My husband has taken to wearing stockings - a surprising development for a macho Welshman. But the truth is surgical rather than sexy. Years of playing rugby have taken their toll and he now has a new knee, courtesy of the NHS. The stockings, invented by some sado-masochistic medic, aren’t labelled compression for nothing. They fit comfortably over two fingers but Lord knows how they’re meant to cover a leg swollen to elephantine proportions.
‘For God’s sake, woman, isn’t it? Just pull it up!’ snarls my beloved, his temper rising as his pain threshold descends. ‘It’s not bloody Brexit - you can’t wally around. Take control. Show it you mean business!’
Two weeks of playing nurse have worn down my nurturing nature.
‘I’m trying my best. I’ve got a frozen shoulder, remember, and it really hurts.’
‘Oh, here we go. Let’s make it about you, isn’t it? What happened to you being the enlightened, selfless one?’
I sigh and stretch the stocking, which coils round his ankle until the tips of his toes turn blue.
‘Pull it up, goddammit! It’s cutting off my circulation!’
But there’s no quick fix. I have to coax up each wrinkled fold, snapping it against his battered leg. In the meantime, sweat runs down my face from the effort.
‘You’re like that useless Teresa May! The nurse managed this with no problem.’
‘Well, like our beleaguered Prime Minister,’ I say, with a flash of empathy for the woman behind the politics, ‘I’m in an impossible situation. I’ve inherited a mess that I’m not trained to deal with. And, if you remember, you were warned it might be easier to stick with the pain rather than risk the operation. But it’s too late now, so let’s just pray things improve.’
I yank up the elasticated torture device with such force I stick my finger nail right through it.
‘Now look what you’ve done. You’ve snagged my stocking. I look really stupid.
I wipe my face and inspect Owen, my husband of nearly thirty years. I first met him in a pub on New Year’s Eve, when he mistook my ethnic fashion sense for a gypsy outfit and thought it’d partner well with his fancy-dress, Boy Scout disguise. Today, with his forest-green stockings, all he needs is a jaunty feather-cap to win first prize as a not-so-merry-man-of-Sherwood.
As I stifle a laugh, the phone goes. It’s my mother-in-law.
‘It’s you, is it? There’s nice,’ says a voice that implies she’d much rather not be talking to me, ‘How’s the invalid? Are you taking proper care of him now? I’d better send you my bakestones recipe. Give him a rest from that flapjack of yours, isn’t it?’
‘What a thoughtful idea, Anwen. That’d be great. I’ll pass you on to him,’ I reply, ignoring Owen’s dramatic head-shaking.
‘It’s your mother.’
He looks daggers at me.
‘Hi, mam. I’m fine. Yes, she is feeding me. No, mam, honestly, it’s got better over the years.’
I raise my eyebrows.
‘Yes, mam. It’s gone down a lot. Only the size of a tennis ball now. Yes, nearly. A kind of hobbling, but I’m getting around easier and going back to work soon. No, it’ll be a holiday to go back.’
I raise my eyebrows again.
‘Only joking, mam. Everyone’s been fantastic. No! No, mam, no need to come up. It’s a long way and dad hasn’t driven to Sheffield in years. In fact, he probably shouldn’t be driving at all these days. No, of course, I won’t mention the wing mirror. You’ve had it fixed, isn’t it? That’s good. No, we’ll come down for a visit. In the next couple of weeks?’
He looks frantically at me, so I helpfully mouth, ‘Carmen’.
‘Well, mam, I don’t know. We’ve got a foreign student staying. No, of course not. It’s not an excuse. It’s just how she earns money these days. Yes, before the end of the month. I promise. Yes, I’ll drive. It’ll be fine. Yes, the NHS is great. They’ll be glad of the extra £350 million pounds a week, isn’t it? Thanks mam. Got to go. See you soon.’
He hangs up and sinks dejectedly back on the bed.
‘Sorry, my lovely. I seem to have invited us down to Wales, isn’t it? That’s all I bloody need!’
Owen frowns. He has a complicated relationship with his family. He escaped from Wales after college and married a Yorkshire lass, and somehow, they’ve never forgiven him, or me.
