, Hubby hunched his shoulders in disbelief.
“I’m not saying no to wine”, I shouted back over the noise of screaming children and rushing water, “I am ridding my ear canals of the last vestiges of white water rapids”.
Fifteen minutes later, having visited the shop and bought pretzels, wine and a bath bomb, I was wallowing in far more agreeable bath water. It was bloody hot though and I emerged later, poached, looking not unlike an expensive and rather fragrant crustacean; Rick Stein would have put me on the menu.
“Hello lovely lady”, said Hubby in his best James Bond voice and he got up off the sofa and whipped my towel away before adding, “Bloody hell Alice! I can’t make love to a lobster”. That’s where all similarities with Daniel Craig terminate.
The following day was sunny; we booked into the Aqua Sana. And once within its calming, soothing environment, enveloped in a snuggly white robe, it’s as though real life has been transcended. We spent hours wallowing and sweating; steaming and meditating until finally we were called for our massages. Sublime. No sooner had I peeled myself from one treatment bed than I was led to another. Facial time.
The next time Hubby and I faced each other our skin shone and radiated, having been sloughed to within an inch of our lives. “I must drink more water”, said Hubby in all earnestness, “My therapist said I had very youthful skin and that’s all I needed to keep it looking young”. Did she now? Mine suggested a very expensive but delectable box of vials full of elixirs to keep ageing at bay. A bottle of Perrier would have been far cheaper.
“Shall we go home then?” Hubby asked. Reluctantly we dragged ourselves away from the utopian bliss that is a day in a luxury spa and headed home. We arrived with a bang. Literally. Our children were waiting for us at Mag’s bonfire party.
The contrast was too much for me. Only hours before I’d been lying on a banquette in tropical heat, wearing little more than a swimsuit and a towel as a turban, now I was in an anorak and a pair of wellies on a boggy lawn with a baked spud in one hand and a chilled glass of wine in another. I lasted an hour.
“Sorry Mags, I can’t cope with the cold. I need my bed”. It took him less than a nano second.
“C’mon then Mrs Band”, said Hubby, whipping the potato from my hand before gripping it, “Excuse us Mags, we have some unfinished business to attend to”.

The truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

“I don’t know how you do it?”, said some; “I don’t know how you cope”, said the others. Well, truth be told, it transpired that I could do neither and so, after much soul searching and wringing of hands, my teaching career has come to, for the second time in a few months, a rather abrupt end.
Scores of bulging ring binders now litter the house like little tombstones and I feel inclined to inscribe upon them in my much used highlighter pen, R.I.P ‘Miss’. A library of hugely expensive teaching texts book gathers dust in my bedroom and my computer is a constant reminder of what might have been with its memory almost full with the assignments, resources and homework that I have written, researched and marked.
A debacle at a placement school back in March was undoubtedly the writing on the wall. Entirely at fault, but entirely without intent to injure or hurt, I erroneously wrote a few lines about one of my students. A delightful student who had made me laugh, I repeated what he’d said to the public at large. It was a grave mistake and one that cost me dearly. I was out on my ear. And suspended from my university college forthwith.
The shock was immense. My children were at once anxious, outraged and no doubt, although they spared telling me, embarrassed. My dad was so very, very sad about it. He knows his daughter is no villain and has looked after the hearts and minds of more children than Maria Von Trapp and Mary Poppins combined. He knows where my heart lies and it almost broke his to see me lost and suspended. Suspended it such a perfect term. I liken it to hanging in mid air. A floating sensation that leaves one confused and nauseated. In those first few days, when I suddenly had nowhere to go in the morning and no students to prepare and knowing that I was being discussed by tutors, teachers college lecturers, it was hard not to lose my mind.
Hubby poor soul, hoping that soon I would be in a well remunerated job with career prospects, a rising pay scale and a pension, looked terrified. Assuaged for one brief moment of his pecuniary angst by hoping that his burden of being the main bread winner would be shared. His dreams of one day ‘pottering’ were dashed. He didn’t blame me once. He may have wanted to, but not once did he articulate his inner demons which might have gone along the lines of “What have you done? For God’s sake Alice, what have you done to us?” I will be eternally grateful to him for biting his tongue.
