Monthly Archives: October 2014

You Never Can Tell

Like every parent whose kids have grown up, I’m having to get used to less. I say ‘I’ because Mr N, in his Australian bachelor idyll, is having to get used to, well, living that bachelor lifestyle, a whole different kettle of fish. By the time he’s back from there for good, I’ll be used to this empty-ish nest, and he’ll have to adjust to it alone. That’ll be another story.  For now, it’s about me and R, our 16 year old; we’re the two currently rattling around our four-bedroomed family home. I’m sure that it’s strange for him, too, without his big brother and sister (or his dad), but this is my blog and I’m seeing it from my perspective. Which is this:

Fancy having two spare bedrooms! We could’ve done with all this space a bit earlier in our family’s life, when the bairns were but babes and there were always grandparents and aunties and uncles and cousins coming to stay. Then again, I wouldn’t wish for my kids not to have shared bedrooms, oh, the joy of bunk beds and night games and giggling and naughtiness and squabbles and shared secrets for siblings only! Nor would they themselves have chosen not to squash in from time to time, top to toe, three to a bed even, when there was no more room at the inn. Anyway, it doesn’t go on much any more, this bursting at the seams, which – and whoever would have imagined it?  – makes me thankful for the crowded rowdy sleepovers with far too many teens on the floors and sofas when they do still happen (vomit excepted).

When, as it mostly is, it’s just me and him, I have to swap places at the dining table. If I didn’t take over F’s spot, which is opposite R’s, R and I would have been unsociably, and weirdly, eating side by side since the husband-and-two-children exodus at the end of September. I will, of course, have to move out from middle boy’s slot the minute he’s back home from university – if he’s in the house, F sits there, no compromise, for anyone, no change, even after two years away in Houston. But in the meantime, I don’t sit where I used to for my dinner.

Sticking with the mealtime theme, I could happily cater for a surprise visit from a family of eight for at least a week since the freezer’s now full of delicious home-made ready meals. I keep buying and cooking too much food, and small portions were never a thing in this house. Mulligatawny soup, anyone? Don’t like spicy food? How about bolognaise, or chicken stew, or a classy vichyssoise? Come on round!  R baked a cake, and I ate a number of large slices, yet even so had to force feed it to my book club girls four days later as it began to stale, one of them took a quarter home and there was still some left. Waste- and waist-wise, I need to learn to control this better.

On a positive note, the loo roll’s lasting an incredibly long time.

The biggest difference, though, is the noise. The lack of it. It’s often just me here and even when we’re “all” home, that still only makes two, one of whom is usually plugged in to earphones and quite busy with homework and other screen-based stuff, all mainly occurring upstairs with the door shut. Not that we don’t get on, R and me, we do. (We watched Pulp Fiction together recently, and then later twisted in the living room to Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, just like John Travolta and Uma Thurman.)

But the truth is, there are definitely occasions when he only really spends time in my company because he’s kind and sensitive and he feels sorry for me.  And he’s behaving no differently than the others would if they were here, it’s just his disappearances are more noticeable when he’s the only one disappearing and I’m the only one left.  I’m not lonely, just alone more than before, which, it turns out, is quite quiet.

Some things, though, haven’t changed with him.  Like, making a quick exit when any of my friends turn up, thus avoiding all middle-aged female clucking. So, right after our little dance scene the other night, R scooted upstairs as the first of my book-clubbers arrived. And if he wasn’t a temporarily only child, maybe the drama that followed might not have taken place. “I can smell gas” was repeated as each person came in. We have a gas boiler, gas hob and gas fire. All three were off. We checked, and then we checked again. “I can smell gas”,  said another walking through the door. This wasn’t funny. I rang the emergency number, was told over the phone to switch off the lever at the meter “but only if you can see without a torch, you mustn’t turn a torch, or any appliance, or switch, on or off. We’ll have an engineer there within the hour.” This was scary. Anyway, I did as I was told, we opened a few windows, poured our wine and got talking about the book (‘Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls’ by David Sedaris, if you’re interested). The engineer knocked, told us to carry on while he checked everything, and then popped in and out of the house and all the rooms, up and down, in and out, probing and suchlike. Half an hour later, he gave me the bad news: “I’m going to have to condemn your gas supply and cut you off.”  He couldn’t find the source of the leak, but there was a trace of gas on his reading, so he had no option. Worse, because there was nothing escaping from any of the exposed and accessible pipes, it seemed probable that any leakage was from the pipework somewhere – anywhere, no way of telling exactly where – under the floor. I – we all – immediately saw ripped up floorboards and a devastatingly disruptive trail of £££££££s snaking around the ground floor in futile pursuit of a pesky pinprick. There was apology in the engineer’s demeanour as he “capped” the meter.  When he’d said goodbye and I’d closed the door on him, R loomed downstairs, completely unaware of our condemned status or anything that had led up to it. His mouth dropped open when I told him. “Do you think it could’ve been anything to do with me leaving the hob on for 15 minutes?” he murmured. Hmmm, yes, I thought, calmly(ish), everything to do with that.

