30 August 2010

Reading between the lines

Kay has spent the last 5 days at the Reading Festival. Having got all her horrible exams and revision out of the way, she is at last able to let her hair down. I was more than happy to see her off with her friends at the crack of dawn on Thursday (5am) to get to Reading in time to get a good spot for the tent. I was only a tad worried - the day before, it had been raining cats and dogs, in fact, no, it had been sloshing lions and whatever the bigger version of dogs are. All day Wednesday the South of England had seen a monsoon. I could almost believe that a whole year's rainfall had come down in one day. So by Thursday morning, any normal grass was looking a bit waterlogged. Add to that 87,000 pairs of feet trekking across it with rucksacks and wellies and you had a swamp. Did anyone see those pictures of it on the national news? If not, here they are again.... Lots and lots of squelchy mud. But still, I didn't worry. After all, Kay and her friends are sensible.

I had told her not to bother ringing me frequently but to enjoy herself. Just the one call a day perhaps to let me know she was alive, which she dutifuly did on Thursday and Friday. I felt pleased she was having a good time. However, Saturday's late-night call alarmed me a lot. Earlier on, she and her friends had bagged a spot at the front centre stage at the main arena to watch some of the big groups including the Maccabes, the Cribs and the Libertines . But 87,000 teenagers and youngsters were all trying to do the same, pushin' shovin' and swayin' to the music. After some six hours in the same spot, Kay knew the crowd was growing, the pushing increasing and she was becoming trapped against the front metal barrier. There was no room to put a pin. She tried to fight the force by pushing back, but her arms had fallen below the level of the barrier and there was literally no room to lift them and place them on the barrier to push hard, such was the crush. She was stooped forward, arms down,with her ribs being crushed more and more against the metal bar. She said she could feel her last breath being squeezed out of her. It was then that she alerted a security guard to lift her over the barrier to safety. He was able to lift her free, she put her arms round his neck and was whisked into the air over the barrier, leaving the person behind her to take her place in the crush. In fact, she was not the first to be lifted over and her friends eventually followed her some 40 minutes later,when they too felt the life being squeezed out of them. Kay reasssured me she was fine, although definitely bruised. I did not sleep easy that night.

She has returned this morning safe, although definitely not sound. She still has big bruises on her ribcage to prove it and she was sick twice on the return journey. She said that the toilet facilities were pretty crude,stank to high heaven and there was nowhere to wash hands. What with all the mud sloshing about, hygiene was very difficult to maintain, even with the use of bacterial hand gel which the girls had been sensible enough to pack. Whether she has a gastric virus or has picked up food poisoning is up for debate, but from the symptoms and the probability, our money is on the virus! When kids are small, you worry they are going to fall over and hurt their knee. When they are bigger, you don't stop worrying. But apparently a great time was had by all.

23 August 2010

A house is not a home

Greg and I moved into our present house in January 1988. That was 22 and a half years ago. Although, it is a fairly modern house, it was in quite a delapidated state when we moved in. An old lady with Alzheimers had been the previous occupant and she had thrown things at the walls, was doubly- incontinent and had a string of carers living in, who had neither the time nor the inclination to do anything to the house. Greg and I were still relatively young, when we first moved in, mortgaged up to the hilt and keen to do some DIY ourselves, so we bought the house with much enthusiasm and many ideas about what we wanted to do with it. It was a blank canvas.

Initially, we quickly slapped fresh paint over all the walls and woodwork, just to clean it up, ripped out disgusting carpets and replaced them with new ones and decided that, after that, we would tackle all the rooms slowly one by one with more attention to detail and quality. But life got in the way. For a start we were busy building our careers, as we had recently returned to the UK after living abroad. Commuting in and out of London was tiring enough without stressful work during the day (Greg was often working night shifts too) and it left us shattered when we got home. Then I (elatedly) discovered I was pregnant and Kay came along. Our lives changed forever, as any parent will tell you, and DIY projects got put on hold.

Another teensy weensy problem was that Greg and I had different tastes on things and he had quite strong views on what he didn't want, which meant we could not always agree on the colour of walls and furnishings. Definitely nothing with a hint of floral and only certain colours. The conclusion was often to leave things alone and move on to something else. Greg was also a great procrastinator and would make all manner of excuses to avoid doing things - ie the weather was too hot or too cold; the time too late or too soon; the timing not right altogether; he was too tired or too busy; too this or too that.

