It’s Life, all right, but not as I know it
Why is it, just as you get Life under control, Life decides you’re too complacent by far and snatches your security blanket away? And not only snatches it away, but rips it down the middle, throws it in a muddy puddle, and stamps around on it for good measure? Then Life hands you back the pieces and says, “How much in control do you feel now, Libby?”
Three months ago, after a Christmas spent pandering to everyone except me and receiving an assortment of kitchen gadgets instead of the anticipated spa- and nail salon gift vouchers, I decided Enough Was Enough.
This year, I vowed, as I stowed away a new banana slicer and mini-vac, I would no longer be merely “Jack’s Mummy”. No longer would I hand Oliver his packet of sandwiches in the morning and brush a hair from his suit collar, as if I were an extra in I Love Lucy.
This year, I promised myself, I would reclaim an identity that vanished three years ago in a maternity ward in Milton Keynes.
This year, I said, Libby Patrick would return.
Until last night, my pre-motherhood persona was making progress in her resurrection. I had my hair cut and my nails done. I chucked out grey nursing bras and went shopping in Debenhams’ lingerie department. I had lunch with my old boss who told me she would personally kill a fatted calf in celebration of my return to the office.
Then, last night, all progress stopped.
“The company wants me to take a job in another department,” Oliver announced over dinner.
Dinner is supposed to be a time when family members catch up with one another, but as any parent of a two-year-old knows, reality doesn’t work that way. While Oliver recited details of which job in what department, I was only half-listening, more concerned with stopping Jack from feeding Marmite toast to Fergus, our gluten-intolerant dog. So my response to Oliver was something like, “Lovely-darling-and-don’t-even-think-about-it-Jack” before grabbing Fergus by the collar and dragging him into the study where, with a bit of luck, he would eat final demand electricity bills instead.
This half-attention is all too common in our house, and it makes me feel guilty. I try not to feel guilty, but as a stay-at-home mother at present, I must be more supportive of my husband. Or that’s what my mother tells me. God knows what she was doing in the 1970s while other women were burning their bras. Out shopping for whalebone corsets, I imagine.
Oliver, naturally, is all in favour of the idea of supportive wives, and unashamedly sucks up to my mother to get her support as well. He once sent me an email, supposedly a page from a 1950s magazine, telling housewives how to treat their husbands properly. You’ve probably seen it. Wives are advised to hand their husbands a G&T the minute they walk through the door, tidy the children up and the toys away – or perhaps it’s the other way round – and to shut up while Hubby speaks because his opinions are more important. Oliver claimed the email was a joke. I told him it might have been, had I been employed and salaried, but right then, with baby-sick permanently welded to my shoulder, it wasn’t funny and Oliver was fooling no one. Millennia of male chauvinism can’t be wiped out by Harriet Harman, whatever she thinks, or by a few charred Cross Your Heart foundation garments.
But back to Oliver’s announcement. Once I was reseated at the table, Oliver said, “You didn’t hear what I said, did you, Libby?”
“Yes, I did.” I handed Jack a fresh triangle of Marmite toast. He mushed it into a ball and chucked it at the window behind me, where it stuck for a second before sliding down, leaving a greasy trail. “HR wants you to transfer.”
Oliver waved his hand around in a circle. “And…?”
I thought. “And you’ll get a pay rise?” I said hopefully. With his pay rise and my new job, we’d be able to go on holiday this year.
“Plus a relocation package.”
I stopped persuading Jack to eat, and stared across the table at Oliver, who seemed satisfied now he’d got a reaction.
“Relocation package? Relocation to where?” Most of the company’s offices are in Britain – with one exception. Please let it be Birmingham. We wouldn’t have to move house because Oliver could commute. Or Liverpool…or heck, even Aberdeen is commutable these days.
“The Massachusetts office,” Oliver said. “We’ll talk about it.”
And that was the point when Life snatched away my security blanket, hurled it in a swamp, and danced the mashed potato on it.
We’ve spent the weekend talking about this hypothetical move to America. Well. I say “hypothetical” but it isn’t. And I say “talking” although it isn’t really that, either. Oliver appears to have done most of the talking already with the Relocation Manager in his Human Resources department. (What happened to Personnel Departments? Have we come so far down the line of political correctness that we can’t acknowledge we have personalities?)
So when Oliver promised we’d talk about it, he meant we would talk about the after-effects of the decision, not the decision itself. That seems to be settled and all over, bar the shouting.
Bar the shouting wife.
“It’s a great opportunity,” Oliver says. “One of those chances you’ve got to take in life.”
“But what about me?” I say. “What about my life?”
Now I know how Jack feels during his tantrums. I want to lie on the carpet and kick and scream and shout “No! No! Go away!”
“You’ll have a lovely life. All the wives do.”
“But none of them go to work,” I say. “They’re not allowed to.”
“Why would you want to go to work when you can be at home with Jack?”
I think of my new haircut and freshly accumulated wardrobe of crisp work attire, and murmur, “Oh, I don’t know. Dignity. Independence. Self-worth. Stuff like that.”
Oliver stares at me for a while.
“I don’t understand.”
No. I know he doesn’t.
Instead of lying on the floor and shouting at him to go away, I lie on the sofa and cover my face with a cushion. It’s almost as good.
“We’ll live in a little town near Boston,” Oliver says when my rate of used tissues per minute has slowed. “You know Boston. It’s where the Cheers bar is, and where they filmed Ally McBeal. You love both those programmes.”
I tell him that he loves watching EastEnders, but he wouldn’t want to move to Walford.
He gives me a withering look. “Walford’s a made up place. It’s not real.”
“More real to me than Boston.”
