In which I tell the truth.

It’s no good. The time has come to tell the truth. I have been leading a double life and I feel the need to confess. 30 years of marriage to a Catholic and finally some of it is rubbing off.

The fact is, I only spend part of my time on the Edge of the Fens.

There. It’s out. Much as I love The Land That Time Forgot, or ‘Lincolnshire’ as it is more widely known, the west coast of Scotland has been a constant in my life and we get here as often as possible. (Yes, ‘here’.)  School holidays, half term, bank holiday weekends – it’s a day’s drive each way, but more than worth it. There were times, mind you, when the children were smaller, that even my dedication wavered: there’s nothing like being stuck in a Shepherd’s Bush traffic jam, struggling to get to the bottom of the M1 while looking down the barrel of 11 hours in a car with a toddler or two to make you question your devotion to a place. And some people, come to think of it.

You may remember that when Eeyore first got really serious about our move out of London, I stipulated mountains and water. Well, perhaps part of the reason why he felt free to ride roughshod over that one was because we have access to both of those, aplenty, at my mother’s house in Argyll – in fact, there’s very little else. She and my father bought it about 40 years ago while living in London: when she married Dad, he already had a place up here near the house his grandparents had built, but as our family grew and the penchant for things nautical developed, bedroom space and proximity to the sea became more important. Then there was talk of a caravan park nearby, and a load of new houses, and matters became pressing. So imagine her delight when, sitting under the dryer one day at the hairdressers on Kensington Church Street, Mum found a tiny ad in ‘The Lady’ for what looked to be an ideal alternative. (Not her natural reading material: she swears it was a once-off.) Arguably that turned out to be the most expensive hair-do in the history of the western world – but then again, my children are the fifth generation of us to be here, and the store of memories and connections is enormous, so personally I consider it money well spent. At one point they owned the village shop and Mum was the postmistress and delivery driver. We would decamp here for two months at a time during the summer and my father would slog up and down to spend his weekends swatting midges and trying to get campfires to burn rather than smoulder in the incessant drizzle. We grew spuds and raspberries in a seaweed rich veg patch and my four siblings and I became incredibly good at Airfix, Monopoly and Racing Demon, thanks to the weeks of torrential rain –  forgive me therefore if tales of Life on the Edge (of the Loch) start to creep in.  Especially if, as now, I am writing from the sitting room, at sea level, about 50’ from the water.

And while we’re at it: a word about my children – well, Eeyore’s and my children, strictly speaking, though I’m often loath to admit it.  They have read this blog now for over a year and, disappointingly, have not yet found it as cringe-inducing as they had feared. Indeed, they are almost keen (I say ‘almost’: you need to know them) to be known by a more personal moniker than a number.  Henceforth, therefore, they will be called by their nicknames: Bug (No1), Whizz (No2) and Jib (No3). Got that? And when in the future they whinge, or charge me for their therapy, I will remind them that they chose to cast off the cloak of anonymity.  I intend to make them rue the day ….

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Nature, red …..

So we have now a mental image of a dog and his boy.  Both of them gentle, and loving, and kind.  A Disneyesque portrayal of youth and innocence, if you will: a defenceless human toddler, entrusted to a domesticated animal with big teeth on the assumption that it will continue to suppress its’ natural instincts, come what may.

One day, Granny Mole (it’s another long story) and I were walking with No3, an empty pushchair, and Ziggy.  It was autumn, but the sun had warmth in it still and the brambles (more free food) and crunchy leaves (good kicking practice) had proved irresistable to all of us for hours.  Granny Mole and I were engrossed in sorting out the problems of the world in general and didn’t really register that No3 had climbed into his chair and was trying to do his straps up – an occurence so rare, you might reasonably have thought we would have noticed.  However, as I bent to finish the job for him, while delivering a particularly insightful bon mot or two about the current political situation vis a vis the Middle East – she’s a very patient woman, Granny Mole – all hell broke loose in the bushes beside us.

‘Ziggy!’ I yelled, frozen to the spot.  Something big was thrashing in the undergrowth, and amid the horrendous grunting and growling I heard her hunting yelp and snarl and then another noise I didn’t recognise: bass and rumbling, and altogether different.

