Sunday, 30 August 2015

A Time To Talk?

A Time to Talk?

It was Jackie who saw the advert. She advertised in the village shop all the time – for cleaning work for her, and gardening work for me. “It said they wanted a gardener for a new garden, in the village – there’s only one place that can be”, she said. “That new big white house?” “Yes, it’s got to be that. You must go for it. They’ve got oodles of money”. So, I did. Jackie sent the e-mail message in. They didn’t want an application form, or a CV, just a letter saying what I could do and why I might be interested. And I got a strange message back inviting me to drinks, and then lunch, and then an interview. But I accepted.

That’s how I first saw First and Last Passage close to, not from the road. Jackie trussed me up in a suit, which didn’t feel right for a gardening job, but “you’ve got to make the right impression”. It was tipping down with rain – September time, it was, so you can never tell. Well, you can’t ever tell these days. Or those. She tried to make me take an umbrella, but I wouldn’t, and I huffed off out of the house before her fussing made me late. Through the village, and out the other side as the ground begins to rise, then there’s a turning on the right, then you come to a courtyard, through high gates. There’s a long narrow pond in the middle, full of koi carp. Two wings, either side, and then the door, and the house, and the glass dome on the top. It all went up within months. I wondered whether the plaster could have been dry before they moved in. There were plants in pots either side of the door. They were too small for it, and it was north-facing. And the pond looked bare. I could see there were things I could do here.

I looked for a bell. Of course it was right in front of me – a real bell, from a ship or a church. I’d never seen that before. I tried it a bit gingerly at first, and was just about to have another go when I heard dogs yapping and scampering on the other side. The door opened, and there was the Boss, with a bloody great parrot on his shoulder. The dogs were all right, I like them, it’s actually cats I can’t stand (most gardeners will tell you why), but I didn’t like the look of that beak. “You must be Mr Hobday” “Call me Joe” “Then please call me Matthew – and this” looking at the bird “is Percy. It’s all right, you don’t have to fuss him, just a hello and a smile work wonders. And now we’d better try to warm you up with a drink. I’d suggest getting out of your wetter things, but unfortunately we’ve got to go outside again in the rain in a moment, because that’s where the garden is, although it looks more like a mud bath just now”.

He led me through the biggest, tallest, hall, I’d ever seen in a private house, with that big glass dome casting light all the way down, even on that grey day. Then across into a huge kitchen that Jackie would have killed for, with a great long wide table down the middle, and a conservatory beyond – more light. I came to know that light was a thing with him, he got that winter sadness thing, so he’d built the house for maximum light all year round. Did make me wonder about those pots on the north side, though – shouldn’t they have had some light too? And then it was time for Champagne. I’d hardly ever had Champagne – like the suit, it was for weddings, mostly – but I said yes, and he surprised me that he didn’t have some too. “Gives me hiccups”, he said, pouring himself a gin and tonic, from what looked like the freezer. “Well, your good health, and thank you so much for applying and coming to see this monstrous task I want done. We’ll have a look round, let you get the lie of the land, so to speak, and then it will be lunch at 1, and the proper interview will be at 2, upstairs in my library. I know it’s rather a long haul, but having someone around so much of the time is a delicate choice, and although I’m interested in your ideas and plans, I’m also interested in how you might fit in – assuming you even want the job, when you see what it is. So, let’s go out into the squall, and look at it!”.

He was right about the mud bath. And it seemed to me maybe those poor pot plants couldn’t have gone anywhere else just now. You could just about get around on pathways of gravel and duck boards, until you reached the untouched bit of the old field from before the development. Either side of the conservatory were two aviaries, attached to the south side of the house, full of brightly coloured parrots, although they looked pretty miserable in the English rain. The land sloped down quite gently, and there was one huge oak tree in the middle of what was left of the original field. At the bottom, the boundary was a little brook, the Shell, after which the village – Shelford - is named. It took me years to work that out, and I’d lived there all my life. To the right, at that lower end, was a little cottage for what he called “The Bird Man – that’s Giles, you’ll meet him at lunch. I snaffled him from London Zoo, and I reckon he’s going to make the parrot farm a going concern”. Well, he was welcome to his ideas, he could afford them, but I’d never known anyone with a parrot. Budgies, yes, but not parrots, and certainly not these great big buggers with alarming beaks.

