Friday, 29 November 2013

Carers Rights Day 2013

It’s carers rights day today and you can find out all about it here.

I’ve been an unpaid carer for twenty years and finding out about your rights, entitlements and welfare benefits it’s a crucial initiative for a group of people on whom society depends. That may seem a bold assertion but a couple of years ago I did a calculator to assess the monetary value of the caring I did and discovered I was worth £186,000 per annum to the economy.

That is the saving I’ve made the country in one year when you multiply that by the 20 years I’ve been caring that’s possibly slightly shy of a Bank chief’s pension or their annual bonus… I’m not sure. When you multiply that by the millions of carers in this country that’s a pretty big contribution.

I used to get carers allowance every month. It was the exorbitant figure of £172 per month. Given the hours I did and the physical and mental exertion this requires, given also that it negates much hope of future employment due to the impact on my CV (unless I want to be a paid carer) then just over £60 per week is a nice gesture but not really commensurate with the work carers do.

So having detailed the link for carers to access, I wanted to use the rest of this space to highlight something else.

Carers most constant companion is guilt.

Mum in 1999. She died from Alzheimer's disease in 2011

You never think you’re doing enough because you can’t ever do enough.  You neglect yourself your friends and your extended family because of exhaustion, diminishing frames of reference/shared interests and because of time.

Anytime you spend away from your caring duties is spent fretting about being away from your caring duties or thinking of ways to be a better carer, or remembering that thing you were supposed to do as part of your caring duties. So it’s a pursuit of diminishing returns.

I’m sure there are carers who have huge friendship groups.

The majority of carers I speak to have experienced things differently.

People are still afraid of difference and this difference extends to carers because we live our lives to the beat of a different drum.

It’s one that revolves around medications, doctor’s appointments and meetings.

When you attend these meetings you are usually the only person at the table who isn’t paid to be there and it’s daunting when confronted by professionals who know everything. The best professionals know how little they actually know and so tend to listen far more than they talk. Cherish them. As carers though you have 24 hour training and practical experience to offer and this is equally as crucial as theory.

The other aspect in caring is the reason you are doing this. In every family there are those who do and those who see you doing and breathe a sigh of relief.

The same people often care for their elderly parents their disabled children and their sick in laws. Funny that isn’t it.

Perhaps this carers day might send a message out to siblings of carers that in fact pulling your finger out and pitching in might lessen the need for you to remark on how tired your sister or brother is looking. Or how quickly they seem to lose their temper with you “these days”, or indeed where you think they may be “going wrong” generally…Just a thought, Perhaps if you were a little less self involved you could help rather than criticise those who do care.

Making time for yourself when you’re a carer is at the bottom of a hugely long list of other things that you’re aware you need to get around to “at some point”

Mum with Lizzy 1994 

Like sleeping, eating and addressing those symptoms, which are becoming harder to ignore; making any time for yourself is a concept, which makes you laugh a hollow laugh. There aren’t enough hours in the day as it is.  I had to fit in going for an x-ray for broken bones from challenging behaviours around other people’s availability to care for the girls. That’s the reality.

But it really is crucial because you are the foundation of the life you inhabit. It is true that if you fall apart, every thing falls down and it’s more likely that you will fall apart, if you don’t take any breaks. It’s not just your mental health but also the cumulative effect of sheer exhaustion.

Although we are conditioned to believe by society and this greedy government that caring at home is the only way, it’s much cheaper than investing in good care provision, sometimes this becomes impossible.

Finding a good care home or residential school is vital.  Do as much research as you can, but also know that nothing is 100%. This is equally true of the horror stories you will read about things going wrong. This will compound the enormous grief and guilt you are already experiencing but remember in almost every case it was a dedicated carer or nurse who blew the whistle.

For every abusive paid carer there are so many more who are kind and gentle loving and dedicated. As I’ve being saying for years, Harold Shipman is not every GP and he does not define or describe the NHS. This is also true of social care and all those who work within it.

Mostly though for Carers Rights Day, I wanted to send my love. Not sure how many people will read this but if you’re reading this and any of it has chimed with how you’re feeling please know that you’re not alone.

The pressures of our lives mean that we are at a higher than national average rate of divorce and family breakdown

Like many carers I reached my lowest point a few years ago. As Phil came into the house I ran out, jumped into my car and drove down to the river. I couldn’t cope anymore I was broken. I was so sure that I didn’t want to live.  So sure that I wasn’t doing anything right.

I just wanted everything to stop.  I sat there for the longest time and gradually remembered the reason why this wasn’t going to be an option for me, why there was a reason to keep going, to endure and not to give in. Three reasons at that time, Mum, Lizzy and Emily.

I thought about those carers, who are repeatedly let down by the system and to add insult to injury judged by society when they ask for help, or realise the needs of the person they love are too great for one person to manage. I still think about them everyday.

It made me determined to keep shouting, and to keep bloody fighting. 

So I will, just like the millions of carers before me and the many millions to come. 

Happy carers rights day. xx

Lizzy and Emily 2001

Monday, 25 November 2013

The truth is the easiest thing to remember.

Dear Ricky,

Having seen a series of tweets you wrote last night I wanted to respond. 140 characters is a little restrictive for what I wanted to say so I've blogged it. 

I'm glad that you tweet repeatedly about atheism.

Some people seem to forget that not everyone who follows you lives within a society which allows for freedom of expression and speech; that there are those who live within far more oppressive and restrictive societies than our own. 

Others forget that whilst they may have identified and embraced their own lack of belief, some are still too nervous of the consequences to voice this due to external factors.

The ties that bind many to a faith they have been raised within, are invisible but strong. No one wants to hurt or disappoint the people we love.  To step outside the accepted norms of familial expectation is daunting at times and none more so than by rejecting religion as a staple of life.

Your tweets on this subject offer an alternate viewpoint. Anyone who feels you force your views upon them is misunderstanding the basic premise of social networks. More significantly they fail to recognise that the status quo of religious doctrine, functions more comfortably for them, by maintaing a 'message monopoly' on public platforms and potentially finds itself shaken by being questioned.

