Life picked up again. We had a hideous parting from No1 at the beginning of term. Leaving his new home, existence and worst of all baby brother behind was agony for all of us, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house when he sat on the edge of his bed with No1 in his arms to say goodbye to him. Typically he was wonderful about the whole miserable business, but I defy anyone to argue that boarding is a natural state.
No2 started at her new nursery. Back in London she had begun her education in the back rooms of church on the hard shoulder of the A12 in Chiswick. It was lovely, but dark within and noisy without and just very London. I consulted with the oracle, New Best Friend, and she recommended a place two villages away with a hugely improbably six word long name spelt using 14 different letters – in itself, something of a literacy test. I went and had a look and fell in love with it: how could I not? It was on a farm and had two pigs in the grounds, called Bubble and Squeak. Lambs, I was told, sprang everywhere at the appropriate times of year. Walks in the wood were an everyday occurence, the food was homemade on site and the staff:child ratio was phenomenally high. It was warm and loving and felt like fun – and best of all they were firm believers in reading, writing and playing, both indoors and out. There and then I signed on the dotted line and we never really looked back: I missed her hideously but No2 thrived and talked endlessly about her new friends and teachers. I loved that she was so happy, and never got over the view from the back door of gently rolling slopes and big skies. No2 of course grew up with it and didn’t really notice, but I was pretty much blown away – literally and metaphorically – on a regular basis.
Then one day Farmer Fortissimo came to visit. Larger than life and at least four times louder, and smelling quite strongly of cows. Every stitch on his tight shirt straining (who was I to talk?) and every button bursting (ditto) as he tried very, very hard to find out what our Dream Home had cost us. In theory, he was there to see if we would let him graze our cows in his paddock. In practice, he was clearly to desperate to find out how much we had paid for the place. Understandably suspicious of Londoners and our motives, he was also out to dig and rile while quaffing as many beers as I ill-advisedly provided, desperate as I was to get it right and not seem stand-offish. I resolutely refused to walk into any of his traps (Round One to me), and as we sat in the then-kitchen and he probed and fished, my tiny septuagenarian mother, walked past the two open doors behind him, thumbs up or down according to how well I was doing. Not an easy task with a ten pound baby in her arms. Before I knew it however, I’d agreed to him putting his cows in our field for a nominal (a VERY nominal, as it turned out) rent, and upkeep. (Round Two to him.)
And then came the coup de grace. ‘So you’ll be Antis then’ he boomed, confidently. Or cleverly, as it turned out. ‘Not at all’ I replied ‘We’re firmly pro, actually.’ ‘So you’ll have the Meet then’ he retorted, quick as a flash. ‘Delighted!’ I beamed, with no clear idea of what that might entail. Damn. Round Three to him.
Gradually people began to turn up at the house to introduce themselves – and, of course, to check us out. To be fair the first visitor couldn’t fail to come up the drive: standing on the edge of the ha-ha I mistook her for the first ex-wife of the Vendor whom we had come to know, and waved expansively at her as she rode along the lane on an enormous horse. With a very small baby in my arms, a three year old hanging on to my leg and an eight year old practicing wheelies at my feet she didn’t realise that I was more drowning than waving and probably to this day rues her kindness at coming and introducing herself – boy, did I throw myself on her friendliness. Imagine my delight when it transpired that not only was she pretty much my nearest neighbour, but that she had four little girls of her own, the youngest of whom was the same age as No2. Joy! Poor woman: she took the bad news that we were completely unhorsey on the chin, and was instantly crowned by New Best Friend. Whether or not she wanted to be.
More surprising were the people with connections to the house, who would simply knock on the door. Sue was one: her uncle had lived in the place umpteen years ago and she was able to show us the original site of the summer house. Once we knew, of course, we could easily discern the bumps in the grass where the rails had been. The next time she came she brought a wedding photo from the 1920s showing the happy couple on our front steps. Then there was the man who arrived with aerial photos of the old parkland with the big trees lining a much longer, grander drive, from the days when the front door was in daily use. We loved the fact that we were building a picture of the house over the years and that we were making contact, however tenuous, with others who had chosen to make their lives here too.
