29 June 2008

A breath of fresh air

This last week has seen me away from home a lot and having a de-Greg break. First, Kay was away on a week-long school trip, so I felt I could sneak off to help my mother, who lives alone some sixty miles away and is in ill-health. Normally I am reluctant to leave Kay alone with my husband, as it ends up with Kay having to look after him, and I don't like to expect that even of a 16-year-old. So, with Kay out of the equation, I went off to my mother for about 5 days to do such things as her gardening for her, battling with rampant weeds - there is one variety that seems to grow six foot high in as many weeks! We also did a big shop to fill up her cupboards and freezer until my next visit - usually in about 6-8 weeks' time. I changed bedding, painted garden benches, tidied cupboards. We had some nice quality time too sitting in her sunny garden, or drinking coffee at a nearby cafe. I even took her to a favourite pub with a lovely view and we drank shandies in the dying evening sun. Considering she never gets out of the house, as she is crippled with arthritis, she looks forward to my visits where I can take her out and about in the car. I took Snoopy with me this time too - my mother always loves to see Snoopy and I couldn't guarantee that Greg would remember to feed him, if I left him behind. The break away from home did me good. However when I got home, Greg had not eaten any of the food I had left in the freezer for him or taken his pills left in the pill organiser for the entire period of my absence. He survived on bread and jam. And whisky.

Yesterday, with Kay back from her school trip, she and I went up to Sheffield for the day. It was so good to get away from London for a second time in a week. We went for the Sheffield University Open Day for prospective undergraduates. These days all the universities have open days to show off their campus and facilities. You can reserve seats for talks on your interested subject as well as have campus tours and tours of the accommodation you might live in. All so different from when I applied to university and just put arbitrary names down on a form in an eeny-meeny-miney-mo-sort-of-fashion. Kay is particularly interested in short-listing Sheffield, because she likes the sound of the course, and, as neither of us has ever been there, we were keen to see it. I had the usual preconceived ideas of an industrial town suffering from depression, but from the moment we arrived at Sheffield station and got the tram into the town and on to the university, the town wrapped itself around us. True, it is home to the Full Monty film, where there was a lot of unemployment following closure of the steelworks, but now the city seems alive and full of the buzz of regeneration. New buildings are springing up with incredible state of the art architecture, even within the university. Even the fountains that greet you at the station alone are an incredible sight. A long wall of stainless steel with water running down it, then water cascading down steps to join a pool where it whooshes up into the air and then dribbles out of rills to got through the whole process again. We fell in love with the campus, the course it offers and the accommodation village for the students. Large areas of the town were very green and open. The older housing, particularly to the west, was old grey-stone villas, perhaps once the homes of the wealthy with servants. The final accolade came when my daughter saw the shops in the city centre and there were all the stores she normally frequents at home. To put the icing on the cake, the people are so friendly and so unlike the frostiness of Londoners. All we have to do now is hope that Sheffield likes her as much and offers her a place!!

23 June 2008

From bad to worse 2

The incident at the Air Show in August 2006 had frightened me and I felt that I could no longer bear the problem on my own. I wrote a letter to Greg's sister and told her what had happened. She was to be the first person I confided in. She was naturally very shocked at this news and we later discussed it at great length over the telephone. She is a good listener and at last I felt able to talk it over with someone and get it all off my chest. In fact, to this day, she has become my earpiece and a wall to bounce my frustrations or thoughts on. She promised to come and visit us as soon as she could, which would more than likely be in the next set of school holidays in October 2006. She also said she would break the news gently to Greg's mother, sparing her the graphic details.

Meanwhile, I was w
orried sick, both for the effect it was having on our finances and Greg's health, not necessarily in that order! After all, we were living on a small pension - a fraction of the salary which once came into the house - but with all the same outgoings, including a mortgage that had not reached full-term. With three of us to feed, not to forget the dog (and cat) too, and a young teenage daughter who naturally now and then wanted to spend a little time with her friends at the cinema or eating out or shopping for clothes. There were also the unexpected costs too such as school trips or plumbing emergencies. Our money could not stretch to a bottle-of-whisky-and-40-fags-a-day habit as well. It was around this time that Greg took out the first bank loan to ease the burden on the finances but it heaped on the pressure mentally, as to how we could cope with the repayments, given all our other outgoings. This was not the sort of early retirement we had planned for. As for me, to be selfish for a moment, any dreams of having nice walks in the country, or a pub lunch, or doing whatever retired couples do, had been dashed.