After a while money was also a problem, as we paid for Kay to go to a private secondary school at the age of 11, so any savings after that were gobbled up. (Private education was not something we would have originally considered, but realistically our choice of secondary school was limited to one poorly-performing inner-city state comprehensive school half a mile away where much less than a quarter of pupils attained any qualifications of any significance and some even had police records; or the alternative was biting our lips and paying through the nose for a private school with excellent achievements. Kay was very bright and it was well worth the investment in the end, considering what she has achieved today.)

The long and the short of it was that the house ended up being neglected for a number of years. We lived like perpetual students with make-do mismatches of furniture, either hand-me downs or crudely-made by Greg to tide us over, with the occasional bought bargain piece, when we could afford it or agree on it. If I am honest, we were never ones for having an ostentatious lifestyle anyway. As long as we had something to sit on, eat off, the house was warm and the car got us from A to B, we were happy and did not hanker after 4x4s, Mercs, Audis, swish bathrooms and expensive holidays, like some people do. We placed greater importance on other things. However, we had high hopes that when Greg took early retirement and Kay was finished with school, we would at long last start to tackle those jobs together, buy decent furniture and for the first time have a house we could be proud of and enjoy in old age. Again, life got in the way. Greg became an alcoholic.

Apart from the money that Greg poured in the form of amber liquid down his throat or cigarettes he smoked, he was now too ill to do anything. I effectively became his carer and dashed between home and my mother, caring for them both, struggling to keep both houses and gardens vaguely ticking along, as well as bringing up Kay, walking the dog and generally keeping some semblance of normality for all concerned, between the dashes to Acccident and Emergency each time Greg's alcoholism peaked. The house once more got relegated to the back burner. After twenty years or so, since its christening, it was begining to look in desperate need of a coat of paint and some tender loving care.

Now roll forward to the present day....Greg's death has put me in a new, unusual but rather strangely welcoming position. I am now sole decision-maker/finance-juggler/action-planner. I do not have to clear my thoughts first with someone else. With alcohol and cigarettes no longer in the equation and with use of websites such as the one advertised by that delightful little meerkat, I am able to make some small financial savings and at last go ahead with what plans I have for bringing the house up to date. Nothing too dramatic, as I still have to watch the pennies, but neverthess for the first time, having a home (I hope) I shall be proud of.

Some jobs will involve getting experts in - there is no way, for example, I can tackle plumbing or electrics, although I guess, if I had more time, I would be willing to learn for the sheer satisfaction of saying I did it myself. I have also engaged a firm to put in some new double-glazed windows for me before the winter sets in, as some wooden windows badly need replacing. But otherwise I am more than happy to have a go myself in most other things. So far, I have ordered a (matching) flat-pack bedroom suite and assembled it on my own. One unit had 8 drawers in it, so I felt that was quite an achievement. I have recently put up three new fire alarms on the ceilings on various levels of the house. I have had a major tidy-up of the garage which was a complete mess and systematically put things into categories and ordered them accordingly or disposed of them.

Two weeks ago saw my biggest coup yet. Our banisters are horizontal, but when Kay was a baby, one of her baby-club toddler friends came to visit with his mother and promptly tried to abseil through the gaps between the horizontal planks. Greg decided that quick action was needed before Kay started to crawl and did the same, so he banged some rather crude wooden uprights all the way up our 6 flights of stairs. They were a bit of an eyesore but they did the trick. Once the danger was past (and certainly once Kay was a teenager) I was all for removing the uprights and returning the banisters to their former horizontal glory, but Greg opposed this idea - maybe because it would involve too much work. He suggested we paint them instead and they might look less hideous. However, he neither removed them nor painted them and so they stayed as they were for nigh on 18 years.

