OUR FIRST HOME
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