Then we went inside, and he took my jacket to dry out. I knew he was gay, and I was expecting some funny business about my trousers too, to be honest, but there wasn’t. This time there was noise from a room to the side of the kitchen – “drawing room” they called it – and a tall, slim, sun-tanned man appeared, with a small girl and a smaller boy. This was the “husband” – it was going to take me a long time to learn to use that word – and their two smaller adopted children. The husband, Ze, was a South American, so the sun-tan was natural, and he offered to help with the work in the garden. He looked fit enough to do it, but his clothes suggested otherwise. Very smart. Matthew took me on the rest of the tour of the house, from cellar to attic, which was one huge room that covered the whole ground plan of the house, apart from the wings. The views were marvellous, you could see almost the whole village, even the old Manor House, up the hill, which everyone said First and Last let down. Jackie had signed the protest against it, but it went up anyway. I liked it. It looked clean, and straight, and solid. I’d done some work at the Manor – the thing was falling apart.

And then there was commotion downstairs, and someone had arrived, a lady and her husband “she’s an old friend, a botanist, and she has the nicest garden I know”. I felt he was raising the stakes on me. As we started down the stairs a gong sounded, and there was Ze in the hall, with both kids, looking for all the world as if, though he’d done it a hundred times, it was still a thrill. Lunch was simple, pork loin, with stilton and leek sauce, and small boiled potatoes, and greens. Not sure my Jackie had ever bought stilton. She didn’t like things with strong flavours, and even ordinary cheese could make her complain about the smell in the fridge. And there was more Champagne, and white wine, and gin for the botanist, who necked it at an impressive rate. The Boss sat at the top end, by the door into the hall, and Ze at the other, with a kid either side, and the rest of us – we were joined by his PA, and Giles the Bird Man (he was late; he was always late) – ranged down either side.

I’m not very good at conversation. I prefer to listen, and keep my counsel, but the conversation turned to what makes a good garden, and that was me on the spot. I said this and that, but realised I was only repeating what he’d told me earlier about what he wanted, as we walked round the mud bath in the rain. Fortunately the others all had opinions – ecology (that was the botanist’s husband) – colour (the botanist) – flowers (the little girl) – herbs – self-sufficiency – an orchard – I’d have needed to take notes to remember it all. Ze kept filling my glass up, and although I probably drank less than anyone else there, I could feel myself sliding a bit. But it was fun. I liked them. I’d never known a family quite like it – nor a workplace, and this was both together.

At the end, the Boss and I went upstairs to his library – and although it was an office, it really did look like a library, I’ve never seen so many books in one room in a house – and he said “now we come to the mean bit of the interview. I didn’t tell you in advance, because I thought it might prey on your mind and make you anxious, and I was hoping you’d enjoy lunch. What I want you to do is make a sketch” – he produced paper and pens and pencils – “of what you’d do with my garden. By all means incorporate things I’ve told you I want, and stuff they said at the table, but I want your vision really. We might not agree, but I’m interested to know what that vision might be. And you don’t have to be Rembrandt, just a simple plan is fine, just to give me an idea of your ideas”. And then he left me for twenty minutes. Well, I’m no Rembrandt but I was good at drawing at school, and though he was right, if he’d told me before I’d have got stressed about it, I started to enjoy it. I even used different colours.

