'74-'79 - the troubled years

The years '74 - '79 were for me a very strange dichotomy: life at home and life at work. This one is about the former.

Home life was itself divided into two parts - or three, actually. Possibly even four if I include all the sea fishing, so important a therapy. The first and most important part was of course Joan's multiple schlerosis, which wasn't showing any signs of stabilising. On the contrary her progression from walking sticks to walking frame to wheel chair was relatively rapid. Soon enough she was unable to carry on with much or any of her domestic housekeeping role, meaning that whoever happened to be home - nurse, me or any of our children - needed to cook, clean and tidy for ourselves and/or the rest. Sounds like chaos? Well, yes. And soon enough somebody always needed to help my lady get dressed, lift her into and out of bed, on and off the toilet, etc. For such a fastidious woman, so justly proud of her appearance this was a source of extreme sadness that too readily merged into bitterness. To make matters worse, that 'somebody' (at home) was all too often our youngest son. Stuart. was never to know what shocks might - and sometimes did - await him on reaching home after school.

Of course it wasn't all so downbeat. In spite of knowing all too well  how and why our family unit was beginning to splinter we generally managed to put a good face on things. Joan had always had a dry, very Yorkshire sense of humour and it did not desert her through those painful years. By the way don't ever let anyone tell you (as so many unthinking people told Joan and I) that MS is debilitating but not physically painful. In order to alleviate extreme pain my wife underwent several operations to sever certain pain-producing tendons including those behind her knees. Of course that meant we had to give up on any hope of some new 'cure' being discovered, for she could never, after that, have regained the ability to walk. And the ops may have reduced but certainly did not terminate the pain with which she had to live by night and by day for all her remaining years. She and I became completely fed up with medical professionals telling us; The pain isn't real. It's just your nerves sending out wrong signals. I yearned to tell them, this lady's pain is real, doctors, she isn't bloody wrong! You are wrong! Try some for yourself! But, as carefully polite as ever I kept my own counsel on matters medical.

Whenever my job did not take me away overnight I used to drive home from the office, see to the family's evening meal and then, at Joan's insistence, lift her into the passenger seat of the car. We would talk about the family situation whilst touring the district, often parking by the Solent where we could see the ships' lights and the lights of distant Ryde on the Isle of Wight. I would wind down the windows so that she could smell the weedy brine and listen to the shushing, calming sounds of waves on shingle. The sea did indeed give her great comfort. But often on such occasions she would quietly refer me to the promise I had made on driving back in 1973 from Southampton General Hospital after the MS revelation. The promise that, as I have related, I knew now that I could never keep. Once, parked on a slipway she asked me to release the handbrake. An accident, she said; You'll be able to get out when the car sinks. I won't. Twice she ended up in St Mary's Hospital in Portsmouth having attempted to end things by herself, Stuart having had to call the emergency services. They had a special ward there, seemingly for attempted suicides. Sympathy, as I recall, was well rationed, the implication always being that if someone really wanted to take their own life then they would, thus leaving the medics to concentrate on those grateful ones who actually wanted to carry on living. It was a ghastly place on several levels.

Adding to the pain of all this was the effect on our teenaged children. As I said, our family was beginning to splinter. Karen had put Bay House School well behind her at age seventeen, albeit with good leaving certificates, preferring to find work in the local mental hospital's geriatric ward. But it wasn't long before she left there and left home to enroll as a student nurse at the Middlesex hospital in central London. Then she abandoned that in favour of a brief spell in the Metropolitan Police Force. This in turn ended when my twenty year old daughter was told to confront the deranged wife of one of the infamous Kray brothers down in a  subterranean ladies toilet. All the while Karen, now having re-spelt her name Kairen, was with Roger, her boyfriend from school days. They came home to get married in '77; a joyous and for me highly emotional occasion and a marriage that, in North London, has withstood so very well the test of time. We measure our lives to some extent by the lives and the happiness of our children. Standing to deliver my fatherly speech at the wedding reception I spoke of how I had read Tennison and other poets over pre-school breakfast to our ten year old first-born, and had made this rather beautiful baby's first cot out of an orange box and an old curtain. A good lesson in how to embarrass your daughter - if not quite as good as when I had taken her at age fifteen out of the company of her friends (including Roger, I seem to remember,) from a local pub. By the elbow and without the option. It was past ten o clock, you see. Oh, stupid ... In 1979 Kairen and Roger presented us with our first grandchild, Ella.

