Monday, August 07, 2017

Back to reality

An Imperfect Life        

Chapter 23 Back to Reality.


“Tell me what’s wrong Mum.”

 “Maddie’s back,” her eyes were brimming now, “she’s left Paul.”
My first thought was for my dear little nephew Matthew.  Surely she hadn’t left him in Africa but

Mum reassured me.

“Mathew’s fine and they are both at the Aunts.  Maddie didn’t want to spoil your homecoming.  She said when things have settled down she’s coming to see you in Sheffield.”

“She ‘eld off leaving Africa until after’t wedding,” said Dad.  They both looked distressed.  Now I realised why the eldest aunt – Edith 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 with the Aunts 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.  How different she and I were - but then we’d had very different upbringings.  Now their marriage had ‘irretrievably broken down’.  One of the factors apparently was the threat to Matthew’s health.  Bilharzia- a disease caused by a parasitic worm found in ponds, streams and irrigation was rife where they had been living in Nigeria but the main reason was that 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 the couple whose home we were sharing had two young children – a boy of seven and a girl of nine, they were middle aged and it felt strange sharing their home.  We were given two rooms – their former dining room and a tiny bedroom with just enough room for a double bed pushed up against the wall and the use of the kitchen and bathroom.  The snag was we had to go through their living room to reach the kitchen.  The husband was very quiet and reminded me of an ancient mandarin and his wife was short and untidy with flyaway hair.  There was an atmosphere in the house; they were 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 as happy a sand-boy.

  There was great pressure at meal times to ensure we put everything we needed for the meal into the hatch and then – apologising profusely - go through their room where they would be having their meal.  One night back in our room I realised I had put all we needed in the hatch except the cutlery.

“William I can’t face disturbing them again – I’m going to climb through the hatch.”

“Don’t be silly- you ca---“

Too late I stood on a pouffe and pushed myself head first through the hatch and got well and truly stuck.  Terrified they would catch me with my head dangling over the kitchen floor I implored William to pull me back.  He did so with unnecessary gusto and we ended up on the floor – but at least it was on our side of the hatch.

  The wife went out to work and the husband stayed 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 and told me how she planned to leave her husband and was building up a case for a divorce and hinted that I could help her do this.

I planned to arrange an interview at the local hospital and I told William we had to find somewhere else to live if we had to scour every newsagent’s windows in Sheffield.

  William and I both wanted children - that had been the trigger that had caused me to say yes.  After talking it over we decided to give ourselves two years to get to know one another and prepare a home for our baby.  William needed to finish his apprenticeship and find a job and I needed to find a job as a trained nurse and earn some money.  Oh and urgently we needed to find somewhere else to live.

  Throughout his life William would always have, or would find a book on whatever subject I – or family and friends were interested in.  He haunted second hand book shops and rarely paid more than a few pence for the most academic of books.  Now he provided me with Dr Marie Stopes' ‘Married Love.’  She was a passionate feminist and the founder of Family Planning.  Fortunately there was an FP Clinic at Attercliffe Common where I had to show proof that I was married.  Then I was educated on the methods of contraception available.  I considered the following three:-

1        It could be left to the husband.

2        An internal coil could be fitted which would require changing every few months.

3        I could be fitted with a diaphragm which would be used in conjunction with spermicidal cream. (“Cream or Jelly,” as an assistant at Boots once bawled at me?)

The first was a nonstarter.  The second – I didn’t fancy having a foreign body inside me for months at a time so I settled for the third – which made it my responsibility.

I found if you followed the instructions and the timings it was fool proof.  The disadvantage - it was a bit messy and the diaphragm had a habit of jumping from one’s grasp, once it was lubricated.

That problem was sorted – now I had to find a job.  I decided to beard the lion in her den, called at the Hospital and asked to see Matron.  I was in luck – she agreed to see me.  It turned out she was a great admirer of our own Matron and held my training school in high esteem, so I was accepted once she had seen my references.  I was to be Staff Nurse in the Out Patients Department.  I was given my first outdoor uniform– a brown gabardine with a neat little hat.  I just prayed no-one would have a heart attack in the street whilst I was coming to work.