When the children were younger, the in-laws would make sporadic raids over the border, bringing rugby balls, stuffed toy dragons and tins of bakestones to make sure Welsh heritage wasn’t being forgotten. But in recent years their trips have petered out and our own visits have dwindled to birthdays and Christmas.
It’s not that I don’t get on with them. It’s just I’ve always sensed they view me as second best. Still, they are family, so I fake a smile.
‘Look, I really think we should visit your folks. Just remember you’re not allowed behind the wheel for another four weeks, so I’ll have to drive.’
Owen pulls a face. He’s a terrible passenger.
‘Oh, for the love of God, isn’t it? Your driving and my mother - that’s going to be a great day out!’
I distract him with preparations for our new student, who’s arriving this afternoon.
‘Do you think you could tidy the bedroom whilst I clean the rest of the house?’
He hobbles across the carpet and bends down carefully, picking up a dessert spoon, which he throws towards me.
‘You mean tidy your side of the room, my lovely, with its weird cutlery collection?’
I bite my lip and think beautiful thoughts.
‘That’d be great, thank you.’
I descend the stairs of our three-storey-terraced-house, turn on the radio, open the fridge and groan. Housework has never been my strong point. But I console myself that in the predicted medicine shortages of a hard Brexit, I’ll be able to supply the city with home-grown penicillin.
As the latest pop-hit fades out, Radio Local’s Mad Mike in the Morning and his sidekicks, news reporter Tina and weatherman Dave, cheer me up with their innocuous banter. It’s a welcome antidote to the relentless diet of Brexit that’s polarised the nation and pitted friends, family and neighbours against each other.
This morning they’re introducing a new feature, Daily Drama, where a listener phones in asking for the team’s advice about a pressing problem. Well, this should make the housework more entertaining.
As I snap on my marigolds, Tanya from Tickhill explains her issue.
‘I’ve been with my husband twenty years now. I thought he was my soul mate but we live separate lives and our marriage has definitely lost its spark. The kids will be leaving home soon, so I wonder whether to look for love elsewhere.’
As I scrape away the mould, I reflect on how far I’ve come over the last few years. Because I was once that Tanya from Tickhill, dissatisfied with love and life.
‘You know,’ says Tina, ‘if it’s really not working and your children no longer need you, then I think you owe it to yourself to be happy.’
‘So, you’re saying she should just leave?’ interjects weatherman Dave, ‘without even trying to make a go of it? That seems a bit drastic.’
‘Well obviously she could give him an ultimatum. Shape up or ship out.’
‘Just because she’s bored doesn’t mean she has to break up her family! If they’ve stayed together so long then it can’t all be bad, can it? They just have to find something in common again.’
Good advice, Dave, I think. In my experience, soul mates, whilst exhilarating, are overrated and have a tendency to die young. True love, on the other hand, endures. As my father reminded me on my wedding day, ‘Owen might not be perfume and poetry, but he’s reliable, loyal and lasting.’
And dad, with his brutal honesty, was right. Owen never wooed me with flowers and romance but he was exactly what I needed. And, as it turned out, it wasn’t my marriage but myself I needed to change. I’ve been on a journey of self-discovery over the last few years and tried it all - traditional religions, New Age practices, yoga, hypnosis, buckets of crystals and the odd gong bath. And then I had an epiphany which resulted in me giving up my settled teaching job and realising that even if Owen and I are like chalk and cheese, somehow our marriage works. His natural pessimism tempers my positivity, and my pie-in-the-sky dreaming is countered by his realism. Together, we’re a good team.
In fact, knee-replacement grumpiness apart, we’re in a good place now. I’m happier both in work and home life. I’ve learnt to cultivate more kindness and compassion and I’m grateful for my close-knit family. We’ve been through the storms and now the sea ahead is calm. But I know not everyone is as lucky as me. So, what advice would I give Tanya from Tickhill?
Mad Mike invites the listeners to comment, ‘Well, South Yorkshire, the question is, what to do with a gently-used husband? Tina’s all for taking him to the dump whilst Dave is for up-cycling. Do phone in and let us know your views.’