Two weeks ago, I equipped myself with hammer, screwdriver and crowbar and got rid of every one of those 70 or more uprights. It was hard work - each upright was fixed in three places either with three-inch screws (which took some unscrewing) or 3-inch nails (which were even more difficult to remove, hence the crowbar). The difficulty often arose because the uprights were wedged between the flight of stairs going up and the ones going down so there was little space to manoeuvre prising the nails out. Why Greg used nails in some places instead of screws I am not sure, but they were sure harder to get out. I got a great kick out of finishing the job (using brute force at times) and filling in all the holes with filler. It was very therapeutic. You can just see from the second picture where the uprights were and where I filled in holes. Painting them will be the next phase.



Over the winter I am going to be doing lots of painting, including the staircases, and more clearing out. Slowly but surely the house will begin to take shape and meanwhile it's keeping me busy as well as distracting me from too many painful memories.

16 August 2010


My dear old mum is 87 today. I am off to visit her for the week while Kay heads off to do her delayed exam at uni. My mum is not in the best of health these days - one of her main problems is severe osteo-arthritis which has caused her spine to curve to one side (scoliosis - see here), and also damaged her knees and ankles. Because of this she can barely walk unaided, but even with a stick her balance is not good and she has in the past had several serious falls which landed her up in hospital with a broken nose and broken teeth! She is the sort of woman, however, who never complains about anything and even seems to apologise for her own shadow when in the presence of other people. She will put up with no end of pain without even saying anything, yet always wants to know how everyone else is doing.

She grew up in the Depression of the 1920s, living quite a poor childhood after her father was made redundant from his job at a bank. He had been at the bank before the First World War, subsequently lost an eye in the war and on his return to the bank could no longer see well enough with the one remaining eye to add up huge long columns of figures (in his head - no calculators then). There were no welfare benefits in those days and mum remembers eating nothing but mashed potato for days on end, as that is all they could afford.

When World War 2 broke out she was still a teenager, but was recruited at the age of 18 in 1941 into the Women's Land Army (WLA). It was designed for women to work the land and feed the nation, while the men were away fighting and particulalrly once merchant navy supplies could not get though enemy lines. Recent portrayal of the WLA in films either glamourises it or the girls are made to look as if they were oversexed. That really annoys mum. The reality was that the life was quite hard for most. A lot of young girls (like my mother coming from London) had never been up close to a farm animal before or had to dig trenches in fields. The physically demanding work made them too tired for much else!

In my mother's case, she was responsible for getting the cows from the fields to their stalls in the milking sheds, tying chains around their necks to hold them steady and feeling their hot breath on her face as they gazed at her through navy blue eyes with long lashes. She then milked them (by hand) and got them back out into the fields again. Returning to the sheds, she washed the walls down with lime, a job which made her hand red raw. How many 18-year-old city girls would cope with that these days?

When she wasn't doing that, she would work out on the fields in all inclement weathers, helping to pull down trees with tractors and chains and digging up the land to plant such things as potatoes and cabbages. In the autumn, they would pull up the potatoes or thresh corn. It was back-breaking work and she reckons that has contributed to the scoliosis she suffers from now. But it was not all bad. It was while she was doing this sort of work that she met my father, in her shyness tripping over his tractor chain. He was a German refugee sent to work on the land too (see here). When she actually got a weekend off, she would run down the dark London streets avoiding air raids to get home to the Anderson shelter, where her parents were waiting for her. She still finds the sound of an air-aid siren sends shivers down her spine. The only recognition or thanks she got for it all was a badge which she had to wait over 60 years for and finally got through the post last year from DEFRA. For some strange reason, the WLA are rarely if ever mentioned alongside the other Forces at Remembrance Sunday or other special days and yet their contribution to the war effort - to supply food to the nation and especially the army - were arguably what won the war, as the UK would have not been able to keep going against Hitler for as long as it did.

Here is a picture of my mum (the one in the centre) meeting the late Duchess of Gloucester who visited them on one of her official tours.

Happy Birthday Mum x

10 August 2010

Another reason to be angry

As if Greg did not do enough damage when he was alive, he is still wreaking it after he has died. I try not to let it get to me too much, but when it concerns Kay, I adopt my mad mother cow mode and bellow.

Back in March when Greg was rushed into hospital , Kay hurried the two hundred miles or so down from university to be there. Things were looking grim and Greg did in fact die a week later. Not only did Kay miss two weeks of lectures at that time (including the week following Greg's death) but she also missed a very important exam. She did this with the university's permission and they were good enough to say that she could take the exam in August instead, when those who had meanwhile failed it did their re-sits. The exam is next week.

