The reading went well though. Only two distractions: Jana, smirking, sashaying in with No3 in her arms causing every man in the building to move over to squeeze her in; and a moment when I feared there was a dead toddler on the pew in front of the lecturn. Of course not: a younger guest, fresh off the plane from South Africa, dealing with a little jet lag.
It took the intervention of an age old friend of my parents, however, finally to make me finally see the light. Very kindly, but very firmly, she dragged me behind the portaloos during the reception and said that no woman in her right mind would have a siren such as ours in the same house as an adult red blooded male, let alone when said woman …. and she let her gaze slide slowly over me, first down, then up, in silence. She did have a point, and I knew when I was beaten. Jana would go, as soon as we got home. Assuming. of course we could find her: she seemed to have disappeared, leaving No1, No2 and a swathe of concerned wives behind her.
So I left No3 wrapped in a café au lait cashmere pashmina and a cloud of Chanel in the arms of his sister’s adoring Chelsea Godmother and danced reels all night at my brother’s wedding. Tomorrow was undoubtedly another crisis waiting to happen, but for now I had all I wanted. Three beautiful children, a tall dark and handsome husband, friends and family all around me. And after all, tomorrow never comes.
Chelsea Godmother, in the car behind, had deliberately left her invitation in her room, not unreasonably under the impression that the groom’s sister might know where she was going. So our little convoy, complete with a giggling Czech, screeched through the Suffolk lanes back to the hotel, retrieved said invitation, and shot off again in the opposite direction to the one from which we had come, to the right wedding in the right church in the right village.
Did I mention that I was doing the first reading? As he raced to park, Eeyore pushed me from the still moving car and I burst through the door, puce, red eyed and rippling, into the dark and quiet. Every single head in the building turned towards me, and from the distance I heard my family sigh with relief: my parents because I wasn’t dead in a ditch somewhere; my sister because she wasn’t going to have to stand up in my place. The Best Man waved expansively, pointing me to the front pew and I walked down what must surely have been the longest aisle in the kingdom, dying gently with every step. As I sank with relief into my seat my drop dead gorgeous brother and his utterly beautiful bride emerged from signing the register.
I’d missed it. The whole important bit. But wait! Never mind; here they were, coming towards me, smiling gently, coming to talk to me – ME! The fat, raddled sister, me first of all in their married life … too right. ‘MOVE’ hissed my brother, through his grimace. ‘MOVE. We’re sitting there.’ He’s big – you don’t argue with him.
Scarlet anew, I moved two pews back and sat heavily on my fifteen year old niece.
We were met by Chelsea Godmother (to No2) who is small, exquisite, stylish and my oldest friend. There’s nothing we haven’t shared over the years: we’ve known each other since we were 13, shared a house for a year, seen each other through all times good and bad, and she’s an extra sister to me. Her eyes widened with astonishment as Jana (aka the Nubile Nymph) emerged from the front of the car. Her amazement deepened as it became evident that this apparition, despite being able to produce paperwork to prove that she was a trained paediatric nurse back home in the Czech Republic, had no clue how to bottle feed a baby. And deepened again when she saw, the next day, that Jana’s wedding outfit consisted of a halter neck full length scarlet silk sheath, laced up the back and slashed to the hip. Taking me by the wrist she dragged me to one side ‘Get rid of her!’ she hissed ‘Now!’ and wouldn’t listen to my tearful protestations that I would be well and truly stuck without someone, anyone, however ineffectual, to help. I was granted a brief stay of execution but left in very little doubt that as far as CG was concerned, Jana’s return ticket was as good as booked.
The resolve that stiffened my sinew was provided that afternoon when we managed to go to the wrong church (twice, actually) and Jana laughed. To be fair to her it wasn’t only the wrong church actually, it was the wrong village, too – to be fair to me, when I do things, I like to do them properly. In the chaos of a move, a new baby, bla bla bla, I had lost the wedding invitation and was relying on the memory of a conversation my brother and I had had months earlier when he had first got engaged: I asked him where they would be married; he mentioned a hamlet just east of Ipswich. So on this Saturday, under considerable pressure and no little discomfort, both caused by being squeezed into wedding clothes despite girth and heat, I was amazed by my genius as I recalled the name of the place and mustered my troops to embark in two cars and set off. When we arrived there, in pretty good time considering all things, the doubt set in as soon as we saw the congregation filing into the church. A curious mixture of flowing hair and clothes, and lots of open toed sandals, almost certainly a guitar or two – nothing wrong with any of it just not, we felt, a likely combination at the marriage of an Army officer to a forensic psychiatrist. With Jana sniggering in the back we took a quick trip to the village shop (think League of Gentlemen) and were directed to the only other church for miles around. Our hearts sang as we whipped round corners and took off on bumps to get to it – and sank again as we saw the tight suits and tattoos gathered there.
In the spirit of inclusion (and because I needed her help) the Nubile Nymph came to my brother’s wedding in Suffolk ten days after No3 was born. Because it was easier and quicker to do it myself, and because it seemed I had become chronically incapable of either delegating or giving orders (a claim Eeyore found risibly difficult to believe), I packed more than five people could possibly ever need for a wedding and two nights away, did the baby, shut the house and drove everyone.
Eeyore would meet us there. Rather, he would require collecting from the train station. Once he got off his cool, clean train from London in which he would, of course, have been in the ‘Quiet’ coach. Lest I try to contact him, presumably.
