13 December 2017

Some Party in Heaven – Do you want a job?

The end of June brought two added pressures for Phyllis and her trifle tub turnout. They were pleasant problems to have, but required careful planning.

Firstly, Thomas and Ford were commencing their summer holiday from school. All three boys were pleased about that. The two older boys were happy to be at home, and Wendsley was glad of their company.

Then also, with the better weather and glowing word of mouth recommendation, the orders for trifles increased steadily.

To see everything done that had to be done in any one day, a routine had to be established.

Those summer mornings began early. When Hertford rose at 6.00 am to make his first visit of the day to the chicken house, Phyllis got up as well and brought the three children down into the living room. One by one she changed, dressed, and fed them. This was a time-consuming operation.

After Ford, who was by then over four years of age, had eaten his breakfast, he became guardian of his brothers, one older, the other younger, than himself.

Phyllis laid Thomas and Wendsley on the living room floor with their bottles, which they had learnt to hold for themselves, thanks to the untiring efforts of Papa Blakely.

As Ford sat on the floor on his knees, watching the early morning children’s TV programmes, he would hear a clunk. That was a bottle down. Occasionally, and especially when the bottles were full and heavy, one of the boys would drop his.

Thomas and Wendsley could hold their bottles up, but they couldn’t pick them up.

Ungrudgingly, Ford would leave off his viewing, retrieve the dropped bottle and replace it in welcoming hands. He would then return to his knees before the TV and resume where he had left off.

That was, of course, until the next clunk…

Shortly after 8 o’clock Hertford would arrive in the kitchen for breakfast, and when it was all over and cleared away his wife set to work on the desserts. The utility room now housed two tall white fridges. Phyllis spent the morning preparing the bases for the day’s trifles. Sponge, jelly and fruit were all added to the tubs which she had arranged on trays. These were then returned to the fridge to set.

Next was the family lunch break. This was a happy, sharing time. Hertford helped his wife with the boys, playing with them, feeding them and settling them.

With lunch over it was white coat time. Hertford showered, donned a white coat and hat, and helped Phyllis put the finishing touches to the trifles. Custard had to be added. There was cream to be whipped and spread on them. Finally, the decoration had to be completed.

Before delivery, the lids were put in place. The original ‘Phyllis trifles’ didn’t have lids, but now that she was confident enough to order her tubs by the thousand, she was supplied with see-through lids as well! And they even stretched to labels!

August was progressing, business was buzzing, the green blackberries had started to turn red on the lane and every draper’s shop in Lurgan had a ‘Back to School’ poster in the window, when the phone rang one afternoon.

Phyllis was out. Hertford answered.

He was pleased with the call. He was sure Phyllis would be too. It could be their big break.

Hertford thought his wife was never going to come home. He was growing more impatient with every passing minute for he so much wanted to see her face when he told her the news.

She wasn’t long into the house until her husband told her about the telephone conversation of an hour or so earlier.

“There was a man rang there a while ago,” he began, trying to hide his own excitement behind a matter of fact voice. “A distributor he calls himself. He has what he describes as ‘a chilled run’. That means he supplies small shops and service stations and places like that with chilled goods. He has obviously seen our stuff out there somewhere for he wants to know if we could supply him.”

Phyllis stopped dead in the middle of her back-home-again rush around. “I don’t believe you!” she exclaimed. She was used to Hertford and his antics. She was sure he was winding her up. April fool could come in August with him, no problem.

“OK. So you don’t believe me,” Hertford continued. “I was pretty sure you wouldn’t anyway. Well just to prove it’s right, there’s his number.

He is waiting for you to ring him up, so go on. Do it!”

Having been convinced by the number scrawled on the back of an envelope, Phyllis took up the invitation, which sounded more like a challenge.

She rang him up.

It was genuine! She heard the same request Hertford had heard just a little over an hour before. “I have seen your wee desserts, Mrs.

Arnold,” the caller explained . “I like the look of them. Well made and tastefully presented. I think they would be good sellers. Would there be any chance I could come round to see you later on tonight? Say about 9 o’clock or so?”

Phyllis did a spot of quick thinking.

Chickens, changing, feeding, bottles, bedtime. 9 o’clock. They could just about make it.