My uncle, a head-teacher in another part of the country drove down to see me. He saw my predicament in a less emotional light than those directly attached to me. He read the notorious words I’d written and scratched his head, before saying “Oh Alice”.
“But it was meant to be funny”, I refrained, “I was quoting such a lovely anecdote. I made a mistake…”.
My friends, each and every one of them, from those I see regularly, to those who now can only communicate remotely via Facebook, remained devoted and loyal, reminded me who I was and kept me going and chivvied me along.
My university, who, after agonising months of uncertainty, finally met me for a disciplinary hearing in June. The ignominy of such a phrase. A disciplinary hearing. Cheats, thieves, liars and bullies get disciplined and now here I was: one of them. I survived it and they allowed me to continue my course, but that I would be ‘at risk’.
I’m sitting here, searching the thesaurus of my brain, but I genuinely cannot find a suitable word to describe how disgusting that little phrase sounds in my ear. At risk. To whom exactly? The most notorious child killers and murderers have been at risk to all of us. Whatever anyone may say, I cannot subscribe to the point of view that, a well meaning if hopelessly misjudged sentence, computes with any of the above.
And so, metaphorically battered and bruised, I returned to my teacher training in September. But my natural ebullience and chutzpah has gone. I feel like Winston Smith. I had committed the crime of committing my thoughts to paper, leaving all those in power to scrutinise me. It was untenable to work under the pressure of such surveillance. No matter how hard I tried, I had a nagging feeling in the back of my mind that my lecturers would never tick all the boxes and pass me. It was an overwhelming ask. I think perhaps they knew that. And to be honest, at the great age of 46, the last thing I need is to hate myself, to think myself a despicable character. I have had to constantly remind myself that I am not. I am good old sort, far from perfect but a good and could have been, a great teacher.
The colleagues, with whom I have worked, especially most recently, have been an excellent bunch of people. I can only thank them for their advice, guidance, inspiration and support and of course to the children, too many to mention for being fabulous by their patience when I faltered and their excellence when my teaching produced from them work which made my peacock feathers splay out and shiver with pride and anticipation of the endless possibilities of what lies ahead for them.
I have taken a job in a supermarket. I start on Monday. Filling shelves will pay the bills, essays will not have to written, maths worked out on a till but the need to share my passion for my literary heroes and my resolve for correct grammar and spelling prevails, ergo, for those who need a little boost of confidence and oh boy, can I empathise with that, I am availing myself for private tuition..

Guests of honour?

Were she not already there, my mother would have died and gone to heaven.
“Guests of honour! Guests of honour mind you!” I can hear here telling her darts team. I was more than a little surprised myself, it must be said.
“Who will be at the Trafalgar Night dinner?”, I murmured through tightly zipped lips which were concentrating on gripping a needle, lest my internal organs be harpooned by it.
“The usual crowd of mayors and ex-service members. The locals from our town”, replied Hubby equally intent on bulling his dress shoes. I peered though the needle’s eye and pulled a length of black cotton through my lips, hoping for a stiff point to thread the needle with.
After several attempts, the thread went through the needle’s eye, “Ta-da”, I exclaimed jubilantly, “Who’s the guest of honour?”, I added, head bent, hell bent of mending my one and only navy coloured posh frock which had split under recent duress.
“We are”, said Hubby. I stopped sewing.
“What did you say?”, I asked, looking at him with a bemused smile. He was having me on.
“We are the guests of honour, or to be more precise, I am, but they wanted you to tag along”.
I scratched my head quizzically which, under the circumstances, made me yelp, as I was still clutching the needle.
“Are you making a speech then?” I hadn’t seen him writing anything.
“Yes, Alice, I am making a speech”. My heart sank. I thought this was going to be a fun night out away from Hubby’s work, where I could drink to the memory of Nelson, who for once, God bless his soul, had not scuppered any of my birthday plans as all events to commemorate his memory where held either before or after the 21st of October. For once in a long time, I had no beef with the esteemed Admiral and would instead, be eating it.
“Well keep it short then”, was the supportive, wifely advice I gave Hubby.
The venue was within a stone’s throw of our house and yet, because I had my very lovely, very expensive and very high heeled suede court shoes on, I could only take baby steps, much like a Geisha in a tight Kimono.
“Please wait for me”, I called plaintively in Hubby’s wake, “I really can’t go any faster”.