So, perhaps if there’d been a sibling or two up there as well (also hiding from my pals, as they would have been), R might have mentioned he’d left the gas on, and they, in turn, might have thought to mention it to me? Or, at the very least, one of them might have ventured down to see what all the to-ing and fro-ing was about, do you think? But when there’s just one of him, locked into music, on his own in his room, safely away from the lairy scram that is me and my reading buddies, why would he emerge any time soon?

I had to pay £20 to get the gas turned back on the next day, and will be dining out on the story a few more times yet. The moral of the tale, then,  is… um, what? Don’t let your kids leave home or don’t have kids at all? It’s clearly too late for either of those options for me, so I suppose I’ve just gotta get used to where we’re at. And anyway, You just Never Can Tell what’ll happen next…

Come to Belper, reach for the sky

Two quite bizarre things happened to me last weekend, both involving  HBC, an old friend of mine and Mr N’s who lives in Bristol, and who we hadn’t seen for about four years until three weeks ago, when he and Mrs BC kindly helped us to drown our sorrows after we’d dropped F at university nearby (my, how we drowned them).  And while there, HBC mentioned that in a couple of weeks’  time, he was coming to Belper, which is where I live,  for a boys’ weekend away.

Now, unless you live in a happening city or olde worlde chocolate box village or heritage hotspot, or by the sea or lakeside or halfway up a mountain, then you don’t really expect folks to holiday in your home town, do you? Take Houston, for example. Love the place, really truly, and I could give you 100 recommendations for stuff to see and do if you’re thinking of visiting, but the likelihood is that, unless you know someone who lives there, or you or someone close to you works in the oil and gas industry, you’re not.  Which is how it should be, really, because there are, perhaps, several hundred places that are more obviously tempting on most people’s ‘where I’d like to go in America’ wishlist. So, who’d have thought it but in a peculiar, small town, East-Midlands-of-England-ish sort of way, Belper’s a bit like Houston – way down on (if indeed on at all) the average person’s list of ‘must visit’ places. But here was HBC, last weekend, staying down the road, 11 pals in tow.


Pulpit and hoover

They’d booked themselves into a holiday cottage that, if we were in France, I’d be calling a gîte – large, old and grand in a faded way, a whiff of sloshed aristocracy about the place, its life history nudging through. It was once a Methodist chapel and still has the pulpit in situ, now overlooking the lower living room and home to the hoover.  Even more surprising (to me – I would hazard a guess that I’ve driven/cycled/run past this place at least 3,000 times), it sleeps 23 in eight bedrooms, has two living rooms and – get this – a sauna!

That, then, was the first bizarre thing: not only do I discover that lil’ ol’ Belps is a destination, but all these years there have been huge hordes of happy holidayers sweating out their hangovers in the sauna right under our noses.

You can imagine how keen I was to check the chapel out for myself. [Who doesn’t love a nosey round someone else’s house?  Never been to view a house for sale just because you can? No? Well, you’re missing a treat – really doesn’t matter if you like the decor or not, a bit of aspirational envy or superior-taste-confirming condescension can really cheer you up on a wet weekend, believe me. Anyway…] With Mr N away, oldest two out of the nest, and R filling the house with his friends, an evening down the pub next door to the chapel with the Bristol boys was just the ticket.  And here it was, down the pub, that bizarre thing number two occurred.

We met – or, rather, experienced – the fantastical Rob Lowe of the Ship in Space enterprise (“Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e-at-ship-in-space-dot-com” as he thoughtfully introduced himself to us should we need to follow up the encounter with an email). Briefly, Ship in Space is a rival to Richard Branson’s passenger rocket, only more affordable at the snippy price of £36,000 a ticket. It will be launching within the next seven years “or your money back” from Snowdonia and will, apparently, offer a better space experience, weightlessness-wise and views-of-Earth-wise too, as Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e demonstrated, in close-up, to me and the Bristol boys by the trajectory of a lit cigarette (we were outside with the smokers). He also gave us a lot of technical safety design information, to put our minds at rest over any possible fears about comets and meteors and take-off or re-entry explosions that he thought we might be having while we considered whether to get our cheque books out and invest, there and then.  What nearly sold it was the BSGOF offer. BSGOF? That would be ‘Buy Seven, Get One Free’. Bargain!

Roll up, roll up...

Roll up, roll up…

And in case we were in need of further convincing, we were invited to “International SpaceWeek in Duffield” – a week of Ship in Space presentations, noon till night, every day this week, at the King’s Head. [Duffield is a small village two miles down the road.]

Rob-dot-Lowe-with-an-e simply appeared, looming up and launching his rocket pitch, right there, outside the Holly Bush, in semi-rural Derbyshire, in the dusk of a Saturday night in October, selling in all seriousness his £36,000 boarding passes amidst the pints of real ale.  Throughout his presentation, for that is what it was, I thought he was one of the Bristol boys and the Bristol boys thought he was with me, so seamlessly had he penetrated our group. Quite where he came from none of us knows. He left as suddenly as he’d arrived, with a confident flourish, his email and website signature hanging in the air, as he walked off down the lane in the dark to the next pub of potential investors, fully expecting to be hearing from one of us soon.   Anyway, I shan’t do any more of his sales work for him, you can all look yourselves at the brilliance that is the Ship in Space website (spoiler: “The whole design has been built with complete and utter safety as the primary objective by building everything as safely as possible”). But, based on the sales pitch, the website and the sign that has been outside the King’s Head all week, who wouldn’t empty their bank account, cash in their pension and spend their life’s savings on the chance to be a two-minute spaceman with this lot?