“Yes. That will be fine. Nine o’clock would probably suit us well,” she agreed. Then she replaced the receiver and flew into a flat spin!

When the businessman arrived, a few minutes after 9 o’clock, there wasn’t a bottle, a nappy, a rattle or a squeaky toy in sight! They couldn’t afford to give the man the wrong impression. He might think they couldn’t cope with his order!

In general conversation, after the usual weather-type openers, the prospective customer asked a number of questions. He was curious about this apparently very efficient outfit.

“Why did you think of doing desserts?” he wanted to know. That, and the next few like, “How did you start up?” and, “Who all do you supply?” were easy. Hertford and Phyllis were pleased to present him with the information he wanted.

The big one soon followed. It was the one they had been waiting for.

“Would you supply me?” the chilled-run man enquired.

“Well how many would you be talking about?” Phyllis was anxious to know. It would be important to find out what the phrase ‘supply me’, actually entailed.

“I would need twenty dozen a night, for four nights of the week,” came the immediate response. The distributor had done his homework. He knew exactly how many he needed.

Phyllis swallowed hard. 20 dozen a night, four nights a week. Hertford and she were at that time producing 30 dozen trifles a week to 13 different outlets. They were finding that workload tough, the schedule tight.

Now here was a man, sitting at their table asking for 80 dozen trifles a week for himself! One customer. One outlet. Nearly three times their total production level.

30 dozen for their present customers. 80 dozen for this new one. That made 110 dozen trifles in a week. And that was well over a thousand.

No funny fantasies here. This was for real!

While Phyllis was juggling with her mental arithmetic she was acutely aware of her husband’s unease. Hertford was running his fingers through his hair, rolling his eyes and shuffling uncomfortably.

Their eyes met across the table.

Before Hertford could open his mouth to say, “There’s no way, boy, we could do the like of that,” he had sustained a hearty kick on the shin!

Phyllis had the situation under control. “That will be all right,” she assured the customer-to-be. “We can manage that OK.”

“Mind you I don’t want to be let down.” The businessman seemed a little concerned. “I can’t afford to be let down,” he went on. He was probably worried that he was expecting far more than this hard working couple in their lovely new bungalow could cope with.

“Don’t you worry,” Phyllis declared confidently. “If we take it on, and we will, then we won’t let you down. We have been thinking seriously for some time that we need to recruit a bit of extra help. Your order has confirmed that for us. We will have to do something about it soon.”

This disclosure came as news to Hertford. He hadn’t realised he had ‘been thinking seriously for some time’ about taking on somebody to work for them, but he didn’t dare open his eyes wide in amazement.

And he certainly knew not to say anything. The thought of a second black and blue shin put that notion straight out of his head!

The chilled food vendor went away satisfied, but he had hardly reached the end of the lane before Hertford and Phyllis had begun radically revising their daily routine.

The last week of August was to be the first week of the new orders and it turned out to be chaotic. Totally crazy.

Hertford and Phyllis were flopping into bed late and crawling out of it again early. They had to honour all their commitments and they had pledged not to let their newest customer down. They didn’t either, not even once.

The trifles were taking their toll, though. In time. And in temper.

There was only a certain amount of this that any human being could stick.

The return of Thomas and Ford to school in September eased the pressure a little. Phyllis worked all morning in the utility room with Wendsley sitting in his buggy tilted into a backward position in the doorway. He just loved to watch all that was going on. His mum was keen to make sure he felt part of it. She would chat away to him as she worked, and he would respond with contented gurgles. Then, in the late morning, he would fall asleep and doze until lunchtime.

Meanwhile Hertford was rushing through his farm work so he could return to the bungalow as soon as possible. When he was duly washed and changed he busied himself with the trifle order output as well.

They couldn’t go on working this hard, and they knew it. Something would have to happen, or something was going to give. It just couldn’t continue at this level of commitment.

On a Wednesday morning in September, Phyllis had a telephone call from her sister. The conversation had barely begun when Phyllis felt the pressing need for it to end. “Look, Heather, I hate to say this to you, but I am very sorry I haven’t got time to talk to you now,” she began. “I am up to my eyes here. There’s jelly and fruit all over the place. I will give you a ring later on in the day. It will probably be this evening some time before I get a minute.”