It’s early evening, the house is finally ship-shape and Carmen, the travel agent from Barcelona, has been given a whistle-stop tour of Sheffield city centre and is now in the kitchen waiting to greet the family and experience her first British roast dinner.
‘So, you’ve met my husband and this is my small child - sorry - younger son, Dylan, who’s fourteen and the only one still at home.’
Dylan grunts an unrecognisable ‘Hello’ before returning to his Instagram feed.
Carmen, however, has obviously not had much experience of teenagers and is keen to practise her English.
‘Is lovely meet you. Have you hobby?’
Dylan peers out from underneath his long, blonde fringe. I do a double-take. Is he wearing eye-liner?
He sighs, weary of foreigners in the house.
‘I’m a climber.’
He mimes the action.
‘Ah, mountains,’ nods Carmen enthusiastically. ‘Is dangerous?’
Dylan reluctantly puts down his phone.
‘Not mountains. Sheffield’s famous for its climbing walls, so mostly I go indoor climbing and bouldering. Oh, and I climb trees, of course. Sheffield’s famous for them too.’
He smiles cheekily at me and, seeing Carmen’s confused look, I explain as simply as I can.
‘Sheffield’s one of the greenest cities in Europe. It has a lot of trees but recently there’s been a problem. The council wanted to cut down some trees because they were causing a problem with the roads. But the trees were healthy and a lot of people were unhappy and tried to stop them.’
I look daggers at my younger son and point out of the window to a sturdy lime tree, bedecked in yellow bunting.
‘They decorated the trees with ribbons and stayed there so the workers couldn’t chop them down. Then the police came and next the journalists came and…’
‘We won the war!’ interrupts Dylan.
‘Well, for now at least,’ I continue.
‘Oh, is very excited history,’ says Carmen.
‘A very exciting story,’ I correct automatically, ‘for the teenagers, but not necessarily for their parents.’
Before Dylan can reply, the doorbell goes and my delightful daughter, Megan, walks in with her husband, Bruce. As I make the introductions, Carmen stares at them transfixed.
‘Dios mio, but you look exactly like …’
‘Prince William and Kate?’ sighs Megan, who’s used to being mistaken for her royal doppelganger.
‘Si, si. But you called Meghan like Prince Harry wife? Is funny.’
‘Yes, hilarious. Except Kate’s a lot older and American Meghan has an ‘h’ in her name,’ I explain, quickly changing the subject. ‘So, sweetheart, how are you doing? How’s work going?’
‘Oh, you know, pretty full-on. More government cuts, fewer youth workers, but we do our best.’
‘How about you, Bruce? How’s engineering treating you?’
I look at my son-in-law. He’s looking quite drawn, with dark circles under his eyes. Has he been working too hard?
‘Ah, I’m flat out like a lizard drinking,’ says Bruce.
‘Pardon, I no understand.’
Megan laughs. ‘Sorry, Carmen. You’ll have to excuse my husband. He’s from Australia. His accent’s different from ours and he sometimes uses incomprehensible expressions. He means he’s very busy. Just like my big, little brother there who’s too busy scrolling on his phone to say hi.’
Dylan rolls his eyes, whilst Carmen seizes the opportunity for more English conversation.
‘So, how long are you married? You are very young.’
Megan smiles, ‘Not that young. Twenty-six. We’ve been together five years but only married for three.’
‘Oh, for Spain is young. I have nearly thirty-one but am still single.’
‘It’s a shame Prince Harry’s already taken then. He’d have been an ideal match for you’, I joke, putting the Yorkshire puddings in the oven.
‘Mum’s obsessed with Prince Harry,’ Megan explains, pouring wine for everyone. ‘She loves the monarchy, unlike dad, who’s anti anything royal.’
‘Well mum did end up on TV that time with Harry, remember,’ says Dylan, ‘and, you’ve got to admit, his wedding last year was pretty spectacular.’
