Wednesday, October 18, 2006


I felt as if I had come to Austria as a girl and was leaving as a woman and couldn’t help wondering if I looked any different. I was longing to see Mum and Dad and tell them about the people we had met and the mountains we had climbed but as soon as I saw their faces I knew something was wrong. Mum had beautiful blue/green eyes and when she was distressed they were a clear turquoise.

‘What’s the matter Mum?’
‘Maddie’s back.’ Her eyes were brimming now. ‘She’s left Paul.’
‘What about Matthew?’ Mum reassured me that Matthew was fine and both of them were at the aunts. Maddie hadn’t wanted to spoil our homecoming and had left a message that she would come to see me in Sheffield when things had settled down. In fact she had held off leaving Africa until after the wedding. I now realised why Auntie Eileen – the eldest aunt, had been in tears when I walked down the aisle.

I remembered how Maddie and Paul had met when she and I were on holiday in Cleveleys. Paul had been on embarkation leave; then they had a long separation followed by a romantic reunion and impassioned pleas to Mum and Dad to let them get married. If only she had finished her training at the Slade School of Art. Now their marriage had ‘irretrievably broken down’. One of the factors had been the threat to Matthew’s health. Bilharzia - a disease caused by a parasitic worm found in ponds and streams and irrigation - was rife where they had been living in Nigeria, but the main reason was the marriage had failed and Maddie was now a single parent.

William told me not to fret about it; there was nothing we could do and we would have our hands full settling down in Sheffield so I left a supportive letter for Maddie and urged her to come and see us soon. The next day, with as many of our belongings as we could carry, we set off for our new home. Although they had two young children – a boy of seven and a girl of nine, the couple were middle aged and it felt strange sharing their home. We were given two rooms, a living room and a bed-room and the use of the kitchen and bathroom. The snag was we had to go from our room through their living room to reach the kitchen.

I felt there was an atmosphere in the house; they were quite polite to us but spoke to each other in angry whispers. The children were like most children, alternately sweet and naughty and the little boy would let off steam running round the house yelling ‘Corsets!’ I tried to quell my misgivings – William took one look at the double bed in our bedroom and was happy as a sand-boy.

Once I had made up the bed with our new cotton sheets and covered it with the blue woven Maltese bed-spread (a present from William’s brother and wife) I felt better. There was great pressure at meal times to ensure we had put everything we needed for the meal into the hatch and then – apologising profusely go through their room where they would be having a meal. One night I realised I had put everything in the hatch except the cutlery and simply could not face disturbing them again. To William’s dismay I tried to climb through the hatch and got stuck. Terrified that they would catch me with my head dangling over the kitchen floor I implored William to pull me back. He did with great gusto and we ended up on the floor but at least it was our side of the hatch.

The wife went out to work and the husband was at home all day. They hadn’t been clear about how much rent we would be paying and it transpired that they expected that I would look after the children and clean the house in return for the two rooms. The wife confided in me how she planned to leave the husband and was building up a case for a divorce. I had arranged an interview at the local hospital and I determined to find somewhere else to live if I had to scour every newsagent’s windows in Sheffield


apprentice said...

That was a pretty tough start to married life. Never easy sharing someone else's home.

Wondering if you looked different made me smile, such a universial thing I suspect.

PI said...

apprentice; it was quite common to get married with the minimum of belongings because during the war it usually meant instant separation. One's expectations were so much lower. Mind you one didn't want little ones immediately. I'm coming on to that:)

Polly said...

"William took one look at the double bed and was happy as a sans-boy"
Such simple creatures men.

A couple of our friends spent 6 months in Nigeria in the early 80's - the wife hated every second of it.
Hard to be separated and a single mother in 1951 though.

PI said...

Polly: she had family support of course and total back up from the three aunts which could have been a mixed blessing.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

"Mind you one didn't want little ones immediately. I'm coming on to that:)"

Ooooooh! And blimey - that was quick! If I'm right in thinking what I'm thinking, that is.

Poor Maddie. That couldn't have been an easy choice, especially in the 50s. I know I'd have found it difficult too if I had a child in an area where bilharzia was rife, and I didn't have to stay and take the risk. That would be very difficult to live with should the child fall ill.

Dr Maroon said...

Getting stuck in the hatch. It had to happen.
I bet you were a better cook than the wife as well.
Being in digs or living a semi-lodger existence is hell. There’s always the suspicion that the sugar is going down through the night, and I‘m almost positive there were three eggs left. Get yourself to those newsagents quick!

Zinnia Cyclamen said...

It's a testament to the quality of your writing and storytelling that, even though I know you must have found somewhere else to live, I still want to leave a comment saying 'ooh I hope you find somewhere soon'.

And I agree with everyone else about the cliffhangers, they're sensational!

R. Sherman said...

Sharing living quarters is a stressor on a marriage at the start. That you survived it is a testament, although your comment above about "expectations" warrants thought.


PI said...

Sam: sometimes I suspect that readers are way ahead of me.
Re Africa - I doubt if I would have taken my child in the first place and I think she was right to bring him home. However that was the end of the marriage. I have a theory that apart from very extreme cases, broken marriages are usually 50/50, as far as
responsibility goes.

Doc: I was very thankful for my pressure cooker. No ready meals - had to cook meat or fish and veg every night and William wouldn't eat mince meat so the meat had to be sliced.

Zinnia:To quote 'The Heiress' - 'I have been taught by masters!'

Randall: it was good to get the worst experience over first.

Guyana-Gyal said...

Your poor sister, will be she alright? I know it's all happened, it's over, but I want to know.

Ohhh Pat, stuck in the hatch, I hope the neighbours here were not scandalised by my LOUD AND VULGAR laugh at that one.

Sigh.This is soooo good.

Sam, Problem-Child-Bride said...

I agree with the 50-50 thing, Pat. People often do take a kind of perverse schadenfreude in demonizing one or other of the couple. These are usually the same people who think Eastenders is true.

PI said...

GG: she comes from tough stock and was/is a survivor. It turned out for the best but was hard on Matthew.
It was NOT funny at the time - sooo undignified!

Good Sam - I'm glad you agree.

Life of a Banana said...

Leaving Austria as a woman? mmmnnn...wasn't that the same time when the real Sound of Music happened?

PI said...

Banana: how did you guess?