A brief encounter … I trust.

One of the problems of living apart is that you start to stop trying.  I’m not sure you even notice you’re doing it: one minute the state of your legs, top lip and underarms matters enormously, the next you’re relishing the extra warmth a little undergrowth affords.  It isn’t helped by the fact that on the whole I think men get more attractive as they age, and women … well, maybe not so much.  Yes, I can instantly name loads of profoundly unappealing men and hordes of gorgeous older women, but on the whole I think I have a point.  Anyway …

One day Eeyore announced that he was about to go to a 1:1 meeting with a fairly senior sort of Royal, of the female variety.  This was with one of his charity hats on: he was Chairman and she was a Patron and it was all simply splendid, except that he had always rather admired her and this crush he had had become a bit of a family thing.  Nonetheless I was secure in his love for me, and felt certain that he realised that my increasing shagginess and my sartorial choices were as a result of living in a barn in a field with children and animals and not enough help and generally being Put Upon and besides, I knew he was far too busy to even think of straying, ever – even if he could find someone to stray with.  So it was with a light heart and a small child on my hip that I waved him away that morning, looking forward to hearing all about it asap.

When, two days later, asap arrived, he sounded almost breathless on the phone when I mentioned her name.

‘So’ I said ‘What did she give you for lunch?’  First things first.

‘Oh, er, sandwiches of some sort I think – yes, sarnies.’  Long pause.

‘And, what was the house like?’

‘Um, er, fine – sort of: well, you know.’  I didn’t really, but I was beginning to wonder.

‘And how did it go?’  Pause.  ‘Generally?’  This was getting laboured, even for us.

‘Oh, er, fine I think.  Yes, fine.’

I had a moment of insight.

‘And what was she wearing?’

Well, if I had wanted animated, I got it.  Before the words were even out of my mouth, he was onto it:

‘Black boots over the knee, tight black trousers, cream silk shirt (three buttons undone) double row of pearls.’

There was a silence.  I let it last.  ‘And what,’ I finally asked ‘Was I wearing when you left this morning?’

‘Er … jeans, fleece, slippers?’

He had the grace to sound abashed but to be fair, a) he was right and b) he would have been right any day of that month – in fact, probably of that year.

I decided something had to be done.  I found a hairbrush (No3’s actually, with uselessly soft bristles and a tractor painted on the back) and had a really good go.  I chipped the big bits of unidentified stuff off the green fleece I had been wearing for some weeks, and put the others in the wash.  I found a sock to match the quite nice one I had on my left foot and chucked the other in the bin – footless socks suddenly seemed provocative, and not in a good way.  I booked a weekend for the two of us in a lovely little hotel by the water not too far away and spent days thinking of things we could discuss when we were there.  I warned the children that even if they were ill, even if they were REALLY ill, we were going and they were not and that was all there was to it.

Reader: we went, and it was lovely, and we both slept from Friday evening until Sunday afternoon, when we packed and went home and took up exactly where we had left off.  He still loves his Royal, but we still (as far as I know) love each other, and he knows I’d have his eyes out if he ever even thought of straying.  And a spurned woman with a credit card can do an awful lot of damage in a very short time.

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In which some of us reach new heights …

No3 walked at nine months.

(No scoffing please, I have video proof.)  None of your round- the-furniture-nonsense either: this was the real McCoy.  Straight across the kitchen, bolt upright.  A little bit of hand flapping I will admit, but nonetheless real jaw dropping stuff.  (Almost a bit creepy, to be honest.)  And from then on, life got really busy.

The stair gates we had conscientiously brought from London didn’t fit.  Far too small even when extended to their limits.  We had intelligently removed the door from the foot of one flight, and so found ourselves in need of at least four barricades please, asap.  Step up, as ever, Unca Pete.  In short order we were back to corralling ourselves into spaces and shouting at each other if we forgot to close the things properly, or if we found ourselves unable to get out – some of the catches were tight, and there was a knack to several of them, and it was amazing how often I needed No2 to release me.  Nonetheless we were secure in the knowledge that our beloved No3 was safe, and that was worth the inconvenience and yelling.