With gardening, I was a complete amateur. My father had worked at the car works in Oxford, and he got me a job there when I left school, but I hated it. Mum was the gardener in our family. I’d learnt a lot from her, and I got chatting to a chap who did gardening, down the pub one night, and he said he could do with a labourer, so I threw in the job, and took a chance. It wasn’t a great living, and my boss knew less than me. He could cut grass and trim hedges, but beyond “brute force and ignorance”, he had nothing to offer a garden. So I went solo. That was a slightly better living, but still not great. Then I married Jackie, we had the two kids, and between us, and the low rent of a council house, we survived. I’m not bookish, but I can learn. If a client wanted agapanthus, then I’d blinking well find out how to grow it.

He came back into the room. I realised he’d been downstairs talking to the others – I could hear their voices echoing up the stairs from the kitchen – and he said “so, how’d you get on?” I showed him my sketch. He went very quiet, tracing some parts with his finger as if remembering his own land from the lines on my drawing. Then he said “wildflower meadow, brilliant! I couldn’t think what to do with that bit, with that great big tree in the way. And you really are a bit of a Rembrandt, this is rather good”.

Then he sat down in a high-backed leather chair and said, “we’re all agreed – and this chart confirms it – the job is yours, if you want it”. “Aren’t there other people to see?” “No, I’ve seen three others, and they were boring at lunch, and had no ideas in their heads. But you must have questions to ask”. Well I did, rather a big one, but he went on, “the job’s full time, and I can afford a salary of £25,000 with the usual terms and conditions. Five weeks off a year, plus bank holidays, obviously, double time at weekends, treble on bank holidays, if for some reason you really have to work them. I’m trying to work out a pension scheme system at the moment, which I think would mean that after 25 years – assuming you wanted the job, and wanted to stay here so long – you could retire on full pay, but I can’t promise you that because it’s not tried and tested, so if you prefer, we can make contributions to another scheme, you might have one already [I didn’t]. Oh, and obviously, lunch is free, and if you get bored of us here, or just need a quiet break, you can use my account for lunch at the village pub”.

My mouth was flapping like a landed fish. That money was more than the both of us brought in. “Maybe you’d best go home and ask your wife, and let me know tomorrow?” “No, it’s a yes, when do you want me?” So I started on the Monday.

That autumn and spring were hard work, but fulfilling, and we couldn’t believe the money coming in. I sorted out those pot plants on the porch, put water lilies in with the koi, planted a herb garden, roses, put up polytunnels for the vegetables (he said no glass, not with children and animals around), and planted them, laid down the croquet lawn, planted the beginnings of the orchard, and got a digger in for a pond by the brook, for the geese. And it was a ringside seat on a show with some very interesting and entertaining characters. The Boss was an MP back then, so he was often out and about, and Ze used to drive him. The children had a nanny. But then the nanny wanted to go. Or maybe Ze wanted her to go. I couldn’t quite tell. And then she left. They were talking about it at lunch one day – I’d learnt not to call it dinner – and Ze said he wasn’t prepared to do all the laundry and ironing and dusting, he’d look after the kids (there were four of them) but not the household chores. Well, my Jackie excels at laundry and ironing and dusting. Our house is like a new pin, always has been. So I blurted out “my wife could do that for you”. “Really?” “Yes, she does cleaning already, and takes in ironing, and a bit more work’s always welcome”. “But this is a lot of work – really, probably a full-time job as housekeeper, do you think she’d put up with that?” “I’ll ask her, if you like”.

And that’s how she became their housekeeper. They interviewed her, fair and square, like me – only, that day, I was sent down to the pub for lunch – and Matthew was bowled over by her orderliness. Jack always had a place for everything, and put everything straight back in its place. She knew what was needed to be done on Tuesday for Friday, if you know what I mean. Apparently Ze wasn’t so hot on that, but the children adored him, so it was what Matthew used to call “division of labour – let everyone do what they do best”. And her money was the same as mine (she was chuffed about that for more reasons than just the money) and we bought our council house (later I learnt how much the Boss hated that) and then we sold it and got a bigger place with a loan from the Family Fund – that was their own personal trust, that they let employees into. Our feet were under the table.

