15 December 2017

Some Party in Heaven part 6

About an hour later Tom and Ethel Blakely entered the ward. Phyllis saw them coming. Her mother was carrying a blue toy elephant and a bunch of flowers.

“I believe he is a wee red-head,” Tom began cheerily.

Phyllis exploded into loud uncontrollable sobs.

Mother placed the stuffed elephant and the bunch of flowers on the bed and slipped an arm round her daughter. “What’s wrong, Phyllis? What’s wrong?” she enquired, her voice warm with love, urgent with anguish.

“It’s the baby!” Phyllis blurted out. “I know, I just KNOW there is something wrong with him.”

Tom Blakely kicked the end of the bed in frustration. “No, Phyllis! No!” he almost shouted. “Don’t talk nonsense! It can’t have happened again! Not again!”

Ethel showed her motherly love. “Don’t worry about it, Phyllis,” she comforted, “Hertford and your daddy will go and find out something from somebody.”

Hertford, though, had no desire to find out anything from anybody. He already knew enough. All he wanted to do was get out of that ward as soon as possible.

So he went.

His father-in-law followed, only to stop in the corridor.

When Hertford reached the Baby Unit he was alone. When he saw a lady doctor whom he recognised in there, he went across to her. Not being a man of many words at the best of times, Herford hadn’t a lot to say now.

“Well, doctor?” he asked, making a profound enquiry with only two words.

It was enough for the doctor. She understood, and shook her head.

“All is not right, I’m afraid,” she replied.

Turning away quickly, Hertford left the Baby Unit. There was nothing left to say. He returned to the ward rather more slowly.

When he approached his wife’s bedside she was anxious for news. “Well, what did they say?” Phyllis asked earnestly. “What is he like?”

One of these questions her husband could answer. The other he couldn’t. He just couldn’t bring himself to tell the truth – the whole truth.

“Oh, he’s lovely,” with all the enthusiasm he could muster. “You want to see his red hair.

They are having a bit of a problem getting him to feed though, so they are not going to bring him up to you tonight.”

“But is he all right? I mean OK. Normal?” Phyllis persisted.

“He certainly looks all right,” her husband replied.

That bit was true. He did.

Making the excuse that Phyllis was exhausted and needed to rest, Hertford went home, heavyhearted.

On the next evening, visitors began to gather round the bed, but Phyllis wasn’t content.

She wanted to see her third little son, Wendsley, as they had agreed he should be called. Hertford pushed his wife in a wheelchair along the corridor to the Baby Unit, to satisfy that maternal craving to be with her child. All the visitors, who were mostly brothers and sisters of the new mum and dad, straggled along behind in a higgledy-piggledy procession.

The young parents entered the Baby Unit, leaving the other visitors to observe proceedings through a viewing window. It was going to be difficult to have their first together-viewing of their third baby in such circumstances. Especially when what Phyllis suspected, Hertford already knew.

Phyllis sat in the chair and a nurse handed her baby son into her arms.

When the tiny red head fell back limply over her arm, she felt the same sensation as she had done with Thomas.

There could be no doubt about it now whatsoever. This baby was definitely handicapped as well.

She just wept. Tears streamed down her face unchecked.

The visitors vanished from the window, treading softly, one by one.

A numbness came over Phyllis. It was that awful sense of living-death again.

When Hertford returned his by-now almost despondent wife to the ward, little was said. This was yet another of those ‘what do you say in a fix like this?’ situations.

Hertford went home, promising Phyllis he would be back to see her, ‘first thing in the morning.’

When he came back, as pledged, the following day, two doctors invited both Phyllis and he down to the Baby Unit. The purpose of this consultation turned out to be mainly to formalise what they already knew intuitively.

This was it officially.

“We thought you ought to know, Mr. and Mrs. Arnold,” they explained, “that this baby appears to be like Thomas in every way in which we can test him. This is totally contrary to our expectations, but sadly it is a fact.”

The doctors went on to assure the totally devastated couple of their support at all times. They also promised them, kindly, that Wendsley would receive the same high level of care that had been afforded to Thomas.

Hertford and Phyllis heard little of it. They both had the same instant reaction.

It was simultaneous. It was sincere. It was sad.

They both felt they must somehow escape from the hospital, and sooner, rather than later. They just wanted to be together, the two of them, with their children and their thoughts.

Although what appeared to be emotionally imperative and seemed medically inadvisable, the hospital staff allowed Phyllis to go home with Hertford and baby Wendsley.

As they drove home that day they were both in mental torment once more. Now they had three children under four years of age, and two of them were handicapped.

Phyllis was inclined to blame God for punishing her yet again.

‘Heaven’s Very Special Child’ had been acceptable. Once.

She could have believed it. Once.

She had even felt good about it, in a peculiar sort of way. Once.