On Twitter I follow and am followed by people of faith, who enjoy being challenged respectfully.  They understand that the discussion and the exchange of ideas is paramount to all crucial debate and recognise that questioning of an institution, or the leadership of faith groups, is not an assault on the people who comprise its membership.  

Those who seemingly become the most enraged by your tweets, are those who speak of offence, which they say you inflict on them or others they claim to speak for.  If any personal belief is weakened by questions oft repeated, or a simple statement of atheism, then perhaps they need to work harder on assimilating more detailed answers than  “Because we say so”.

My point is that in speaking about the things that matter to you, you allow others a chance to know that there is another choice beyond an unquestioning acceptance of  doctrine. Also no individual or group should believe they are above challenge, question or concern. 

There will always be many who attack, who belittle, denigrate and despise you for this, but I’m sure you know, they are not the people who count. The people who count are the ones who allow themselves a doubt, which becomes a conviction that a freedom from oppression, whether that is in terms of sexuality, or reproductive choice, gender equality, equal marriage or in terms of a quiet request for rationale in the face of rhetoric; begins with the freedom to speak your own truth.

I feel your tweets offer this.

Ultimately to me and to many others, truth is preferable because it’s the easiest thing to remember.

I doubt you would consider doing anything other than this anyway.

All best, Nik

Friday, 15 November 2013

Chapter Four

I was starting to enjoy the quiet now the Adam was gone. I missed him terribly but I hadn’t noticed until it stopped how noisy the house had become in the months previously. Not because Adam was noisy but because it had been a way of him filling the silence. As we had started to talk less and less, he had put the TV on to fill the distance.  Whatever room we were in together had acquired a TV. All except his office.
Eventually the only time we were talking was when we were out and it wasn’t to each other. Unknowingly I was finding a way to ignore completely that Adam and I were beginning to talk less and less because I had my germ-busting secret mission filling my time.
As we alternated dinner parties over the next few week’s things went from bad to worse.
Through stealth and careful monitoring, I managed to make my way through most of the rooms in each home. There was evidence on more than one host and hostesses mattress and inside various pillowcases that left much to be desired.
At the time though I didn’t realise I was unhappy. I’d found a way to actually enjoy these evenings. My mission was clear. These people needed to be saved from themselves.
So secretly every time we were invited out to dinner, I cleaned the houses we were invited to.
It had been surprisingly easy. As the dishes were removed and collective blood left the brains and settled itself to the job of digestion and alcohol absorption, no one really noticed as I left the room. No one commented on the size of my bag. It was weird, but I was weird so no news there. No one really noticed the late arrival of the coffee either, which now became my designated job, a special assignment allocated to me after my rough treatment of Eileen’s precious dinner service and as her new ‘hilarious’ punch line to my perceived bulimia  “Sending you to make the coffee is a great way of keeping your head out of the toilet darling”.
As any group becomes more and more drunk, the quieter ones seem to vanish anyway and time takes on it’s own continuum.
Mention coffee to a group of ten drunks and you will get maybe two takers. By the time you walk back in with a pot of freshly brewed aromatic Arabica and some tiny biscuits, you can guarantee that a least six will have convinced themselves that they said yes.
Add Cocaine to the scenario which Gareth had started to do with Freddy’s help as a secret and stupid ‘protest’ against Eileen’s tyranny, and you’ve got at least two people who will rant on for ages, if you forget the sugar.
Fortunately drugs had never been Adams thing. Seeing his cousin sent down for fifteen years for trafficking drugs when Adam was nine had a lasting effect on him and one of the main reasons he’d gone into medicine. He was ‘disappointed with Gareth’ for a while but it didn’t last.
So I was on the clock if I was going to get it done before anyone noticed I was gone. It never failed to amaze me just how much grime seems to lie unnoticed beside the cooker in an average kitchen. To me in my purposeful state these people could qualify for the Ecoli Olympics.
Yet their kitchens were a shrine to the nations obsession, with all things food.
They were definitely my favourite.
It’s unbelievable how tidy, yet filthy they were. People will mention their mess in an off hand jovial way, whilst not really believing what they say. You never cross the threshold of a home only to hear “Oh please excuse the dirt”.
People just don’t see it for themselves but to me, since beginning my crusade it was obvious.
Once in the kitchen, I knew that I had a maximum of half an hour before I was missed.
Well I say me that was missed but actually I mean the coffee.
I got away with it for ages. I had removed soap scum and degreased for months undetected. My big bag you see. Best thing I ever bought.
But my greatest challenged remained unconquered.
More than anything else she ran her home as I suspected she ran her sex life. Eileen definitely did not like the idea of people wandering unchecked outside her strictly designated areas.
The house they lived in was at the end of the village in a slightly elevated spot on a lane with eight other listed Georgian townhouses alongside it.  Each house had a high walled front garden with the obligatory gravel. There was enough room for ten cars at the front but as we were all villagers too, we’d all walked to the party.
They had moved in five years previously and had been re-decorating floor by floor. At various dinner parties they had walked us through their thoughts, then talked us through the drawings, then shown us the work in progress and finally the finished result. The last room to be done was the master bedroom and every time I had been shown this room the en-suite bathroom door had been firmly closed. There was no reason to open it. The house had a bathroom on every one of its four floors.
Since I begun my secret cleaning, I had suggested popping in on more than one occasion but this was always met with firm rebuttal and we were then swept en masse out of the area to the waiting pigs trotters on the dining table downstairs.
It drove me to distraction. I had to know what lay behind that door but it wasn’t going to be easy.
Regardless of the months we had known one another, regardless even of the parameters of personal space, Eileen would trot along behind me like a Messerschmitt in the wake of a spitfire.
It never exactly got to a dogfight but we weren’t far off.
I would attempt
