Storms and sunshine

In the early nineties my beautiful, sometimes bearded son Robert would turn up unexpectedly at our home in Laundry Cottage, near Winchester. First stop the bathroom although he would never consent to the actual use of soap. (Man-made chemicals secretly killing us all, was the unstated implication.) There was about him this all-pervading smell of stale perspiration and both kinds of tobacco. Most of his clothing would go into the washing machine and the rest in the dustbin. Luckily he was my size. Then after hours or days with us we would see him off on the road again. At other times I would hear from concerned, well-meaning officialdom asking for money to set him on his way home. When he was present with us there was always this sense of other-worldliness and sheer physical strength that so frightened Delia and so depressed myself. Whatever had happened, I wondered, to all that potential, so obvious to everyone when he was a child? A question without answer, for now he was where I / we could never be or ever want to be.

When Bob did turn up at home invariably he would accompany me on one of my visits to his mother in the South Winds Care Home. These were very often truly heart-breaking times, Joan in her wheelchair sitting with us out in the South Winds garden or in local pubs, Bob so mentally and Joan so cruelly, physically disabled. Those stuttering conversations were quite surreal, for both of them were sure that their own conditions (not that Bob would openly admit to having a 'condition'), was somehow related to or caused by the other's condition. At more private times my one on one conversations with Joan always focussed on our eldest son, notwithstanding my efforts to feature news of the rest of our family and the world at large. Not long before her death in fact Joan repeatedly asked me to promise that |I would 'always look after Bob'. I made her that promise even whilst knowing that I couldn't possibly honour it. My lovely son was out of my - or anybody's reach. But I believe it helped her and I suppose a mother will always seem to care most about the most vulnerable of her offspring. And me? By contrast I was typically trying my best to normalise everything.
Sometimes I would travel with or without Dee to visit Robert or help retrieve him from custody or mental hospitals in sundry places. I recall Dublin, Taunton, Stirling in Scotland, Portsmouth and central London. On one occasion I received an irate telephone call from a certain Mr Workman, farmer and owner of the Shell Island camp site in remote West Wales. Shell Island was where, some fifteen or more years previously, our family had spent such happy camping and fishing holidays. Workman told me that a dishevelled Bob had turned up out of the blue asking for money or work or accomodation, preferably the former. That was a bad conversation. On another occasion I learned he had got himself a job on a fishing boat based at Ullapool, close by the site of our latterday holidays. That employment did not, could not last long.

I still loved my son and still do. And I still loved my wife Joan, the mother of my children, and our other three children, all by then with their own families, therefore mine as well. But Delia was the one who lent to me a certain kind of sanity. Years before she had been through her own brush with the terror of a partner's mental illness. No need to go into it here except to say that it had left her with her own set of mind-scars. Looking back it seems incredible that this woman would stand by me and mine through those dark days. Besides the family my other saving grace was our new pair of dogs, both Hungarian Vizslas like old Seth and Chloe, who had outlived her mate by some year and a half. We were convinced that Chloe had gained an 'extra year' by us bringing in Mati, a lovely and over-lively little bitch puppy, then six months later the puppy dog called Sorosh by his breeder. We only found out by chance much later that Sorosh means, in Hungarian, beer drinker! But how well I remember the time when fifteen years old Chloe, with the other two already in the back of the car for the first of their daily walks, just sat down by the kitchen door looking first at us and then at the car before getting up and walking slowly back into the house. She could not have made it more obvious that she had had enough. And so, more tears.

But I realise I may be giving the impression that all was doom and gloom in those early nineties at Laundry Cottage. Not so. Apart from family visits of which there were many, and all the joys of grandparenthood, there were the quiet fireside evenings in that lovely fifteenth century thatched cottage and those daily walks in all weathers through the Hampshire countryside. Even today up here in the far north of Scotland I can relive those walks - the wildflower covered rolling chalk hills, alongside the river Itchen with its weedy, trouty scents of summer, bluebell time in Micheldever wood and sometimes going back to revisit our favourite tracks through the New Forest. And we loved to walk the mile or so along Worthy Lane to visit the Saturday farmer's markets and fine shops of Winchester. Oh yes, and my favourite pub, The Eclipse, where we met and made some good friends and acquaintances. Dee was always a bit wary of my attraction to The Eclipse. When I liked things and people too much I possibly was inclined to drink overmuch as well! Winchester's unique Hat Fair was the city's most ancient celebration and a particular memory for us. All kinds of street entertainment, much of it highly eccentric. A lot of good music and eating and drinking. A wonderful let your hair down Summer's day out, often with our families. Yes, good times; very good times.

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