One day, after some sort of a do, I was walking back towards the dining room from the kitchen with a large and very heavy tray of clean glasses.  All was well with the world: No1 was up a tree somewhere; No2 was at nursery counting pigs; No3 was safe in the kitchen; Eeyore was doing something grown up with numbers elsewhere; I was putting things straight again and feeling really quite domesticated and – I should have known better – Under Control.  As I went through the doorway into the hall, I heard a throaty chuckle I knew well.  No3.  ‘Hello gorgeous boy!’ I replied, smiling.  He laughed back.  ‘Where are you then?’ I chortled indulgently, playing the game while knowing full well that he was doing lego on the floor some distance behind me, shut behind a thick wooden door.

So how come I could hear him in front – and up?  No way … no WAY … as I walked forwards I turned and tipped my head back and to my absolute horror, he was there.  Somehow he had got out of the kitchen, and climbed up the outside of the banisters all the way to the top of the stairs: he was standing there bouncing gently on his toes, laughing gleefully.

My immediate instinct was to drop the tray ready to catch him.  But the crash would surely make him let go, and the thought of him falling 15′ onto hard tiles even now makes me feel slightly sick.  Very calmly, and without taking my eyes off him for a second, I put the tray down on the piano, using it to shove aside the photo frames on the top without a thought for the rather smart patina they were scraping off.  ‘Stay there’ I enunciated with icy calm, fixing him with my gimlet eye.  His smile began to waver, and I had a horrible vision of him losing his nerve and letting go.

Now I am a short woman, but I am not small.  Nonetheless, I made it across the hall, up the stairs, round the bend and up the rest to the top in a time that would have made Usain Bolt proud: I reached over the handrail, grabbed him by the back of his shirt and a dungaree strap – and probably his hair too, frankly: needs must – and yanked him over the top and into my arms.  All in a heap we landed on the carpet and his life hung once more in the balance as I crushed him to me: ‘Don’t you EVER’ I said, into his neck ‘Don’t you EVER do that again, do you hear me?’

My Family, and Other Animals

So what to do now?  House well on its way to being sorted, children settled, No3 confirmed as a mountain goat (always had to be at the highest point in a room: an uncanny climbing ability for one so young), Eeyore as happy as Eeyore was ever likely to be.  I know!  Pets.

‘Never, ever, get a terrier when there’s a toddler in the house’ everyone said.  Well it didn’t turn out that way: Ziggy the Border Terrier arrived and melted everyone’s heart within minutes.  Gentle, patient, long-suffering beyond belief, she became an irreplaceable part of the family in record time.  One morning I found No3 pulling her round the kitchen by her ears – he was very young, remember – and her only response was to look up at me, tragically.  As puppies do, she chewed: it’s a measure of the hold she had over us that when Eeyore got back one weekend after a particularly trying few days in the Big Smoke to find she had eaten the wooden corners of the island in the kitchen, his only response was to go and chop up a wine crate to make four rather snazzy protective outers for it.  Somewhat a case of the stable door after the horse etc, but charming – and astounding – nonetheless.  No3 and I took to putting her in the hood of the pushchair when her little legs got tired on our endless route marches.  Then, as she got bigger, she would sit on him instead – far more comfortable, and presumably deliciously smelly, to a dog at least.  To begin with, the grasses that bend over the tops of the ditches lining the lanes around here could take her weight, but as she got bigger she would regularly fall through them, landing with a squeak in their dry bottoms.  Ah, many’s the hour we spent lying on our stomachs trying to reach her, while she snuffled happily along and back, intentionally oblivious to our beseeching.  After a while it dawned on me that the answer was to plop No3 in with her, on the basis that he was much easier to reach, and if he got her, and I got him, all would be well.  That was genius pure and simple, until No3 realised that he was now privy to a world I wasn’t prepared to enter (easy to get down with tin hips, harder to get up) and oh boy, did he make the most of it.  I lost count of the number of times I was late collecting No2 from school because I was begging my dog and child to return to me.