“Why did you wear such ridiculous shoes then?”, he replied, walking back to retrieve me, clearly irritated. Men are such hypocrites. Would he have preferred me to have worn a pair of Birkenstocks then, or a nice flat, comfy pair of wide Van Daals?
Puffing, as he had my elbow in a vice like grip and we were striding uphill, I posed the above question to him.
“Of course not Alice, I hate you in flat shoes. I just always forget to add an extra half hour to any walking that may be necessary… Hello, good evening”.
We’d arrived; it really wasn’t very far at all. A lot of hand shaking went on, and a large glass of wine was thrust in another. Some people were strangers, a couple were old friends and the rest were my community. The people I see on a day to day basis, in the bank, in the library, on the street, in the WI market. I felt very much at home.
Later, more than replete after a hearty dinner, Hubby cleared his throat and got up to speak. Oh, God, I thought, here we go. Apply rictus smile and look on supportively. Well, hush my mouth.
His speech was fantastic. Goose flesh ran up and down my body. I don’t often praise the poor sod, but fair dos. The speech was rousing and heartfelt; it was stirring and patriotic; it was passionate and persuasive. You could have heard a pin drop. Hubby’d made Nelson, the Royal Navy, me and his community proud. As he lifted his glass in toast to the Immortal Memory, I swear I had to use every fibre of my body not to stand up and whoop and cheer.
The applause went on for quite a while. Our old friends looked on at us at the top table with tears running down their faces, mouthing “Your mother would have been so proud”. It was a very emotional moment. To be among our community like this was incomparable with any other naval do we have been to before. I felt truly honoured.
More was to follow. Hubby was presented with a fine, engraved pewter tankard and then, leaving me rather lost for words, I was presented with a fabulous wicker basket of flowers. Me? I felt like Alice, Duchess of Cornwall. I’ll say that again as it has a certain je ne c’est quois –Alice, Duchess of Cornwall.
With the formalities over, we could relax and enjoy what was left of a wonderful evening. Later we teetered back the way we’d come. I hung onto Hubby’s uniformed arm.
“That was an amazing speech”, I said to him, standing on my sore tippy toes to kiss him, “I wanted to sign up immediately and whup the Frenchies’ butts”.
“Darling, I appreciate your loyal support but the Battle of Trafalgar was over two hundred years ago. You may find the French are our allies these days”. And there’s me thinking he was a rugby fan.
Two days later, I drove onto the Torpoint Ferry. The ferryman beeped my tag.
“Insufficient funds”, he said. Had he looked at my bank account recently?
I rummaged through my purse. It didn’t contain so much as a ten pence piece. Dammit. I apologised profusely but was quite unprepared for the ‘violation’ ticket they thrust through the window at me.
Good job I’d already been given my basket of flowers. I doubt a ferry felon would have been bestowed with such an honour.

Ship-Shape and well, what is Bristol Fashion?

From the furious screaming, hissing, spittle and fur that resounded from the landing, I thought the cats were having a vicious fight to the end. I ran upstairs two at a time to boot one of them away only to find my youngest daughters in the middle of a pugilistic brawl.
Tearing them apart, I demanded to know what on earth was going on.
“I hate her; she’s really mean”, squawked the youngest.
“You started it”, spat the 9 year old.
“No, you started it”, screamed the 7 year old, attempting to free my grasp and launch herself upon her sister once and for all.
“Well everybody knows how to add two to a number. You’ve just got special needs”. There was a sharp intake of breath and if I thought for one minute that the youngest one was going to capitulate and cling to me in a sobbing, self-pitying heap, I was very much mistaken. Instead she pulled herself up to her full four foot four and delivered her coup de grace, “I hate your personality”, she said icily, before adding, “Oh, wait, you haven’t got one”.
Before blood was let, I plonked one in front of the t.v and the other with a box of Barbies. It was before nine on Sunday morning and I had a houseful of young guests, all of whom had ‘crashed’ after our Lost Boy’s 18th birthday party. By all accounts no one had died of alcoholic poisoning and there was only one vomiting victim, who mercifully, had made it to the lav. In just over an hour, having fed the various teenagers, hosted family and dressed to the nines, I had to be present and correct at a Freedom of the Town parade.