Clearly, Belper’s the place to be, just ask HBC and his Bristol boys!

Less is more

There’s been a break in my blogging lately. It’s partly down to my having landed myself a job (a paid one, that is, thank you very much) and partly down to Mr N having landed, too, home from Australia for two weeks so we’ve been busy fitting things in that can or ought only to be done as a couple. [There are lots of these things, incidentally, when you’re part of a family of five that’s not long since moved house and continent, with a country-wide web of friends and family to snatch time with, one offspring reluctantly forced back into his old school at possibly the worst point to do so in the whole of his school career (if you listen to him, anyway), another heading off to university for the first time and a third embarking on her second year away and also moving house and requiring an IKEA shopping trip. And all this on top of a new kitchen to plan, which has come with – for us two, at least – an overwhelming, sense-overloading, rabbit-in-headlights reaction to having to choose door, surface, wall and floor tile materials, styles, colours and sizes which in itself paralysed us for a full 48 hours of our precious 336 together.]

But, perhaps the main reason for the hiatus is this: I’m not a trailing spouse anymore. How, then, can I keep writing a blog which is called ‘Trials of a trailing spouse’?* R, my youngest and perhaps the most innately style conscious member of our family, is concerned on my behalf that it might become boring and irrelevant, and I think he’s got a point. When I was living in Houston, it was easy to find things to write about. In fact, they found me. But now that I’m back home, living the same life as most people, I just don’t have that skewed angle to fall back on. So, yeah, I took R to the dentist to have his chipped front tooth capped and it cost me nowt because he’s under 18 and we have the NHS, but so what? It’s only really worth commenting on in the context of a juxtaposition with the American dental experience which I’m no longer having.

And another thing:  loads of the life differences that I’m delighting in are fundamentally mundane; there has been a lot of muscle work for example – shifting furniture from room to room, heaving boxes in and out of the loft, hoofing to and from the dump (at least 19 times, honestly, and still counting), manoeuvring ladders, painting walls inside and out, cutting down trees, mowing the lawns. It’s ordinary stuff that’s out of the ordinary for me because I’ve just left a life where my house wasn’t my own to decorate or remodel or even do the gardening in. For two years I have been uncomfortably watching the fortnightly team of Mexican yard workers sweat it out cutting our grass and chopping back branches (oh, and blowing the leaves from our drive onto next door’s ready to be blown back by their men the following week in that time-honoured, job-creating way of America, land of opportunity and of the free), all part of the rental agreement, non-optional. It’s really, really nice to take ownership again, even though I bloody hate decorating and lugging the lawnmower around.

There’s more.  Many hours of my now nearly three months post-Houston period have slowly wafted by in the company of my demented mother, aka Gran, while she chooses to keep her eyes closed. Not exactly page-turning, is it? It has given me the opportunity of reacquainting myself with – and introducing our kids to – the Telegraph cryptic crossword. [I know, I know, the Tory Telegraph – me?! But pre-dementia, dyed-in-the-wool Telegraph-reading Thatcherite Gran was also a daily completer, and super fast too, of said crossword. Clutching at straws, my so far only fractionally successful plan has been to engage her again with anagrams and synonyms, whilst also giving me something to do during the vastly longer pretend-sleep absences that being in her company usually entails.]  Somewhat excitingly and slightly out of the usual order of things yesterday, however, I turned up to visit Gran just as a looping, jumbling, dodder of them – mad old ladies and one mad old man – were off to “activities” (some more consciously than others) wherein I got caught up for two hours playing word games, guessing theme tunes, exercising my upper body, singing and chanting, and as an irritating result couldn’t get “Who do you think you are kidding Mr Hitler?”** off the loop in my head for the rest of the day.  This is the stuff of life, unromantic, unchosen, repetitive, regressive and often depressing as it is, and it’s part of my little world again whether I like it or not.  Of course, it’s called responsibility, and it’s something else I’ve got to re-own. It’s not exactly fun (though it’s often funny, it truly is) but it’s real, physical, shitty life which was quite easy to ignore before. That in itself is newly enjoyable in a visceral kind of way.

It’s not that my life here is dull, or that I haven’t got opinions on England or America or anywhere else anymore, or indeed that I couldn’t go on and on writing about what I do or  feel or encounter. No, rather, it’s that my life’s back on the same slant as most of the people I know, which could well be just a bit more dull in the retelling.

So, less, then, is more, is what I’m saying here: the blog’s not necessarily over, it’s just rolling along more slowly.

* Please don’t anyone suggest I change this site, it was really quite tricksy to set up and I think I’ve got this domain name for another three years or something, so no, life’s too short for more of that malarkey.

** The theme tune to 60s/70s TV favourite “Dad’s Army”. All together now, Who do you think…