At the time of Kairen's marriage Julie would have been eighteen. The four years of age difference sometimes felt like much more, for Julie was always the bubbly, extrovert teenager whereas Kairen seemed the more seriously 'grown up' of the sisters. Besides, we all know how great is a gulf of four years to those undergoing their teenage. I may be wrong but perhaps Julie always did feel in the shadow of her big sister, the one who always got good school reports, knew exactly what she was doing, where she was going, etc, and made few if any obvious mistakes. For Julie life really was just a bowl of cherries ready for the eating and she was therefore much more open to the making of said mistakes. I seem to remember that, like Karen, Julie had one main boyfriend in those Lee-on-Solent days. His name was Boyd, a real young smoothy, the one no father could have entrusted with their darling daughter! As you've gathered I didn't particularly take to Boyd, which may not have helped matters. Looking back, how wrong I was!A fine young man emerged, as so often is the case. Julie too left school at sixteen. From then on she lived sometimes home with us and sometimes away with her grandparents in York I remember equating her with that line in the Sound of Music song, How do you solve a problem like Maria? / How do you catch a cloud and pin it down? / How do you find a word that means Maria? / A flibbertigibbet! A will-o'-the wisp! A clown! // Many a thing you know you'd like to tell her / Many a thing she ought to understand / But how do you make her stay / And listen to all you say / How do you keep a wave upon the sand? / Oh, how do you solve a problem like Maria? / How do you hold a moonbeam in your hand?

Robert was our main concern as the 70's progressed. His school work - and I do mean work, not just the results of it - went into terminal decline along with his general behaviour. In retrospect it began in '75 on our last holiday in Gairloch. We should have known - or perhaps we knew but could not admit it even to ourselves - that something was fundamentally wrong when he began to imagine all sorts of catastrophies if we took the boat out fishing. Our obsessive fisherboy resolutely refused to board Culash, so we sailed off without him for the day. I can still see the lonely figure awaiting our return, standing still on the end of the harbour pier. I knew this wasn't - couldn't be - any kind of normal teenage angst. Suffice to say Bob's problems eventually involved the law court after a confrontation with another boy, himself locally a well known trouble maker, and then the hospital for Stuart who he, Robert, had shot in the bum with his airgun. The friction between Bob and myself eventually even led to a physical confrontation during which I was forced to accept the humiliation of my eldest son's  strength and superior aggression. One day I came home from work to find him missing. The telephone rang. It was fifteen years old Robert informing us that he had now left school, had hitch-hiked the two hundred miles to Grimsby, had enrolled himself into the deep sea fisherman's course and was living in the Seaman's Mission. Taking Stu with me I got into the car and drove up to Grimsby, of course planning to bring Robert home. We arrived there at close to midnight. The Seaman's Mission at Grimsby is not any place for the faint hearted or for those of a nervous disposition. Certainly no place for my introspective fifteen years old son. But no words of mine or his younger brother would change Robert's mind. We drove all the way home mostly in a worried silence (mine, not Stu's). Joan of course was in great distress about this, but to my delight Robert finished his course and immediately got himself signed on as a 'learner deckie' to the immense trawler Ross Cougar. Ten stormy days in the Barents Sea followed during which my son could never take off his 'yellows' and during which a senior member of the crew ran amok with an axe, trying to reach another crewman who had locked himself in the cabin out of harm's way. Something to do with one of their wives, apparently! Anyway, by the end of the decade Robert was back home and working in a local metal working company. We did not know it but the worst was yet to come...

Both Robert and Stuart were physically very strong, fine looking, intelligent boys. But neither of them liked going to school and neither liked school work and neither of them liked the school teachers. And of course the school did not like them in return! Why should it? Yes, without doubt, Robert became something of a role model for Stuart. Looking back, I didn't help matters by spending every spare home-time moment with my sons in our lovely old wooden fishing boat, Culash (by now a fully rigged lug-sailer). There were so many problems on shore but once afloat ... I remember, in the middle of winter one night racing home from London, wheeling Culash on her trailer down to the slipway, then the three of us being out there 'til after midnight on a windy, pitch-black Solent fishing for cod. No way for them to be ready for their next school-day, I see that now. In due course Stu would follow in his brother's footsteps by running away from school and from home, this time to Penzance in Cornwall rather than Grimsby  But that's another story. Right now, in 1979, he changed life for the better for all of us, and for me in particular over the next thirty years. How? All my fourteen years old son Stuart wanted that Christmas was a dog. Not just any dog ...

So by 1979 Kairen was in London with husband Rog and had made us proud grandparents, Julie was increasingly home and away, Robert was at home but not behaving in any way normally and Stuart was acting housekeeper - and wanting a dog ....

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