We brought the baby home four days later, on the eve of Eeyore’s 41st birthday. By prior arrangement Mr G, his oldest friend, was coming to stay with his wife and three children: we had spent the milestone 40th together and in complete ignorance of the changes that were about to come over us. We had come so far since then: an extra baby, a change of lifestyle and a major house move – this too seemed a birthday that needed marking. My parents came to meet their newest (thirteenth, actually) grandchild, and in the continuing heat we moved out of the house and under the huge trees that lined one side of it.
Continuing a theme: very Hardy-esque it was. Twelve of us ranging in age from four days to eighty-two years, at two long tables beneath the copper beeches. Mum and Mrs G slaved in the poor excuse for a kitchen, while the G’s and No1 and No2 ran amok and tried out the new trampoline that No3 had miraculously brought with him. (I certainly felt as though he literally had.) It was a wonderful homecoming, and a pretty terrific birthday, even for a man. I did very little (no change there, then) and the fact that the house was a wreck and filthy and that there was no food to speak of somehow took all the pressure off. While we knew full well that for ages to come people would be dying to see what we had bought and got ourselves into, this was a wonderful hiatus during which normal standards simply couldn’t apply. We stripped poor No3 down to his nappy and kept moving him in and out of the sun to lessen his jaundice: I couldn’t help remembering how No1 and I had spent a miserable week in a grey hospital in Hammersmith trying to achieve the same result. Somehow, and in every way, this felt much better.
Even though one of us is, as always, late
Never, ever, have I been so happy to abandon myself to the care of total strangers. Completely unperturbed by the sight of a heaving mound of flesh falling through their doors within minutes they had me in a clean, quiet, stationary room, Eeyore on the phone, paperwork done, cup of ice chips by the bed, monitor on, the lot. No, they said to my beloved, it’ll be a while yet: start getting ready to leave but no panic. An hour later they were telling him to shift, run, get the next train or miss the arrival of his newborn.
Reader, he did. Miss the arrival of his newborn, that is. Remember: this was the summer of 2003, when it was so hot the rails buckled. He sat in a siding looking at the hospital, locked into his carriage, sweating gently in the un-airconditioned heat, while I laboured to deliver his child. (Never let it be said, but it was the best thing that could have happened. The birth of our first had put him off me for about three years, and I bit him while producing our second – and at least this time round I could get on with it without worrying that he would faint, or whinge because I was selfishly squeezing his hand a bit too tight and causing him some discomfort.) As it was, the first words No3 heard his father utter were ‘Bugger me!’ when he walked in and realised I wasn’t just sitting at a funny angle for fun, and that part of the lump that was his wife was also his new child, now on the outside.
Or ‘Early Promise Unfulfilled’
So picture the scene. Me, with the seat of the huge estate car necessarily pushed right back, struggling to reach the pedals, hurtling down the A1 at speeds that would have made my eyes water were they not already doing so, actually hoping to see the police in my rear view mirror. (Of course I didn’t – many’s the time since that I’ve marvelled at their ability to materialise from nowhere when you really could do without them, and yet, when I would have loved a bit of blues and twos ….) As I pulled over (fractionally) and slowed down (fractionally) for the really big contractions I flashed my lights and apologised to one and all, and wondered with amazement at what point this idiot plan had seemed to make sense. Who in their right minds would have done what we did, when we did? And WHY did we? Lovely safe, familiar Shepherds Bush, a midwife I’d known for years, good old Queen Charlottes – what on earth had we done?
And then I got lost. So many hospitals, so many sliproads, so many cross drivers, so many contractions – at one point I distinctly remember pulling over completely and turning off the engine. Clearly I was about to give birth on my own, in my car, in a litter strewn bus stop, but I was absolutely NOT going to crash while I did it. Looking up through scrunched eyes I think I probably wept as I saw that I had miraculously, accidentally, stopped in front of MY hospital. I moved the car to the door, abandoned it across several spaces, and staggered up to the labour ward.
And a rude awakening it was.