But surely even God couldn’t expect them to take it a second time. Not twice.

Was it not rather unfair of God to expect them to rear two of these ‘very special’ children? What about all the other parents around the countryside? Why not share the ‘very special’ children out a bit? Let some other couple be ‘special parents,’ just for a change?

Phyllis sat in the car staring blankly ahead of her in bitter silence of soul. She daren’t voice her thoughts to her husband.

Hertford was as hard as a stone.

‘God. Who is God? What has He got to do with anything?’

That had been his response nearly four years ago.

It would be even worse now.

THE CHICKEN HOUSE

After the initial shock, the icy bitterness of heart melted away more quickly for Hertford and Phyllis with their third son, than it had done with the first. There were three reasons for this.

Firstly, they ‘knew the ropes.’ They had experience in working with a disabled child. Having acquired all the skills and processes, and all the special adaptations of feeding and care required, with Thomas, coping with Wendsley was relatively easier.

Then there was the dreaded ‘how will we face the people?’ fear. The ‘what do we say to them?’ dilemma.

That was gone. Having been through it once and found the family circle most supportive, and the Great General Public to be sympathetic or at least tolerant, Hertford and Phyllis had no problems in regard to that either.

Thirdly, and importantly, there were Hertford’s parents. Coming back, as they did, from hospital to the family home meant that there were two more sets of eyes to watch the boys, two more pairs of hands to help. Jean was marvellous.

Gradually, however, Hertford and Phyllis began to feel that seven of them were too many now, all living under one roof. The three boys were company for each other, it was true, but their mum knew that with two of them being handicapped the place would inevitably become cluttered up with all their special equipment. Special feeding chairs, play pens and exercise mats all took up valuable space.

In addition to that, there was Ford. At the age of 18 months he had now become very independent. He could go to the fridge and get himself a drink, or to a cupboard and help himself to a sweet – or to many another thing besides, as it took his fancy! Phyllis was actually going to learn to appreciate Ford’s ability to fetch and carry in the coming days though, as his two brothers grew older.

The stairs posed another problem. Thomas was eating well at his special diet, and was thriving. This meant he was putting on weight, getting heavier fast, but he was ‘dead weight’ to carry up and down the stairs.

It was true that Phyllis liked to ‘go up the stairs to bed.’ She did not, however, fancy having to transport two handicapped boys up and down stairs for the rest of her days. Another consideration.

Then what about Jean and Ford senior? Although they never once complained, in fact they rather appeared to enjoy the company, yet it was their house. Their home. Hertford and Phyllis had plonked themselves, plus three, by invitation, in it. It wasn’t fair, they reasoned, and it wouldn’t be fair in the future, to expect Hertford’s parents to live through the emotional, and indeed physical problems, of their daily routine.

One night as they lay in bed discussing the situation the young couple came up with what to them sounded a sensible solution. They would build their own bungalow. Stairs weren’t on. It would have to be a bungalow for the boys.

But the dream answer posed a down-to-earth question.

Money. Which in their case they had not got. At least not enough to fund the building of a bungalow.

There was a practical answer to that question too, they decided at length. A chicken house. They would build and run their own chicken house. That was, of course, provided Hertford’s father would be agreeable. Ford Arnold already had four broiler houses which Hertford helped to manage.

If only he had one! Just one, of his own! Then they could make enough, through time, to be self-sufficient.

That was the plan. They were enthusiastic about it.

A business. Then a bungalow. That was the answer! No doubt about it!

Yet before they could see a brick built, or hear a chicken cheep, there were enquiries to be made, permission to be sought.

Hertford knew how to approach the subject. Like many another young man in life, he considered the best way to obtain anything from his parents was to find his mother on her own sometime, and ‘in a good mood.’ He would then tactfully raise the issue with her.

His mother was a good thermometer, he always felt. You could usually gauge the family temperature by taking a reading of her reactions.

Thus, late one evening, as he and his mother were sitting chatting by the Aga, Hertford seized his opportunity. Phyllis and the three boys were all in bed, fast asleep, and his father was out in the yard.

“Hi Ma, Phyllis and I would like to build our own bungalow,” he began.

“But I’m sure you have a fair idea we haven’t the money. We were thinking we could start our own chicken house to make a pound or two. Then if that worked out we could build our own bungalow.”

Jean Arnold remained silent, but smiled encouragingly, as Hertford continued, “Do you think Da would agree to all that? Do you think he would give us a site for a bungalow?”

When he had asked the second question, Hertford stopped. He stretched out in the armchair. He had finished. Said his piece. Done his bit.

Never mind Da for the minute, what was Ma going to say about it all?

He needn’t have worried. Jean was happy enough.

She had felt for some time that for everybody’s sake it would be best for the young family to make it on their own. The scheme Hertford had just outlined so clearly would give them an independent income. They would then soon be in a position to build a home of their own in which to raise their family.