Distraction ”Is that Gareth calling you from downstairs?”
Deviation ”Oh I think I dropped an earring.”
Diarrhea, clutching my stomach and making a dash from the bedroom toward the en-suite.
But with lightening speed Eileen would get between me and my goal  and waggling her finger she would herd us back downstairs.
As I’d cleaned my way through our other friend’s houses, the contents of Eileen’s bathroom had consumed me. What was that woman hiding?
I knew that whatever lay behind that door must be a veritable treasure trove of filth and this meant that it would take all of my cleaning skills and products from my top shelf.
These were my Internet ordered, truly hazardous ones.
Industrial strength cleaners. In the wrong hands they could be dangerous but for me, they were safe.
As the evening wore on a most unexpected thing happened to me. I found myself quite enjoying this evening. I’d been chatting to Eileen’s sister Kathy, a “wild card” single. She was up from London staying for a week. She worked for a mental health charity in their campaigns department and we’d been having a chat about the challenges they faced with funding. She was really committed and also hilarious. She knew her sister better than anyone and together we were getting quietly pissed and laughing at all the bullshit. “We should have lunch while I’m here” she said ”Then I can tell you all about Eileen’s past. Don’t believe her holier than thou bollocks, she’s full of it” I really liked Kathy.
A vague feeling of guilt became stronger and harder to ignore. What I was doing was crazy and impossible to explain.  If any of them found out it would be the end of our friendship let alone Adam’s reaction. No the products in my bag would stay bottled up and unused.
Then Moira’s mobile phone rang.
Moira was the other “wild card” single and had been wooed by Eileen, into a friendship she seemed slightly uncomfortable with.
Her discomfiture was entirely academic to Eileen. The facts to her were clear. Their children attended the Independent school a couple of miles outside Leebury and Moira’s husband David was a famous actor doing what all famous actors should have been doing that night, filming with Julia Roberts in Scotland.
The phone call was from the nanny.
Moira’s daughter had fallen out of her top bunk bed and in the nanny’s opinion, broken her arm. The nanny had sensibly wasted no time and was calling Moira from the car to tell her they were on their way to the Hospital and for Moira to meet them there.
Moira dissolved into floods of tears.
Eileen immediately ordered Gareth to run Moira to the Hospital. A feat made obviously impossible as he stood up and promptly fell backwards pissed and laughing.
This served to heighten Moira’s distress and desperate to save face and secure her position as Moira’s new best friend, Eileen seething, announced that she would do it.
You could see that Eileen wasn’t overly thrilled. Moira had let the side down already by not bringing her famous husband with her.  Eileen had already mentioned to me privately that evening, that with the BAFTA’S coming up she had high hopes of being included on David’s table, so she rushed to cover her irritation with a breathtaking, if slightly forced smile.
And with that they were gone.
The ease with which the opportunity had arisen was staggering. I tried to ignore it but I had to know what was behind that door. This was my only chance. I had to take it. I made my excuses to Kathy and grabbing my bag from the hall I made my way upstairs.
My heart was pounding as I climbed the stairs. I reached floor after floor tiptoeing past the children’s bedrooms. 
I needed to focus. With a sweating palm I turned the handle to the master bedroom. Slowly and savouring every step I approached the door to the bathroom. I was there.
I opened the door and in the darkness felt around for the light switch. I found it. I was trembling in anticipation. I turned the switch.
Slowly I tried again. Still nothing. There were trailing wires and boxes of tiles clearly the new en-suite was in the final stages of redecorating.
How could I clean it, if I couldn’t see it? I opened the door to the bedroom as wide as I could. I couldn’t turn back now.
I knew it was there. The dirt had to be there. Why else keep it so secret. There was no other explanation for the secrecy. I opened my bag in the reflected light from the bedroom and choosing carefully, I selected the products I needed.
I poured them one by one into the toilet bowl, which I knew had to be filthy and slipped on my marigolds with a delicious shiver. The products mixed together and began to fizz, a lot. I hadn’t used them before so had no idea if this was normal but no matter.
It was then that I heard a distant belch. Then after a pause, another one, this time a little closer and followed by a prolonged fart.
It was Gareth.
I tried to move and couldn’t. He was going to catch me red handed, cleaning his bathroom.
How would I explain this?
Well you can’t explain it can you. There was nothing else to do. I grabbed my bag, ran into the bedroom and hid under the bed.
Wheezing heavily Gareth stumbled in and staggered into the bathroom.
Although obviously used to the lack of light, due to the building work, his blood alcohol seemed to be impeding his progress. From my vantage point under the bed, I heard him opening a cabinet in the bathroom smashing a bottle in the basin in the process.  The unmistakable sound of Gareth snorting cocaine was followed by a pause then
“Where are you, you fucker” he growled. I froze. Did he know I was under the bed?
Then he said “AH HA GOTCHA! This‘ll give ‘em a laugh”
He knew. He’d found me. It was all over.
But it wasn’t me he’d found.
As I peered out from under the bed, Gareth walked out into the bedroom grinning and holding the largest vibrator I had ever seen.
“Eileen’s best friend eh? The sanctimonious cow doesn’t know I know about you, does she my Phallus friend. Let’s take you downstairs and give everyone a big laugh eh?” And with that he took his cigar out of his mouth and turning threw it into the toilet bowl behind him, where it connected with my chemicals.  There was a searing blue white light then nothing.
I was told afterwards that the explosion could be heard for 3 miles.
I woke up in hospital two days later. 
I’d lost two days but Gareth had lost the tip of two fingers from his left hand and had to have skin grafts to his right. Possibly the part that had annoyed Eileen the most, was the reason for his skin grafts.
The heat from the blast had welded the vibrator to his palm. The police cordoned off the area and evacuated the neighbours for their own safety. Most of the village was assembled by the time Gareth was wheeled the length of the lane on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance. His arm in a splint and the welded vibrator still attached to his hand.
Adam divided his time between visiting my hospital bed and Gareth’s and sat grim faced while I gave my statement to a young PC who to her great credit didn’t laugh once.
Although the anti-terror unit decided not to pursue it, It didn’t prevent Kate nicknaming the whole episode “Operation dildo”