So then we got a cat.  Obviously.  Petal joined us as an inspired present to No2 from the sainted Kirsty, who of course checked beforehand that this would be a welcome gift.  ‘Absolutely!’ I said, knowing that No2 would now be happy for ever and that Kirsty’s place in the family’s pantheon of greatness was secure. ‘And a terrier, a kitten and a toddler?  No problem.’

It wasn’t, actually, thanks entirely to Ziggy, and her forbearance.  Petal soon made it clear that this was HER house, and that the rest of us could stay, but only on sufferance.  We had told Ziggy that anywhere above the ground floor was forbidden to her: Petal took to sitting halfway up the stairs, laughing at her.  (Anyone who has ever really known a cat will realise that this is entirely possible.)  Inevitably Ziggy took to deferring to her; No1 began to ask about her first whenever he rang; No2 took to wearing her as a scarf.  More positively, No3 fairly soon got bored of trying to lie on her and Eeyore, always more a cat than dog man, fell in love all over again.  Personally I thought a grown man spending hours dangling a bit of wool in a small kitten’s face was pretty childish, and borderline weird, but apparently I was wrong.  I knew my place.  I was now most definitely 7th out of 7 in our household.

So, where was I?

Ah yes.  Just back; two hips; life good.

One hot but overcast day, the granite came to grace the island in the kitchen and replace the rather bumpy MDF that had been there now for some weeks.  A third of a ton of it on a very large lorry down the drive, round the gravel to the front of the house, and onto the side lawn.  The rain of the preceding days had left the grass soft but not impossible: we put long planks under the wheels and with great skill the driver manoeuvred his lorry down them.  As he edged backwards we took the planks out from behind the front wheels and put them down again in his path – I smiled as I remembered childhood family holidays when we seemed to spend all day every day moving boats up and down a rain soaked stony foreshore in Argyll using knobbly logs as rollers in the same way.  Only, less well.

Finally the driver and Unca Pete were satisfied that the lorry was positioned just right.  Seven helpers were summoned and I sat on the grass at a distance with No3 in my lap, and a camera.  After some considerable discussion the webbing loops were slung round the slab and it was slowly lifted, with four of the men on the back of the lorry to make sure it didn’t swing, and the others on the ground waiting to guide it and keep it steady as it came down.  Inch by inch we made progress, and then the dark clouds that had been gathering in increasing warmth decided it was all going far too well and a truly impressive cloudburst rendered everything – the ground, the granite, the kitchen floor – too slippery for safety.  Standing the slab on a long edge on the already wet grass would have resulted in the thing slicing through the lawn and probably burying itself, so two of the planks were slotted underneath it and it stood, held upright only by the loops, while we took shelter.  For some reason No3, two of the Guys and I ended up under the porous trampoline while the rest, clearly the more intelligent majority, gathered in the kitchen cheerily waving my biscuits at us.  Only when No3 finally broke free and set off squelching through the torrent towards the Hobnobs did anyone relent, but by then they had blown it and if they thought I was going to relieve them of childcare duties AND get wet in the process, they really didn’t know me at all.

Eventually the rain stopped and we wiped the slab as dry as we could before the guys resumed positions and the crane again took the strain.  Lifting it gently only a couple of inches off the ground, the arm was then extended as far as it would go to feed my new island through the door into the silently waiting kitchen.  It’s full reach still left us about fifteen feet short, and soon there was no option but to lower the thing gently back onto a long edge on the ground, and leave the Guys holding it upright while teeth were sucked, and tape measures extended, and heads scratched.  I think we were all worried that feet would slip on the wet tiled floor, or that the granite would simply prove too heavy and push them over domino-style, but over the next ten minutes this huge shiny slice was safely pushed and pulled alongside the base unit.

‘That was the easy bit’ Unca Pete offered while they all leant and puffed and wiped their manly brows in the rising heat.  The smell of testosterone and Lynx was almost tangible.  ‘Let’s just hope it doesn’t snap when we lever it.’  That reassured me no end.