Every spare minute I was scanning newsagent’s windows and asking around for rooms to let.  One day I was approached by a Middle European woman teetering on high heels.
“Are you looking for somewhere to live?”

“Yes I am – er we are – My husband and I.”  She looked at my wedding ring.

“Well I have a house which I let out and the attic is vacant but it is very small.”

“Oh please could we come and see it?”

  When William came home from work we met up with the lady and she showed us the house.  It was on a hill in a nicer area and the attic was up a tiny flight of stairs.  At the top of the stairs was a minute kitchen with a skylight and one small room.  There was a gas fire and an enormous pipe skirting the room at waist height- so useful for airing clothes I thought.  Then there was a lumpy sofa which was a put- u-up where we would sleep.  We had to share the bathroom on the floor below but we both rejoiced to think we would have our own private eerie.  Some time after we had moved in we were told that our predecessor had died of polio on the very same sofa bed – even that didn’t dampen our spirits.  We reckoned this would be our home whilst we were in Sheffield.  It was very cheap - we would both be earning and soon we would be able to buy furniture.  There was a big department store called Coles and I had seen a lovely dining room suite.  It had a Welsh dresser with a Tudor Rose carved on it, a refectory table and the chairs were covered in a Jacobean print.

  It felt great to one of the grown up Work Force.  Hitherto I had been a glorified school girl-resident in the workplace and subject to rules and regulations.  It was a new experience to be setting out in my new brown uniform which often elicited an approving smile.  As I smiled back I prayed everyone would stay vertical. Only the educated few would realise I was RSCN – not SRN.

  At the Hospital everyone was friendly and there was a more relaxed atmosphere in Out Patients.  The area itself was much dirtier that I was used to; there were no clean air restrictions and I had noticed in our eerie the window sills were covered with sooty, greasy grime which needed to be washed weekly.  The poorer children often had dirty heads and impetigo was rife.  One poor boy’s face and scalp were covered and each day I had to clean him up and then treat the area with gentian violet which made him deep purple from the neck up.  I think that, paradoxically now people are cleaner, standards of hygiene have slipped.  In those days we didn’t need to be reminded to wash our hands or keep our hair away from faces and collars.  No way would we risk getting nasty skin diseases and pediculi in our hair.  Chefs nowadays think nothing of beating a mixture vigorously with their floppy hair shedding its detritus to the mix.

  We settled into the attic room and I had to get used to doing a day’s work, keeping the flat clean, seeing to the laundry and cooking a meal.  That was women’s work.  Our main relaxation was the cinema, books and the radio.

  Dodie, William’s mother used to breed dogs and her offspring were all over the country.  She remembered clients she had in Sheffield and more or less suggested they should get in touch with us which they dutifully did and invited us for coffee.  It was the custom to give guests coffee –usually instant and served in a blue or green Denby jug with biscuits or sandwiches rather than alcohol.  We were given bridge rolls with a tasty Polish ham garnished with bits of cucumber and from then on all my guests were served the same.  Slowly I was learning to be a  housewife and a hostess

  The people on the floor below, with whom we shared a bathroom were very pleasant.  The bathroom had a faulty lock and I was horrified one day to see a teapot spout appear round the door.  My scream stopped it dead in its tracks and it vanished along with a very embarrassed downstairs tenant.  Profuse apologies all round and a new bolt was fixed.

  Life was hectic.  Occasionally we would travel over the hills to my parents and be pampered.  Gran was back from the States and Maddie had a local job.  Everybody was concerned that I had lost quite a bit of weight and I had to promise to go to see the doctor.  My life had changed; although I had worked hard for years - nourishing meals had always been provided and I had no housework or laundry to do.  Then there was the sex – no wonder I was skinny.