So there it was done and dusted, to use a cleaning analogy.
Still we’d all come out of it more or less alive. Gareth was healing and he and Eileen had retrieved their favourite bit of my marriage, Adam and taken him to a ‘place of safety’. I was feeling a little sorry for myself and I was wondering what else could go wrong. I was having a bit of a wallow in selfpity and I hated myself for it but it was true.
I filled the kettle and the phone rang. It was my sister Lucy “ Hi Sarah,” she sounded quiet. “Hi luce how’s things?” She paused then “Oh there ok. Listen, if Adam doesn’t mind, can I come over to yours tomorrow night?”
 I still hadn’t plucked up the courage to tell her that Adam had left yet. I just didn’t think it was fair to Mum and I really couldn’t face telling Mum.
“Um… sure are you ok?” “Yes fine it’s just the girls..” She trailed off,  my twin nieces Amy and Phoebe  were quite a handful and Lucy was shattered most of the time because they didn’t sleep much and were into everything.
 “Are they ok”
“Yes well…yes except.. well, the thing is, it’s Amy. She’s been diagnosed with Autism”

Chapter Three

 So to make Adam happy we’d bloody joined Gareth and Eileen’s bloody “group” and fell into bloody step in the bloody ranks of bloody Suburban dinner party people.
Marriage is about compromise.
There were our hosts, Us, Pauline and Trevor who both worked with Gareth, Katrina (Eileen’s Psychic) and her husband Freddy, Jamie and Paulette who owned the Country Club where Adam and Gareth played tennis and occasionally a ”wild card” couple who Eileen would gives clues to in a god awful guessing game, mysteriously, as though she had Brad and Angelina tucked away in a cupboard somewhere.
 I hated it but somehow or other we’d always turn up, dutifully suited and booted and armed with wine and smiles of joy. Real smiles in Adams case, forced and very fake smiles in my case.
The fact that none of us liked each other didn’t really feature. Once you’re in, getting out was unthinkable.
We all sat around with The Arctic Monkeys on Gareth and Eileen’s, Linn music system and chatted about current affairs, illicit affairs and who should win X factor. Eileen commented very loudly every time the subject was raised “I never watch ’that rubbish’ but has everyone seen the new Attenborough programme. It’s breath taking?”
We discussed their book clubs; their holiday plans and whether moving or building an extension was the answer for them.  
In reality they discussed it; I was my usual tongue-tied self in the face of small talk. As Eileen’s sat beside me, on more than one occasion, patting my hand, and saying  “ I think you are so true to yourself Sarah my Darling, so real. You’re very brave, not caring about how you look”
I fumed, and mentally tattooed the word ‘Twat’ on her forehead.
Mainly the women talked about their children. The fact that we didn’t have any through choice and were therefore excluded from this conversation, didn’t pose a problem as far as they were all concerned. I’d tried to explain at the first gathering, but the idea of not wanting children was so offensive to earth mother Eileen that it led her to talk for an hour about breast feeding as a form of self comfort.
Eileen cleared the field on the topic of being a mother. As a businesswoman and proud procreator she assured us, with studied modesty, that she juggled both her fabulous chain of clothes shops and fabulous home in her inimitable fabulous way.
I sought solace in relating key “Eileen-isms” once a week to Kate whilst Adam was politically losing his tennis matches to Gareth. Her snort of derision on Eileen was very cathartic “If instructing the nanny and housekeeper and her assistant, can be considered juggling then, juggle she does Sarah, juggle she does”.
I had nothing against careers, mothers or rich people normally. All my friends in London worked and all of them had children. They were always knackered and mostly guilty that they were potentially neglecting one or all areas of their lives. Then there would be some tabloid crap about supposed research which would darkly suggest they were causing harm to their much loved children through sending them to nursery and they would torture themselves.
I remember when I was at the newspaper finding the Head of News sobbing in the toilets at work because she’d phoned the nursery and they’d excitedly told her that her daughter had taken her first steps. “I wasn’t there” she’d sobbed “I’m missing everything” Loving her job and loving her child were not mutually exclusive.
I’ve never yet met a working mother who didn’t love their child to distraction.
Yet every time Eileen opened her collagen enhanced lips (again cosmetic enhancements what ever floats you boat unless it’s Eileen in which case I want to sink that boat with a torpedo) I loathed every single word she said. I toyed with the idea of joining the Socialist Workers Party and hosting dinner at ours with my new comrades as guests of honour, laughing and pointing at Eileen and Gareth as fine examples of privileged “scum”.
Then I realised that as dinner parties were probably viewed as the ultimate bourgeois pursuit, the Socialist Workers Party wouldn’t come and it would be just the four of us with me trying to rant about Karl Marx, whilst the other three ignored me and discussed Gareth’s shares portfolio.
Although I disagreed with both Eileen and Gareth on almost every account from politics (right wing posing as centre left because we had a Labour Controlled Council and Eileen couldn’t risk it) to the internet (not just because of Eileen’s campaigning but another opportunity for a speech from Gareth about ‘feminazis’) I did envy the fact that Eileen had an opinion on everything and she wasn’t afraid to use it.
She at least had my grudging respect on that.
I had time to psychologically examine the situation whilst I was silently watching Adam morph from the man I loved into a spineless shadow of himself.
Frustrated by yet another conversation revolving around children, I once tried to start a conversation about feminism. The ensuing conversation looked promising until our host Gareth said “oh you mean bull-dykes” There followed a short, politically correct silence in which the group struggled to work out if this comment from Gareth was ‘ironic sexism’ or actual sexism-and if laughter in either case was acceptable.
 You could literally see the group’s confusion crash from being thought humourless to being thought sexist, via concern as to whether Gareth might get annoyed.
In the unstable world of fake friendship a missed step could prove fatal. Just like a baby Impala straying too far from the herd on the Serengeti, straight into the path of a hunting lioness.
This silence was, swiftly and expediently broken by our own pride leader.
Eileen correctly reading the silent subtext showed us the truth and the light with her comment of “Oh Gareth you are such a Neanderthal at times Darling, but to be honest I just loathe political correctness don’t you?”
Relieved, everyone except me agreed noisily.