Everyone held their breath – them with effort, me with fear – as with a titanic heave they lifted the rock (which is, after all, what it is) and slid it half onto the island.  There was a creak, and the Guys froze.

‘No problem’ said Unca Pete.  ‘Let it settle.  Now .. slowly … slide it over.’

And it really was that simple.  (If only for me.)  A minute later it was in place and the nature of the whole kitchen had changed.  It wasn’t any longer a potentially lovely room with a chunk of MDF in the middle.  It was a really wonderful space with a serious slab of worksurface in the middle.  A place in which I could finally see that one day some major cooking and feeding might actually happen.  Once I got the gasping, relieved Guys off it and out of the way, and once I could persuade Unce Pete that it was safe.

‘It’s no good’ he said, worriedly. ‘It could crush the baby.’  It had taken eight men and a crane a full hour to get it into place but good old Unca Pete, as ever with our best interests at heart, proceeded to go round the thing with his mastic gun, sticking it down.  In a variation of the topping out ceremony No3 was planted in the middle of it and we all cheered.

The phone rang.  Eeyore checking on progress.

‘What’s different?’ he asked.  ‘It’s gone all echoey.’

Home sweet home.

I was too awake, and too aware, and I was going over an edge and I was scared and shivering and then I was shivering so hard that people came and wrapped me in hot blankets and put heated packs round me and someone put something hard between my teeth to save my tongue and then someone else put something else into the cannula, gently this time, and then a tiny, tiny woman hugged me and stroked my head and started singing.  That was when I knew I had gone completely woofing mad and was probably dying – until slowly, slowly, I began to unclench, and to relax.  It was as if someone had turned the intensity button down and I could start to focus.  Without saying another word the anaesthetist left the room, and I never saw him again.  Gradually my heart slowed and the shivering slowed, and the stroking and singing went on and I felt myself soften into the mattress and sleep.

When I woke the next time, it was a proper awakening.  Eeyore was there, and Chelsea Godmother, and it was two days later.  Of course there was no soft, Holby City style romantic reunion of a man and his wife of many years, the mother of his three children, the companion to his soul and the watcher of his back.   ‘Ah’  he said, looking round the side of his newspaper.  ‘About bloody time.’

It seems I’m ‘sensitive to morphine’ and that I’d had them ‘really quite worried’ for a while.  HAH!  I found it hard to be sympathetic.  I might have been well and truly out of it for most of the time, but I felt I’d lived life pretty hard during the few moments I had been alert: I too had been a little nervous.  Now however, life was good.  My side felt safely, tightly bound and utterly, blissfully pain free.  The analgesic drip into the back of my hand was mine to control, and as I lay there revelling in being alive and in a sunny room full of flowers with Eeyore, and Chelsea Godmother, and the promise of The Archers later on, the door opened and in walked the tiny, tiny woman.

 

Over the next week I got very used to the quiet rhythms of the day – and to the telly at the end of the bed.  Breakfast (ordered the night before) arrived at a civilised hour and was whisked away in due course.  There followed some exercises, firstly with help and then on my own, and then a little lie down before lunch.  A snooze, some more ‘up and about’ as it came to be known, Bergerac on the telly – usually interrupted by another snooze – and then lo and behold, more food.  More wobbling up and down the corridor, an exciting phone call or two and a couple of visitors, yet more to eat and then bed, and deep sleep.  I knew I was getting better when I began to feel bored, and then to lie awake at night.  The novelty of the peace and quiet wore off and the view from the window became grey again: it was time to go home, and as soon as I could prove that the stairs weren’t a problem, I was officially dismissed.

I don’t do slush.  All I can say is that the moment when the car turned off the lane into the drive was, and remains, one of the very best of my life.  I had never, ever had ten days go by so slowly  – and believe me, over the years I’ve done some very boring things for what has felt like a very long time.  While I was away someone had turned up the brightness and colour controls on my life: the children were more wonderful, the house more homely, the smells and sights of rural Lincolnshire more beautiful than they had ever been.  And more than anything else, the grass on my side of the fence was certainly, irrefutably greener.

