15 December 2017

Some Party in Heaven part 5


When Phyllis came home from hospital she was a mother of two. She had two equally loved, but very different, sons. Summer was approaching and the young parents looked forward to long sunny days with the windows and doors of their little house wide open, and both infant boys lying outside in the garden.

It didn’t work out that way.

The summer of 1985 turned out to be one of the wettest for many years. It seemed to rain every single day. Their house began to show signs of damp. Phyllis became uneasy. She couldn’t ever seem to get it dried out.

One thing that didn’t worry her, though, was feeding Ford in the night. A few minutes at the Aga heated the bottle, Ford downed it in ten minutes, and everyone was back to sleep again! Great!

The wet summer progressed into a wet autumn. The barley crop was lost. Flattened by rain and soaking wet it couldn’t be saved. Ford senior, Hertford’s father, bought some sheep to put into it. They could either eat it up or tramp it down, leaving the fields ready for ploughing again. It was a major problem for Ford the father and Hertford the son. Ford the grandson wasn’t too bothered about the barley. Not yet, anyway.

The continuing wet weather brought with it continuing and somewhat worsening dampness in the young couple’s home. Phyllis was concerned about Thomas. He seemed to develop colds very easily. At times she worried about his health. She was convinced that the damp conditions in which they were living were contributing, at least in some way, to her ‘very special child’s’ frequent colds.

One day when Mrs. Arnold called to see Phyllis and the boys, and help where necessary, Phyllis voiced her concerns to her mother-in-law.

“I’m a bit worried about Thomas,” she began.

“What do you mean ‘worried’ about him? In what way?” Jean Arnold was only mildly concerned. She was sitting looking at Thomas and he seemed to be perfectly OK.

“It’s nothing serious,” Phyllis reassured her. “It’s just that with this house being so damp and the winter coming on, I’m afraid that these colds Thomas keeps catching will get worse. All this damp just can’t be good for him. You know what I mean?”

Jean did understand her daughter-in-law’s deep disquiet. And she was so practical. If there was a sensible solution to an everyday problem, Jean would find it.

“Well I tell you what to do,” she suggested. “Why don’t the four of you move up with us for the winter at least? We have spare bedrooms now you know!”

That was the answer. Phyllis didn’t need a lot of persuasion! Thus it was that in October 1985, Hertford, Phyllis, Thomas and Ford moved in to share the Arnold family home. Initially, it was their intention to winter there. There was no big flit. The grateful parents just carried the most urgently needed of their bits and pieces across the yard, as and when they were required.

It proved to be a prudent move. Hertford and Phyllis now had a large en-suite bedroom. Everywhere was carpeted. There were no freezing feet on terrazzo floors in the middle of the night here. No standing with one foot in the oven!

Thomas and Ford had their own bedroom. It was ideal for them, a big bedroom with dry walls. Their caring mum and dad repapered it for them, and the paper actually stuck to the walls! They did it with nursery paper – all kittens and balloons, rainbows and clouds. There was a white carpet on the floor.

Hertford and Phyllis were determined to spare neither time, effort nor expense making that room as cosy as possible for their two little sons. Everything had to be of the best! Moving up to the ‘big house’ reminded Phyllis of her Blakely days. She liked going upstairs to bed.

They had space to spread themselves now, in this larger house. A family friend made a special playpen for Thomas. Since he was a big child for his age, but unable to stand up, it had to be more spacious than normal. This two metres square playpen sat in the middle of the floor in a large downstairs room. Thomas lay in it quite contentedly, rolling over now and again when he felt like it.

Life soon settled into a new routine for the family of four. They were all happy in these more spacious and healthy surroundings. Phyllis still had to take Thomas for his hospital appointments. Then there were the exercise sessions and longer feeding periods. Since she was compelled to spend so much time attending to Thomas and his ongoing needs, Phyllis had less time than she would have liked to devote to her younger son, Ford. That is where her mother-inlaw proved to be such a tremendous help. She played the role of mother to Ford. While Phyllis was caring for Thomas, whether nursing, feeding or changing, ‘Granny Jean,’ as she had become affectionately known, was doing the same for Ford.

As Christmas approached, Hertford and Phyllis had to do some shopping. They had more enthusiasm for it this year. They felt privileged to have two sons, with their different needs, to cater for. For Thomas they bought the usual array of rattles and cuddly, squeaky and musical toys. The collection was much the same as the previous year, really.

But for Ford they had different ideas. He was going to be a farmer wasn’t he? Just like Granda Ford and his daddy. So they bought him a tractor, a big blue one with a red trailer. They had to give their boy the right ideas. Start him off with a set of farmyard wheels!