Health-wise, he was suffering big-time. He looked old, haggard and unkempt. His personal hygiene left a lot to be desired. He did not wash, shave, clean teeth, or change clothes. His clothes were very old and made him resemble a tramp. His trousers were so baggy they often fell down and he had to tighten his belt to ke
ep them on. They looked more like the sort of trousers you would see a clown wearing at the circus. He also lived and died in a body-warmer and it was filthy. I could not get it off him to wash. I later discovered his love for it was because it had lots of little inside pockets, where he would hide his bottle of the day, so it
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was always close to him. He said he did not see the point in spending what little money we had on new clothes, even if we suggested buying him clothes for his birthday presents. He was barely eating. I have since learned that the more the alcohol consumption increases, the more the appetite declines. Meals that he once loved he could no longer face. He would toy with the food on his plate and give up after a few mouthfuls. In the end he asked me to exclude him from the meals I was cooking and he would get something for himself later, but I knew he never did. He just did not have the appetite. He looked pale. He now spent a lot of the day sleeping on the sofa. He began to talk gobbledegook in his sleep and wave his arms randomly around like a snake emerging from a basket. Once he awoke, he would go into a rage, if anyone dared to interrupt a programme he was watching, even if to ask something harmless such as when he might want his supper. It was impossible for me to gauge his mood. I am conscious, that for anyone else reading this, the question will arise, well why did you not talk to him about it or help him? Why not just replace his clothes with clean ones? The fact was that any attempts made by me to discuss anything were dismissed by him in a shouting match. He would just go from 0 - 6000 decibels in one word.


Then he would go on and on and on about how I was interfering and to leave him alone. There was so much anger and frustration bubbling up in him - about things that happened in his job, about work colleagues, about things in our marriage. I sometimes had the feeling he was beginning to sink into a deep depression. He would often chant over and over again "Leave me alone. Leave me in peace". In the end, I did just that - I left him to it. He wanted to be master of his own fate and body, so I let him. I was forced to watch his deterioration and could do nothing to stop it.

One day,
in total frustration about the situation we were in, I made an appointment to see our GP on my own and, fighting back the tears, I poured out the story to her. She was horrified about the amount he was drinking, about the fact that he was deliberately not going for his regular blood tests for the diabetes. He had apparently not been getting repeat prescriptions of his medication either, so we concluded he must be going without some of them. I told her I was worried where this was all going to lead. She advised me to persuade him to come to see her.

In tears I told Greg what I had done and he was initially angry but then said he understood why I had done it and agreed to come with me to see the doctor. By now he was finding it difficult to walk even a few yards from the front door to the car. At the GP's surgery I had to support him from the car into the building. He felt his legs giving way and would almost crumple in a heap. It took me all my strength to hold him up. The receptionist even put a chair in the hall for him, so that he would not have to walk all the way into the waiting room.The doctor was quite firm with him and said he would kill himself if he continued much longer like that. She asked him if he had a death wish. She said he must try to reduce his alcohol consumption gradually, as we had been told before by the hospital and other doctors. She wanted blood tests to see what state his liver was in. He sat there so meek and mild and took it on the chin. If only she could see what he was like at home when he shouted.

She also advised us to seek out a local Alcoholic and Drug Counselling Service (ADCS). They would be able to advise how to cut down, or arrange a stay in a detox clinic. As we tried to leave the consulting room, Greg collapsed like a pack of cards on the floor. The doctor and I managed to scrape him off the floor and sit him down, then after a bit of a rest he, holding tightly on to me, and I staggered out along the hall back to the car. Of course getting him to have the blood tests at all was another hurdle we yet had to face. Again we had all the rigmarole of just getting him in and out of the car into the local hospital's pathology lab for the blood tests. Naturally we got a lot of funny looks as he staggered, supported by me, past the fifty people or more waiting for their turn. After a few days' wait, we returned to the doctor's surgery for the results. They were not good. They showed that his liver was not healthy and was very swollen.