Most of it was tolerable to some degree, but there came a stage in the sheer familiarity of it all that I was pretty much able to second guess who would say what to whom, on any given subject.
There were also strictly observed rules which I became aware of when I’d once walked through to the kitchen carrying plates from the table and found Eileen upbraiding her sister in law Caroline, who was married to Gareth’s kind and quieter brother, Paul.
 We hadn’t met them before this evening. They were the nights “wild card” couple and had been charming all night. Their genuine and funny stories of their own children and what growing up with Gareth had been like had, had me in tears of laughter. At one point Caroline’s battle with cancer had come up as natural part of conversation and in the midst of Caroline’s sentence Eileen had suddenly stood up and clapping her hands together had declared “Pudding I think” Non-plussed Caroline had stood up too and offered to help. Eileen had brushed past her wordlessly into the kitchen. So Caroline had quietly followed.
I waited a moment then gathered plates and followed too. I wasn’t sure what I would do or say but I knew Eileen would pounce. Eileen always pounced. Caroline was the baby Impala tonight.
As I walked into the kitchen she was serving Eton mess into bowls with her back to Caroline and in the clipped tones of a PE teacher berating a class of children, Eileen was instructing Caroline “Cancer is awful my darling I know, and you’re being very brave blah blah blah. But really, no one needs to hear about it in graphic detail. I was trying to save everyone from an explanation of your chemo side effects. I mean I’m family and I struggle with that as a topic my darling” I saw Caroline’s face register shock and then her eyes fill with tears. I half threw the plates on to the worktop. Caroline drew in her breath slowly and simply replied “Thank you Eileen” Then she walked out of the kitchen.
Eileen said,  ”Oh kind of you to bring them out Darling, but do be careful with those as you put them down won’t you. You won’t recognise it but they’re quite valuable”.
I stared at her. She briefly looked up from her task. “Sorry Darling did you have something you wanted to say?” I had a lot that I wanted to say. But because it was me, because I wasn’t entirely sure that I would be able to stop and might inadvertently beat her to death with one of her slotted spoons. I said nothing.
I walked back to the dining room and took my place beside Adam, who was laughing far too loudly as Gareth droned on. Across the table from me, Paul was whispering to Caroline and carefully taking her tissue from her he gently dabbed her eyes and kissed the tip of her nose, making her smile. The love they had for one another was so apparent in that tiny gesture of comfort that I held my breath for a while. I knew that even if I’d dragged Adam away from Gareth’s every word and drawn his attention to the couple across the table, he wouldn’t have a clue what I meant. Not anymore the old Adam was gone and he had been body snatched by this man sitting beside me laughing too loudly at unfunny jokes told by an asshole.
I suddenly wondered in that moment if this new Adam would, love me, through the worst that life can bring, in the way that Paul was doing for Caroline. Whether we would ever unite in being one another’s comfort if the terror of life was before us. Facing it together and holding hands and walking on.
Worse than that, I knew that I wouldn’t want this Adam standing beside me.
It was, I suppose this moment of tenderness, of truth in the midst of so much superficiality that something imploded in my head. Unable to deal with the truth of my own life and the change in a man I’d loved for so long, I buried it and gave myself a distraction to focus on instead.
My mind began to wander, away from the tales of work rest and play and I started to drift.
As I nodded and smiled at the hilarity of the Gareth’s latest triumph over his work nemesis “Fuckface”, I noticed over his head a cobweb hanging down and trailing a little dust.
It was fleeting but it was there and I couldn’t take my eyes of it. This redundant web, which was now only useful to catch the dust of the lives, which passed below it. I drained my wine glass and tried to remember how many refills I’d had that night. I couldn’t and I really didn’t care.
Next time that it was their turn to host. There was no “wild card” couple. I sat in almost total silence willing the night to be over, especially when a couple of hours in Adam was being really enthusiastic over the idea of a group holiday. An evening of this once a fortnight was torture enough the notion of ten consecutive nights with all their children made me feel nauseous. So I tried to find something to focus on and there it was. The cobweb was still there and if anything a little longer, a little heavier with dust and it moved slightly, pushed by the slight breeze from Eileen’s theatrical hand gestures.
Now I came to notice it there was another cobweb in the corner of the ceiling. Or was it a crack in the plaster? No cobweb definitely a cobweb and another over the doorframe. Why hadn’t I noticed this before?
I excused myself from the table and made my way to the bathroom. I sat for a moment on the closed lid. I was vaguely aware of the dry sensation in my mouth and the familiar pounding of my heart. So again I wondered just how bad this place was in terms of cleanliness.
I stood up and faced the toilet. My worst fears were confirmed. As I lifted the lid of the toilet bowl the evidence was plain to see. It was slightly stained.
I ran a finger along the windowsill. It was barely perceptible but unmistakable. Staring back at me from my trembling fingertip was some dust.
My heart was pounding. I felt faint and a little sick. These people were feeding us. Feeding us God only knew what concoction of salmonella based food. No it was fine. It was fine I was just a little drunk or just over reacting. I steadied myself against the wall and took the pulse in my neck. Trying to remember how quickly salmonella forces the shut down of all organs. This panic attack was a tricky one. All the people I had come to like least in the world, including Adam, surrounded me. What had happened to us?  I tried to remember my happy place but all I could see was dust and dirt and a sea of advancing cockroaches.
My heart was definitely beating far too fast It was it also skipping now. Oh God this was it. It was going to burst. My neck ached and there was a pain in my left arm I was dying I was definitely dying I couldn’t breath.  I slid down the wall convinced that each desperate breath was my last. As  rolled myself in a tight ball on the floor all I could see was Adam at my funeral heckling Adam during my Eulogy with shouts of ‘Bloody feminazi actually” and Adam and everyone else laughing hysterically…
Salvation came in the least Samaritan-esque form I’ve ever experienced There was a pounding on the bathroom door “Sarah….SARAH. What on earth are you DOING in there all this time?” Barked Eileen, through the door.
Then in a stage whisper “Is it Bulimia Darling? Is that why your skin is so bad?”

