Life and loss, love and death

Image result for south  bay hk

Deepwater Bay

Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to writing my normal blogs

Ensconced in Deepwater Bay, life now took on the tone and routines that shaped our lives until the final disintegration of our marriage. My husband would go off to University every day and return home in time for dinner. After dinner he would take off back to Victoria – to the officers mess, he would say, to see Henry or Richard or whoever… I assumed for some time that he was bonding with the other people on his course, in spite of having spent all day with them.

Later he would say there was a party or a get together. And later still, when the whole saga had ended, friends would tell me that I had no idea of how many girl- friends there had been – “You didn’t know the half of it”….

I tried everything, and one night I remember in despair taking the car before he did and driving round to beautiful South Bay, an empty semi- circle of still water, ringed with flame trees, and where I watched the flaming sunset. The beauty was so moving, I felt I must share it with him, and drove back home, and persuaded him to come back to South Bay with me. He did, and then took the car and drove off- somewhat delayed – to whatever rendezvous he had in town.

Two things helped me through this time. I had found a wonderful amah, Ah Ping, a shy eighteen- year- old girl with very little English, and a lovely nature. She adored the children, and we had a little competition at bath-time over which of us was going to enjoy bathing the youngest, still very much a baby. She learned to speak English with my accent and tone, so that people thought it was me when she answered the phone. She helped to maintain the happy atmosphere for the children and they  loved her.

The other thing that sustained me, was my first foray into writing. I studied the woman’s pages of the South China Morning Post, the main English speaking newspaper in Hong Kong, and realised that the one element missing was cookery.

Cheekily I offered my services to the woman’s editor, a childless and fashionable young woman, Jane, the same age as me. Feeling plain and boring by now, I somehow managed to keep my end up with her at my interview and got the go ahead to write a cookery column on Fridays. I had no qualifications for this of course, apart from an abiding love of food, but I managed to make it sound as though I knew what I was talking about.

After six weeks, I was offered another bite of the cherry, when Jane suggested I write a story to fill Thursday’s page – she wanted something about bringing up children, and now she had as it were, a captive mother, I filled the bill. This was meat and drink to me and writing about children and parenting became one of my areas of expertise and was something I only stopped doing fifty years later at seventy- seven.

My husband’s social life was costing us, and debts had begun to pile up, so the money I now earned was important to me, as I knew I could always feed the children with it. I could also afford to visit the famous alleys, and find cheap lengths of gorgeous fabric, which I sewed by hand, making glamorous new summer dresses. I had new friends, and was making a life, but I still felt miserable and longed to be loved. I tried to fill the emptiness by playing Bob Dylan and the Beatles and they left me feeling even more alone and bereft. I also started having blinding migraines which took five days out of life every time they struck.

One evening my husband came home and said we’d been invited to a party at the naval base on the commander’s ship. I put on a red dress from my pre-marriage party days and set off, feeling like I always did these days, in-adequate and plain.

At the gangplank we were warmly greeted by a man with piercing blue eyes and golden hair. His wife was a ravishing blonde ex-ballet dancer with huge brown eyes, beautiful features, and a pile of hair pinned up,   so long that when it fell to her ankles when we were dancing, she looked like Rapunzel. Her chic little black dress showed off her ballet dancer’s figure to perfection. I was in awe of both these glamorous people.

Later we went back to their house where we all sat down at the dining table for an impromptu dinner. Our host sat me at his right hand and talked to me as though I was actually interesting. I felt such gratitude for his kindness. We continued to meet at parties as our friends were old childhood friends of them both. At each occasion he sought me out, raising his glass to me across many crowded rooms before making his way through the throng to us.

And then one night as he handed me out of his car after a party, he squeezed my hand. The next party we went to was at a French officer’s house. He and his wife were a gentle couple, and we played silly childish games, since we were a mixture of French and English couples with few of us speaking each other’s language, so conversation was difficult.

During one game if a player won some sort of forfeit, they placed a cushion in front of the person of their choice and knelt and gave them a kiss. My naval friend placed his cushion in front of me when it was his turn, and I said to myself if he does it again, I will know that he meant it. And he did. The next two months were a dizzy time of love and longing set against the back drop of riots and curfews and water rationing and our move into army quarters in Repulse Bay, where we became neighbours. Neither of us ever said a word but were drawn to each other at every meeting.

At the same time, I was fascinated by his ravishing wife, and couldn’t believe that he could care for me, when he had such a spell-binding partner, who I knew he’d loved since they were children. I could see that she was scatter-brained and sometimes strangely childish, but still found her beauty entrancing.

The night before they left to return to England we all met for one last time. As we danced he told me he loved me. I said I thought it might have been a sailor’s girl in every port, and he reproached me. He told me that his fey, feckless wife was a millstone round his neck, and that we both had “to make a go of it”.