Not a cheery read. Sorry about that.

I was dreading it.  I was miserable that it was necessary, and I was frightened of the pain of the cuts, and of the pain when I woke – not of not waking, just of the pain as I did.  I was frightened of not being able to drive for six weeks, and of having to lie on my back to sleep for as long, and of what would happen if I forgot and rolled over.  I was frightened of doing the whole thing once and then, lo and behold, just as I was getting better, going back and doing the whole thing again.  I had visions of mortality and ageing and I didn’t want to be back in London, and I was frightened of being lonely, which I’ve never been any good at.  Most of all I think, I was frightened of getting depressed again – properly depressed: not just a bit sad around the edges.  The future suddenly seemed like another huge, long uphill slog before I would be mobile and well again, and the long summer holidays I love so much and look forward to all year, seemed invisibly distant.

Ever brilliant, Chelsea Godmother took the day off work and came to make sure they were doing it properly.  5′ in heels, she took control straight away: the room I was given was tiny and looked into a dark stairwell covered in pigeon netting and bird poo.  My bird phobia was loving every minute of it.  I whinged, and she swung into action: within minutes I was moved into one on the other side of the hall – overlooking a main road, to be sure, but ten times brighter and lighter and altogether less scary.  She knows me as well as I know myself and so we both knew that had I stayed put in a dark and airless room, I would have been in big trouble.  ‘Morale’ as she said ‘would have been low.’  A phrase of my father’s, and a classically British understatement.

An arrogant anaesthetist came and went and none of us liked him and I got into my sexy gown.  The day dragged on and on and we kept not going downstairs and waiting and by now the tension had made everything hurt, not just the hips, and all that was keeping me going was the idea of that lovely slidey floaty feeling that comes over you as the anaesthetic creeps into your veins and you realise you’re going.  Finally, the nurse came and I said goodbye to Chelsea Godmother and bizarrely, as if we were just off to visit a friend on another floor, walked calmly to the lift with Eeyore.  It all seemed very strange, and I wanted to ask the others around me if they fully understood the enormity of what was about to happen to me.  I felt I should be protesting: I would never again be quite the same, the original me.

With a wallop, the arrogant anaesthetist whacked the anaesthetic into the cannula he had jabbed into the back of my hand, and with a bang I was out cold.  No lovely slidey floaty feeling, no chance to say goodbye, just a sudden cessation.

I drifted to the surface, and dipped down again.  I slid up, and back.  And again – and this time it was dark, and there was someone there doing things to the machines.  I said I was scared and he laughed incredulously, and told me not to be silly.  And then I was off again – and the next time there was someone else there and people calling my name and Eeyore insisting I answer him.  I tried, I really did try, and then it was the next time and there was the arrogant anaesthetist  and it was just him and me in the room.  He pushed something else into the cannula and there was a rushing noise and a whoosh and I was back in the bright, hard light and I was more aware than I had ever, ever been.  He was at the bottom of the bed watching me intently and telling me that everything was alright, and that he had said it would be, and that of course it was alright.  And I said ‘It isn’t, it bloody isn’t, there’s something wrong, and you know it, and something’s coming’ and then it was too much and I was right: it really wasn’t.

You cannot be serious!

Frighteningly, Eeyore came too.  Given that he hadn’t been there at the conception of No3, let alone his birth, the fact that he actually took time off to accompany me to the Hip Man, gave me cause for concern.  This must be grown-up stuff.

We sat in a private waiting room, thanking God for BUPA and trying to ignore the Aston parked outside.  Irresistibly, it had a baby seat in the front and a BMA sticker on the windscreen: either this chap was a complete fake or he was both a god of orthopaedic surgery AND a family man.  Too much to bear – for Eeyore at any rate: frankly, rather exciting for me.  In reality of course he was neither.  He was reassuring, confident without being arrogant, and definite.  Two resurfacings: first the right, then the left, six weeks apart if I wanted to be back  on my feet by the summer holidays.  But first I had to go away and think about it: these were two major operations with minimal recovery time between them.  I was 43, and I had early onset osteoarthritis.