So I’d done this for Adam, compromised and been flexible and joined his group of fake friends and now he was gone. Remembering all this as I turned the light out and closed the door on all his stuff packed up and labeled and ordered, was awful and wishing it wasn’t so was pointless.  As the result of a chain reaction of one tiny set of unforeseen circumstances, the whole thing was literally about to all, blow up in my face. 

Chapter Two

So here I was alone again, unnaturally. I spent the next two days in my pyjamas. Compulsively checking my mobile phone for messages, but it just lay in my palm silently judging me.
I decided to start packing Adam’s stuff because that way I would be occupied and also as I was always the least prepared person on the planet, if I actually packed up his things in an organised manner it wouldn’t actually happen.
Unfortunately as hard as I worked it still left me time to reflect.
Adam and I had moved out of London, a year before I blew up The Jeffersons bathroom.
Neither of us were from the city originally having both grown up in rural towns and although we’d loved our flat and I loved my job as an online news editor, we’d just got exhausted with everything really. I’d been ill and although I’d got through the worst of it I’d been left with annoyingly persistant panic attacks. So we’d taken stock and decided to try the countryside for a while. When the job came up in the beautiful village of Leebury it was perfect.
Only an hour from London Adam’s surgery was next to the post office, which was opposite the school and across the road from a pub which featured in the Doomsday Book. There was a village green and a handful of pretty shops. With a retail park only 40 minutes away it was commuter belt heaven and we knew straight away when we’d first  walked through the door of the cottage that it was right for us.
Adam had put his arms around me and said “Now Sarah, now you can write your book” My book was our secret, and I’d been so happy I’d cried.
The village was close to my hometown of Darton and the wisdom of the proximity to my family was up for question when my Aunty Edith threw us a, ‘leaving London Party’ the night we moved in.
My parents had died in a car crash when I was seven and my twin sisters Kate and Lucy were four. It was the most mundane and routine of accidents. They’d been on their way to the supermarket on Christmas Eve to get the big Christmas shop and a drunk driver had ploughed into them. It was ten o’clock in the morning. I can remember standing behind my Aunty Edith who had been minding us, when she opened the door to two policemen. Then I hadn’t spoken a word for two days.
My Aunty Edith and my Uncle Peter were the very best of people. They’d only been married a couple of years and had delayed having children until they could afford a bigger house. Then when my parents died they decided not to have any of their own. Or as my Uncle peter put it “You are ours I was just saved the bother of being sworn at by your Aunty Edith in the delivery room.”
I can remember my parents, my sisters can’t though. My mother was gentle and a beautiful singer and my Dad was funny and very tall. They’d met when he was training to be a Dr and mum was training to be a nurse. Then in a heart beat, in a moment of selfish stupidity, they were gone. The driver had gone to prison and after sending us a letter of apology and photo’s of his own two girls he’d hung himself in his cell.
So another family was ruined.
I loved my Aunt and Uncle with all my heart but going home meant we were now only forty minutes from conversations such as the one that had been conducted across me, between my Auntie Edith and her friend Susan Chappell. I sat there like a sort of prop as they batted their knowledge between them.
Susan Chappell to me   ”My love do you think if you hadn’t been barren you probably wouldn’t have gone queer in the head? Because, and Edith you can back me up here, you’ve never, never had that on your mothers side of the family, nor your poor dead Father’s. God rest their souls”
Aunty Edith to Susan Chappell “Sue you can’t say queer anymore dear they don’t like that”
Susan Chappell to Aunty Edith “Who don’t like that?”
Aunty Edith “The gays dear”
Susan Chappell ”Oh. Well who changed that?”
Aunty Edith”I think it was Channel 4”
Susan Chappell.  “Well, what are we supposed to say these days when someone goes..” Susan Chappell tapped her head.
Aunty Edith “It’s mental now dear, they say mental”
Susan Chappell “Oh I’m glad you told me that, I wouldn’t want to get it wrong and offend someone.”
Aunty Edith sagely “ I can recommend Loose Women Susan, I’ve learnt an awful lot from that and This Morning”
Then these two diversity champions, talked through the wonders of Philip Schofield who “took such a strong line on the rioting plimpsol looters” and moved seamlessly on to the various comparative merits of his co-presenters Holly Willoughby and Fern Britain although neither of them approved of her having had a “tantric band” operation.
I’d sat between them wondering whether, if home truly was where the heart lies, then it was definitely doing so in isolation from the brain.
Still once we’d finally exited the party, ‘from, in and beyond hell’ Leebury was lovely.
We’d done it. We’d taken the plunge and Adam was loving every minute of it.
It was all going so well and then Adam met Gareth at the Tennis club. I knew my overwhelming dislike of sport would eventually give me an adequate reason. They’d bonded initially over a shared interest in tennis. Then discovered over the post match pint that they could also talk endlessly about Top Gear and football fandom. The die was cast.
The other thing, which united them, was their background.
Adam loved his job as a GP but found the salary embarrassing. Especially as his brother and three sisters all struggled to manage most of the time. They’d been so proud of their baby brother. The first in his family to do A levels let alone go to Uni. Because of this he’d always been keen to remember his roots and had always said, “The blight of the middle class is that a corporate box at the footie makes liars of many middle-class middle managers. I’ll never buy into that crap”.
Gareth’s background was the mirror image of Adams except he’d gone into Law not medicine, and it can’t be underestimated how crucial he found this shared experience. But what Adam failed to see was just how differently he and Gareth viewed the level they had reached. For Gareth his past was an embarrassment, for Adam it was his pride and joy.
This was always his favourite rant. The smack down of posturing bullshit. Yet ever since Gareth and his wife Eileen had won his heart with their unctuous lifestyle he had jettisoned reason for aspiration. Never having had a role model in his life he’d been wowed by Mr and Mrs Fabulous.