They flew out the next day, and I went into a sort of collapse. I literally couldn’t get out of bed for a few weeks, and somehow struggled on into the grey winter like a zombie. The migraines ambushed me more and more often. I felt too fragile and depressed to write to my father.

My husband now asked me not to leave him alone with the husband of a woman I’d thought was my best friend because he feared being beaten up. The husband had discovered that my husband and his wife had been having an affair. I felt shocked and betrayed by my friend, but then, I found my husband was having another affair with another colleague’s wife, and I stopped caring.

After Christmas Jane, the woman’s editor offered me a fulltime job, and I began in January. A few weeks later, I woke up one morning, looked out at the sea, watched the fishing boats streaming back after their night’s fishing, and felt different. It was as though a huge grey cloud had lifted from me, and my first thought was – now I can write to my father. Because I was still trying to juggle my job and the children, and learning the ropes at work, I put it off until I had a moment to sit down and enjoy communicating again.

A few nights later I dreamt that one of my father’s good friends who was in Hong Kong, was sitting on my bed with its beautiful blue and green patterned Venetian bedspread, with his arms around me, comforting me. When I awoke in the morning I inwardly castigated myself that I was so desperate that I was dreaming about my father’s friends!

That night, as I slept, I heard the phone go, and my husband answer it. I heard him say: “Thank you, I’ll tell her.” When he walked into the bedroom I sat up in bed, and cried out, “Don’t tell me. I don’t want to know.”

“Your father’s dead.” he said. The War Office had rung.

I immediately rang my father’s friend Ian, and unwittingly destroyed a dinner party. Ian came straight round, and as he sat on the bed and put his arms around me, my dream came back to me.

It felt as though the bedrock of my life had been ripped from beneath me. It seemed like the worst thing that had ever happened to me, even though I knew it happened to everyone.  But he was only fifty- four. My siblings who were scattered around the globe on various rocks – Gibraltar, St Helena, Aden gathered, but I was too far away. No-one contacted me. I never heard from my stepmother again for nearly forty years when she was in her late eighties. My father-in-law wrote and told me about my father’s funeral, and now I was alone.

I had leant Pat Hangen my copy of Towers of Trebizond in which was a poem I felt I needed. As soon as day broke after the phone call, I rang and asked her to return it. The poem was like a lifeline back to sanity. Every time I was overwhelmed with grief, I read it again and it brought me back to a place where I could still stand being alive. It was John Davies of Hereford’s dirge for his friend Thomas Morley:

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

My dearest friend is dead and laid in grave.

In grave he rests until the world shall end.

The world shall end as end all things must have.

All things must have an end that nature wrought.

Death hath deprived me of my dearest friend.

The rhythm of these lines helped somehow, while the words of the gurus did not. “Participate joyfully in the sorrows of life.” Joseph Campbell once said, and: ‘we can choose to live in joy’. But had he ever  experienced the sorrows of life, in his long, happy,  childless relationship (with none of the agonies and ecstasies of parenthood) and his sheltered affluent university life-style? Words like his seemed to mock.

In my world, enduring the sorrows of life, it took weeks to move beyond the pain of grief and despair, and my husband lost patience with me. Then both children developed bad cases of measles. It took the spots ten days to come out for my son, and with his high temperature I feared he’d develop encephalitis. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. My daughter developed bronchitis and was very sick at the end of her bout of measles.

One night, as I lay by her side in bed anxiously watching her, my husband came to the bed room door. I’d been so pre-occupied with the children’s sickness, that I hadn’t really noticed that his party round had been even more frenetic that usual. He stood in the doorway, looking dreamy and dazed, and said to me, “I’ve just met the woman I’m going to marry.”

I replied coldly, “Well, you’re still married to me.” But inside, I felt a surge of relief. We must be on the home straight! We were. I even stopped having my debilitating migraines. I began saving my earnings for when I would need then.

Now too, my job became really interesting. I began interviewing all the interesting people who came to Hong King. They included charming, handsome Dr Seuss, a man of goodness and integrity. Writer Iris Murdoch was a challenge, and I wish I could do it again now that I know more about life. But then I was so naive that I wondered how such a plain woman could have found a husband! John Bailey, the husband who later betrayed her when she had Altzheimers, was vague and donnish when I met him. Robert Helpman, the great ballet dancer was a joy, gentle, charming, and kind.

Barbara Cartland, so exuberant and full of life at seventy- four (honey and vitamins she told me) took me to her bosom- literally – when I mentioned one of my closest friends who was her son’s best friend. When Raine, Lady Dartmouth, her daughter, came to Hong Kong a few months later, she was just as friendly and charming, seeking me out with all eyes on her as she walked across the dining room to greet me while I was lunching in the Eagles Nest of the Hilton. She was radiantly beautiful, tall and elegant, with big china blue eyes and peaches and cream complexion like the Queen’s. It was hard to see her as the wicked stepmother of Princess Diana in the years that followed.