Comfortable, we were, maybe too comfortable. I’m a boring man, I don’t like change and excitement, but sometimes I see a new shrub or tree in a nursery and I give it a go. The kids were teenagers now, the Farm had grown, as he’d built a house for his parents, and also a crazy little Hermitage, a retreat house, for religious people. I’m Methodist, we didn’t do retreats. But all of a sudden Jack had 25 more sets of bedlinen to keep in order. It wasn’t used all the time, and rarely fully, but when she first got the job, she’d said “I could do all that by Wednesday lunchtime”, and I said, “well, you’d best do it slowly and make it last to payday”. She was busier now. And she loved it. She made him buy her a bigger washing machine. They had a lot of guests, some of them rich and powerful and interesting, and she earwigged on their conversations. She tried to tell me about them, but I did my best not to listen. I warned her not to get the reputation of a gossip or she’d be out on the street. Apparently more things went on in that Hermitage than you’d expect from religious people “on retreat”. All four of the kids of the house had dalliances there, too.

I got quite close to the Boss. He was old enough to be my father, but he never pulled that sort of rank. He was fascinated by what I knew, and he was surprisingly clever, for an educated man, about what he didn’t. The year he was eighty, which was a great fandango, because he got some big medal from the king, and everyone wanted a slice of the action – he even had to go to Brasil for the Wildlife Fund he’d set up there, so they could make speeches at him – but that was later in the year. In the Spring he had another stroke. Not as bad as the one he had after Ze died five years before, but bad enough to infuriate him. He lost a little mobility in the left side, again, and a tiny bit of speech. I wouldn’t say more than that. But he was so angry. One morning he came down to one of the polytunnels where I was sorting out tomatoes, I saw him in the distance, leaning on two sticks, and wondered about trying to help him, or whether I’d end up on sticks if I offered. “Joe! You won’t believe what those bloody bastards have done.” “Which ones are those?” “My sodding children.” I thought it was some sort of game, so I said “I’ve always found them kindly and well-mannered people”. “My arse, are they”. “What’s happened?” “They’ve bought me an electric wheelchair. Like some bloody invalid. It’s like they’re hurrying me into my grave”. “Come on, they’re just trying to be kind, you’ve not been well lately, it’s just a prop for you, that’s all”. And then his tone changed. “I’m not afraid to die, Joe. I’m not even afraid no longer to exist – I’ve had a marvellous life, I don’t need another, but if I get one, it’s all bonus. No, the problem is decrepitude”. I remember the word. I looked it up in the dictionary after, but you could tell from how he used it what he meant. “I am NOT living in a bloody wheelchair”. And then he was quiet for a moment, and looking at my work, with approval, and suddenly “Oh sod it, the leg’s going again”. I grabbed his arm, and held him up. That was about as intimate as I’d been with another man, apart from Harry when he was a baby, but that doesn’t count. He was clearly in pain, and I asked if he’d like me to send for help. “NO”. “Then, can I offer you an arm back to the house, and maybe we’ll say no more about it?” He accepted this, and I delivered him to the conservatory. An unusual burden, lop-sided. I didn’t tell his children. The wheelchair soon disappeared (it turned up in a cellar after he died).

We were invited to parties too, both family ones, and the bigger more formal ones they had a few times a year. Jack loved them. I wasn’t so keen, but there was always someone on the edge to talk to, and always people to watch. I often spoke to the Boss’s father. He was very down-to-earth, often helped us on the farm, or in the aviaries. I used to tell him not to – he was getting on – but he said he needed the exercise and “some honest sweat”. One Christmas party, it was when the kids were teenagers, we were all there. Kate and Harry got on well with the Boss’s kids, and there were others around as well. Jack was queening it up, not having to help with the catering for once, and she was in search of autographs. The Boss used to invite people he’d interviewed, and they often showed up. And I was minding my own business, drinking a beer (I’d given up on the Champagne thing – Matthew was right about the hiccups! – and a glamorous lady sidled up and asked me how I came to be there. I said I was the gardener and she seemed quite fascinated. Apparently she was new to the area – had arrived with her husband in the next village but two – and Matthew and Ze had met them at something and invited them along.

