Another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
I first saw Philippa as I stood in line at the chemist. Like me she was waiting for a prescription for her son. Unlike me, her four- year- old son was sitting in a push chair, obviously unable to walk, while around her, enfolding her exquisite Pre-Raphaelite beauty was a miasma of pain.
A few weeks later, I discovered at a parent teacher meeting that this unforgettable young woman was my son’s new teacher. As I worried about him, she told me fiercely that children from single homes were no more disadvantaged than children from two parent homes, which were often more dysfunctional than single parent homes.
A few weeks later when she was passing my gate, pushing her four- year- old spina bifida son, Mua, and her younger son Tane, walking beside her, I rushed out and asked her to come in for a cup of coffee. We became the closest of friends, and I marvelled at her amazing courage, tenacity and intelligence. She had married a Fijian-Indian, and gone to live in a Fijian village where life became unbearable with the birth of her handicapped son who everyone rejected. One fearsome night, as a tempest raged and floods rose, she seized the opportunity amid the fear and confusion, and fled taking both children, and returned to New Zealand.
On her first Sunday back with her parents, her father insisted that she go to church, knowing she had rejected their Catholic faith. She had the choice – church or banishment. Her integrity and courage intact, she left her home, rather than compromise herself.
Life with two pre-schoolers, one a toddler, the other suffering all the worst aspects of his birth defect, needing constant operations, and having no financial support was an un-ending struggle. She could only cope by going back to teaching, putting her elder son in a home for other handicapped children during the week, and taking her toddler to play centre every day.
She loved coming to see me in what she called ‘my blue room’ and said how the life we’d made for ourselves gave her courage that she could have a good life too. Every time she was depressed I’d raid my wardrobe to cheer her up with an exotic garment. She looked amazing in the orange quilted Chinese tunic I gave her to wear to parties, but which she wore with black trousers to school, and also the turquoise satin embroidered Indian robe which must have cheered up the staff room no end! Driving to school, I’d see a beautiful figure walking down the road in jodpurs or hot-pants and crane to see the front of this fascinating person, and it would be Philippa.
She agreed to me writing a story about the life she led, with no support or understanding from the community, in which even a bus driver bellowed at her when she was slow climbing onto the bus, carrying the inert body of one child on one hip, and the toddler on her other hip. He yelled at her: “It’s not my fault he’s handicapped.” So she never went on a bus again.
There were the hours spent waiting in hospital waiting rooms for surgeons to see her for another patch up operation on her child – “He thinks because he plays the harpsichord and drugs my child into a vegative state to numb his pain that he‘s doing something wonderful for humanity,” she raged bitterly.
I wrote about the misery of carrying her heavy child as she toiled up the steep staircase of the condemned house where she’d managed to find cheap lodgings – and even made it look like a home, with pretty bits of glass and pottery and coloured fabrics draped across the windows and beds. Amazingly, Philippa had borrowed a friend’s clarinet, and managed every now and then to get a lesson. This was her life-line, and she doggedly worked away at the instrument.
The effect of the newspaper story was magic. A charity sprang into action, helped her find a good ground floor lodging, and carpeted it, so her son wasn’t dragging himself around on a bare floor. They bought a washing machine and dryer for her, to cope with her son’s incontinence, and the play centre stopped charging fees for her toddler son’s attendance. Between her headmaster, her doctor and I, we were able to cobble together a living allowance for her based on a sick benefit, so she could rescue her son from the crippled children’s home which he hated, and give up teaching as her health was giving out.
From now on I also had a friend who would always have my children on their sick days or during holidays, which had always been my greatest anxiety. The four children all became close, and my two would go with Philippa to help her with Mua at his swimming therapy. Philippa now became accomplished on a clarinet which she bought on hire purchase, and began teaching at schools, to earn some extra money.
And then she met a handsome French sea captain, who was as good as he was kind. He adored Mua, and took the whole family off to Sydney where he was based on land for a year. Philippa attended the Conservatorium of Music, and Jean took the children skiing, having secretly taught Mua to balance on his calipers to surprise his mother. Jean bought a state of the art wheel chair for him and the only car big enough then to accommodate the wheel chair. When they returned to Auckland the following year, Philippa was pregnant and even more beautiful. But I was terribly concerned. I wondered if she was going to die in child birth. I felt there was some awful fate awaiting her.
I was right. When the baby was a few months old, the family embarked on what Philippa had decided would be their last sea trip across the Pacific with Jean before settling into their house and children’s schools. It was their last trip. After a happy evening in the company of musician friends who came on board and made music with Philippa, who played the expensive new clarinet Jean had bought for her – his ship, the Capitaine Bougainville – sailed for the Islands.
A few hours later a vicious storm blew up, and in the pounding seas further up the coast of NZ, a tool fell off the bulkhead in the engine room, and cut the fuel pipe, feeding the engine. The engine caught fire, and there was no way of putting it out. The life boats were lashed onto the roof of the engine room, and Jean had to make a decision to wait on the burning ship to be rescued, or leave the flames and escape in the lifeboats before they were destroyed in the fire.
His Mayday message was never received, so he had to take the dreadful decision to launch into the mountainous seas. A sailor took each one of the children, but each time the life boat capsized, another child was lost. After three hours Philippa died of exposure and exhaustion and slipped from Jean’s grasp as his feet touched sand. He was tossed and tumbled in the surf, vomiting salt water before collapsing on the sand. He told me he had to resist turning back into the sea to end his life then, rather than face the years without Philippa. But forcing himself to get to his feet, he ran to the nearest house where he found a holidaying family at breakfast and raised the alarm.
A few survivors made it to shore, but twelve sailors as well as my friend and her children were drowned. A few days later, Mua’s little body was washed up, and we drove the five hours up to Whangarei for his funeral and for his mother, brother and baby sister Jasmine. Jean then travelled to the islands visiting the families of all his sailors who had drowned. In the months that followed, Jean often came to stay with us at our new home in the country where we now lived with my new husband. His pain was terrible.
Eventually he returned to his home in Brittany, and captained a cross channel ferry to England. He married again and returned to this country a few years ago to be present at the ceremony marking the monument being erected on the beach, in memory of those who had been lost. He wrote a long poem straight after the tragedy which he sent to my children… he wrote of saying goodbye to my bright beautiful beloved friend before she stepped over the gun-wale to reach the bucking life-boat below: ’Your smile and your serenity, Your only luggage for eternity’…
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
I didn’t get the food back home quick enough and found the frozen peas were too soggy to go into the deep freeze. Chagrined, I couldn’t bear to waste them, so made a quick and easy pea soup with a chopped onion zapped in the microwave and added to a generous helping of chicken stock.
When the stock was boiling I tipped in most of the peas and cooked them until the peas were soft but still bright green. After being whizzed smooth in the blender, I added cream… and the soup ended up being sipped for lunch, and the other half ended up in the deep freeze anyway!
Food for thought
“It is not the strength of the body that counts, but the strength of the spirit.”
― J.R.R. Tolkien