Not as one of his Christmas presents, but as something they were convinced he needed, they bought Ford a ‘walkie-pen’. When they put him into it at first he just hung there, gazing round him. Then he discovered that if he moved his feet this thing moved as well! In just a few days he was zooming into every corner of the downstairs of the house. As Thomas lay in his playpen, listening to his musical toys, Ford was often making a circuit of it as part of yet another journey of discovery. He soon found that the family table was high enough to allow him to duck down, get underneath it and come out the other side. He really loved that, doing it over and over again to the amusement of all!

Christmas, 1985, was so exciting for Hertford and Phyllis. Now they had two children with whom to share it as well as well as mum and dad Arnold, their kind and patient hosts. Phyllis so enjoyed wrapping the presents that Christmas Eve. It reminded her, too, of childhood days in the Blakely home, when she used to ‘hang up her stocking.’ There was that same excitement, that same sense of anticipation. Only now the satisfaction would be in observing the pleasure of Thomas with his presents, and the excitement of Ford when receiving his.

She wasn’t disappointed. For her, and her husband, and for them all as a family, that Christmas was a most memorable occasion. The deep sense of togetherness felt that day was evident in a simple situation which arose.

The sturdy box in which the big blue tractor had come lay abandoned in the middle of the living-room floor. Some roughly-torn Christmas paper still clung valiantly to its side. It was surrounded by all the Christmas fripperies that make the festive season so special. Bows, tags, coloured ribbons. Someone lifted Thomas and set him gently into the large box, taking care to prop him up in the corner. Noticing that there was still some space left in the corner diagonally opposite, someone else lifted Ford and placed him in it. Phyllis rushed for the camera. She wanted to record the moment. As she put the viewfinder up to her eye she felt complete, somehow. There was a certain sense in which she knew she had ‘arrived.’ At least one of their dreams had come true. Thomas had company, and it was tailor-made for him – it was his own little brother!


With Christmas over, the New Year had begun. And what a start! Phyllis discovered she was expecting a third baby! She and Hertford weren’t concerned about this at all, in fact they were extremely pleased. Thomas was progressing, slowly but surely, within the limits of what he would ever be able to achieve, and Ford was growing normally. It was an absorbing exercise for the young parents, to compare his development with that of Thomas, at the various ages and stages.

A third child would fill another chair around the big table eventually, no doubt. Their family dream was being realised, as fast, if not faster, than they had ever dared to imagine. The terrific plus point about having a third member in their family was that he or she would be an able and active playmate for Ford.

Wasn’t the possibility of their having another handicapped child just ‘one in a million?’

It would be great to have them all so close, too, they reckoned. This meant they would grow up together and be company for one another. Marvellous.

In late May, 1986, they embarked upon something Hertford and Phyllis had always dreamed of. Something they used to talk about by the fireside on long, dark, stormy winter evenings. It was a family holiday. Just the four of them together with lots of precious time to spend with Thomas and Ford. In order to allow them to cater for their children’s specific individual needs they arranged to go for a week to Phyllis’s father’s caravan in Castlerock. How they looked forward to it! Talked about it! Planned it!

When the big day came, and they arrived at the caravan which was to double as the family home for the next week, it was raining. This was nothing new for Northern Ireland, but likewise not ideal for the start of a caravan holiday. Sitting in the car they decided on their plan of action.

“You stay in the car with the boys, Hertford,” Phyllis suggested to her husband. “I’ll get into the ’van and check that everything is OK. Then you can bring the children in.”

With that agreed Phyllis dashed over to the caravan, opened up, and stepped inside. She was met by that furniture-and-fabric fustiness which is a characteristic of closed-up caravans. After opening a few windows, ‘to let in a breath of fresh air,’ she made a quick inspection to satisfy herself that all was in order. Then she went to the caravan door and signalled to Hertford to bring in the children.

As Ford would be easier to transport, his dad decided to take him in first. Having carried his younger son over to the caravan door, he reached in as far as he could and placed him on the floor. Then he turned away to go back for Thomas. That was when the unexpected occurred. Phyllis had been trying to figure out the complexities of getting the table up when she decided to take a glance over to make sure Ford was safe.

Then she just stared. He had pushed himself up on to his feet. There he stood, swaying gently. Suddenly, deliberately, he started walking towards his mother. She was awestruck. By the time Hertford returned to the caravan door with Thomas, Phyllis was hugging Ford warmly.

“Do you know what has just happed there, Hertford?” she began, not sure whether to laugh or cry. Her husband hadn’t a clue what had happened, and was totally at a loss to know what to make of the look of delighted consternation on his wife’s face.