I don’t think I was very good at writing interviews, but I did uncover a talent for writing columns which blossomed when I moved to another country. I also discovered that journalism could be a powerful force for good when a woman rang me one day and asked to see me at my home. She gave me what she said was a false name.

I opened the front door to a tall, fair-haired sweet-faced woman with great poise and dignity. She wanted to talk to me about setting up Alcoholics Anonymous and Al-Anon, the family support group in Hong Kong. I ended up attending meetings of both, and then writing several stories. Both groups took off, and today, the woman, who became one of my closest friends, tells me there are at least seventeen groups now flourishing in the territory, three of them for Europeans.

To be continued

 Food for threadbare gourmets

 I’m still on my what to do with lettuce and greens jag and have adapted this recipe for lettuce soup from my old copy of the one and only Mrs Beaton. I use four spring onions if I have them and soften them with a couple of thinly sliced onions, a chopped garlic clove and a finely chopped carrot. When this is soft I pour in three cups of heated chicken stock. The lettuce then goes in, torn into small pieces, and a cup and a half of frozen peas, salt and pepper. Cook for eight to ten minutes and remove from heat while the soup is still bright green. Whizz in the blender until smooth. One of my oldest friends combs the hedgerows in the Forest of Dean for edible wild plants, and she would add leaves like nettles to this soup. I am not so brave…

Food for thought

You start dying slowly
If you do not change your life when you are not satisfied with your job, or with your love,
If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
If you do not go after a dream,
If you do not allow yourself,
At least once in your lifetime,
To run away from sensible advice… by poet Pablo Neruda

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30 Comments

Filed under army, colonial life, cookery/recipes, family, life and death, love, poetry, The Sound of Water, Thoughts on writing and life, uncategorised, Uncategorized

30 responses to “Life and loss, love and death

  1. A Woman of a Certain Age

    Sending you so much love my friend. And beautiful words as always, a captivating sad song. : )

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  2. I needed a good read to start the day! I think the Universe was looking after you, bringing you an income and some personal achievement to steady you as your husband went on his way…and good riddance! This is not to say you had it easy, but emotional pain is the hardest burden to bear, I think. Probably the reason your migraines left. Thank you for sharing your continuing story. xx

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    • Oh Ardys, thank you for your words… ‘a good read’ makes me feel good !
      You’re so right about the Universe looking after me, – sadly in my angry hurt state I didn’t realise this at the time and just felt victim !!!
      I was just muddling through then …. so good to hear from you good friend

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Valerie, please tell me that you have reached rock bottom and from this point on things are looking up. You discovered your amazing writing skills which you have preserved to this very day. They gave you some comfort during this trying period in Hongkong. With some measure of trepidation I am looking forward to reading your next post. Best wishes! Peter

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  4. I believe that through the hardships you have told us about lately, you have found your strong and poetic voice. Your writing is wonderful and your stories are spellbinding. I hope there is not too much more pain in your experiences; I want to know that you are well, are cared for, and are finally happy in a loving relationship.
    Ronnie

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  5. Ronnie, what wonderful words of support… it’s so encouraging when accomplished writers like you find my writing worthwhile. I so appreciate your response to this story.
    Well, yes, one more challenging story, as I told Peter, and then life begins to be filled with extraordinary adventures, rich experiences, loving friends, success in my career, second marriage and lots of unusual challenges – but not often despair after this !… and yes, I finally found true love at seventy five and am happy and cherished !!!

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  6. Juliet

    Valerie, your autobiography is enthralling! How much you’ve had to endure, but you tell the story so powerfully and it’s good to see a turn in the tale that has you developing as a writer.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Dearest Valerie,

    Once more I’m in awe of you. When life dealt you some hard blows you were able to hold your ground and rise victorious. No doubt, at the time amid diapers and betrayal, it didn’t feel that way. Your stories are an inspiration.
    I love Neruda’s words and find them applicable to my last two years. 😉
    Love to you and the your building partner.

    Shalom,

    Rochelle

    Liked by 1 person

    • So glad you enjoyed Neruda’s words… so validating aren’t they… and thank you for sticking with my story !!! Thank you for the kind words too…
      Passed on the message to my building partner,
      he returns the compliment !!!
      Love Valerie

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  8. What a chapter, Valerie. This speaks of the harshest pain and loss, of both your Father and your marriage. Events propelled you into this, but your fortitude and courage shine through. You accepted those offers and created an income, breaking new ground whilst doing so. This is tough, never mind everything else you had going on, as well as being a Mum to little ones. I sense that the hardest part is over for you in your story, but it takes a while for the self serving energy of others to run it’s course before calmer waters appear. I’m thinking of your stepmother and ex.husband here, as their actions created some belting patterns! One thing I do know, you’ll find your way through. Hugs and ❤ Xx

