Mid December 2008
It was a Friday night when my father rang. My mother wasn’t well and he didn’t know what to do any more. Too exhausted to make decisions. Both of them ninety now.
Normally I would have dropped everything and driven over but I had a crisis of my own. For the first time in over four years, my weekly column hadn’t run: the editor thought it hadn’t hit the right note. Worse, she was right: I was too preoccupied with Shaun’s situation, and the mysterious “help” the churchwardens were now offering...
I was terrified. If I lost it, almost all my income would go overnight. What chance then of Shaun’s taking an unpaid “house for duty” post such as the one he’d recently applied for? As if our future weren’t frightening enough.
I set aside the next day, Saturday, for writing three really strong columns to file early for Christmas. Then rang Serena, who was with a friend in London. Yes, they would both go to Cambridge immediately.
As soon as they left my parents, my father rang again. Again needing help. I rang the emergency doctor without telling him, dreading an argument.
“Go,” I said. “Don’t take no for an answer, don’t let my father turn you away at the door. You must see my mother, whatever objections he raises.”
Then rang an ex-copper friend, in Cambridge training to be a vicar: my father had taught him New Testament Greek. He was with them within minutes and stayed till the small hours.
The doctor took one look at my mother and called an ambulance, saving her life. She was in hospital for a week.
The following weekend my father was even more exhausted: setting off at eight in the morning on his moped in the snow; staying at the hospital till ten at night; making sure my mother ate; eating her leftovers himself to keep going.
So Shaun and I borrowed a car – ours had just broken down – and went to Cambridge to look after them. On the Friday and Saturday nights we stayed with friends half an hour away. They would look after us.
It seems such a tiny detail...
I was cooking my parents’ breakfast: I made coffee for my mother; but when I tried to make my father a pot of tea he gave me an old, cold mug-full, left over from goodness knows when, and insisted I heat it up in the microwave.
It was too depressing to bear.
We were spending all our ill-spared weekend and several hundred pounds shopping and cooking and filling their freezer with appetising meals for the next fortnight, and he wouldn’t let me make him a fresh pot of tea.
I turned my face away, cleaning mushrooms and washing up and busying myself as I was, so he wouldn’t see my streaming tears. For a full half hour I chopped and wept.
That evening I sank my head on our friend Jane’s shoulder and bawled.
“I can’t do it,” I sobbed. “I can’t look after them all. My parents, my children. I can’t take any more.” She held me and understood. They had a lovely dinner ready for us.
Sunday morning, Jane was leaning against the Aga with a mug of tea.
“I’ve been thinking,” she said, gazing out of the window, “all night, what might be useful. You’ve had a hard week.”
A hard week? How had this last been harder than the previous hundred?
“I’m getting rid of that car. I quite understand if this would be more of a nuisance to you than a help, but it’s yours if you’d like it.”
I’d forgotten our car.
Midweek, two am on the way back from the Mail on Sunday Christmas party, nothing but a skimpy cocktail frock because I thought I’d be warm in the car. The breakdown service found me on the verge of hypothermia and put me in their warm van, in contravention of all rules. Wrapped me in silver foil and gave me sweet black coffee, and got me home at four am.
Car breakdown is nothing. Lots of people’s cars break down. It’s a normal part of life.
When you’ve been without a home, having no car doesn’t register. It certainly didn’t put the last seven days onto my roster of difficult weeks.
I thanked her. And didn’t even bother to go outside and look at it.
I offered it to Alex and Ben when we got home, as they seemed more keen to have a car than I was. But just before Christmas, for some reason I can’t now remember, we needed a car, so Serena took the train to Hertfordshire and picked it up.
Too good for the boys, Shaun said.
On Christmas day he took me for a ride in it... Leather upholstery, wooden dashboard, analogue clock, CD and tape player and individually heated seats. Racing green, as all cars should be. Jane had put new tyres on it for me.
The only car I’ve ever loved. The only one ever called mine.
Ten years ago…
I sprayed the scratches out; one of the back doors fell off and I taped it back on; when the ceiling started to collapse Shaun ripped it all out so we could still see through the back window. Recently, garage mechanics and family members kept asking when we were getting rid of it.
Never, I said. Never.
A car doesn’t need an intact ceiling or all four doors working.
But alas, a couple of weeks before this last Christmas, 2018, Shaun was stranded for hours in the middle of nowhere and it was costing us hundreds every few months.
It now sits on our drive, dead at last.
(I must now hire a car for tomorrow night, for Thought for the Day on Wednesday. Shaun says I’ll hate it: all buttons and gizmos.)
And of course the reason I loved mine was because of the loving friendship. Such kindness in a time of such terror. Thank you, Jane!
Ten lovely years.