“I’ve got a garden that’s really too large for me to cope with – I’m sure you’re busy here, but I wonder, would you be able to come and give me some advice one time?” I’m an obliging sort of bloke, and I said I’d be happy to, and I’d be a liar if I didn’t admit I’d noticed her curves and peaks and so on. My wife was a strong woman – you can’t heft loads of linen from the Hermitage to the washing machines at First and Last without developing a bit of muscle – but this lady, Izzy, I discovered, was gym-toned. And she was educated, you could tell that, and very posh, you could tell that too, her eyes had something that made me want to keep looking at them, only, I kept looking down at my beer. I knew this was a place I didn’t want to go, mustn’t go. She gave me her card and said “call me when you’re free to give me some advice”. I put it in my wallet. But when I got home, I didn’t tear it up.

Early in the New Year she came to First and Last, asking to see me. Bold as brass, she rang that bell at the front door. It was cold and frosty that year, there wasn’t much digging to do, so I was in my “office” in the courtyard (originally designed as a garage for a large car) looking through seed and bulb and shrub catalogues. A knock on the door, and it was Matthew, and “there’s Izzy here to see you – she wants your advice!”. I came out of the office and closed the door, and we chatted, and Izzy said, “Matthew, could you possibly spare him for the afternoon? I know if I don’t get started soon, I shall be too late for the Spring”. Moments later, I was sitting in her car, being driven at breakneck speed down the country roads. We reached our destination – a big Victorian house with a handsome front garden, and every prospect of the same at the back – but what you couldn’t miss, although I think she meant me to miss it, the speed she was going, was the house name – “Rectory”.

We pottered in the gardens for half an hour, then she invited me in for a drink. She didn’t have beer, so I opted for red wine. She asked me to help her with the cork; I put my hands on hers. It was a screwcap. Ten minutes later we were in bed.

No, it makes no sense. I’m not that kind of man. Only, obviously, I was. Happily married for nearly twenty years, two nice clever children, good jobs, money coming in, what did I need of this excitement? Maybe it was excitement I needed. Or wanted. I thought about “mid-life crisis” but we were both in our thirties, it was too soon for that. She clicked her fingers, and I did her bidding. I won’t deny I enjoyed every minute of it. At the time. Still remember it now. But not just the once; you see, I went back. We met on Sunday mornings. I was supposed to be going to chapel – Jackie was too busy fiddling with lunch to bother with it – and Izzy never went to church, but her husband, the Rector, did, and he took their kids with him. It gave us nearly two hours in a motel on the edge of Oxford. She paid. I felt kept. But also wanted. And not just for being a good earner, or solid, or dependable, or quiet, or nice, or salt of the bloody earth. I won’t say what she said she wanted me for, but it made me feel good. Until afterwards. And then the guilt crowded in. Until the next time.

This went on for a couple of months, into the Spring, heavy work in the garden, and I think I was more tired than I realised. We had our tryst in the motel, and after doing my duty, I fell asleep in her arms. When I woke, it was 1 o’clock. Dinnertime. Dinner-on-the-table time. And I was stark naked, in a motel room, with a woman not my wife, and over half an hour away. And I could smell her perfume on me, so I had to shower. And whilst I did, she sat on the side of the bath and said “we can get away from all this – Hugh won’t miss me, and I’m sure Jackie won’t miss you, we could go to London and get a flat together.” “Paid for with what?” “I’ve got money, I used to work properly, and I was born with some, it’s all still there, saved and ready. We could live it up in the capital, instead of this dead backwater”. I dressed, and I left. And I was 45 minutes late for Sunday dinner. Wife, both children, and the in-laws, all waiting.