I put in another load of washing, emptied the tumble drier, fed the dog, turned the bacon under the grill, buttered some baps, boiled the kettle and laid the table. Hubby had already gone to work for one final debrief, so he wasn’t available for scullery maid chores. I waited for the bacon to crisp, laid the rashers in the baps, squirted ketchup, poured boiling water into a teapot, carried the tray in to the dining room and then bellowed for all to ‘come and get it’.
The warring daughters had now forgotten all vows of enmity and were dressing up as St Trinian’s girls. The teenagers emerged from various bedrooms, looking undeniably worse for wear. The Lost Boy’s family ding-donged the bell and were shown in, made welcome and given tea and breakfast and that is where I left them. It was finally 10am, that hour when Sunday starts - the shops are finally unlocked. I needed nude coloured tights and lunch for all my guests.
My usual Sunday morning routine is to groan my way through a particularly gruelling keep-fit class. Today, I had been excused. My fellow keep-fitters, on the way to class, were in line outside the supermarket’s ATM presumably getting cash to pay for the agony. They were shocked to find me there.
“I thought you had a parade this morning?” asked one.
“I do, I do”, I said, undeniably in a bit of a flap.
“What are you doing here then?” asked another. They were all beginning to snigger. I felt a little uncomfortable.
“I need tights”, I explained, even though I have so very often been advised to, ‘never apologise, never explain’, “To go with my outfit”.
“What are you like?”, said the first again.
“You are so disorganised!”, laughed the other. Oh, am I? Really? I could have reeled off the list of jobs that I’d already achieved this morning, but at best that would just have seemed peevish, besides I didn’t have time. I still had to hare around Sainsbury’s, fill a basket, drive home, empty the shopping bags, apply my makeup and the ruddy tights and slip on a posh frock. A ritual that I have performed a thousand times. Suddenly, as I pinned on a ‘sweetheart brooch’ to my jacket, it dawned on me that this Freedom of the Town parade would be my last.
I reiterated my sentiments to Hubby an hour later, after he and the Royal Marine Band had led the parade of sailors through our town, for one final time.
“Bloody hell Alice”, he said, choking on the Mayor’s dry sherry, “You sound as though we are about to pop our clogs”.
“Metaphorically speaking we are”, I replied. The mayor came to shake my hand.
Later, over a splendid lunch, Hubby asked me what I’d meant by metaphorically speaking.
“It’s a comparison between two things, saying one thing is the other”.
“For God’s sake Alice I know that. But figuratively speaking, what did you mean’?”
“Our days of doing this sort of thing” and I waved at the company gathered, “Are numbered aren’t they? You’ll soon be in another appointment and then crash, bang, wallop, you’ll be on your terminal leave. Even that expression has more than a ring of mortality to it. All this” and I waved again, “will soon be a distant memory”.
“For crying out loud Alice”, Hubby replied, downing another sherry.
“It’s like the countdown clock to the Olympics; my days as a navy wife are counting down too”, I said.
“It’s fair to say being married to you has been quite an event. I’m happy to stand on a podium to receive a medal”.
An elderly lady sitting next to Hubby, intervened, “Once a navy wife, always a navy wife. It’s a way of life isn’t it? Ship shape and Bristol fashion. It’s taught me order and discipline. Loyalty, self-reliance and organisation. Surely you agree?”
“You’re asking Alice?”, guffawed Hubby, “She didn’t have tights to wear an hour ago”. I kicked him under the table.
“But that’s quite a skill” he added hurriedly, “to appear outwardly hapless when in essence you are methodical maestro”. And don’t you forget it shipmate.

All At Sea

I clicked the red, off button on my mobile phone and sat down. Poor bugger. Hubby walked in from the kitchen.
“Who was that?”, he mumbled, a chocolate Hob-Nob protruding from his mouth.
“Sue. Her husband’s ship has been turned around. She doesn’t even know where he is in the world or when the hell he’ll come back. It’s just open ended. She’s just had a two minute call from him. She’s really upset”.
“Life in a blue suit”, added Hubby, helpfully.
“I’m going to see her; the girls’ school uniform needs pressing and our Lost Boy needs to change his sheets and generally muck out his bedroom. At least it was a bedroom, I haven’t seen any evidence of a bed for weeks”.
“But I thought we were going to watch Strictly and X-Factor and Downton together?”, replied Hubby, overtly crestfallen for a strapping, heterosexual man.