‘Wedding, eh? Are you going to have a proper wedding then to make mother happy?’ A voice booms out from the hallway as my older son, tall and gangly with a mop of curly hair, walks in, followed by his live-in, true-Yorkshire girlfriend.
‘Hi, little, big brother, this is Carmen, mum’s latest student,’ says Megan, ‘Carmen, this is my other brother, Rhys. He was a devil teen growing up and hasn’t improved much with age. And this is Jess, his long-suffering partner.’
‘And the wedding?’ asks Carmen, looking confused.
‘Ah, that’d be my bad,’ says Bruce, who’s always willing to take the blame. ‘Megs and I were travelling Europe together and I couldn’t wait to make her my old lady, so we got hitched on a beach in Greece.’
‘Is so romantic,’ sighs Carmen.
‘But one day, we’ll have a proper wedding, won’t we, possum?’ he continues, staring at her adoringly. ‘For now, we’ve got other priorities.’
Megan nods, tight-lipped.
‘So, Bruce is engineer and Megan is young person worker,’ continues Carmen, turning to Rhys. ‘But what are you doing?’
‘I studied Finance and, am currently on a graduate accountancy scheme but looking for a permanent job,’ says Rhys, who’s always been ambitious.
‘And you?’ asks Carmen, looking at Jess.
‘I’m an ‘airdresser,’ she explains. ‘I work in a top city centre salon. Me boss, Marco, is training me up to be chief stylist.’
‘It’s a great place. You should try it out whilst you’re here. They do really cool cuts.’ says Megan, handing out drinks.
Jess refuses the wine but nods enthusiastically.
‘Yes, Marco always makes sure we keep-up-to-date. Sheffield’s definitely the place to be these days. In fact, we’ve won awards an’ all, even beating top London stylists and colourists.’
‘Hair dye. That’s Jess’ speciality,’ says Megan. ‘In fact, Jess usually has multi-coloured hair. So, what’s with the natural look today?’
For a moment Jess looks taken-aback.
‘Oh… nowt… Yer know, sometimes it’s good to give yer ‘air a rest. That’s all…’
Just then the oven-timer starts beeping.
‘It’s nearly ready guys,’ I say. ‘Call your dad down. He’s watching rugby in the attic.’
‘I’ll get the old fella,’ offers Bruce, ‘keep an eye on him on those stairs.’
So, I usher everyone else to the table then busy myself with the roast, thankful I have such a lovely son-in-law and a sweet, hopefully soon-to-be daughter-in-law.
As Owen limps in to take his seat, his gaze hones in on his younger son.
‘Now then boyo, what’s that you’ve got smudged round your eyes? As if flowery trainers aren’t bad enough! Are Adam and the Ants back in fashion then? I can dig you out one of my old frilly shirts if you’re going all metrosexual on us.’
‘Daaad!’ says Dylan, ‘as if you were ever New Romantic!’
Owen grins, ‘No, I was more of a cheesecloth shirt and Levis kind of guy. But, I’m an Old Romantic now, aren’t I, my lovely?’
He winks at me, making me laugh, as nothing could be further from the truth.
‘Better have a drink, eh?’ he continues, ‘to wash your mother’s cooking down.’
I look at the roast, which is only slightly blackened today, and scowl before explaining to Carmen the delights of a typical roast dinner.
‘We’ve got chicken, roast potatoes, carrots, peas and broccoli.’
Carmen looks relieved. Like many foreigners, she’s heard dire warnings about British cooking. But at least she recognises the food so far.
‘And they?’ she asks.
‘Ah well, these are Yorkshire puddings, very traditional, made of eggs, flour and milk.
‘Is a pancake?’
‘Well, not quite. Just try them and anything you don’t like you can leave.’
‘And this green bread?’
‘Stuffing. It’s delicious with gravy.’
‘In the jug.’
‘Ah, the brown milk?’
‘Mm, well, that’s gravy, I suppose. It’s a kind of meat liquid we pour over the chicken and then we eat it all with cranberry sauce. That’s a bit like jam.’
‘Jam? With meat?’
Carmen raises her eyebrows, now convinced that the rumours about our country’s cuisine are true.