Imagine my deep joy when I woke at 5am the very next morning, with a rather familiar pain at the base of my belly. Wedged upright and on one side in a dirty bedroom full of packing boxes, I refused to acknowledge the obvious and wallowed onto the other side in an attempt to go back to sleep. Dozing and ignoring took up the next hour, by which stage even I had to admit there was something happening and I rang the midwife. I did as I was told and waited another hour, and then rang to say I felt we should be doing something by now please, and so we discussed the options. Should I wait for an ambulance? No2 had been four hours from start to finish (and 10lbs thank you very much) and as we were already two hours into things and at least forty minutes from the hospital, that might be cutting it a bit fine. Should I start driving myself and hope for the best? We’d done a dummy run within days of arriving in the area and I was sort of confident-ish that I could navigate the hideous ringroad alone while panting – but then we were still three weeks off a due date: perhaps everything would come to a shuddering halt as soon as I got in the car?
No such luck. We agreed that I should at least start off, and I woke the Nubile Nymph to tell her I was leaving. I left No2 sleeping, tucked a startled No1 into bed with Jessica Rabbit and left them to it, secure in the knowledge that between us she and I were probably giving him a breast fetish that would last a lifetime.
And another Eastern European comes to Lincolnshire.
We had always known that the house would continue to feel as though it still belonged to the Vendor until we did something fundamental to the insides, but to begin with even the scent of the place was alien. The children seemed more unsettled by the arrival of a Czech au pair than by their uprooting: Eeyore was too, but perhaps that was more understandable. As a red blooded male married to a whale, the sudden appearance of a blonde Angelina Jolie built like Jessica Rabbit caused him some discomfort. With hindsight, it probably explains most of his reluctance to leave us one Sunday night, to return to a bachelor pad in the Big Smoke for the week – but I like to think that he was as sad to go (and for the right reasons) as we were that he had to leave. For the first time, I began to understand the enormity of being the only English speaking adult in the house. This living in the country lark was going to mean being a single parent for most of the year, and while I felt sorry for him setting off on his own back to the grind and an empty flat, I have to admit to myself that I was suddenly very aware of my responsibilities, and felt a real sense of abandonment.
We discovered things we’d never thought of: for example, big houses with high ceilings have big cupboards high up the walls. If, like me, you’re more Ronnie Corbett than John Cleese (to whom Eeyore’s resemblance is more than passing, and not only physical), putting stuff away in them was almost as difficult as getting it out again. Enter No1, who shot up ladders all over the place with the enthusiasm and energy of your average eight year old boy. Competitive to her core, No2 quickly became very adept at filling cupboards under sinks – usually with whatever was to hand, regardless of what that was – and I sat on a stool in the hall in what moving air there was like a vast eminence grise, looking at the view through the open doors and telling people what went where. Or ‘bossing’, as they called it: rather unfair that, I felt. More like ‘playing to my strengths’. Nonetheless, nobody would have said, at the end of that first fortnight when Eeyore left for London, that we had done anything more than lightly dusted the surface of the gargantuan task of moving in.
Amazement that we’d done it, combined with heat and hugeness meant that I, at any rate, did very little to help in those early days. It became a bit of a game to those I used to think loved me to see just how long it would take me to get up the front stairs, and how often I’d have to stop on the way. In the extraordinary heat we opened the oak front doors and the big back door and managed a slight breeze: the surveyor had warned us that most of the windows were screwed shut, and we had laughed at such charming practicality. No longer – it was a blinding nuisance when what we wanted was to fling wide all doors and windows and air and cool the place. Further, if we’d thought about it, we’d have seen there was perhaps a reason for such assiduous rattle-proofing. (Note I don’t call it ‘draught proofing’ – it wasn’t.) As we slowly cleaned and unpacked, and Eeyore – to be fair – worked like a dog while I didn’t, we oohed and aahed at the acres of woodchip on the hugely high walls. We patted the ancient obligatory Aga fondly; we moved our furniture to cover the worst areas of bleached carpet where generations of dogs had thrown up; we bought ladders long enough to replace lightbulbs way up almost out of sight on dirty ceilings.