 Gareth’s thoughts on the subject of his own determinedly working class credentials were interesting. Because from what I’d observed they were usually shouted over a Baccarat crystal tumbler of 50 year old whisky, to friends seated at a dinner table big enough for twelve
“ Gareth says he finds it hypocritical that men who never gave a damn about the game, now jostle with young women out to ram their feminazi credentials down everyone’s throats” Adam would relate post tennis as I’d seethe.  “And are just attempting to prove Daddy wrong by “getting down the ground” every Saturday to watch a game they don’t really understand, in shitty weather.”
The first time the four of us met in the pub, I was a little braver so when Gareth started his ranting with me on the “ways of women” I said “ Actually many young women actually like and actually understand football in my experience Gareth.”
Gareth raised his eyebrows. He looked at me for a while then said, “I doubt that…actually” Everyone laughed. I turned to Adam and he was laughing too. Then he reached out and patted my hand and said “We don’t have to pretend to like everything, Darling, just to fit in. We’re not that desperate” Adam had underpinned his point with a nervous laugh, protesting a little too much and totally misunderstanding the fact that I’d just done exactly that by not liking Gareth at all.
I was furious. The battle lines had been drawn and I was suddenly and sadly on a different side to Adam. We’d ended up going back To Gareth and Eileen’s for coffee and I’d stared at the teak floor and wanted to burst into tears, until I noticed that there was an obvious burn mark in the expensive rug, which made me feel like a truculent teenager embarrassed by the grown ups and, on discovering a flaw, feeling smugly satisfied in my silent impotent superiority. 
This ultimately made me feel worse but my part that of “fool” had now been assigned by Adams new BFF.
The fact that Adam had now become what he most loathed, was an irony totally lost on him. Like many other ideas on this topic I kept my feelings to myself and just poured all of my anger and frustration at our situation into my cleaning. It was becoming a habit.
As Gareth and Adam bonded in their fine Bromance, I hadn’t expected to be caught up in the wake, let alone contained in the socialising net and landed on the trawler of this anti-social circle.
So, true to my perceived integrity, I’d initially refused. “They are exactly the type of people we hate,” I’d ventured.
That was back in the days when Adam and I had discussed things as important as who we shared our time with.
It was still a precious commodity our time together. Then as the months rolled by and I still didn’t find a job and still didn’t write my book, which I noticed, was starting to be referred to by Adam in an irritated tone as “that book”, it began to feel like I was being unreasonably stubborn. He was being reasonable and so my resistance was eventually worn down because I realised that I didn’t know anyone since moving to Leebury and that I was probably in fact quite lonely.
Remembering those first months now as I packed Adams things neatly into boxes and bags, made my heart hurt and made me realise that that loneliness really stemmed from being pushed aside by Gareth and Eileen’s sheer force of personality. Princess Diana had to deal with a crowded marriage of three. I had Four and Eileen had the verbal capacity of at least eight people all on her own.
I was feeling sorry for myself. So I decided that I needed a virtual slap and there was no one better for this than my sister Kate.
So I called her.After I briefly explained she was silent. Then she said “What a stupid fucking asshole”
“I know” I said “but in my defence…”
She shouted “Jesus, Sarah I don’t mean you, I’m coming down there and giving those assholes a piece of my mind…”
“No please don’t Kate. That’s not going to help anyone is it? You and Eileen need to maintain as much distance as possible…now”
Kate snorted. “I don’t know what you mean Eileen loves me Sarah”
Love, as applied here by my sister, was definitely being used in its broadest and her most sarcastic form.
The day that Eileen met Kate was during the time that Adam was still trying to get me and his new friends to bond.
We’d been in the cottage about a month when Adam needed to go up to London for a course. I’d been sorting everything out of the boxes and been busy starting the book, which meant staring at the computer and sighing a lot. Apart from nipping to the retail park for Sainsbury’s and back and forth to Do it All I hadn’t really ventured into the Village at all. I felt happier than I had for months and hadn’t had a panic attack since we’d moved in.
So when my sister announced that she was coming over to “nose at the new house and you can take me out for a boozy lunch” it was a great opportunity to catch up with her and also explore a little bit.
I’d driven through the village on the way to the retail park and had my eye on a lovely restaurant “The fattened haddock” which was open from morning coffee to last orders in the summer because with the pretty cottages and the ancient Monastery, Leebury was a bit of a tourist attraction. So I booked a table.
It was simple except that with my family nothing is ever straight forward
I’m the oldest of the three of us. After my parents divorced, my mum had met and married my stepdad, a man of infinite patience fortunately and they’d gone on to have twins. Lucy is my oldest half sister as she arrived 3 minutes before Kate and Kate has been determined not to be overshadowed ever since.
Lucy is a teacher and married sensible Jack who is also a teacher and they have 4-year-old twin daughters. Lucy is calm and patient and gentle the Ying to her twin Kate’s feisty, flamboyant, passionate, hilarious, Yang.
Lucy was a dutiful daughter and dutiful wife and now dutiful mother.  I say that in total awe and wonderment. She doesn’t seek praise, she’s just herself and everyone loves her and runs to her in a crisis for her calm wisdom.  Kate however has resolutely refused to do anything, which might, in anyway, follow a predictable path. Especially because Kate would never knowingly cause our Mum anything approaching joy or pride.
 I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone for whom the notion of following in their mother’s footsteps has as all the inviting prospects of a passage through a live minefield. Top of the list of Mum’s ideas for all her “girls” has always been marriage and children. To quote Kate on that notion “She can cock right off with her barefoot and pregnant in the kitchen bullcrap”