So instead of having a nice long summer vacation to get over what has been a strenuous academic year (let nobody say medicine is an easy course to study) as well as a very difficult year on an emotional level, Kay has had to stick her nose in a book and study hard. The fact that one-third of her fellow course students failed that March exam and are having to do re-sits does not fill her with confidence as to its simplicity: she is worried sick she will fail too. Her old school friends in London have been inviting her out for days out here or there, or suggesting all-night clubbing or trips to the cinema. Kay has gone out to some, just to keep sane, but has also had to decline a lot for fear she will not get all her revision done in time. What is also worrying is that, if she fails the exam, there will not be enough time for her to resit the exam before start of the next academic year in September and she will therefore have to repeat the whole of the first year again instead. A whole lot rests on this exam. So no pressure then.

I feel so sorry for her and wish I could wave a magic wand. She is physically and mentally exhausted, seems to be getting one cold or ear infection after the other and is very run down. If Greg had not died, when he did and the way he did, she would have taken the exam in March and would be having a whale of a rest now. And once again, my anger is slowly rising. He's done it again.

04 August 2010

All's well that ends well

I am pleased to say Snoopy recovered and Kay and I managed to get to the party in Northumberland after all..........

The drip to replace Snoopy's lost fluids did the trick and when we collected him on Saturday morning from the vet, he was a different dog, apart from a hole in his leg where the drip had been. He could walk again and his rear end had stopped exploding! Unfortunately my bank balance is slightly wobbly now instead as the vet's bill came to £587. Now I am hoping the pet insurance will kindly pay for most of it. The claim form goes off today. Wish me luck.

Kay and I did all our packing for the big trip North late on Saturday, after we were reassured that Snoopy was better and had started to digest the prescription food we had been given by the vet. We felt confident the live-in dog-sitter we had hired for three days would be able to cope and would not be saddled with a leaking dog! (I wouldn't have been happy leaving him in that state either - in fact I had prepared myself for the fact I would have to stay behind.)

Thus on Sunday Kay and I left for Northumberland on an early train and were met at lunchtime at Newcastle station by Greg's sister Jill and her family, who had themselves travelled up from Lincolnshire the day before and were renting a cottage for the week. A lot of Greg's family originally come from that area (many are still there) and, on the way out of Newcastle, we first set off in search of Kirkheaton where one deceased aunt used to live. We found her old cottage, chatted to some inquisitive neighbours and found her gravestone in the village churchyard. Kay and her cousin Rhianna had a day of piecing together the family history and we made further trips to Belsay to discover other houses and cottages in the family folklore. Inbetween that we managed to walk Jill's dog (which made me miss Snoopy even more) along bits of Hadrian's Wall.

I finally saw the rented cottage near the village of Wark late on Sunday. It was at the end of a very long dirt-track off a fairly small road and just what the doctor ordered. It was so remote, it did not even have a mobile phone signal (so I could not ring the dog-sitter for reassurance until we were out of the cottage and amongst larger habitable areas). It was in need of modernisation but it had charm (meathooks hung in the ceiling so we guessed it had been an outhouse for a nearby farm) and we were warm and comfortable, even if the shower was not up to the 21st century.

The 90th birthday party for Greg's elderly aunt was held at Whitley Bay on Monday. The clan all gathered there at lunchtime to celebrate and it was good to catch up with so many relatives- some I had not seen since the aunt's 80th birthday ten years before. Inevitably the conversation turned to Greg and it was at times difficult thinking Greg would have so enjoyed seeing his family again and yet was missing all this. I was there to represent him, but nevertheless his absence left a big hole.

We came home yesterday after a day touring the gorgeous countryside along the A69. We lunched in Corbridge and explored the the quaint shops and buildings around, before walking along the river. Then we only had time to drive quickly through Hexham (Greg's father's home town) before catching a late afternoon train for London at Newcastle. Snoopy was fine on our very late evening return and was so pleased to see us again. The dog-sitter had been very reliable.

It was a very relaxing/entertaining/ happy few days away. It did Kay and me some good to get away and breathe country air. I leave you with the view from the cottage bathroom window. Imagine sitting on the throne and seeing this..........