Now the subject of badgers is, I know, a contentious one.  Around here there are loads of them, and whether or not they are guilty as charged of being carriers of bovine TB, I think it is probably beyond dispute (here we go …) that they aren’t the cuddly, stripy, ‘Brock’ or ‘Badger’ of Beatrix Potter and AA Milne.  They are omnivores with big teeth and attitude and while they’re wonderful to watch, and the cubs look cute on telly rolling in the dust in front of their setts, in real life they are not to be messed with and you really don’t want a big one hanging onto your terrier.

And so, dear Reader, I leapt into action.  Grabbing the long stick we always carried, the better to reach elusive berries (or rescue a small child, or squash nettles for a nature pee, or fish rubbish out of the undergrowth) and shouting at Granny Mole to hold the pushchair, I ran into the bushes to thrash the living daylights out of the savage beast that was currently shredding our beloved dog.

Imagine my horror then to find that Ziggy had a wounded deer by the throat, and was holding tight as the light faded from its eyes and the flailing legs slowed to an occasional twitch.  Stick raised I stopped, appalled, mid yell.  I couldn’t believe she could possibly be responsible – quite apart from not wanting to think her capable, in some ridiculously townie anthropomorphic way, I just didn’t understand how the physics could have worked: she was a fraction of its height, and weight.

I persuaded her to let go, and she came with me backwards out of the hedge.  Her muzzle was red and she was panting and it took her a while to calm down and turn back into the Ziggy we knew and loved.  Granny Mole and I set off for home, much sobered and confused – and it wasn’t until we came across a large man with an even larger rifle, standing by a Forestry Commission Land Rover, that all became clear.

If we have lots of badgers here, we have many more deer and like it or not, periodically they are culled.  A shot deer though can continue running for up to 100m, and it seems that Ziggy had come across a mortally wounded one, and despatched it.  We talked to the stalker and went back with him to examine the body: sure enough its teeth were badly worn and it had clearly at some point been caught in some wire – it was thin, and old, and all we can hope is that it had enjoyed a long and free life ranging over the many square miles of open countryside around us.  It was lovely that Ziggy wasn’t the vicious murderer we had briefly thought she might be – but it was a salutary reminder that an animal is always an animal, however cute and cuddly it may seem.

Eating Out

The loyal among you, who have read our story from the beginning, may remember that when our move was first mooted I was deeply concerned that our children should not grow up unable to use a knife and fork in a proper restaurant, or unaware of the finer (edible) things in life, just because their parents were indulging themselves by moving everyone to the sticks.   We should probably have been a little less town-centric, and food/drink obsessed, but it is revealing that two major stopping points on our daily 2.5mile circuit behind the house became known as ‘Hamburger Halt’ and ‘The Coffee Tree’ – (one day I’m going to build a business empire to rival Costa, called ‘The Coffee Tree’.  Just so you know.  When you spot the first one on your high street, come and say hello.)

Half a mile from home, Hamburger Halt was a gap in the hedge where Nos 2 and 3 came to while away hours custom building hamburgers for us, their customers.  Flat stones were the bottom of the bun and you could order exactly whatever you wanted, the more exotic and daft the better, to be piled up on top in the form of sticks, leaves, grass, sheep poo etc, until another stone crowned the lot and you paid.  Always either surprisingly cheap or startlingly expensive the finished article had to be ‘eaten’, followed by an elaborate enactment of hideously violent vomiting – the louder and more graphic, the better.

Assuming you survived that, the next break was at The Coffee Tree, another half a mile away.  This was – and remains – a large oak, which stands at a crossroads of four farm tracks, and unselfishly sported an arrangement of bumps and gaps in the back of it that perfectly fit small feet and allowed their owners to climb a little way up the trunk to a fork.  From there, a vastly complicated cappuccino machine was operated, with much pressings of buttons and many yankings on levers, accompanied by alarmingly accurate noises of grinding beans and hissing steam.  More money changed hands, and tiny acorn cups were sipped with epicurean delight – shortly followed, of course, by expansive re-enactments of the hamburger induced food poisoning.  Points were awarded for the most gruesome coffee-related deaths and finally, FINALLY, we would be allowed to move on.  Either straight over the junction and another mile and a half to home, or back down the track, as time allowed – or, more likely, didn’t.