19 June 2008

Best friends

I spent the day with my best friend yesterday. It was the best day I have had for a long time. We have known one another 39 years, we mused, as I filled in the countersigning bit of her passport renewal form where it asks how long you have known the applicant. Thirty-nine years, since we met at university! I had just waved goodbye to my parents and was feeling a lump-in the-throat-moment on my first day, when she came out of the bathroom in our hall of residence and asked me if I was new too. We just clicked and got on well. It turned out we had neighbouring rooms too and were both studying foreign languages, so every moment not at lectures was spent in one another's room devouring cream cakes or swapping boyfriend stories or advice on studies. After uni, we both ended up in London and used to meet regularly. She was my bridesmaid, when I married. She is Kay's godmother.

She now lives on the diagonally opposite side of London to me, out in a countryside satellite town, so we don't meet as often as we both would like. Usually about once a year, sometimes even less than that. But we email at least once a week, sometimes daily, depending on workload. Yesterday, I caught a train which took about 90 minutes to reach her. A chance to catch up on news and have a good natter. Although we hadn't met for a year, there were no awkward silences. We just picked up the conversation where we left off, as if it were only the day before we had met last. Considering the problems I have at home at the moment, it was an oasis in the desert. A calm amidst the storm. We ate cream cakes again (s*d the diet). It was heavenly. Priceless. In fact she is more than my best friend......she is the sister I never had.

16 June 2008

All the Fun of the Fair

At this point, nobody else knew about his addiction. There were times, when I wanted to share the burden with someone, but I kept hoping, things would change, he would see sense and get better. After all he is an intelligent man, capable of reasoning and logic - he had had a high-status media job both abroad and in London. Surely he would be able to get to grips with this problem. There was of course also the feeling of shame and the guilt that I was somehow responsible for this. Had I said or done something that had made him sink into this spiral of depression, illness and addiction? Should I have noticed sooner? If people commented on how dreadful he looked, I passed it off as being a result of his diabetes. But some people had relatives who were suffering from diabetes too and they would further cross-examine me with raised eyebrows about what medication he was on and what diet, so I guessed they were not all that convinced by my feeble excuses. It made me uncomfortable and I would try to change the subject.

In the midst of all this, there is one episode which sticks in my mind as the most embarrassing of all. We had been staying for a week in August with my mother and on one particularly hot day Greg, Kay and I had met up with some close friends who live nearby for an afternoon picnic at an Air Show. As we sat, watching the aeroplanes doing their stunts above us, we chatted, ate sandwiches and drank a little wine - we had bought a bottle and they had bought a bottle. However, three of us shared one bottle between us, but Greg had the other bottle all to himself. My daughter, as always, drank water. Granted the weather was extremely hot, but red wine is not exactly the ideal liquid to quench your thirst. Greg declined any of the food and just drank. Our friends had to get back home early, but Greg, Kay and I stayed on to wait for a spectacular firework display that was planned for 10 pm that evening. During the wait, Greg produced a bottle of whisky from his pocket and started to work his way through that too. He was getting argumentative and behaving oddly, even for him. The place meanwhile filled up with thousands of spectators who had come from far and wide just to see the fireworks alone, as the event happens every year and is renowned. It was so crowded there was hardly any space between the groups of people sitting cross-legged on the ground.

The first rocket flew into the air on schedule at 10 pm and those that followed over the next thirty minutes were truly spectacular, but I could not give them my full concentration as Greg was shouting rather loudly that it was a load of old rubbish. Then he started to throw small stones in front of him, narrowly missing a small child sitting a few feet away from us. The father turned round as if to say something and then thought better of it. Meanwhile. I was wishing the ground would open up and swallow me. As the firework display reached its closing climax to the strains of Handel's Music for the Royal Fireworks, everyone clapped, cheered and then started to disperse. Imagine about ten thousand people all standing up at once and wanting to make for the same exit. Kay and I sprang to our feet, as we did not want to be crushed in the stampede. Greg however remained seated on the ground. He tried to get up but was obviously having difficulty. He pushed up with his arms but his bottom half seemed not to be in the slightest bit involved. He yelled at me to help him up and I took his hand and pulled him up, but there seemed to be absolutely no strength in his legs and he toppled down again. A man passing by approached him and said "Let me help you, mate" and pulled Greg to his feet once more. As soon as the man let go his hand, Greg toppled yet again to the ground. He sort of fell backwards full length like a domino, as if his feet were glued to the ground, and banged his head. By now a small crowd, originally on their way to the exit but sensing the entertainment was not quite over,was gathering and found it quite amusing to watch.