“I thought I’d get petrol - heard it was cheap at that supermarket – traffic jams, and then a tractor” it was a gabble of lies. My mother-in-law said “we’ve just been on that road, it seemed fine then – isn’t it funny how quickly the roads can change?” Jack said “well, it’s not entirely ruined, and Dad has carved”. As she served me my plate, standing behind me, I seemed to sense her sniffing me. Surely I’d got rid of Izzy’s perfume? But what if the soap in the motel was conspicuously different from the one I always used at home? I don’t understand these things, I’m not cut out for this stuff.

She was cold with me for several days. On the Wednesday night I couldn’t bear it any more and said “Jack, we need to talk about Sunday”. “No we don’t”. “But …” “You might, I don’t. If you are staying here, at home, being a husband, and being a father, and doing your job, then there is absolutely nothing I need to know”. So we never talked, never said a word about how we felt.

I’d already been blocking Izzy’s messages and calls. That weird stuff about going to London had freaked me. I hate London. I didn’t want a new life. I liked this one. And it seemed, which was a surprising thing to think of someone so superior to myself, that her need was greater than mine. I was just being a stupid arse. She was getting in training for a new life. And then she came to First and Last again.

I was helping Giles muck out a parrot aviary. Hard work, but enjoyable, and it makes great fertiliser. Giles melted away as Izzy appeared. I never knew what that man knew. He was very private. I’d once been driving back late at night from a conference the Boss had sent me on, and seen Giles’s car at a layby a little way out of the village that had a certain reputation. Maybe he preferred his intimacies to be anonymous. But Izzy didn’t care if anyone was listening or not. “You’ve been ignoring me”, she said, in a loud voice. “It’s over, it was great fun, but it’s over”. “I’m leaving Hugh, and I’m going to tell him, once I do, and he’ll have to divorce me, it will be all round the village”. “Poor Hugh”. “Come with me, you know you want to, you’ve never been so alive as you were with me”. That was arguably true. But there are different kinds of alive-ness. “Izzy, it’s finished, please go away.” And then I threw my shovel at the wire, which I knew would make the parrots scream, and make Izzy jump. Fortunately, she walked back to the courtyard, and jumped back into her car.

I can’t say I never saw her again – they were part of the Boss’s social circle. Or that there weren’t other repercussions. The minister at chapel asked why I’d not been attending, and I said there was a lot of work on the Farm. “I can’t imagine Lord Chapman making anyone work on a Sunday”, she said, and as one lie was just going to lead to more, I went to see him – in that library where I’d first been interviewed, and only since been in to get Valerie to approve my gardening expenses. Which she always did, because they trusted me to tell the truth.

So, I said my piece, that I’d not been going to chapel, and I’d blamed work, and the minister didn’t seem to believe it. “Can I ask what you were doing instead of going to chapel?” Deep breath, long pause, “I was doing something I shouldn’t have been, and which I have stopped”. He pondered it for a while. “Look, if I’m asked, I can’t admit to making you work on a Sunday, because I never would, but I can suggest that you were making yourself work, because of a crisis of faith, and perhaps Reverend Kirsty could let you know she’d be happy to talk with you. Would that work? It doesn’t sound entirely untrue. I don’t need to know, but perhaps you’ve have a crisis of faith in your marriage, or in yourself, and she’s a good listener”.

It did work, although I didn’t go to talk to her. Sometimes we saw Hugh and Izzy at parties – she didn’t leave him, it was all fantasy – and I thought it was dead and buried. I thought I’d got away with it.

Some years later, the Boss died. He was 84, and I’d worked with him for 34 years, Jackie for 33. The family called us in the night, so we wouldn’t hear it first on the news. We’d had lunch with him that day – he’d prepared it himself, as he did, although on a Friday it was always a “cold collation”, but with salmon he’d cooked first thing in the morning. It was a shock.

