A life – another instalment of my autobiography before I revert to my normal blogs
Within two months I was pregnant again, and within four months we had moved house again. I was just as under the weather with this baby too, and also had a baby to care for. My husband was often away on army manoeuvres and what were called practise camps, so there wasn’t much support around.
The one difference this time was that I knew another young army wife with two young children who was as lonely and stressed as I was. Neither of us could drive, but we both had a telephone. We spent hours on it, never saying anything of much import, but just whiling away the time talking to another adult. We had very little in common, and when I moved house again some months later, I never heard from her again. But we’d each served a purpose in each other’s lives at that moment in time.
This time around too I also had the absorbing interest of watching my daughter growing. I’d discovered a fascination with child development after reading a sociological magazine called New Society for several years. Now I was watching child development in action. I knew from my reading that from eighteen months to three years, when the brain is at its most active, children are like sponges, soaking up words, information and new skills and that between the ages of eighteen months and three, the toddler’s brain is twice as active as the adult brain.
As I watched my daughter, I could see that the range of skills babies acquire -physical, mental and emotional – was awe-inspiring. And I was watching a baby of ten months thinking and deducting. One Friday afternoon as I sat on the sofa feeling ill, hearing the helpful local grocer deliver our box of groceries for the week and leave it in the kitchen, my ten- month old daughter skated into the kitchen on her bottom, her normal mode of getting about. I let her. Some-time later she came through to the sitting room and tugged my hand, making it clear she wanted me to go into the kitchen.
When I did, I was awed. She had unpacked the box, putting the butter, cheese, bacon and yogurt by the fridge door which she couldn’t open. Neither could she open the cupboard door under the sink but the things like wash-up liquid, harpic, vim etc were neatly lined up by the cupboard door.
The jams, tins of baked beans etc, were neatly lined up on the lowest shelf in the larder where they were stored. Everything was in its place. Unbeknown to me she had watched me and learned where everything went, even stuff like baked beans and cleaning materials that she had no truck with. She’s continued to organise me ever since…
Her brother’s birth some months later and a fortnight early was so painful that I passed out, having no pain threshold at all, and my last thought being; “this is worse than anything I thought possible.” When I regained consciousness, I found a whole host of seemingly worried people gathered around my bed. I left hospital the next day so that my daughter wouldn’t notice that I’d gone and revelled in being thin again, and fitting into a tight pale blue dress bought by mail for three pounds from Kings Road, Chelsea, fashion capital of the world for my generation!
Shortly after the birth of his son, my restless husband decided to apply to learn Mandarin-Chinese and take off for Hongkong. This entailed spending a year at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, before attending Hongkong University for several years. So we had to find somewhere to live within reach of the capital.
One night I was cursorily scanning the personal columns of the Daily Telegraph looking for somewhere to live. My husband was away with his regiment on manoeuvres, and I was filling in the trying gap between the baby’s ten o’clock and two o’clock feed.
I found a few lines offering a country house in the right area for nearly the right price – for a year. The next day I rang. The owner was delighted – he was off to Greenwich Naval College and wanted someone to keep his house warm. “Chudor, ya’ know,” he told me, listing the bedrooms… he said he’d pay the gardener.
We arranged a time that weekend to inspect the place, and when my husband returned the next day he went off on what he called a recce. He came back looking rather panic-stricken. “It’s bigger than Hampton Court,” he said, “and looks like it too, all red brick.”
Reference books describe the place – Layer Marney Towers – as a Tudor palace, composed of buildings, gardens and parkland, dating from 1520. The handsome red brick gate house is the tallest in England.
Undaunted, I persevered, rather fancying the idea of living in a stately home. We’d never be able to heat it, my husband argued, and then I saw the light – with an eighteen- month- old and a four- month- old, that mattered.
So I returned to the personal columns, and struck gold a week later. “This one sounds OK”, I said,” right area, right rent, and only five bedrooms” (my ideas had expanded considerably since my brush with Layer Marney Towers the previous week). I rang the owner – same story – wanted someone to live in it for a year, this time while he wound up his boat building business in East Anglia. “You’ll love it,” he said, and reeled off the amenities: “there’s the garden bedroom, the oak bedroom, the red bedroom, the four- poster bedroom, and the end bedroom…” My husband panicked again.
But a few days later we set off on a light June evening driving through quiet Essex lanes, with honeysuckle and dog roses winding in among the high hazel, hawthorn and elderberry hedges. We found Newney Hall (also a listed historic building) dreaming between fields and hedgerows, a small lake – which in the twilight was almost black and edged with a tangle of lilacs and shrubs – lying between it and the road. The house, Tudor red brick, and Essex pantiles on the upper floor with casement windows, stretched beyond the lake, reaching into a circular lawn with a cedar in the middle. Beyond that, a walled orchard.
As we walked down the gravel drive I could hear the sounds of music coming from the house. A knock on the door revealed a rather vague looking woman with a viola tucked under one arm, and the bow held in her other hand, as though she could hardly bear to stop between bars to open the door. “George!” she called imperiously, and the seigneur hurried to welcome us. Within minutes the deal was done, and we moved in a week or so later.
The house had been built in the time of Edward the Sixth, Henry the Eighth’s son, and all the land around had been gifted to Wadham College, Oxford in the same reign, so nothing in the landscape had changed for over four hundred years. The fields and trees, lanes and barns were untouched by time, and since there was no sound of traffic, no jet planes practising, and only occasionally the sound of a distant tractor, the whole place lay wrapped in an almost primeval peace. There was no other house in sight.
