13 December 2017

Some Party in Heaven – WORK, WHISTLE AND WORK

The summer of 1988 saw the Arnold family settle happily into their new bungalow.

When the school holidays arrived, Phyllis often took the three boys round to her parents’ home. Nana and Papa Blakely loved to see their grandchildren. Hertford was usually hard at work. He had to be, but he liked to be. He had no choice, but he didn’t care. It gave him a sense of satisfaction to provide for his family. Papa took a particular interest in Thomas. With his grandson sitting beside him in his special chair he would talk to him, laugh with him and generally keep him amused. His most unique achievement, however, and therefore the one which gave him the greatest pleasure, was that he taught Thomas to whistle.

They used to sit side by side for long periods and Papa would whistle a few notes to Thomas who just loved this strange sound, and laughed and gurgled. So Papa repeated the performance. Then, after a few weeks of whistling enjoyment, Papa was absolutely delighted to see Thomas, who would never be able to speak, try to purse his lips to imitate him.

Fantastic incentive for further effort!

Finally, the big day came! The day when Thomas actually made a noise!

He really startled himself! Thomas was so thrilled when he realised that he could make some sort of a sound he did it over and over again. The more excited he became, though, the less control he had and his attempts ended in little more than soundless sucks and blows.

Gradually, over a number of visits, Papa taught his grandson to control his cheek and mouth movements and the whistling improved. When Papa asked Thomas to show everybody what a clever boy he was and how he could whistle, it was often difficult to determine who was more pleased, Thomas the whistler or Papa the tutor!

September was back-to-school month.

The big yellow bus with the big noisy bleeper returned to the front of the bungalow for Thomas. Ford started nursery school, and Granda Arnold made it his special responsibility to transport his young namesake there every day.

Phyllis settled into an autumn routine of housework, shopping, and taking Wendsley to his physiotherapy classes in Craigavon Hospital. As for Hertford, he just worked and worked and worked.

Cash flow had become a problem. The main trouble was that there seemed to be more cash flowing out than there was flowing in. Their difficulty was not uncommon for young couples raising young families. It was called, ‘making ends meet’.

Two crops of chickens had been sold out of the chicken house that autumn but they hadn’t been as profitable as Hertford and Phyllis had planned. They could live off the chicken house. That was for certain.

But they couldn’t buy anything extra! No curtains. No carpets. No luxuries.

To augment their income, Hertford took on yet more work. He borrowed his father’s power hose and went around local farms hosing down hay sheds, cattle sheds and silos. Anywhere, indeed, where cleaning was needed and money could be made.

Christmas 1988 was a blissful time of being together for them all.

They were now in their own home and at their own fireside. They had their own Christmas dinner in the oven of the Aga in the kitchen, and their own Christmas tree in the corner of the living room. It was cosy. Happy and memorable as it was, the Christmas holiday period for the family had, of necessity, to be short. Hertford couldn’t afford to laze around right through into the New Year. There was work to be done. He was back out and on to a bungalow roof, hosing down the tiles, in the chill of 27 December, the day after Boxing Day.

With all his endeavours, on the farm, in the chicken house and with the power hose, the situation began to improve. There was hope on the horizon. Chinks of light were beginning to appear in the financial murk.

Still, there were things Phyllis felt she wanted. There were even things she was convinced they needed. The stark reality was that they simply couldn’t afford them, nor would they be able to, for some time to come.

She felt that with Hertford working so hard she should also be doing her bit for the furnishing fund. It would be great if she could somehow pull her weight.

What, though, could a young mother, with three children all under five years of age, and two of them handicapped into the bargain, actually do?

Well, what?

NO TRIFLING MATTER

It was February 1989 and teatime late one afternoon.

Phyllis was spoon-feeding Thomas and Wendsley alternately, as they sat in their high-chairs. The chairs were placed two yards apart, and Phyllis sat between them, feeding the boys from trifles she had bought in Marks and Spencer. Her two sons absolutely loved these smooth desserts. Their mum appreciated them too for the simple reason that the boys were fond of them, and they didn’t have to be mashed, strained or pureed. Suddenly a thought came to her. It was so obvious she was surprised she hadn’t thought of it before. “I could make those trifles,” she reckoned. “No problem. All I would need would be some cake, some fruit, some jelly, some custard… all easily obtained ingredients. I could stop and start when I had the time. It would certainly be simpler than trying to bake stuff in the Aga.”

That was it. Trifles! Desserts!

When Hertford came up for his tea about an hour later his wife could scarcely contain herself. She was bubbling over with enthusiasm about this ‘great idea,’ this ‘flash of inspiration,’ she had just had. “I know now what I could do, Hertford,” she began eagerly. “To make a little bit of extra money, you know,” Hertford smiled wryly. He was ever so slightly cynical. He was used to these bright ideas. Phyllis had been going to raise bedding plants one week, fatten turkeys the next week and bake apple tarts the next!

“Well, what is it now?” he asked resignedly, as he sat down at the end of the table. “I would like to start making trifles, desserts, you know, Hertford, in the house. Thomas and Wendsley love them, we are spending a fortune on them, I could easily make them, and what the boys couldn’t eat, I could sell!”

When her husband paused from his eating to comment, it was merely to dismiss the whole idea with a ‘we-have-heard-it all-before’ type of reply.

“Have you no wit, Phyllis?” he enquired, mildly amused to learn of yet another harebrained scheme. None of them ever came to anything. “Think now. How would you cope with all that?” he went on. “Think of all the stuff you would need. And there are the three boys to be looked after. Wendsley has to be taken to physiotherapy. Don’t be daft, Phyllis. Give yourself a break.”