Jean liked the sound of it, and said so. “I think he probably would,” she replied. “I will speak to him about it later.” The caring mother and grandmother was as good as her word. So successful had she been in selling the idea to her husband that Hertford could barely wait to tell Phyllis the good news when they retired to their room the next evening.

“Do you know what my Da told me in the yard today?” Hertford was bursting with it. Before even waiting for his wife to reply he went on, “He said he would help us to build and start up our own chicken house AND that he would give us a site in the corner of the field at the top of the lane to build a bungalow on.”

Hertford’s parents kept their promise. They encouraged their son and daughter-in-law in every possible way in the building and equipping of their chicken house. This was stage number one of their scheme.

On 1 December, 1986, the first day-old chicks were delivered to the house. There were 20,000 of them! They just appeared like fluffy heaving masses as they clustered around the heaters, chirping away. The clean smell of the fresh shavings and the continual cheeping of the birds gave Hertford and Phyllis a great sense of satisfaction. This was their first independent business venture. They hoped it would be successful.

December brought a further milestone in the life of the family.

Another Christmas! What a thrill it was that year!

Now that Hertford and Phyllis had embarked on the chicken house project they had been forced to think outside themselves, and had come to terms, fully, with their family circumstances.

Wendsley was as precious now as their other two sons.

Three boys! More toys! Much noise!

Fantastic.

Hertford and Phyllis, Ford and Jean had a busy but rewarding Christmas.

They all realised that if the business-to-bungalow enterprise worked out as they had planned they might not be living under the same roof next December. Everyone had mixed feelings about that.

In late January 1987 the initial crop of chickens was sold out of the chicken house. This was encouraging. It was their first financial return.

So far, so good.

Then on 13 February, Hertford and Phyllis watched with their two

older sons, as another memorable event for them, took place.

The diggers moved in to clear and level the site for their new bungalow.

Things were looking up.

Well done to the chicken house!

And the next batch of chickens was due any day!

BLEEPERS, BUGGIES AND BUILDERS

‘Beep! Beep! Beep!’

The big yellow bus from the Education and Library Board was by now coming each weekday morning to take Thomas to school. He had been enrolled in a Special Care School in Lurgan and became so excited when he heard the bleeper sounding.

Arms and legs were waved in enthusiasm, but in no particular order, when the bus began to reverse up the farmyard, right to the back door. His daily attendance at school proved to be a double benefit to Phyllis. It gave her more time to concentrate on Ford and Wendsley during the day. At the same time it was comforting to realise that Thomas was under the supervision of experts who were trained to care for both his physical and educational needs.

From the time the walls of their new bungalow-to-be began to rise slowly out of the muddy ground, Phyllis liked to make a daily visit to the site.

It was lovely on a spring morning. The daffodils along the lane were in full bloom again and the birds sang and built their nests. The increasing warmth of the sun, when it shone, and the gradual growth of a new home for the family, brought an increased optimism to the young wife and mother.

Winter was over once more. A sense that things weren’t that bad after all, swathed her soul. On fine days, with Thomas at school and Hertford at work on the farm or in the chicken house, Phyllis would make a pilgrimage to the building site.

Such journeys required much effort. She set off from the farmhouse, the two younger boys with her, one before and one behind.

Wendsley sat in the double buggy, specially bought for Thomas and him. There were two big problems with pushing that buggy.

Number one was the roughness of the lane. Potholes, centre-grass and large jagged stones didn’t make for easy buggy-pushing.

The second problem was the design of the buggy itself. Particularly the wheels. They were of the ‘supermarket-trolley’ variety. All four of them walloped about independently, each one seeming to want to go in a direction of its own. The trouble was not a single one of them appeared to have the slightest inclination whatsoever to go the same way as Phyllis!

Not only did Phyllis have to push on that lane but she also had to pull as well! Besides grasping the handle of the buggy, her right hand had the end of a rope wound around it. The other end of the rope was attached to a blue ride-on tractor with the name ‘Ford’ emblazoned along the side of it. Perched astride this ‘personalised’ tractor was Ford himself, aged two.

Although it required a lot of effort from Phyllis, this arrangement worked very well. Very well, that was, as long as Ford stayed on the tractor!

All it required, though, was for him to spot a bee on a flower or a frog on the lane. Then he was away to investigate. He just hopped off the tractor with no advance warning! Two things could happen as a result of this.

The towline could give a jerk and the tractor fall on its side before slithering to either a dusty or a muddy halt, depending on the type of day it happened to be. That was the preferable option.

The alternative occurred when Phyllis had worked up a bit of speed with her combination. In that case, when Ford skipped off, the tractor came lunging forward and whacked his unsuspecting mother on the back of the legs.

