It would soon be the end of term and we still had nowhere to live.
My brother had friends returning from Malawi – doctor couple, Christians – who had just bought a house in Oxford for their young family and kindly agreed we could have it till they got back.
Then wrote to cancel, having realised it would be bare of furniture.
I didn’t know these people at all. Please, I said. A roof over our heads, being together for a few days is all. Floor, fine. Just, please.
Well of course they understood. They’d been ten years in Malawi.
In which case could we do them a favour, and direct the removal men where to put everything? At the last minute, another email. “Make sure they put the piano in the room near the front door!”
I can’t now remember what gave me insight into this surgeon I’d never met, who had founded several orthopaedic hospitals.
“Too late,” I replied. “They said it would look better on the third floor. I thought it best to be guided by the professionals. Don’t worry,” I added kindly. “it’s lovely for parties up there.”
He was thrown into enough panic to go in search of an e-café in the middle of the Malawian night... His wife was overjoyed. “For once,” she said, “the butt of a joke, not its instigator!”
They are good friends still, he one of the funniest people we know, and is interviewing Alex and me for the Oxford launch of my new novel.
A member of Shaun’s employing church, a musician, rang and asked me for help. I had no idea what we could find left in common, but I invited her for tea. (She had once given us dinner with the bishop...)
While the church had been providing accommodation for us at the beginning of the year, I had been asked to take over the music for the eleven o’clock service. Known as the “graveyard slot”: mostly grey-haired members of the flock; no children screaming through the aisles; no endlessly repeated choruses. Shaun told me I raised eyebrows by choosing this service to attend, when all the trendy people went to the early family or evening young people’s services.
But it proved handy when they wanted help with the music.
Within weeks we had a four-part choir and a chamber group. Bink had made a number of musical friends; she Alex contributed to both; while Rosie sat quietly listening, in a pretty frock and straw hat, charming the old ladies. Causing wonder by not screaming down the aisle herself, pushing a truck, never having had this example set her.
When our accommodation ran out, so did my help. I don’t know what happened after I left. But now we were back in Oxford, presumably I could help again.
To my shame, my memory is that, very rudely, I spent most of the time on the telephone: almost certainly, something to do with the increasingly pressing and many needs of my children. By now I had so many demands on me, so much more life-saving that this was going to be, I had little enough time for good manners.
It is no excuse for discourtesy but it happened that, a few months earlier, my visitor’s husband had acted extremely unprofessionally towards Bink, severely compromising one of her A levels. I was learning quickly that, when you are treated badly by one, it soon catches on for others.
Eventually I must have hung up and apologised.
Could we help with the various carol services, she asked?
“By playing.” Obviously.
“Your instruments!” What was the matter with me?
“What, specifically, did you have in mind?”
She was clearly stumped. “Well... harp, ’cello, violin...”
I stared at her. This woman was on the PCC. The body which had made us homeless.
I still, all these years later, have no words with which to answer her.
When we lived in our Vicarage in Parson’s Green, a man lived in a red car opposite. (Until he had to go into hospital, and some cruel and unfeeling authority towed his home away.) Chatting, Shaun discovered he had once been a concert pianist, and invited him to play the church piano any time. Which he did. Superbly.
In all the time he lived over the road from us – when we gave him mugs of tea, or hot filled baked potatoes, or just the time of day – it never once occurred to any of us to ask whether he had his concert piano about his person.
However mad Bink is, she is nowhere near as mad as many of the sane people out there.