Kay was by now in tears with embarrassment. I on the other hand somehow managed to beam myself to another imaginary level where I just blanked the people out and concentrated on getting Greg to stand. He stood and toppled over twice more domino-style. A few more people offered to help but Greg shouted at them to leave him alone and at me to stop mucking about and get him upright. By now I did notice that the crowd was tittering and nudging one another. Kay was really upset by now and said she would go in search of the several ambulance crews who were situated at the exit as they normally are at that sort of crowd gathering. She was off before I could stop her. In my heart I knew we needed help, but Greg was protesting loudly that she should not go. She returned within minutes pursued by two paramedics. As soon as they smelled the alcohol on him and ascertained there was nothing else wrong with him, they were very offhand. I can't say as I blame them. In all fairness, they did offer to take him to Accident and Emergency at the local hospital, but Greg refused to go. In that case, they said they were unable to get us back to my mother's house, as they were not a taxi service. They instead notified the police, who were also well represented at this event, and said the police would come shortly to take us in a car back to my mother's house. I felt sick. What on earth would my mother think or say, when we all rolled up in a police car? My mother, bless her, has just the tiniest bit of
Hyacinth Bucket about her and I could imagine that she would never live it down amongst the neighbours. I was embarrassed for her. I was embarrassed for my daughter. Hell, I was embarrassed for me. I too was having a Hyacinth-Bucket-moment.

Fortunately when the policewoman arrived, she was most adamant that the police were far too busy to take us home either and she would call for a taxi. She first helped me get Greg onto a bench and then she made a radio call, but she did warn us that nobody might turn up, as, believe it or not, taxi drivers are none too keen on ferrying drunks about either, particularly if it involves cleaning up the seats afterwards. We did wait a while.... about half an hour, I think.... by which time Greg had regained some feeling in his legs. We concluded the taxi was never going to come and we managed to walk albeit very slowly the half mile home, Kay and I supporting Greg between us. It took us an hour to walk what would normally have taken us ten minutes. We then made a charade of excuses to my mother, who had waited up for us, as to why we were over two hours late getting back to her and we carried on as if nothing were wrong. However Kay and I felt in a right state and it took ages to get off to sleep that night, replaying the scene over and over again in our heads, while Greg slept like a proverbial baby.

12 June 2008

From bad to worse

The drinking got worse, if that were possible - by now the amount of whisky Greg drank per day had risen to a full 70cl bottle. It had not been helped by the information Greg had received in A&E from a young doctor, who had told him that although he obviously had a drink problem, he should not attempt to stop suddenly, as this would bring on all sorts of withdrawal symptoms, such as shaking, hallucinations, convulsions and blackouts!! He should rather try to cut down gradually by a unit per day until he could wean himself off it altogether. This information terrified Greg and paralysed him. Instead of cutting back, he seemed to want to drink more to ensure he did not get the withdrawal symptoms - the thought of them frightened him more than the drinking to excess itself. Now he started to drink as soon as he awoke in the morning - usually around 7.30am just as my daughter was leaving for school. He would not even bother with a cup of coffee, but go straight for the whisky bottle. He was always careful to have a half-inch of whisky left in the bottle at night, to be sure of a stiff drink in the morning. Then, once Kay had left for school, he would ask me to drive him to the nearest supermarket and stock up on the day's supply - a 70cl whisky bottle and 40 cigarettes. You can imagine what this was costing us each week - and remember, we were on a small pension - so making ends meet was becoming an act of ingenuity on my part.