“It wouldn’t be permanent,” Oliver says. “Think of it as a two-year holiday.”
This is pretty rich, coming from him. If I had to pick one characteristic in Oliver that I’d happily trade (excluding spur-of-moment, unilateral decisions to emigrate) it would be the homing pigeon tendencies. He gets culture shock if he goes farther north than Leicester. Take him to Spain and he’ll make a beeline for all the restaurants whose menu items end with “‘n’ chips.” We went to Disney World in Florida the year before Jack was born, and Oliver insisted on wearing his Beckham football shirt everywhere. Well, he and the rest of English-accented Orlando.
I didn’t intend to play the trump card so soon in the game, but my options are running out fast.
“You do know,” I say, “that they don’t sell roast chicken-flavoured crisps over there? No Quavers or Skips? No Hula Hoops?”
Oliver opens his mouth as if to say something, then shuts it again. For a moment, he looks uncertain. Is it possible our future teeters upon a specific combination of E-numbers and MSG?
Then he smiles; an indulgent smile, the sort I give Jack when he’s done something unbearably cute and naïve, and I know that even the threat of no Skips or Quavers to satisfy the midnight munchies isn’t going to work.
“Libby, love. It’s Boston. They have their own fantastic food. We don’t need chips.” Chips? Lord help us. He’s into the lingo already. “There’s lobster and crab cakes, and – what’s it called? Clam chunder.”
Not quite into the lingo, then.
“Whatever. My point is, who needs crap like prawn cocktail crisps when you can have the real deal fresh from the ocean there?”
I shake my head, resigned, knowing our fate is decided for the next two years. Oliver is basing a three-thousand-mile upheaval on…seafood.
And oh. Did I mention he’s allergic to fish?
Oliver and I are keeping quiet about the move until plans are definite. We each have different reasons; he doesn’t want to lose face if it doesn’t happen, and I want to pretend it won’t happen at all.
It’s ironic, the way we’ve switched roles. I used to be the one who liked going abroad and trying new food, whereas he’d eat burger-au-E-coli twice a day for a fortnight rather than pollute his digestive system with local cuisine. Once, in Ibiza, I tried to get him to eat a piece of morcilla. “Oooh, no, not that foreign stuff, thank you,” he said, shuddering as if he was a contestant on Fear Factor and I was trying to tempt him with deep-fried cockroach. Thing is, he didn’t realise it was Spanish sausage. He thought it was black pudding. Lancashire black pudding was foreign enough for Oliver.
But now it’s me dragging my heels about going abroad, while he’s suddenly turned into Gordon-bleeding-Ramsay, evangelising about fresh local produce that brings him out in a rash.
It’s difficult to keep this a secret, though. Take today, when Jack and I are at playgroup.
Carol Hunter corners me as I’m struggling to get Jack’s coat off.
Carol’s the sort of woman you’re glad to leave behind in the office rat race when you go on maternity leave. You think you’re entering a cocoon of babies, teddy bears, and Johnson’s products, unsullied by bossy women with expensive highlights. Then you discover these women have not only infiltrated your baby-powdered haven but established their own Mafia, ruling the playgroup, PTA, and school governing board.
Carol’s the Don of the local ring.
“Libby,” she says in a confidential tone, gripping me by the elbow in case I make a run for it. “Libby. We need to talk about your volunteer record. It’s somewhat…threadbare.”
Oh, hell. Everyone with a child in playgroup is supposed to sign up to help on a regular basis. That’s the idea. But what actually happens is you volunteer once or twice, spend two hours smiling through gritted teeth while Carol or one of her captains micromanages you in the art of finger-painting, and then forever after keep a low profile when volunteers are needed. There’s a lot of Mafia moaning goes on about it, of course. Usually over skinny lattes in Starbucks, while their little darlings sprinkle brown sugar packets on the floor, about how it’s always the same people who do all the work, and how this playgroup wouldn’t survive if it weren’t for Carol and her chums. But you ignore it. These women used to get their kicks playing the office martyr in their pre-baby lives, and they’d hate to be deprived of their sackcloths and ashes now.
“You’ve only done three sessions since last October,” Carol goes on, clamping down harder on my arm. “Can I put you down for the Play-Doh table next week, with Angie? Then two sessions in May, and a couple in June?”
I cough. “All with Angie?” Frankly, I’d rather sign up for evening classes in embalming than for six playgroup sessions with Captain Angie, who can’t go five minutes without dropping into conversation that she went to school with Supernanny’s cousin.
And then it strikes me. “Tell you what,” I say. “Let’s make it easy. I’ll do all of July, twice a week, until the schools finish for summer. Six sessions. How’s that?”
Carol opens and shuts her mouth a few times, but no sounds emerge, which is pretty satisfying. It’s not often she’s lost for words. No doubt she’s been revving up for a big fight about this, probably culminating in a hit job in Starbucks. Remind me to check the cisterns for firearms next time I’m in there.
“Fan-tast-ic,” she eventually murmurs, and wafts off to persecute a new mother of twins.
It’s all I can do to stop myself from shouting, “Because come July, Carol, I will most likely be eating lobster on the other side of the Atlantic, and not even you and your molls will be able to drag me back to the Play-Doh table.”
It’s as good a reason as any to emigrate, I suppose.
Want to read more? Head on over to Kate Allison’s own site, where you can find out more about Libby and the characters of Woodhaven, and where you can buy Taking Flight, the first year of Libby’s Life — now available as an ebook.
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Image: Travel Map of the World by Salvatore Vuono / FreeDigitalPhotos.net
Funny, insightful and very real, Kate. You’ve certainly coalesced the thoughts of the “trailing spouse” to a totally foreign land along with the local, playgroup mafia! Looking forward to your next post.