Life for her sister was far from busy, however. She had just rung up for a chat, hoping to pass half-an-hour of the morning.

“It’s well for you, Phyllis,” Heather replied, immediately and honestly.

“You are lucky to be so busy. The two children are back at school, I have all the housework done and I am bored stiff. And it’s still only a quarter-past-eleven in the morning.”

Suddenly Phyllis had another brainwave.

“I tell you what, Heather,” she suggested. “Why don’t you put on your hat and coat and come round here. I will give you something to occupy your mind. I guarantee I can stop you thinking the time long.”

Heather was delighted and went round to the busy bungalow straightaway.

Then she came the next morning at 9.30 am after she had seen the children off to school, and left again at 2.30 pm to collect them and take them home.

She did the same on Friday.

Heather’s assistance proved to be invaluable. She was keen, learnt quickly, and had the added advantage of knowing the family circumstances. With her around, Phyllis felt free to take Wendsley to physiotherapy or go into Lurgan to shop.

Hertford and Phyllis appreciated her help and presence so much that they offered her a job. Heather loved the work, and was pleased to accept, thus becoming the first permanent employee of the expanding trifle-making enterprise.


It was mid-November now, and dark, damp, foggy weather.

One Saturday afternoon Phyllis noticed that Thomas didn’t appear very well. He and Wendsley had always been prone to colds and chest infections, so mum was constantly aware of any change in their eating, sleeping, smiling or whistling pattern.

When afternoon became evening and the dark foggy day became a dark foggy night, Thomas seemed to be worse. Continuous coughing took so much out of him it was painful to watch.

Hertford and Phyllis grew increasingly anxious. If this condition deteriorated any further it would result in Thomas being admitted to hospital. It had done so on a number of previous occasions.

As it was Saturday evening they decided to wait until Sunday morning to see if his condition would improve. They didn’t want to trouble the doctor or anyone else unnecessarily.

On Sunday morning there was no doubt about what course of action they should take. Thomas had grown steadily worse through the night. His coughing had turned hard and heavy with his breathing laboured. It was obviously time for the doctor, no question about that.

When he had examined the sick child the doctor recommended that Thomas be admitted to Craigavon Hospital immediately. Hertford’s mother, Jean, took care of Ford and Wendsley while Hertford and Phyllis took Thomas into the hospital. It was always a relief, Phyllis felt, to get him into hospital. This was where he could be best cared for. This was where the experts were.

When Thomas had been settled into bed, Tom and Ethel Blakely came up to visit their little grandson. The grandparents each found something to please them. It was something to take away with them, a straw of hope to which they could cling, if ever so desperately.

“He can’t be too bad if he can…”

Nana Blakely was pleased Thomas had drunk a bottle of milk. That could only be a good sign.

Papa was pleased that through his weakness and coughing Thomas had even made an attempt to whistle! When Papa whistled softly to him he made every effort to respond, but it must have been difficult.

Breath was in short supply.

When the grandparents had gone home, just ever so slightly more content, Hertford and Phyllis stayed with Thomas until ten o’clock in the evening. Then they thought it best to go home, for a number of reasons. Jean had been very good at caring for the other two boys, but she couldn’t keep them all night. Also, and very importantly, they wanted to spend some time with their two younger sons as well.

That was nothing to how much Ford and Wendsley looked forward to seeing their mum and dad!

Beside the family considerations there was a basic, personal, physical need. Rest and sleep.

Over the past two days they had been anxious and agitated. There hadn’t been any time to rest. Now with Hertford and Phyllis consoling themselves Thomas was “in the best possible place” perhaps they could snatch an hour or two’s shut-eye.

It didn’t work out.

They went to bed but not to sleep. It was so distressing. Thomas was very ill. They both knew it, deep in their hearts. Each had an awful, empty feeling in the pit of the stomach. Closing their eyes didn’t help thoughts, worries, ultimate consequences…

Next morning Phyllis left home at seven o’clock to return to Craigavon Hospital. Hertford was left to feed Wendsley and do what he could on the trifle orders.

When she arrived at her sick son’s bedside she realised his condition had deteriorated further. Now he just lay there, sleeping all the time.

Phyllis rubbed cream tenderly on his face. Then she combed his hair. She thought he was so lovely. She had done for him what any mother would have done for an ailing child. There was more she would like to do, though.