We always varied the shop. Being in the heart of London, we are lucky to have most of the major supermarkets within a half-mile of us - Sainsburys, Waitrose, Tesco, Marks & Spencer Food, as well as Lidl, Londis, a few small corner shops and a couple of off-licences. There is a Co-op too about a mile away. Not to mention several petrol stations. So we were always able to pick a different outlet on any given day to avoid giving anyone the impression he was an habitual drinker. Sometimes he would be too weary to get out of the car and get it. Sometimes too weary to even get in the car in the first place. In which case, I would be sent out to get it. Occasionally,
by very late evening, he would have drunk the entire contents of the 70cl bottle and, just as I was winding down for bedtime, he would demand that I take him out in the car to the all-night petrol station to get another. He still hated the idea of running out and not having enough whisky left to rely on when he woke in the morning, in case he got withdrawal symptoms. I was in a quandary, not knowing what was best - tough love and refusing to get more for him, or getting him a supply to avoid exposing him to the dreaded withdrawal symptoms. The key turning point came horribly one morning, after he had unknowingly run out of whisky the night before. That next morning he was shaking so much that by the time I managed to rush out, buy a bottle and return home with it, he was unable to keep the glass still against his lips and I had to take hold of the glass for him and help him drink. We had sunk to depths we could never have imagined. I now accepted in my mind that he was hooked. He was an alcoholic. It was to be the beginning of a very slippery slope.

09 June 2008

Early retirement

Greg's early retirement officially started four years ago. However, despite not having to go to work any more, he was surprisingly getting more and more tired all the time and not up to much. All his plans for retirement - more DIY, ad hoc trips abroad on his own to visit friends, resuming long-forgotten hobbies - all fell rapidly by the wayside. A visit to the doctor's surgery and further blood tests confirmed it - he now had Type 2 Diabetes to add to his other ailments. It was not so bad as it first sounded. It was something that could be controlled by diet alone. He was given fistfuls of leaflets by the practice nurse about healthy eating and I managed to collect a few cookbooks about the appropriately fashionable GI (Glycaemic Index) diet to help plan suitable meals. But the discovery of diabetes meant that he had even more advisers and consultants to see, over and above the heart and circulation specialists he was already seeing. (Remember, he does not like being prodded or poked or scrutinised or observed.) Now there were even more medics jumping on the bandwagon. Our daily diary was filling up with hospital appointments.

When told to do something, Greg tends to do the opposite. Not out of a sense of bloodymindedness, more in panic and wanting to be left alone. I suppose it is the human equivalent of a wild animal going into hiding when it is injured. He did not want to be monitored with endless blood tests or visits to the surgery nurse. He did not want to have to eat from a limited list of food. He just wanted to withdraw, be left alone, be allowed to think. He did not always want to eat at all, particularly at the usual mealtimes, so we had long agreed that he would get something for himself when he felt like it, so I left him to his own resources. If I reminded him that he had not eaten at all, as was often the case, he would get angry and ask me to leave him alone to make his own decisions. So I did, knowing full-well that it might mean he was not getting the right nutrients into him and could risk a hypo (in other words a diabetic coma).After a while the doctor put him on tablets to control the diabetes, as diet alone was proving impossible. He was also told to give up smoking as soon as possible because that would make the diabetes worse and lead to even poorer circulation in his legs which in turn could lead to gangrene and amputation. He found he could still not give up, especially as there was even more pressure on him to do so and even more people watching him fail.

We have a tall thin sort of house with several levels. The kitchen/diner is on the ground-floor and the lounge on a level above it. Above the lounge are three more levels containing the bedrooms and bathrooms. We had come to a compromise, seeing as he won't stop altogether, that he should only smoke in the kitchen/diner (or better still in the small garden, although that is difficult to enforce in torrential rain!) to spare me and my daughter being passive smokers. It meant she and I could at least have a smoke-free zone in the rest of the house. The consequence was that he spent his entire day in the kitchen/diner and watched the TV down there from breakfast TV to the late-night programmes. Too tired to do anything, he would just sit, smoke and drink. The more he drank and smoked, the more tired he got. A vicious circle. He loves the TV History Channel and began watching wall-to-wall programmes on every conceivable aspect of the two World Wars from the moment he got up until the moment he went to bed. His smoking increased and so, I am afraid, did the amount of whisky he was drinking. He would pour his first whisky at about 11am and by supper time, he would be asleep sitting in a dining chair in front of the TV, his chin resting on his chest. At a rough guess he was by now drinking well over 35cl a day (or a half-bottle) each day. Because of the rise in alcohol, his appetite was beginning to wane and he was barely eating. Meals he had once loved suddenly tasted awful. He would toy with his fork on the plate and after a few mouthfuls he would take his plate to the kitchen and scrape the whole plateful into the bin. This behaviour increased until his drinking was spiralling out of control.