“Ford has just walked over to me!” she exclaimed, almost triumphantly. When Thomas had been laid on a couch, Hertford had to witness this latest stage in his son’s development himself. Completely ignoring the fact that the luggage was still out in the car, and the car door was lying open in the rain, Hertford placed Ford at the opposite end of the caravan. Holding out his arms, he made the simple request, “Come to daddy.” Little Ford did just that. Having pushed himself up to a standing position, he paused a moment to establish his balance, then came to daddy! On his own two feet!

What joy! What excitement! Ford looked no end of pleased with himself. He wasn’t a baby any more. He was a toddler now! Phyllis and Hertford were thrilled. This was their second son, but their first to walk.

The remainder of that holiday was spent encouraging Ford to develop confidence in his newly-acquired skill. A change in content of the please-walk-for-us-Ford stimuli emphasised their closeness as a family unit. Simple commands to ‘come to mummy’ or ‘come to daddy’ progressed naturally into useful requests like, “Bring over that rattle for Thomas,” or “Take that biscuit to Thomas.”

While they were overjoyed at the sense of family cooperation Ford’s learning to walk had brought, it also highlighted something else for Hertford and Phyllis. They were inclined to be sorry, but had to be sensible about it, for it had become an inescapable fact. The gap between the natural capabilities of their two little sons was widening.


In late September 1986, Phyllis was in hospital again, awaiting the birth of their third child. ‘Will it be a girl this time?’ she mused idly, once or twice. She wasn’t really fussed about the gender of her next baby, as long as he or she would be healthy and well. Lying there in the ward she committed herself to the Lord once more, “Please, Lord, let everything be all right,” she prayed. Phyllis felt so confident that her prayer would be answered. So confident indeed, that it was almost one of those ‘I know it will be OK but I thought I had better mention it to you anyway, Lord,’ kind of prayers. Thomas was ‘one in a million.’ So he was going to be the only one of his kind in the family. In the big happy family…

As she drifted back into consciousness after the birth, Phyllis heard a nurse’s voice. It seemed to echo from far away. “Wake up now, Mrs. Arnold,” the distant voice was saying. “You have another little boy.

He has lovely red hair. His daddy will be pleased.” Phyllis heard. Yet what registered in her awakening brain was not what the nurse said. It was what she didn’t say. There was no, ‘Normal. Healthy. Fine. OK. All right.’ These words had not been used. A sense of apprehension gripped her. It was an instinctive premonition. A baffling blackness enveloped her soul. All was not well. She just knew it.

As her mind became clearer, she began to ask questions of the nurses who were busily working away around her. They answered her as best they could, but direct questions received indirect answers. “Where’s Hertford? When can I see my husband?” Phyllis was anxious to know.

“He will be in to see you in a few minutes, Mrs. Arnold. Don’t worry yourself now,” the nurses tried to reassure her, but to no avail. There was something wrong with the baby. Phyllis was convinced of that. Some strange maternal instinct had been aroused in her, and she was sure it was right. Who would be the first to tell her the truth? To come out with it straight?

Meanwhile, Hertford was waiting outside the theatre. Impatiently. Pacing up and down. He was aware of an unusual coming and going. There seemed to be more staff going in than coming out. Last to go in was a specialist whom he recognised. When a nurse emerged with a tiny bundle wrapped in a blanket, Hertford stepped forward to see what it was. “You have another little son, Mr. Arnold,” she said, forcing a smile that should have come easily. She appeared somewhat concerned. Hertford caught a glimpse of the top of a baby’s head, with its ‘lovely red hair.’ It was just like his own in colour, but very much finer and there certainly was plenty of it!

“Is he OK?!” was the proud father’s only question. His enquiry was also greeted with an evasive answer. “I am just taking him to have him checked over right now,” the nurse replied, before hurrying off up the corridor carrying Hertford’s third son out of sight.

A deep disquiet stirred within him. ‘That’s funny,’ he thought as he stood puzzled and motionless in the corridor. ‘When Ford was born they came out and told me he was normal. ‘Strong as a bull’ was the phrase they used.’ He was engrossed in trying to persuade himself that it was ‘only routine’ when Phyllis was wheeled out of the theatre on her way back to the ward. Hertford was invited to follow.

When Phyllis had been made comfortable back in bed, her husband chatted to her. They tried to talk about their new baby, but both of them found it extremely difficult. A giant cloud hung over them, darkening their way ahead. Any talk there was centred around his ‘lovely red hair.’ Hertford realised from the nurse’s comment, and countenance, that all was not well. He was trying manfully to hide his misgivings from his wife.

He didn’t need to. With uncanny insight she was certain there was something amiss as well. Lying back on the pillows, Phyllis just wept silently. She was weak after the birth, befuddled by the anaesthetic and sick at heart.


Noel Davidson