Along the way of course there were, depending on the time of year, crab apples, blackberries, sloes, hazelnuts, damsons, wild plums, elderflower heads galore, rosehips, wild garlic and strawberries.  (The first year No3 was fully mobile there was also a vast field of Brussel sprouts, which gave off a smell so pungent that he took to grabbing his own nappy to check he wasn’t the source.)  The result of this profusion of free food meant that if I timed our trips just right lunch was sorted: two birds with one stone: child fed, and exercised, in one efficient swoop.  And – best of all – no washing-up required.  It also of course meant that very often it took longer to get back than we had, but I became practiced at scooping him up as I went past, folding him in two at the waist and strapping him into a still moving pushchair while resolutely refusing to hear his caterwauling.

The grandly named ‘Kitchen Garden’ (aka ‘mud patch round the back’) was a constant draw and the source of many a plate-free meal.  The greenhouse bulged with tomatoes and we all took to walking round the garden eating cucumbers as if they were apples.  Lettuces, pumpkins, squash, courgettes, spuds (pointless effort surely in the UK’s official potato growing county), peppers, strawberries, raspberries, blackcurrants, leeks, beans, peas, plums, cherries, endless apples and pears, quince, damsons …. we had far more than we could possibly eat, cook, freeze, bottle, jar or give away, but we gave it a very good try.  The truly horrendous number of gag-inducing nappies we began to get through every day was a small price to pay, we told ourselves smugly, for the new, healthy life we were building.  Shepherd’s Bush?  Never heard of it.

The Darlings had Nana ….

God was clearly having yet another laugh at our expense.  He had seen fit to send us two conveniently sedentary offspring : first was a hideously ill child who didn’t walk until he was two, and then had to be carried pretty much everywhere for a couple of years.  Next was the entirely individual No2, who devised a very complicated form of bum shuffling and stuck to it until she was about 18 months.  Why not – she could see where she was going, and carry stuff in both hands, and life was good.  Thus we were lulled into a false sense of security from which it never dawned on either of us that No3 would be any different.  He never, ever stayed still.  And everything he did, he did 100%.  He ate more than any baby I had ever known; moved faster; slept deeper; laughed louder.

At less than a year old, we took to exercising him in an attempt to wear him out.  The family trampoline, thus far strictly out of bounds to him, became the scene of much activity as he raced round and round on it, almost lapping himself in his excitement.  To begin with the rest of us would stand at strategic points on the circle, ready to leap and catch him if he looked about to topple onto the grass, but it very soon became obvious that he was blessed either with glue on his enormous feet or great balance: he never fell off, and only fell over when he meant to.  Helpless with laughter he’d deliberately swallow dive into the middle and lie there panting, with his hair stuck straight out all over his head crackling insanely with the static.

Walks became a battle of attrition.  I would set out with him, Ziggy and the pushchair, and originally my plan was to follow them until they got tired and then strap them in and route march home to get stuff done before No3 woke.  That worked beautifully for about a week until their fitness levels surpassed mine, and it took longer and longer – and further and further – to wear them out.  I bought one of those long plastic ball throwing thingies and used it on them both to great effect, until the oil seed rape grew too high and I couldn’t find them.  Understandably No3 by this stage was entirely convinced that he was a dog, and on more than one occasion I found him in the cage with Ziggy assiduously reaching the bits of breakfast I had failed to wipe off his face.  ‘Some exposure to germs’ the Chief Medical Officer of All Merrie England was busy spouting at this time ‘can be positively good for babies and small children’.  Well, that was alright then.  Finally, a tick in the ‘good parenting’ box.

The little green plastic tractor given to No1 by a Godmother when we all lived in Shepherd’s Bush and we were being ironic, was pressed back into action.  The blur of small red wellies became a commonplace as No3 propelled himself round and round the island in the kitchen, the yard, the drive and all points between – at breakneck speed, of course.  Ziggy chased for a while and then a desire to remain uninjured and a bit of nouse prevailed and she realised she could keep an eye on him from on the back porch without being run over.  She preferred the ubiquitous Little Tikes red and yellow car: they sat in that together and No3 –  perhaps in deference to his passenger – went much more slowly, much to everyone’s relief.

The mountain goat syndrome became wearisome pretty quickly.  The novelty of watching this child scale enormous (relative to his own) heights wore off and the practicalities of keeping him out of trees became an issue.  His older siblings had developed some sense of caution before they were fully mobile: this one had the self preservation instincts of a lemming.  Ziggy became his bodyguard and common sense tutor and ran herself ragged keeping him in check: truly, this dog was this boy’s Best Friend.

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.

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.