True to her word at the age of sixteen Kate declared “I’m sick of her crap I’m off” and so Kate took off travelling. She’d make it home occasionally for Christmas, or birthdays have a huge row with Mum and then go again, but mostly she stayed in London where she was enjoying her career as a music journalist.
Anyway she arrived in her usual blaze of trauma and gossip and fun and we’d headed out for lunch.
On our walk to the restaurant however. Kate did a Kate
We we’re walking past Eileen’s tasteful shop, archly named “Mustique” and glancing at the window and Kate suddenly stopped. “What the fuck’s that shit” I’d been halfway through asking her about Lucy’s girls, who were becoming a bit of a handful, and was thrown for a moment until I saw the source of Kate’s anger.
There was a poster in the shop window, which, I noticed due to its vibrancy, but from the car I’d never been close enough to read before. Reading it now made me wish we’d walked on the other side of the road.
You see as well as businesswoman, mother and wife. Eileen was also a campaigner. A “family values” campaigner.
Kate was reading the poster aloud in an increasingly outraged tone.
“Dear friends and supporters, a public meeting is being held in the Village Hall on Saturday 20th July. To take us to the next stage of our family Values campaign fundraiser. There will be a hog roast and a raffle and as it’s “not a school night “ dancing till midnight, If you value the family, then help us make sure the Leebury family is valued.
We do not need cable in our village “Mr Pornographer”. Label that cable, Ban the Spam. Recognise the Internet for what it is a web for trapping our young people on the information superhighway to family breakdown that it is. NO NO NO the outraged mothers of Leebury say no “porn” on the kitchen table
The last was a reference to the bane of Eileen’s life. The Internet.
 Gareth had explained to Adam that the proposed cable network to the village was one more in a long list of things, which Eileen had challenged. Along with A touring theatre company production of “The Vagina Monologues” in the Church Hall, gamely proposed by the new young Vicar, sex education lessons in the village school and a gay civil partnership in the Monastery grounds.
Eileen had used her influence with dinner party friends on the local council and parish council to jettison anything, which she felt threatened her (therefore everyone’s) family values. The Internet was in her opinion the slippery slope to the abyss. Adam and I had laughed about it especially the unintentionally funny slogan but Kate was furious. Eileen Jefferson was about to meet her polar and equally determined opposite.
“Kate” I said warningly slipping into big sister mode and trying to squash my loathing of Eileen. “I know your feelings on this “ I turned back to the poster “but again you have to remember that we are not all the same and so try and understand that to Eileen, it’s as much matter of principle as it is to you Kate. As ludicrous as those principles may seem to you and me and most people we know, she really does view the Internet as a threat to her children. If you get…”
I was silenced by the sound of Kate yelling “Bourgeois BULLSHIT” from inside the shop.
I ran inside in time to see Eileen jabbing her beautifully manicured forefinger in Kate’s direction and hissing “make no mistake about it, I’ll happily tell you my views too because the problem with this country today is people like you. What on earth are you doing?”
Kate had sat down cross-legged on the floor.
“What do you think I’m doing sister sanctimonious? Consider yourself occupied”
Eileen looked confused “What?”
Kate was searching though her mobile phone contacts. Finding the right number she waited. “Hi is that Buzz? Hi Buzz it’s me Kate Taylor. I’m just wondering if you and Leaf are free today. It’s just I’m in Leebury which is about and hour from London and I’m organising a peaceful sit in…”
“Kate …please” I said although I knew it was pointless.
Eileen was not to be beaten.
She marched over to the phone beside the till and dialled too. As she waited for the phone to connect she glared at me “How did I know this would be something to do with you Sarah? Oh hello there, could you put me through to the Chief Superintendent please. This is Eileen Jefferson and I would like to report a suspected political terror event occurring in my shop”
“Eileen ..Honestly no.. She’s my sister…she’s a vegan…” I was starting to get the familiar dryness in my mouth and becoming very aware of my heart rate which meant a panic attack was on it’s way.
By now Kate was shouting to make sure Eileen knew she was seeing her stake and raising it. “Oh it’s just your bog standard capitalist oppression Buzz, making money from the little guy whilst simultaneously trying to curb free speech with a campaign trying to ban the internet…So you can get here for 3 o’clock? That’s perfect…. Can you bring the drums and the naked street artists…”?
Eileen was staring at Kate open mouthed. The two locked eyes.
I was desperate, so I played the only card I could think of
“For God’s sake Eileen” I yelled as theatrically as I could manage “Think of the children”
I saw Eileen’s eyes flicker towards the elegant clock on the wall. She had got my point. She was mentally calculating that if the other protestors, naked protestors, arrived in an hour they would be just in time to be witnessed by the village school’s entire population making their way home past her shop.
Eileen conceded, “Hello Edward, No I’m sorry.. Everything is fine now…it was…I was mistaken. See you for dinner send my love to Darling Kathryn and the boys, won’t you. Yes.. Yes..thank you Edward”
Eileen replaced the receiver.
She pointed at Kate. “Get…her…out…”
Kate was on her feet. “I’m leaving but remember, they’re just a phone call away Fascist”
With that Kate marched out of the shop.
“Eileen…” I started but her glare was enough, so not for the first time in my life I’d trudged out in the wake of my sister’s chaos.
Of course when I’d found Kate laughing outside, I’d been furious but she’d just hugged me and told me to chill.
“As if I’d know anyone called Buzz or Leaf” she’d said rolling her eyes. ”Honestly Sarah I don’t know whose more gullible you, or Scary Shitehouse in there”
Therefore the idea of Kate arriving in fury hell bent on settling scores with Eileen and letting Adam know exactly where he stood in her opinion didn’t fill me with joy.
We agreed we’d meet soon though. I hung up and pondered the prospect of also telling Lucy and Aunty Edith just to get it all out of the way in one go.
 Lucy would be fine but I had a feeling that it would lead to more of Susan Chappell’s wisdom on the functioning of my “inside plumbing problems”
I definitely didn’t have the strength for that.