It seemed that the hyper-flexibility of which I had always been so proud hadn’t been a good thing at all.  Being able, despite my size, to bite my own toenails at the age of 40 for example, while diverting to some (winters are long in Lincolnshire and we have to make our own entertainment) and lucrative to others (namely my dentist, who benefitted big time when I bust my front tooth doing it) was in fact a bad sign.  Making the ‘funny clunky noise’ as No1 called it by waving my legs around, was another.

‘Right.’ I said, as we sat there, winded.  ‘Just one question.  What are the scars like?’

‘I can’t pretend’ he said ‘They’re big – about eighteen inches long, and they curl from just below your hip to the top of your buttock.’

‘One on each side.’  Obvious, but I sought to clarify.

‘Yes.’ he said patiently.

There was a pause.  Then my natural defences kicked in.  ‘So that’ll be the end of my international bikini modelling career then?’ was all I could think of to say.  Eeyore sighed.  There was the tiniest hiatus as the Hip Man opposite me struggled – probably for the first time in his life – to get it right.

‘Ah ….’

‘I was joking.’  I said.

‘Ah.’ he said.  ‘Very good.’

Later I was to worry that I had antagonised the man who held my footballing dreams in his hands, but at the time I think Eeyore and I were fairly much beyond rational thought. I knew I wasn’t dying, and that this was a finite problem with a tried and tested solution available, but mine was already a long and boring history of procedures and dramas and medical crises of one sort or another and to have this added to it, at a time in our lives when everything was absolutely and undeniably – though chaotically –  Coming Together, was a bit much.  We sat in silence on the train on the way home and, unlike us, held hands (under the table of course, in case anyone saw us – we’re not Spanish, after all).  I remembered the time I called him back as he left the room on the liver ward in the Cromwell Hospital where I spent a month very shortly after No2 was born.  ‘Sorry love’ I had said.  He smiled, shoulders down.  ‘I know we said sickness and health’ there was a pause ‘Could we have some of the health bit, do you think?’.

But, with no real option, on we went.  A month later we were back at the jolly old private hospital in London, chosen because this was one of the two places where the Hip Man worked, and because it wasn’t too far from Eeyore’s workplace.  The idea was that No1 was safe and secure at school; No2 and No3 would be happily looked after by Saintly Sylvia; Eeyore would come and see me every day after work, and I would lie in bed eating grapes and watching daytime TV.  Oh, and have my flanks sliced open, my joints dislocated and my bones shaved.

 

Hippy Chick

It was about now that I realised something had to be done about my hip.  Both hips, in fact, but the right one in particular was very painful all the time, and excrutiating for most of the time.  Apparently I was groaning in my sleep, and certainly I could only get round Sainsbury’s by leaning heavily on the trolley and scooting myself along.  I was short-tempered all the time with the pain, and aggressive if I felt someone was being dim.  Which I did most of the time, because … I was short-tempered all the time with the pain.  I dreaded going to bed at night because lying down and turning over brought tears to my eyes, but once there I dreaded getting up because every movement was agony.

An injection of silicone into the socket eased things for three days, and apparently proved that the only real answer was either a replacement or something called a ‘Birmingham resurfacing’.  While this sounds like something interminable that’s always being done to the Spaghetti Junction, it was in those days a revolutionary process designed to be used on the younger (hurrah!) patient, and involved scraping away the roughened lining of the hip socket, and the top surface of the ball joint, and replacing them with new titanium layers.  Resurfacing or replacement: either only lasts about fifteen years, but I was determined to wait as long as possible for a full replacement – longevity runs in my family and I was keen to spend as little of my future as possible in a wheelchair.  Matters came to a head, however, one morning after school drop-off.

No2 was by now at a local Prep school and with great bravery (or so I told everyone) I drove her in one wet morning and walked her to her classroom, leaning on the wall all the way and puffing with pain.  I just about made it back to the car and was about to drive off when two friends approached: wreathed in smiles I wound down the window and then, to my horror, burst into tears.