His younger son, Jos, had already taken on a lot of the farm work, with Giles, and he and his wife and four kids were going to move into First and Last, so I was hoping things wouldn’t change. I don’t like change. I was 62 that year, Jack was 61. But there was change – not for me, for her. She just couldn’t get on with Amanda (that was Jos’s wife). She was used to HER way of doing things, and Amanda wanted HERS. I overheard one or two arguments, and I’ll admit, Jack didn’t sound so rational. She’d always been hyper-efficient, orderly, everything in its place, but Amanda wanted new places, and Jackie couldn’t adapt, and one day, she blew a gasket, and resigned.

They were all very particular that I must stay on, always welcome, blah, blah, and I had no intention of leaving! Jack was too proud to look for paid work, and anyway, her pension had come through – the Boss’s scheme had worked – so she went to work for the church, cleaning, and polishing. It was there that the problem first surfaced. She’d tidy away the bookmarks for the Sunday readings. Snuff out the candle that was meant to last all week. And once she started vacuuming during a funeral. The vicar wondered if she was quite well.

Jack, much though I love her, at home all the rest of the day, became a menace. She would wash, clean, vacuum, dust, polish, things that had only just been sorted out. She’d take things out of the cupboard, lay them on the table, then put them straight in the dishwasher. She’d make my breakfast at 3 in the morning, and after I’d turned off the smoke alarm say “well, it’s here now, so eat it up”. I don’t tackle things. I thought she was just grieving for her work, really. She had her pension and then she’d go shopping, and stockpiling things that we didn’t need. She even made a store of lady’s things which, at 61, she’d not needed for some time. First and Last became my retreat.

It was our eldest grandchild who opened the doors. “Grandad, I think Nanna might have Alzheimer’s”. That was another thing I didn’t want to talk about, but Cleo (she was Kate’s first child) was having none of it. Kate and Harry weren’t so keen, but we got her assessed. It wasn’t good. I had hoped for “early onset”. They were basically saying she’d been barmy for years, but living in a clearcut little world that she could rely on, which kept her sane, and we’d not really noticed.

She started wandering. One time she called the police when I came in from work, thinking I was a burglar. Twice she set the kitchen on fire. They took the church keys off her. The slide was very fast.

Harry said “we’ve got to find a home for her, where she’ll be safe”. “She’s always been safe with me”. “Are you really prepared to be cooped up in this house every hour of every day with her just in case she does something crazy?” And, of course, I wasn’t. My home was First and Last, the aviaries and the polytunnels, and the croquet lawn, and my little office. I was still fit enough to work, still useful. To be honest, if I’d had to be with her all day, I think I might have hurt her. I couldn’t say that to my children, but I did risk saying it to our doctor. He made the application straightaway.

It was a nice enough home, thanks to her pension, two villages away, the village where Hugh had once been the rector. He’d left to be an archdeacon, whatever that is. We decked her room with things she’d remember, but she complained about the clutter and how much dusting she’d have to do. We said she didn’t need to do dusting. “I’m not letting anyone else do it”. So, we took some of the clutter away, and gave her a duster.

She struggled to recognise the children, which made them both cry. The grandchildren were tougher about it. Then she struggled to recognise me. I cut my visits down – the kids said I was upsetting myself walking there and back to see a stranger. I went for Sunday lunches – they called it “Sunday dinner”, like we always had – and the food was good. We sat at little tables of six or eight, the families coming in to see their decrepit relatives. Jack was one of the youngest.

Then one Sunday, as I was sitting down next to her, she said, “Oh, you’ve turned up then, for Sunday dinner. I’ve kept it for you. What happened? Did that bitch stand you up? Traffic jams and tractors, my fucking arse”.

That cut me to the quick. She’d never in all our forty-odd years of marriage used that kind of language. I didn’t know what to say, or do; I never do. Then it was if someone had put a new slide in, and she changed her demeanour. “This lamb’s nice, isn’t it? Not as nice as I used to make. For Joe, and the children. He was a bit of a louse though. But you seem nice”, she said, stroking my hand.

Richard Haggis
Barton-upon-Bayswater, Oxford
August 2015

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