In the early days of his retirement, we used to take turns to walk the dog. As his drinking grew worse, so the times he offered to walk the dog grew less, until that more or less fizzled out too and that side of things was left to me. But one afternoon, he was feeling a bit better, it was a high-pressure day, the sky was blue, the sun was out and he felt like a walk with Snoopy. He got in the car and drove the short distance to the park. (yes, I know, he should not have been anywhere near the wheel of the car, but try telling him that. He would always say what a careful driver he was and that even drunk he was better at driving than most people were when they were sober.) Hmmm. No comment.

He drove off at about 2pm to the park about half a mile from us. Time passed. I was busy with something in the house. Totally preoccupied. Suddenly I realised he had been gone for about 3 hours, when an average walk takes about an hour. Trying not to panic, I reasoned that he had probably bumped into one of the other dog-walking crowd in the park, as he sometimes did, and was sitting on a log having a cigarette with them and putting the world to rights. Just as I was beginning to convince myself, no, really convince myself, the phone rang. It was a fellow dog-walker to say that she had been talking to Greg when he had collapsed in the park, an ambulance had been called and he had been taken to hospital. She, meanwhile, had taken Snoopy to her house and would be grateful if I could collect the dog as soon as I was able.

On arriving at Accident and Emergency, I was shown to the cubicle where Greg lay unconscious. The A & E sister explained that nothing was wrong with him over and above the fact that he was intoxicated. She told me they were letting him sleep off his stupor. They had him on a Vitamin B drip (alcoholics tend to be rather in short supply of this.) I had my daughter Kay (then about 13) with me, as she had returned home from school just after I had received the phone call. We both tried to talk to him but it was pointless. He either drifted in and out of sleep, or shouted at us. A lot of what he said was gobbledegook. The staff suggested we went home, as Greg would certainly be admitted for overnight observation. I made the drive home somehow. I was shaking but trying to stay brave and positive for Kay's sake. I tried to overemphasise that he was ill and he would recover from it. We made a diversion en route to collect Snoopy who has never looked more pleased to see us and I chuntered on to the woman who had looked after him about what might have caused Greg to collapse. Not the truthful version, anyway. There is no way you can tell anyone what has really happened. You feel immense shame and want to keep it under wraps. I think I may have mentioned diabetic coma or something like that to explain why he might have suddenly fainted. When we got home, we made supper and was just dishing it up when the phone rang - it was the hospital to say that Greg had discharged himself and wanted me to collect him as soon as possible.

06 June 2008

Holding my breath

I am holding my breath this morning. Snoopy has to go into the vet to have a harmless fatty tumour (lipoma) removed from his arm-pit. It is the size of a clenched fist. According to the vet, if allowed to get much bigger, it will squash his blood vessels and muscles, so needs to come out for that reason. It is a routine operation and Snoopy should be home again by suppertime. This morning he looked most upset (suicidal even), because I would not feed him. Nil-by-mouth for the operation, you see. I shan’t breathe again until he is home.

05 June 2008

Heart attack

The continuing saga....

Over the coming years, we repeated our August booze cruises to France or Germany, taking Snoopy with us. It was a great way of holidaying abroad
with the dog, getting the satisfaction of being somewhere foreign and enjoying life under canvas. Snoopy used to hate the return part of the journey as it involved visiting an extremely tall, dark and handsome (yum) young vet near Calais who produced awfully thick hypodermic needles to inject the anti-worming preparation necessary for the pet passport paperwork at Dover. As before, we used a nearby camp-site to Cite Europe on our return journey and, as before, stocked up with a years' supply of wine. Again, as before, we were always lucky if we had a single bottle left to celebrate at Christmas, but very little of it was consumed by me. I was beginning to see a pattern forming.