‘If I have it done now’ I sobbed ‘that’ll do me for fifteen years, then a double replacement for another fifteen, and then what?  A wheelchair for the rest of my life!’

‘Right.  But in the meantime’ said my forthright friend from Carolina (a logical, obvious step: Carolina to Lincolnshire) ‘You’ve got no life.  You haven’t got an option.  Go do it.’

It was as though someone had turned the lights on.  It was as if I had been stumbling around in the gathering dark for the last few months, in such a stew and in such pain that I simply couldn’t see a way out.  It was suddenly utterly and completely clear that this had to be done, and the sooner the better.  As if someone had turned off a tap I stopped crying, and just looked at her.

‘Of course.’ I said, and that was it.  I went home and googled the name of a surgeon I had been given.  His CV was frightening and completely beyond my comprehension but he had a nice face, so I sent him an email, and that evening the phone rang.  It had never occurred to me that he might ring, and even once he had convinced me this wasn’t a prank I was more than a little taken aback, but we talked and got on well and arranged that I should come to London the next week to see him.  Before I wasted time and effort and a train fare on getting there however, there was a question I needed answering.

‘I’m really sorry to ask you this’ I said ‘But are you any good at these?’

Now the discerning among you will think that was odd.  Was he ever likely to admit he wasn’t, and ring off?  No, maybe not.  But I didn’t think it was unreasonable: if I was going to let him cut me open, dislocate my hip – how, I didn’t dare imagine – put a sling round the end of my femur, hoist it out of my body, grind off the top of the ball, grind out the lining of the socket, reline one, recap the other, lower it again, whack it back into place and sew me up again, I sort of wanted to know that he knew what he was doing.

There was an indrawn breath, a pause, and then a chuckle.  ‘See you next week.’ he said.

We Meet again.

Somehow, in the middle of all this, the year had moved round again and it was time for the Meet. 

Picture the typically English scene: the house, the gleaming hunters, the pink, the excited hounds.  Picture too the equally English Guys who downed tools, brewed up and lined the scaffolding the instant the first tight-jacketed, tight-jodhpured filly appeared.  I should have realised when eleven of them turned up that morning that they weren’t suddenly dying to get the chimneys pointed or to replace the ridge tiles.  Nor was it an appreciation of equine form or ancient English traditions that had got them out in such numbers. I had made the mistake of telling them in advance why it was that they wouldn’t be able to screech about in their vans and lorries quite as much as usual, and knowing much more about these things than I did (not difficult – and after all, they’re mostly Leicestershire Lads) they knew full well that there would be lots of port, and a jolly good view from two floors up.

I think it was when I saw No2, by then 3-and-a-bit, wobbling across the grass that I realised that while we might have taken the girl out of the city, we would never get the city out of the girl.  She looked gorgeous, clad in her own choice for the day: a little checked skirt, multi-coloured stripy tights and a pair of Woolie’s finest high heeled gold clickety-clack sandals, with a vibrant green puffy jacket on top.  Balancing a tray of sausages she was making determinedly (you need to know her) for the paddock.  She considered the fence around it for a moment and then put down the tray, got under the bottom rail, stretched for the bangers and set off to look after her guests.  Thankfully Unca Pete got off the scaffolding in double quick time and rescued her from just behind a particularly large beast sporting the give-away pretty red tail ribbon.  Naturally, this only deepened Daughter’s crush on anyone with a hard hat and boots with reinforced toes.  It was also all the encouragement the Guys needed to swarm, lemming-like over the edge of the scaffolding and soon we were hard pressed to keep glasses filled.

Eventually, the Meet dispersed and we gathered the empties.  All that remained was for The Guys to get back up the scaffolding and crack on.  Ah, but silly me: by now it was midday and clearly therefore lunch time.  The deckchairs all came out (ours, of course) and the lunchboxes, and a great time was had by all: naturally we joined in and between us we finished the sausages and mince pies (unseasonal, but easy to mass produce) and enjoyed each other’s company in a very Hardy-esque way.  But then the mobiles started to ring, and the ’emergency’ calls came in, and soon eleven were eight, and then four then two – and then there weren’t enough of them to do whatever it was they said they had planned for the day, and suddenly they were gone.