Despite these minor trials, Phyllis made many journeys up that lane that spring. A very pleasant spring then gave way to a hot summer. As the bungalow began to assume the shape of a habitable form of structure, the visits became more frequent.

The thirteenth of July was a holiday. A holiday it seemed for everybody except Hertford and his brother-in-law, Estlin. The pair of them spent that beautiful sunny day climbing ladders, stacking tiles on the roof. School was finished by now, so all three children watched at various stages during the day as father and uncle toiled away. Up and down.

Up and down.

Onto the roof with a pile of tiles. Then down the ladder to wipe the brow and have a drink. Then onto the roof with a pile of tiles…

Hertford and Phyllis, like so many who are eagerly watching a house being built, felt that when the roof was on, the bungalow was nearly finished. It didn’t turn out that way. There was a lot of fitting out to be done.

Their small cottage-type home had to have the Arnold trademark. An Aga in the kitchen.

There was one special feature of that bungalow which made it different from all the others of its size and shape in the countryside at the time. It had a ramp at the back door.

In the late summer, and on into autumn, the whole family used to go up the lane to explore the shell of their home-to-be. Hertford and Phyllis moved from room to room, clearing up what they could, and planning what furniture they would have in each room and where it would be placed. These plans sometimes changed about three times a week!

Ford loved the empty echo of the rooms. He often stomped about, making as much noise as possible and laughing heartily. Then he would change the mood and creep around as quietly as he could, hiding from his mum and dad.

Thomas and Wendsley sat side by side in their twin buggy. The cackle of their laughter reverberated round the vacant rooms.

It was great for the family to be so close. Being together. Working together. Laughing together. It was a precious time for all of them.

Fitting out slowed down in the winter months and Hertford concentrated his efforts on the chicken house, which was proving to be a success. It was a profitable concern, making money slowly but steadily, not perhaps as rapidly as Hertford and Phyllis had imagined or would have liked. The spring of 1988 was spent on the finishing touches. When Phyllis made her trips to the new bungalow it was to work, in earnest. There was brushing up, rubbing down and scrubbing out to be done. There was painting, papering and polishing to be done.

Monday 6 June 1988, which was moving day, began just like any other term-time weekday. Beep! Beep! up the yard. The bus arrived and took Thomas off to school.

Then the flit began, for real. There was no massive removal van required here. No gang of men. On a farm nobody ever dreamt of employing that kind of service.

The removal vehicle was a tractor and horse box. The removal team consisted of Hertford, his father and his brother Tyrell.

Back and forward, back and forward, up and down the lane they went.

Pothole-puddle-water splashed away from the wheels of the tractor and horse box. It was a warm but overcast day. There were occasional heavy showers. The flitting turned out to be a coats on, coats off, trying not to get the stuff wet, kind of an operation.

As the items were carried into the bungalow one by one, Phyllis directed the ‘removal men’ where to place them.

Wendsley sat in his buggy taking it all in, shaking his rattles, and generally enjoying himself.

Ford spent his time riding up and down the lane with the men on the tractor, then running from room to room in both house and bungalow, getting among everybody’s feet. And generally enjoying himself!

Eventually everything was moved in.

Now all it required was for everybody to be moved in.

They weren’t going to have long to wait for that either. When Wendsley began to kick and squeal with delight they all knew that time was fast approaching. He had heard the big yellow bus coming. The bleeper was going outside.

Thomas would soon be home.

When Phyllis opened the door to go out she was followed by Ford, who suddenly passed her and dashed forward. He climbed up into the bus and found where Thomas was sitting in his chair. Then he helped the driver to remove the straps holding the chair in place.

When the chair was lowered from the bus, Phyllis pushed her eldest son up the specially designed ramp, and into their new bungalow.

Thomas had left for school from his granny’s house, and come home to his own.

Now they were complete as a family in their new home. Granda Arnold and Tyrell had left. There remained just the five of them, with their own roof over their heads, at last.

Phyllis sat down in the living room, and surrounded by but briefly ignoring the waiting-to-be-cleared-up-clutter, gathered the three boys around her. Thomas and Wendsley were in their double buggy. She held Ford gently with a restraining arm Then she thanked God, audibly, for their new home and for the husband and family she had. “Thank You, Lord,” she said, “for this lovely new bungalow. Thank You for Hertford and Thomas, for Ford and Wendsley. Come and share our new home with us. Help us all to be happy here. Thank You again, Lord. Amen.”

Hertford saw his wife, with their boys clustered round her, and heard her prayer. He just granted her ‘a fool’s pardon.’ He said nothing, though. Although all this religious stuff never did any good, he reckoned, it couldn’t do much harm. How could it?

But it pleased Phyllis. It afforded her a sense of peace. She just had to acknowledge the goodness of her God, who had been so patient with her for so long.

The ice had melted further. She had taken God under her notice once more.

Phyllis was on her way back. Yet again.

Noel Davidson