It would be great to feed him. She would be so relieved if she could only see him eat something.

When a nurse came into the ward she told Phyllis that Thomas wouldn’t take his bottle at six o’clock. This was disturbing.

Hadn’t her mother been so pleased yesterday because Thomas had been well enough to take it?

“If you bring me a warm bottle and some Weetabix I will try to feed him,” the anxious mother volunteered. She relished the prospect of actually DOING something, rather than sitting simply gazing at Thomas, while listening to his laboured breathing.

The nurse duly brought a plate of Weetabix and a warm bottle, as Phyllis had requested, and she tried to feed her precious little boy.

It was a fruitless effort. Thomas just didn’t respond, when his mum, with tears in her eyes and a tremble in her voice, begged, “Come on now, Thomas, son. Here’s your breakfast. Take some of it for mummy.”

No reaction. Not a movement. Not a flicker.

Nothing. Just continued sleep.

Phyllis felt strange. It was as though her son, to whom she was so close, was now somewhere far away. He appeared to have drifted off into some kind of different, distant realm.

Shortly after ten o’clock the medical staff made a ward round. Phyllis seized the opportunity to speak to one of the doctors, whom she knew. “Doctor, Thomas won’t make any attempt to eat or drink for me,” she began, trying bravely to hold back the tears. “He is not even interested in me being here. That is very peculiar. He just sleeps and sleeps and sleeps…”

“Mrs. Arnold, Thomas is very sick at the minute,” the doctor replied, gently. “He can’t keep getting better and coming home. His body is becoming very weak, and every one of those chesty attacks weakens it even more. The little body is just very, very tired.”

Phyllis was beginning to get the message. It was filtering through to her brain, bit by bit.

When she had stepped out of that enveloping mist of the early morning and in through the hospital door a few hours earlier, she had been strangely conscious of entering into a mist of a different kind. She had passed through a wet clinging mist that made driving difficult into a weird psychological mist which totally obscured the future.

The mist in her mind was beginning to clear. Now Phyllis didn’t want to peer ahead to try and identify the shadowy shapes she could just about glimpse through the gloom.

When the doctor had given her a few moments to come to terms with his first statement, he asked a question. “Tell me, is Hertford coming up today?” he enquired.

“Yes he is,” Phyllis replied. “He will be up later on.”

“Well, I think you should ring him and ask him to come over here right away.” Although spoken with all the tenderness the doctor could show there was a compelling urgency about the underlying message.

“We are going to put a drip up with Thomas for he is starting to dehydrate,” he went on. “Then we will be coming shortly to take him for a chest X-ray.”

The next stages of her son’s treatment, though explained so kindly to Phyllis, were lost on her. She just wanted to find a telephone. She had to speak to her husband.

“Hertford, the doctor says you should come up to the hospital right away,” she managed to sob out. “Thomas is very bad.”

When Hertford heard that message, he dropped all and drove to the hospital, leaving Heather, his sister-in-law, to sort out dozens of trifles in various stages of preparation and to care for Wendsley.

At a quarter to eleven Thomas’s dad arrived in the ward. As he and Phyllis sat at their son’s bedside Hertford was very upset. Leaning over the bed every now and again, he would whisper, softly,

“Thomas, son, your mummy and daddy are here. Open your eyes. Can you not hear me?”

No response. There was not even the faintest sign of recognition or reaction.

Nothing. Just continued sleep.

After lunchtime the nurses came and wheeled Thomas away for a chest x-ray. Within half-an-hour he was back lying in his bed again, still in a deep sleep.

A short time later a doctor joined them at the bedside. “Could I speak to you both for a minute, Mr. and Mrs. Arnold?” he enquired. When they had been shown into a little side room the doctor told them the news. It was the result of the X-ray.

“This is the worst we have ever seen Thomas,” he began.

“Unfortunately, the x-rays show that both his lungs are clouded over, white with pneumonia.”

What a shock! What a knockout blow!

“A chest infection,” would have been easy. They had heard that often before, and coped.

But not this. Pneumonia.

To Hertford and Phyllis this meant something different. There was a sickening final ring about it. It was a scary, scary word.


Continued next month….

Noeal Davidson