I was enormous – no other word for it – and the Nymph was Joliesque in leggings, heels and a spray on t-shirt. I am not exaggerating when I say that when we stopped at a motorway service station, I found No2 sheltering from a light summer shower beneath the extraordinary bust of our friend from Prague. People were literally craning to watch this 6′ goddess with questionable dress sense walk past, and she was loving it, and I was irritated and exhausted and sore and fraught and, I freely admit it, less than sympathetic when she arrived back at the car and calmly announced that she had lost No2. As I squeezed No3 between me and the steering wheel to feed him I suggested she might like to bloody well go and find her – surprised, she sauntered off and when No1 appeared with No2 in tow, we had to wait another twenty minutes before the Nubile Nymph appeared with a large cup of coffee in one hand, smiling gently. I gritted my teeth and we set off again, to the hotel where we were to spend the Friday night.
As time passed, it became obvious that there were some things about our move and subsequent life of ambrosia in a rural idyll that we had miscalculated from the structured, familiarly urban depths of Shepherd’s Bush. The amount of time we would spend driving was one; the feasibility of Eeyore commuting was, sadly, another. Perhaps the most serious however was the staffing situation, and my ability to deal with it when it all went wrong.
The Nubile Nymph was proving more of a problem than a solution. For some days I had thought I could smell tobacco smoke on the back landing, around her room. Nervously I finally plucked up courage to ask her whether she was smoking – an instantly sackable offence in our household, as I had made clear from the outset. From her huge, elegant height she looked down at her squat, spotty, knackered ‘boss’. ‘No.’ she said with finality and a gently superior smile, and went back to descaling the kettle. Quite how, in the middle of the filth and chaos, she could think that descaling the kettle was a priority – and why on earth I didn’t do something about it – I don’t know, but I was truly terrified of being helplessly help-less, and so I continued to scrub on my hands and knees as she glided out of the room towards the orchard. Where, it transpired some weeks later, she indulged in her daily routine of ringing her family in Prague at great length on our phone.
Two weeks later, 2am, the baby finally and (no doubt) briefly asleep: the harsh rattle of gunshot on the bedroom window. Eeyore, of course, was in London safe in his weather-tight, portered, burglar alarmed bachelor pad while I was the lone adult in sole charge of three children – 1 and 2 were snoring in a couple of rooms we had managed to persuade them would soon be habitable. Crawling to the window – profile low, target smaller: this was clearly A Hit being perped – I peered nervously out and down into the eyes of a stab-jacket clad, truncheon wielding policeman with a handful of weed filled gravel, whose under-the-chin torch treatment was horribly reminiscent of something from Blair Witch. Naturally my sleep deprived brain assumed I was back in Shepherd’s Bush but no, it turned out that this friendly chap was looking for the owner of a car which had just been used in a raid, and which was still registered to our house.
Once we’d cleared that one up he carried on to chat, in a very friendly way, about our new life: were we enjoying it? Was it very different? He was a lovely fellow, engaging and huge – just the man you’d want on your side in a crisis – but as we nattered (me in a whisper) the surreal nature of the situation dawned on me, if not on him. Perhaps he often conversed with wild haired, pale faced, lactating females through open first floor windows in the middle of the night. Inevitably the baby now started to wake and truffle, and our discussion was cut short as I explained and backed out of the window to a cheery ‘Thanks, duck!’ from my new best friend. Clambering back into bed and stuffing an unfeasibly huge mammary gland into the face of my youngest before he woke the household, the cows in the field, and most of the area, I mused on my new life. Smog and traffic jams were clearly now things of the past but variety and human interest, it seemed, were not.
7am. One small voice as No2, standing on the window sill looking out at the beautiful summer morning says quietly ‘Mummy, what is that cow doing?’ I think I already had a bad feeling as I looked over her shoulder and saw a large animal lying in the field just the other side of the ha-ha. Not fifty feet from my room. Huge she was, and very, very still, her vast belly pointing accusingly up into the sky. From under her tail pointed a tiny nose. She had died in calf birth, that poor beast, and what were the final sounds she heard as she strained and cried out and tried so hard, alone? Another fat cow, fresh from a nice safe delivery of her own, screaming invective at her. Nice.
As was the response of Farmer Fortissimo when he was told of the death. ‘Well how did THAT happen then?’ he yelled, accusingly. I protested innocence and forgot to tell him of my heartlessness. Eventually, I persuaded him that we hadn’t killed her and he conceded that these things sometimes happen, and arrived to winch the conjoined carcasses into a trailer and remove them. But not before I’d gone into the field to be absolutely sure, and to punish myself, and to apologise. Humanity in farming is one thing, it would seem; sorority, apparently, is another altogether.
A nice quiet existence in the country, we had thought. We soon discovered that ‘nightlife’ doesn’t mean the same in rural Lincolnshire as it does in W12.
At some point early in those first weeks, I crawled into bed beside No3, more than ready for as much sleep as I could steal before the next interminable round of feeding, winding and changing began. Eeyore by this time was back in the Big Smoke again – apparently living a sad and lonely life on his own, working to keep the family fed and housed, despite almost crippling home-and-family-sickness. Hmmmm. More of that anon. Anyway: 4am and all hell breaks loose. Mooing and bellowing and the sound of big cattle moving fast. I leaned out of the window to see what I could see and realised of course that in the absence of street lights this was precisely nothing. Despite the heat, I shut the windows and tried to go back to sleep. The stampede noises receded and finally stopped, but the bellowing went on and on and I got more and more stressed waiting for the baby and his sister to wake and for the day, therefore, to begin at this utterly unholy hour, and eventually I snapped. Lumbering from my bed I crossed to the window, threw it open and screamed from it (and I’m not proud of this) ‘Shut the FUCK up!!’
Silence. Then one brief, plaintive moo, and then silence. Relieved, chuffed that for once had triumphed over nature, I went back to bed.
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.