Wood pigeons cooed incessantly somewhere in the trees, cocooning us in their summer sounds, the donkey in the next field brayed occasionally, the cows mooed as they shambled past to the milking shed at the farm beyond the house. The old black painted, red-roofed tiled barns, grain sheds on staddle stones, and stables were laid out around a square, where the cows sheltered in winter. I walked across to the cow- shed every day, my eighteen month old trotting along beside me, baby on my hip, and carrying a big cream- ware jug in which to to collect my fresh milk. We also went there to pick up new-laid eggs from the farmer.
The house was built from huge beams and filled in between them with a mixture of mud and straw. They were plastered over, and the walls were about three feet thick, with deep window ledges where I put books and vases of flowers. Two old aunts had been living in the house before expiring and gifting it to George. In the mid-sixties they were over ninety, and the house was unchanged since the days when they had been born back in the 1870’s. So was the dust. When I moved an antique chest of drawers to dust behind it, a thrush disintegrated into fine powder.
I scrubbed and polished, opened windows, put flowers in jugs in the deep window sills, polished brass, and made the tables shine, re-arranged the country Hepplewhite chairs, and the drop-leaf Sheraton table, cleared thick cobwebs from behind the family portraits and arranged our still -new wedding presents, clocks and silver, antique oriental rugs and a few good prints and pictures, all my books, and the baby’s equipment and paraphernalia.
I spring cleaned from top to bottom, washed curtains, scrubbed floors, and polished and dusted the elegant Chippendale chairs. It was like living in a time warp. No heating, a gas stove so old I’d never seen one like it, and neither had the serviceman when he came. If it’s working, best leave it, he said, shaking his head. I had a big kitchen with a big square scrubbed table in the middle, red and white checked tiled floor which needed scrubbing on my hands and knees every week, and a real larder with marble slab. The only gadgets – my wedding present pop-up toaster and a wooden spoon!
At weekends, we filled the house with friends and others. School friends from Malaya, friends from my laughing, irresponsible army days, all of us weighted down with two and sometimes a half, children. Anne coming to stay while her husband laboured through Staff College, forgot the address, so simply peered at windows of large houses till she saw toys in them, she said.
Others came in distress, a girl friend known since childhood days at Catterick, diagnosed with MS, a fellow officer of my husband’s who’d been court- martialled, and who had nowhere to go; then there was the Polish-French, Quaker student at London University who’d never been invited to an English home in his previous three years, and who told my husband I worked too hard – which puzzled me exceedingly – didn’t everyone who had children?
There was the person behind an SOS in the personal columns of the Telegraph – pregnant and needing a home. She stayed for six long weeks, lolling around the house in pink, fluffy, bed-room slippers, never leaving me in privacy with my new-found neighbourly friends, and not enjoying my food. She’d left a previous haven because she didn’t like the vegetarian food. She left us after six weeks for another address, presumably hoping the food there would be better. She’d arranged to give the baby to a woman who wanted one!
And there was my teenage cousin who introduced me to the Beatles – not in person! She had a genius IQ and had been sent to an expensive boarding school to make the most of it. But she hated her school, and at this juncture, her mother too, so she came to us for regular holidays with tangled hair and skimpy skirts. There were parents and in -laws, brothers and their girl- friends, Helen, my former colonel, now a god-mother… and then back to primeval peace during the week
All this entertaining meant lots of food and cooking. Now we were at last the grateful recipients of marriage allowance, I was able to move on from mince and baked beans and tins of stewed steak and indulge in good food and pander to my sweet tooth with chocolate souffles, choux pastries, croquembouche, mousses and more.
My husband meanwhile had made plenty of new friends in his new working environment, including a pretty blonde girl called Angela. Although I liked her when he brought her home, we had several fierce rows because he went to parties with her, leaving me at home with the babies. I tried everything to make home seem attractive, cooking delicious dinners for him, having a drink waiting for him when he got home…
One night during one an angry argument about Angela, I dumped his steak and kidney pudding and vegetables on my husband’s head in despair. Mistake. He was a tall powerful man who never understood that when he hit my head with the full force of his hand, I wasn’t doing a Hollywood as he called it, when I sank to the ground too nauseous and dizzy to stay upright. On this night, apart from painful physical reprisals, I’d given myself lots of cleaning up to do.
And later, I lay in the long sweet -smelling grass in the orchard, where I’d seen the red fox glide through, and cried my eyes out under the late evening summer sky. At twenty- seven I thought no-one would ever love me.
To be continued
Food for threadbare gourmets
I’ve always made the same recipe for chocolate mousse, using an egg per six squares of dark chocolate, but this three ingredient recipe from NZ cookery writer, Annabel Langbein, is a delicious quick alternative. She uses 200g dark chocolate and recommends chocolate with as high a chocolate content as possible – I use 72% .
Break the chocolate into squares and melt very slowly and gently with a cup of cream and a cup of white marshmallows. (250 ml of cream, and 100gm of marshmallows.)
When smooth and melted remove from heat and allow to cool to room temperature.
Beat remaining cream to soft peaks and fold through chocolate mixture. Pour into glasses or bowls and refrigerate for at least 6 hours or overnight before serving.
Most recipes recommend putting the ingredients in a bowl and placing over boiling water to melt. I’ve never bothered. I just put everything into a saucepan and gently melt. The trick is to do it slowly so the mixture doesn’t go grainy but becomes smooth. And if it does become grainy, this doesn’t affect the taste, so you can soldier on regardless! And I always add a few drops of vanilla to the mix.
Food for thought
We are all broken. That’s how the light gets in.
Ernest Hemingway, American writer and hell-raiser
Having huge issues with internet, so apologies for no response to the beautiful comments before this page clicks out on me. Back soon !!