“For heaven’s sake, Sky+ it and I’ll watch them with you tomorrow night”.
“We won’t have time then, you’ll be busy, I’ll be busy. It just won’t happen”.
“Well then, you have two alternatives, either you put on James Bond and get your son to watch tv with you, or, you ask any one of your three daughters if they’d like a girly tv fest on the sofa with their big, butch dad. ”
“I’m not watching that rubbish”, said our teenage daughter, “Honestly, I just don’t understand how people can watch such crass, cruel television”.
I am delighted that this girl is very much her own woman, I’m proud of her stellar achievements and thrilled that she stands out from the crowd and doesn’t blithely follow fashion magazines and celebrity gossip, but there are times when it wouldn’t be as wearing if she could just enjoy a little popular culture, which is by dint of its name, popular.
“What are you going to do this evening instead then?”
“I’m writing an essay on quantum mechanics”.
“Come again?”, I asked, scratching my head, “What subject is that for?”
“You’re not doing Mechanics A level are you?” asked Hubby, as baffled as me.
“God, you two are so thick”, she said emphatically before flouncing in the direction of whence she came. Hubby and I looked at each other and shrugged.
“As I was saying”, I said, “I’m popping out to see Sue, lend a shoulder to cry on, that sort of thing. Any wine in the rack?”
Two hours later and I was exhausted, as was a mansize box of Kleenex tissues.
“It’s the not knowing that I can’t cope with Alice”, a refrain that she had sniffed, repeatedly.
“I know, I know”, I replied soothingly, patting her knee.
“I mean, will he be home for Christmas? Can I book a winter holiday? Can I get pregnant? We were considering another baby, Alice. Think of all the eggs I’ve wasted.” Her tears started anew. My patting on her knee became more rhythmical.
“I’m knocking on”, she added, gesturing at her womb, “I only have so many eggs left”. It was like comforting a depressed Easter Rabbit.
“There, there”, I soothed, my free hand shaking an empty wine bottle as though it were lying that there wasn’t so much as a dreg left. Sandy bottoms as Hubby would say.
“He’s been away for months already. He’s missed everything, GCSEs, camping in Dorset, a benign lump, his parents Golden wedding anniversary. I can’t bear it any longer”.
“I’d like to say, just be strong a little while more,” I advised, “but it’s futile. Our husbands didn’t marry Sherman tanks, they married women; soft, squidgy women with bosoms and feelings and the romantic idea that marriage was about two people sharing a life, a home and family. It’s no wonder then that when we are separated for long periods, there are milestones that they miss and then, we miss them ”.
“He couldn’t cope on his own”, snivelled Sue, “I went to Center Parcs before he went with some friends and there was a message on the tannoy system for me to call home. I thought someone had died”.
“Had they?”, I asked
“No, one of the kids had to go to a birthday party and he couldn’t remember where it was or what I’d done with the present”. We laughed. A second later and her twin girls walked through the front door.
“Oh no, mum”, they said simultaneously, rushing to her side, “What on earth has happened?”
Sue explained that their father wouldn’t be home for another few months. I was expecting them to be stricken and, as we were out of tissues, to have to employ a roll of toilet paper to mop up the tears. I was much mistaken.
“Hey mum, that means we can watch all the chick flicks we want!”, said Anna.
“And Strictly all the way until the Christmas show”, added Ava. Their father is an Alpha male and unlike Hubby, not in tune with his feminine side, he is thus very unlikely to condone viewing marathon episodes of sequins and spangles on a Saturday and a Sunday night.
“Besides”, said Anna, more gravely, as her sister held her hand, “He won’t be here to rant and rave. Because…”, there was a pregnant pause. “I think you should know. I’ve had a tattoo”
“I’d better leave”, I said, getting up, remembering my own breakdown when my son disclosed his.
And this is where Sue surprised me. She slowly and very dignifiedly, stood up. And, undid the buttons on her blouse.
“Beat you to it love”, said Sue, revealing an ample bosom decorated with a small anchor and HMS Love entwined on it, “Got it done on the way back from Center Parcs. I was trolleyed”.
The shoe was on the other foot. Tears and tantrums, the ‘how could yous?’, the ‘but you are old!’ even, ‘mum you slapper’. This was a milestone their father would have been delighted to miss.