    Liked by 1 person

    • What a wonderfully perceptive and understanding comment , Jane…
      Even after all this time it is so satisfying and so validating to know that someone can ‘see’ how it was, and what reserves of determination were required to survive…
      Yes, you’re right – I was nearly on the home straight, and yes, the last push was the hardest !!! More next week, and thank you so much for sticking with my story !!!!
      With love, Valerie

      Liked by 1 person

  9. This chapter is filled with such sadness Valerie and yet I can see that there is light at the end of the tunnel as you start to become the woman you will be.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. If you do not risk what is safe for the uncertain,
    If you do not go after a dream,
    If you do not allow yourself,
    At least once in your lifetime,
    To run away from sensible advice.

    Thankfully you understand and ‘know’ and do move forward, no matter WHAT others say.
    I love your strength, your dignity, your ability to move forward.

    Hugs

    Liked by 2 people

  11. Hello, my lovely – thank you for your words and understanding as ever.
    Glad you liked the poem…
    Much love XXXXXX

    Liked by 1 person

  12. Angela

    Dear Valerie…I saw your post had arrived yesterday but waited till today when I had some peace & a wine to accompany me on your latest part of your journey….so poignant yet your growing strength is shining through…do you remember on the tin of Tate & Lyle’s syrup it had something about ‘strength & sweetness’? That phrase just popped into my mind as I read…can’t wait for the next part & know that the strong & loving person that you’ve become is well on her way!!
    Love from Angela

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    • Dear Angela, Love what you have to say… you are not the only person who seemed to need some wine to fortify them while they read this week’s instalment !!!
      Yes, I do remember that green and gold tin of golden syrup… my grandmother had it on the dining table every morning to spoon over our porridge since the sugar ration didn’t go round..
      I used to sit and dreamily read those words..’ Out of the strength cometh forth sweetness’ – the mystifying picture was a lion, and a bees nest with lots of bees buzzing around … I wonder if the words came from the Bible – a psalm or something… will check !!!!
      Lovely to know that you’re still reading, and thank you for your lovely supportive words .. Love, Valerie

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      • Dear Angela, just checked up.. the correct words were ‘out of the strong cometh forth sweetness’, and they came from a riddle that Samson posed at a wedding feast after he’d seen a dead lion with a bees nest forming in it… the book of Judges…you live and learn !!!!

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  13. Ah, Valerie, there is such joy intermingled with pain and suffering in your words. The word resilience comes to mind, over and over and over again, when I read your posts. I continue to be inspired by your thoughtful recognition that there are many times that we are alone, the only comfort coming from our hearts, our inward thoughts. I love the Psalmist’s words: “Weeping may tarry for the night, but joy comes with the morning.” Much love coming your way.

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    • Dear Rebecca, thank you so much for your beautiful perceptive words… I loved the words of the Psalm…
      yes, resilience is something I’ve always known I had, and when things were bad, used to inwardly bewail and fulminate that if I’d been in a concentration camp I would have survived no matter what the suffering… which I would have liked to dodge !!!
      Thank you for reading my story and giving me with your beautiful thoughts and words.. XXX

      Liked by 1 person

  14. I knew I’d need to fortify myself with a hefty glass of wine for this instalment, and I was right. How incredibly sad on the personal front, but how marvellous that the writing part blossomed. Being in a place where such celebrities visited was also a plus. Did you take it all in your stride, or did you arrive home saying to yourself, ‘Would you believe it, I have just chatted to …X…?’

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  15. Ha-ha – do hope it was a good vintage – you’re not the only one to mention having a glass of wine to strengthen yourself as you read !!!
    And thank you for sticking with me through thick and thin !
    I think I just got used to the celebrities as part of the job… it’s only now when I am less callow and not so young!!! – that I marvel at my good fortune in meeting such interesting people…

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  16. I don’t know what to say Valerie, other than you draw me right in! And loving the neruda poem – I’ve made a note of it. So pleased you found a great writing job just when you needed some independence, meaning and a way of moving forward after the death of your father and the breakdown of the marriage. Much love to you.

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  17. Oh, I’m sorry. What a brutal way to be bereaved of someone truly loved, at long distance and unable to share what comfort there can be with other mourners. Some bereavements are simply unthinkable – I can’t contemplate the absence of my old mum. She knows she hasn’t got permission for shore leave till she’s at least 100.

    A pre-cognitive dream must be a rather unnerving experience. Is it? Have you had any similar experiences? I’m utterly mundane myself and simply can’t imagine it.

    Oh, and I’m so jealous about Iris Murdoch! One of my forever favourite writers, a genius. Did you really think her plain? I always think the young Iris so beautiful, like an angel. A brilliant life, if a sad ending. I don’t know what Bayley got up to in the end, but I do have the impression there was some rather shameful behaviour involved.

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