By the time we were nudging our fifties, Greg suddenly became ill. He first had a series of small heart attacks and needed invasive surgery to correct the problem. At this point his personality seemed to change. He is not one to welcome attention at the best of times and he hated being prodded and poked by the medical profession. He was unbelievably difficult as a patient in hospital and made life unbearable for the nurses, doctors and any visitors. He wanted to know to the nanosecond when the doctors' rounds would be and if the doctors did not turn up at his bedside within minutes of the appointed time he had been given, he would get restless and complain. After all, he had to stick rigidly to his deadlines at work, so why couldn't they? He would just not appreciate that he was one of a number, the staff were very busy and he would have to wait his turn. He would get annoyed if he was not kept informed of every minute detail or timing of his treatment and would quiz the hospital staff endlessly. It was quite plain to see that they were getting annoyed by his non-stop questions and chivvying. In short he was an impatient patient. All he could talk about was getting out of hospital. I know nobody
wants to be in hospital, but he almost had a phobia about it. I used to joke that it was a good job, he was not expecting a baby, as he would never be able to last out the nine months.

Have I mentioned that he also smokes? Remiss of me. We both started smoking in our twenties. It was a student thing and then much later made easier by the fact you could buy cigarettes at every supermarket checkout in Germany, as well as from vending machines situated at just about every street corner where you lived. I managed to give up smoking just as we were returning to the UK in 1979. Greg however was still addicted to 20-to-30-a-day. Despite promises to give up or go easier, once our precious daughter was born, he found it impossible. So when he was incarcerated in hospital with his heart problems, he was once so desperate for a cigarette, having been forced to go without any for quite a number of days, that once he had been freed from the wires and tubes monitoring his heart, he hastily got dressed, sneaked out of the hospital to a nearby shop, bought a packet, had a smoke and then crept back into his hospital bed, all before anyone noticed!! I was speechless, when he told me.

Greg spent about 8 months at home after that. It was nice having him around. Because of Greg's shift work, I had given up work several years before to be the reliable linchpin at home for my small daughter and the dog. In any case, having come late to motherhood at the ripe old age of 40, I had done my fulfilling career bit before Kay was born. So it was nice to be at home together for all that time. Gradually as his strength returned, he again turned to light DIY or helping with small household chores. Now that we had a family dog-sitter on tap with Greg at home, it also meant I had more freedom to go out and about more without having to rush home in case the dog had pined himself into a coma or chewed the furniture into matchwood.

Eventually, the doctor signed Greg off and he returned to his job after those 8 months' convalescence at home. He found picking up the work no problem, but because of circulatory problems in his legs (an inheritance from the too many cigarettes), he was finding the commuting up and down to central London a problem.....too many stairs at the rail station, the underground station and a steep hill just before the office. Coming home, he would often deliberately miss the train at the mainline station and have a glass of wine in one of the concourse pubs - to catch his breath and ensure a seat on the next train. Then he would come home and have another glass of wine and a whisky too. Just to relax from the day. But he never overdid it, as he might have an early start at work the next day or, even worse, a night shift. Reports in the press at that time were suggesting that red wine was actually good for you. He needed no excuse now ...... carry on drinking! But he was taking a number of pills for his heart condition, so I did wonder whether mixing the two was advisable. If I tried to raise the subject with him, he more or less bit my head off. It became preferable to keep my head intact on my shoulders than mention it again.

The commuting to work was getting worse for him and by now I used to ferry him to and from home to the train station to minimise the amount of walking he had to do. There were also lots of changes happening at work and the unions were involved a lot in trying to negotiate better working conditions for their staff. At this point Greg was approaching 55 and had had enough. The thought of being at home with his light DIY and other hobbies was becoming more attractive than the buzz of the international news scene. He decided to approach senior management and see if he could retire early. The next few months were spent analysing projections of what our pension might be and whether we could survive on it. We decided we could and Greg put in a formal request for early retirement. We had a bit of a nail-biting wait, but one afternoon just before Christmas we were ecstatic to receive a phone call from the Chief of Operations to say they had given his application long consideration and they could just about find the money within the current financial year to honour his request, but he would need to retire with his last day of service within the next four weeks. We did a little jig round the kitchen and opened a bottle of wine to celebrate. We were going to become pensioners (well, sort of premature ones with a young teenage daughter still at school). Crazy or what? Not at all, the world would be our oyster.

