That meeting, between the vicar and me in Oxford, spelt the end of the peace and tranquility I’d experienced at our friend Louis’s beautiful house in Scotland. From then on I was overwhelmed by a raging, roaring vortex of drowning depression.
(Warning: never interfere with quick-fix simplistic panacea for complex ongoing issue. Particularly pertinent on subject of mental health.)
I longed to stay in Cambridge, the city of my so-happy childhood and teen years. Near my children (Serena and Alex were at the university) after their recent experiences. And my parents, now nearly ninety and increasingly frail. But our only chance would be for Shaun to find another post with accommodation…
Meanwhile we needed somewhere, anywhere, to live. The Oxford church was still determined to buy, not rent for us. Over the New Year, Shaun had taken us to view a new-build some miles out of the city.
Almost immediately I’d had to run out of the house again and sit in the car. There was a room right in the middle of it with no windows at all. Even if I never entered it, simply knowing it was there – like Bink’s illness, a black hole at the centre of our family – would suck all the light from our lives.
I said nothing to the others. How could I? But as we drove away, Shaun pointed out a sweet little thatched cottage, right on the pavement, also within the budget but not yet available to view.
“Stop the car!”
“Please,” I asked the woman at the door. “Will you let us see round?”
“Not now. It’s a terrible mess.”
It was a terrible mess. Cat food on the carpet; dirty laundry sprawling off the sofa; teenagers in bed; filthy plates everywhere. About a quarter the size we needed.
“This one,” I told Shaun. It was far, far too small. And miles from his parish. But oh-so pretty. Next to the gracious Manor House and just up the lane from the little church.
I don’t consider myself particularly fragile in other ways, so I wonder how unusual this is: my mental health being so dependent on place and environment? (I’d be interested to know if any readers are the same.) When I first bicycled past our Parson’s Green Vicarage, long before Shaun was vicar there, I’d experienced a falling in love, just as with a person…
The meeting was some time after this. And a disaster.
The friend who’d so fiercely promised justice for us suddenly shifted ground without warning, and simply asked the vicar and me to tell each other what we’d done wrong and say we forgave each other. I had no difficulty with the forgiveness: I didn’t wish him harm, nor any evil on his head.
I just wanted us to escape. Since we now knew the church wouldn’t house us in any way that would enable Shaun to do the job properly.
And meanwhile, urgently, somewhere for my children to live.
I didn’t care about his forgiveness one way or the other, not knowing any way I’d wronged him. It was our children we’d sinned against, by being so recklessly trusting, and leaving their previous home.
He asked if the cottage we’d suggested was right for us. It had come back with the kind of survey you’d expect of a thatched seventeenth-century cottage, and was no use to the church for anything else.
What could I say? I’d made all my much more sensible suggestions a year earlier, when I’d found two large Oxford vicarages, one already empty and with a peppercorn rent. I knew buying the cottage would spell the end of Shaun’s employment with the church: gorgeous though it was, it was miles out the parish, and tiny. But the last time we’d said a house wasn’t appropriate we’d been put out on the streets.
So I said nothing.
And that was the end of the meeting. All I heard afterwards was that they were all shocked at how wrecked I looked. The most useless insult I’ve had in my life was the vicar (who had apparently expected to breeze in, all charm and bonhomie, and give me a kiss) advising Shaun that I didn’t seem at all well and should see a doctor.
I went back to my parents’ in Cambridge. Rose and Bink and I. And the dogs, to live in the car.
Sometime later my clergyman friend, who had called the meeting, sent me a Biblical verse to be helpful.
“Can’t look it up,” I replied. “Lost my Bible many moves ago.”
He told me to do myself a kindness and get another.
Well, yes… Up to a point, Lord C.
But believe me, when you’ve lost all your socks apart from the ones on your feet, which you wash in your bath every night so you can leave them to dry for the morning, it’s not a Bible you need.
One lasting blessing to come out of that Christmas was our friendship with the doctors from Malawi who’d lent us their new home. She, too, had suffered years of debilitating depression and spotted it immediately. I barely knew her, but every day she sent me a text, from her home in Oxford, asking how I was, in Cambridge.
Her kindnesses became unbelievably precious.
As, however, did my sleep. When you’re depressed, it’s one of the first things to go. You might, if you’re lucky, fall asleep at the beginning of the night. Then wake at one. Or two. Or three. Or all of them... if you’re fortunate enough to sleep in between. Or you might be awake for hours... and, again if you’re blessed, fall asleep around breakfast time.
The telephone I had at the time would bleep when it got a text. And go on bleeping. Every few minutes. Until it was attended to. Something which is quite challenging – depressed or not – is sleeping through chronic, persistent, continual bleeping.
“How are you?” came another solicitous message.
“Well, I was a little better... Until a text message woke me up.”
On one of Shaun’s weekly visits we walked past David’s Bookshop (secondhand). I nipped in and asked for the cheapest Authorised Version he had.
Sadly, he didn’t sell socks.