Hot Frogs & Widows
In 1982, Ponteland High School in Northumberland didn’t produce a leavers’ yearbook, a record of your last year at school including photos of each of your classmates, highlights of your time at school and what your peers thought of you: Most Likely To: Run for President; Have ten children; Go to jail and so on. My chosen recollection of my time in the sixth form would be when Sarah Pain tried to annihilate a quivering rubber pencil topper with a glass pipette during chemistry as I chanted, “Kill the beastie! Kill the beastie!” The pipette snapped and stabbed Paula Noble in the back of the hand as she heroically tried to save said beastie, an incident which demonstrates just how uninterested I was in actually learning anything that might lead to something like an ‘A’ level. My photograph in this mythical yearbook would be unbelievably dorky and my classmates verdict on my future – if they even noticed I was in their class – Most Likely To: Stay at home.
I’ve always been like this. I got terribly homesick even going to someone’s house a few doors away for the afternoon, and I once had to be collected from a sleepover before there was any sleep, after which I couldn’t face sleeping away from home until I was a teenager, and even then I was sick with anxiety for days beforehand. I know it’s a terribly unfashionable thing to admit, but I’m the world’s least adventurous person. My bucket list wouldn’t include abseiling across the Grand Canyon because of my life-long motion sickness: soaring over spectacular scenery whilst spattered in vomit isn’t my idea of fun. I can’t see me going on safari either: a friend of a friend’s husband was gored to death by a water buffalo whilst he was having a pee behind a bush; it was the man who was peeing, not the water buffalo; it was snoozing and became startled by a sudden shower of golden rain. It would be just my luck to have an extra cup of tea at breakfast, need the loo and end up with a horn up my bits as I squatted in the undergrowth. No, with a certain number of days left on planet Earth, I’d be filling the freezer, checking my Will and making sure that the dog’s health insurance was up-to-date. This all makes me sound terribly boring doesn’t it, but guess what? I am. I love routine. I love being at home. Not counting solitary confinement by drowning, I am quite happy in my own company as long as I have a dog, a radio and can arrange a delivery from Waitrose.
Of course as we all know, life has a way of dragging you along with it, and this homebody ended up leaving Northumberland for London, marrying a man who liked to travel and having a career which required travel and extensive socialising. In some ways, the life that chose me (and I can feel the hackles of the ‘create your own destiny’ self-help tribe rising as I type) was the antithesis of the life that I thought I was destined to live. The thing is, my life changed relatively slowly giving me time to adapt to new circumstances, a new relationship, new surroundings. It’s that whole frog in the pot analogy: if you put a frog in a pot of cold water and gradually bring the water to the boil, the frog doesn’t struggle or become distressed (hmm…); he always appears comfortable as he gradually falls into a sleepy coma and then slips away, but chuck Freddie into a pan of already boiling water (please don’t) and he will thrash about and try to escape until he dies. Can I just repeat: Please do not try this at home, even if you are French and regularly eat frogs.
Becoming widowed or starting a new relationship after being widowed is akin to being chucked into a pan of boiling water. In our old lives – however complicated – we had time to adapt as the heat gradually increased, or, if we were suddenly plunged into a new situation – having a baby for instance – perhaps we had the flexibility, optimism and energy of youth on our side. Through many trials and lots of errors our marriage formed some sort of a routine, a wrapper around the day-to-day variations of life. It was familiar and comforting. Perhaps if you were an an abseiling, safari sort of person married to someone like me you got bored, but hopefully you came to some sort of compromise such as you went shopping whilst he abseiled. Or maybe you had an affair with the man who came to read your gas meter and got pregnant by him but never told your husband, as someone I met once did. But let’s gloss over that.
Long-term partnerships gradually change each other: twenty-five years ago I was irritated by JS trying to wake me up at the crack of dawn to make the most of the day. I rolled my eyes at his constant quest for the perfect diet (lots of steamed veg and grilled chicken) and despaired at his keep fit regime. Now, in Phoenix House (as the ‘new’ house shall be called as it has risen from the ashes of several sets of lives shattered by death) I am the one rolling my eyes at its veg-phobic inhabitants who sleep in and consider strenuous exercise walking from the garage to the house carrying a bag. The other day I trilled, “You’re wasting the day staying in bed!” and it wasn’t the voice of my parents ringing in my ears, it was JS’s.
Several years ago, in this blog, I wrote that I missed the routine of my old life. I don’t mean that we did the same things day after day, but that there were certain fixed points in the day or the week, points that anchored our time together: coming in from work and chatting whilst I cooked and JS did the crossword, both with a glass of wine; Sunday lunch eaten on Sunday evening; Going to the cottage at the coast at weekends when we were weren’t going to the football; JS going to the golf range on Sunday morning whilst I lolled about in bed for a bit longer watching Andrew Marr.
Four years on, I still miss the routine of my old life. There is very little routine in this new life. Firstly I was booted into the alien world of Planet Grief where the only routine was the frequency of my weeping and wailing. Then, just when I was creating a new normal and forging a new routine, I met someone, another widower. Now, living together with his sons, I have been plunged into a world where I never know who is coming in or going out, who is eating with us or who say they will, but then they won’t, what pouting poppet is going to appear overnight and what plans are made and then broken because a better offer comes up. I no longer have an office to go to and come back from. I feel as if I have been chucked into a pot of boiling water infused with other people’s children and habits and family, and I’m thrashing around like a scalded frog. I am hard-wired for routine, for order. I’d love to be the sort of woman who just rolls with the punches, who doesn’t turn a hair at suddenly catering for four thousand with only four organic loaves of Artisan soda bread and four wild salmon from Waitrose. But I’m not. I like order, routine, a restful home; a house in which I can float about sniffing scented candles without their smell being obliterated by the stink of Lynx and cheesy feet. Is it any wonder that I sometimes long for a giant celestial straining spoon to appear from the clouds and rescue me, to scoop me out of the boiling pot and leave me on the side, gasping for breath?
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