04 June 2008

Exam fever

My dearest Kay is doing her final AS exam today. These last few weeks has seen her with her head in her books, either sweating sauna-like in her room in the mid-May heatwave or squinting to see clearly in the gloom of the late-May torrential downpours. In either case, she has had Greg's volatile moods to contend with as well on regular occasion. She is also very tired. Despite her study leave at home for the last two weeks, she has been forcing herself to get up at 7.30am to start revising really early and has often still been at it late at night. She has had breaks in-between to watch TV or go out with friends, but generally has been revising hard. This week she has had a 3-hour exam each morning over the last three days, today being the last one.

Last night she was so stressed and convinced she was not going to learn it all in time, she stayed up til 1 am and then I agreed to wake her again at 5am so she could do a bit more before breakfast and the drive to school. I feel so helpless. I know I went through this when I was her age and doing A-levels, but there seems to be so much more stress heaped on our kids these days from such an earlier age too. SATs at age 7, 11 and 14. GCSE exams at 16, AS exams at 17, then A-level exams at 18. Particularly the AS year is the most stressful of all, according to one of Kay's teachers recently. Kay is desperate to get good marks. She wants to go to university and she needs A-grades for the course she wants. More stress worrying about the results due in August. It never stops.

This morning she felt very sick and looked dreadful. Last night she resorted to drinking Coca Cola for the caffeine (she hates tea or coffee) and sucking glucose tablets to keep her awake and give her energy. She thinks the combination has backfired on her. I felt such a rush of emotion for her, as she got out of the car at the school gates this morning, looking so dreadful. All I could say was that she should hang on in there until lunchtime when it would all be over for another year.

We are very close. Greg's "illness" has brought us even closer. I had her late (did I mention that before?!) and she is more than a precious jewel to me. My one and only. I can't see that I would have the time and maybe the inclination to be so close, if I had more than one child. I certainly wouldn't stay up all night bringing her Coca Cola and sympathy, if there were other little children tucked up in bed who needed me bright-eyed and bushy-tailed at breakfast-time.

I'm just keeping fingers and everything else crossed at the moment that she comes home after the last exam at lunchtime with a big smile on her face and says she cracked it. The sleepless night will be worth it all.

02 June 2008

That's rich

Moving aside from my continuing saga for a moment, today I received a letter from El Gordo - the Spanish Sweepstake - informing me that I have won 615,810 Euros (about £410,000) in their lottery. My first instinct, after I had overcome the initial shock, was to book a last minute holiday to the Bahamas - possibly a one-way ticket even. Then I calmed down a bit and decided a nonchalant stroll to the nearest estate agent to find out what houses they had in that price range might be more sensible. After all, that would give my daughter and me independent means to escape to a quieter environment than the one we currently find ourselves in. I was just about to do a list of minimum requirements needed for my soon-to-be new house, not to mention a list of flashy cars I might buy to replace my geriatric banger,
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when the penny dropped.
I googled El Gordo on my computer and came up with a genuine website for the Spanish sweepstake, but when I googled El Gordo Spanish Sweepstake SA - the heading on the letter - I came up with dozens of sites about a Nigerian scam using all sorts of names to inveigle money out of people.

Of course the letter I had received had all sorts of tell-tale spelling mistakes and strange English phrases which made it stand out a bit from the usual official letter you get, saying you have won something (not that I have had experience of receiving one before, mind you). According to the websites I researched, other people had obviously received exactly the same letter, some going back over three or four years, with exactly the same dodgy wording and all. One thing that made it have SCAM written invisibly across it was the fact that attached was a nicely laid out form asking for details of your name and address etc (why? - they had already sent a letter to my name at my address!!), my bank account details (aaah, now we are getting to it) and my next of kin (what???? - would the shock of me finding out a few months down the road that my bank account had been rifled give me a fatal heart attack?) One part of the letter advised "we ask you to keep this award top secret from public notice until your claim has been processed and your money remitted to your account as this is part of our security protocol". ( I bet it is... that would roughly translate into "don't breathe a word to the police until we have details of your bank account and have cleared the contents of it into ours, by which time it will be too late for anybody to do anything about it".)

I have sent off an email to BBC Watchdog about it and have got out the chocolate biscuits. I am in serious need of comfort. After all I have just lost £410,000.

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