The other loose end left over from that year was the free clergy-couples-counselling Shaun and I had embarked on the previous September, just before Bink went into the Florence Nightingale Unit.
What had started as a highly enjoyable experience had become more and more distressing as the months went by, particularly for me. I suspect the bullying began as soon as they realised they had heard of me, but because it started so subtly it took a while for us to realise.
A few weeks in, I found myself in trouble because they’d read something I’d written. “Does Sex Get Better with Age?” was one of those harmless Daily Mail constructs designed to be taken about as seriously as one of our son Ben’s oh-so-hilarious jokes: half a dozen freelancers who happen to have twenty minutes spare before sharpening the next pencil are invited to contribute a couple of hundred words on the topic under debate. From memory, my ground-breaking and authoritative assessment was that what you may lose in quantity you can easily make up for in quality. (Give me a break: it was 200 words, ok? This paragraph is nearly long enough. I wasn’t being asked for an academically-researched bio-psychical-medical thesis on the sex-life of the geriatric homo sapiens on which to hang my doctorate.)
Our counsellors were very much not-happy. They didn’t quite say, “how on earth would you know?” but it was clear they thought sex should be so distant a memory that I could have no possible take on it.
Their verdict? I must refrain from writing while we were attending sessions.
I was aghast. For one thing we couldn’t afford for me to turn down commissions from the Mail. This may come as a shock to you, dear reader, but there is no justice in this world and you don’t earn a fortune writing a couple of uninformed paragraphs about middle-aged sex for Femail. Nevertheless if I wasn’t allowed to work for the duration of our course our counselling certainly wasn’t free.
Far more shockingly, I knew with utter certainty that they would never have dreamt of telling Shaun to refrain from preaching, Sunday by Sunday. Far less from earning a living.
I happened to say I was very much hoping for another child.
This was something I had been mulling since a miscarriage a year or two earlier, when everyone in the family was so disappointed it was a no-brainer that our loss must be telling us something. Bink’s illness clinched it for me. Such drear misery was now so draining the heart of our family, I could think of nothing radical enough to exchange our sorrow for joy short of the arrival of a new human being.
Our counsellors wheel-clamped this idea with an instant, no-compromise veto. Such a notion was out of the question. We were to “sort out” our relationship first. Since we had absolutely no idea what was supposed to be wrong with it, this could take a very long time indeed.
In effect, they were imposing an eternal embargo on us ever having another child. (Given that they believed we slept at opposite ends of the house, I’m surprised they felt the need.)
Occasionally they would give us homework. I relished this. My love for Shaun is the overriding affair of my life: what could be more satisfying than doing something to enhance it?
We were to make a picture of our relationship. There were only two rules:
It must be colour not black-and-white.
It must be large enough for all four of us to see.
I went home, launched into it immediately and spent several hours that first evening on my project. I had so much to say that when I finished one side of the paper I turned it over and covered the other, even attaching rosehips (there being no fresh roses available) from around the Vicarage door.
Shaun did absolutely nothing. All week. With immense restraint I didn’t say, “Have you remembered...?” Or “Don’t forget...”
Five minutes before we were due to leave for the next session, he grabbed a sheet of paper and pencil and draw a vibrant sketch of a carousel. It was dynamic and evocative: of movement and laughter and childhood. I loved it.
But not even the most dedicated and expensive member of the Bar for the defence could have argued that it was in colour. Oh well: not my problem.
We arrived and spread our dreams out under their feet.
The male counsellor looked at Shaun’s pencil sketch, nodded approvingly, agreed that he must always feel rushed off his feet and exhausted, and looked accusingly at me.
And what of mine, which had taken so many precious hours? No comment at all. Nothing.
Week after week, I waited for some appraisal. Deeply disappointed, a month or two later – probably in mid-debate about our relationship being such a failure – I asked what we had learnt from our pictures.
“The pictures of our relationship, that you gave us for homework.”
“What we learnt,” he said, very much meaning me not Shaun, “is that you can never do as you’re told.”
I was right back at school. Half my teenage years, publicly humiliated, sitting outside the head mistress’s office: the worst punishment my school knew. Then, as now, often having no idea how I’d transgressed.
“You were never given permission to use both sides of the paper.”