But you know what?  We didn’t care.  Eeyore and I sat in the warmish sun and enjoyed the view, stirring only really to rescue No3 from the edge of the ha-ha now and then.  We dredged what remained of the port lake, and remembered W12 – fondly, but without a scintilla of regret.

 

Stormy waters skillfully navigated.

For weeks we had battled.  The entente had not always been entirely cordiale, and I had employed an oft-used tactic of mine known as ‘procrastinate until he gives in’.  He did bang on a bit along the lines of  ‘All I ask is that we have one room – just one, mind – that’s a real colour.’  By this it transpired that he meant not something with a silly name: ‘blue’, presumably, or ‘green’ or ‘yellow’.   I, however, knew exactly what I had in mind and became ever more practiced at the art of non-committal response.  Time wore on and eventually, as he had left for Cape Town that October he had sighed hugely and cast over his shoulder ‘I don’t care what you do, just get it painted.’

Well!  Carte blanche, in my book, and caveat emptor, and any other educated sounding aphorisms.  Within minutes of that throw-away line I had ordered umpteen litres of a cheap copy of Fallow & Bell’s ‘Cream’, and two days later the first coat hit the plaster.  A triumph!  A veritable triumph – it didn’t look anything like real cream of course, more a sort of toffee yoghurt, but I loved it and found myself wandering in there last thing at night just to gloat at my brilliance and peerless taste.  I blu-tacked a bit of the curtain fabric up against it and was struck again by how talented I was – the fact that I was neither making the curtains nor even painting the walls didn’t impinge at all: mine was the creative genius and therefore, Clarkson-like, the credit.

We spoke daily while he was away of course, but I was always decidedly vague when asked for a progress report.  So much so that when the day of his return dawned, I was suddenly nervous.  I conscripted a couple of Chaps who had foolishly stood still for a minute and together we got some big bits of furniture into the room and put them against the wall to lessen the impact of what I knew he’d feel was the non-colour.  We were still lacking carpets and a fireplace, but my hope was that the overall impression would be of an understated elegance just beginning to emerge ….  I moved the two portable lighting units apart and angled them up slightly … I was losing my nerve.

Children’s supper time, and Eeyore’s arrival was imminent.  Then he was late and I asked Sylvia please to do the bathtime honours, and then to keep them out of the way until I blew the ‘All Clear’: I had a feeling things were going to get ugly.  She gave me a sympathetic look.

I think I was doing the beans for supper when I finally heard the back door shut.  How to play it?  I made sure I was standing, Stepford-Wife-like at the island, looking harmlessly domesticated as I heard the tackety-tack of his steel shoe tips go past the kitchen and across the hall, and the distinctive sound of the drawing-room door open and close behind him.  This, I felt, was a poor start: I was unnerved by the fact that after two weeks far from the bosom of his family he had gone straight past his wife, and for all he knew his children, to check on a paint colour.  It got worse: there was a long pause.  Then the sound of the door opening and closing again, and the tackety-tack of his shoes coming back – in all likelihood, I feared, with him in them.

I feigned surprise when he came into the kitchen.  He cut me off at the pass: ‘Well,’ he said, annoyance and resignation personified ‘You’ve done it again.  Another shade of f*****g sludge.’

Reader: it got better.  I whisked him back in there and set about him with words I knew would make him want to run: ‘ambience’, ‘colour-way’, ‘tone’, ‘texture’ … and he caved.  ‘Whatever.’  he finally said, and went upstairs to change.  I breathed out.

And do you know what?  It’s now his favourite room.  When we can’t find him – which happens quite often when the house is full and buzzing and he needs five minutes out – we know exactly where to go.  He’ll be in there, either having a snooze or sitting in his grandfather’s chair reading, or leaning in the window looking out at the view.  ‘Soothing’ is a word he didn’t really know, before.