A sweeping wave of Hertford’s arm across the table accompanied his final pronouncement. With that gesture he consigned the entire pudding project to the mists of oblivion where it would join a dozen or so other nonstarters.

Phyllis wasn’t going to be that easily put off. This was a good one. She knew it. Not like the dried flowers or the buns in boxes. She didn’t sleep very soundly that night. There were plans to be made, amounts of ingredients to be calculated, a timetable to be worked out. Next morning was a school morning. Thomas went off in the big yellow bus and Granda Arnold called to whisk Ford away to nursery school. When she saw Hertford safely dispatched to the chicken house, and Wendsley secured in his buggy, Phyllis got out the Yellow Pages.

Having found the heading she was looking for, ‘Packaging materials’, she ran her finger down the list. After biro-marking a few of the most promising looking companies, she started making the calls. “Hello,” she would begin. “I was wondering do you sell those little round plastic containers that would hold small desserts?”

If the answer was ‘Yes,’ Phyllis’s heart skipped a beat and she would continue, “Well, could I buy fifty of them from you?”

It was probably a good job the potential customer couldn’t see the face of the potential supplier at the other end of the phone. All she could hear was the voice, which was invariably polite. “I’m sorry, madam,” would come the reply, time and time again, “The minimum quantity we can supply is one thousand.” A thousand! A thousand! ‘What on earth would I do with a thousand of those wee tub things?’ she asked herself.

After the fourth or fifth phone call she gave up and had a good laugh about it, Phyllis could see the funny side of the whole situation. She could just picture trifles on the kitchen bench, trifles on the kitchen table, trifles on the kitchen windowsill… The twin buggy could become an unapproachable island, marooned in a sea of trifles on the kitchen floor…

There must be another way. There must be somebody who could help her. She wasn’t going to give up. Surely not everybody in the whole wide world sold their trifle tubs by the thousand.

Then she remembered. There was a fruit and vegetable shop in Lurgan where she had seen small trifles in plastic pots. Two things she remembered about them. They were decorated with ‘hundreds and thousands’ and only appeared on Saturday mornings. Phyllis knew the greengrocer well. She bought her fruit and vegetables from him sometimes. Here was someone whom she was sure could help her, and she reckoned she knew him well enough to solicit his help. It was worth a try.

Sure enough, her next call was to prove more productive. Having explained her need, she found the greengrocer most accommodating.

“No trouble at all, Phyllis,” he replied. “Come in anytime and I will get you sorted out.”

Fired with enthusiasm to see this project ‘off the ground’ as soon as possible, Phyllis decided to pay him a visit straightaway. There’s no time like the present when there is something pressing on hand!

The benevolent vegetable vendor supplied her with ten dozen trifle tubs. Any less, he figured, wouldn’t be worth melting a jelly for.

On the way home from Lurgan, with Wendsley in his special car seat, Phyllis stopped at a supermarket. There was shopping to be done. She bought tins of custard, packets of jelly crystals, tins of fruit, packets of trifle sponges and two large cartons of fresh cream.

Now she had both the ingredients and the inspiration. All she needed was the time.

When Hertford came in for his lunch he was thirsty. He nearly always was. Chicken houses were dry stuffy places.

On opening the fridge to help himself to a drink he stepped back in mock amazement. It was a little bit melodramatic, his watching wife thought. “What in the name of the world is all this, Phyllis?” he enquired with a sardonic smile. “Are we having visitors tonight or something? Somebody you haven’t told me about perhaps?”

Totally disregarding his comment, and while he unceremoniously rearranged the fridge in search of a drink, the longsuffering Phyllis set about explaining the purpose of it all.

“No, Hertford. You remember I told you that I would like to have a go at making some trifles. Well, what you see in there are the ingredients for them.”

After lunch Hertford rose from the table. As he approached the back door he couldn’t resist the temptation to poke a bit more fun at his industrious wife. “Make sure you call me when the trifles are ready,” he quipped.

Phyllis laughed. “Keep you quiet and get back out into that yard,” she retorted.

Her husband took the hint, and disappeared. With Hertford back to his work, Phyllis was now in a position to start hers.

She worked hard.

By the time the bleeper sounded, and Thomas returned, she had the bases for six dozen trifles made, and sitting in orderly rows on a big white tray. She put them into the fridge to set, planning that when tea was over and the boys were in bed, she would complete them. It didn’t work out that way. There just wasn’t the time. Not to be deterred, Phyllis rose at 6.00 next morning, put custard and fresh cream on her six dozen trifles, and returned them to the fridge.

When Thomas and Ford had gone off to their different schools, Phyllis strapped Wendsley into his seat in the back of the car. Then she opened the boot.

As she struggled out of the front door with her big flat tray of trifles, all neatly arranged in regimental rows, Hertford came ambling up from the chicken house.

“And where, might I ask, would you be heading to at this hour of the morning?” he enquired.

Phyllis knew that he knew where she was hoping to go, but just in case he should be left in any doubt, she replied, “I am going to see if I can sell these trifles.”

“Who are you going to ask? Did you ring some shopkeepers? You are not just going to carry that tray into a supermarket somewhere and shout, “Who will buy my lovely trifles?” are you?” her husband teased.

Hertford was not being very successful at disguising his mixed feelings. He loved his wife. What was more, he admired his wife. He appreciated her capacity for hard work, and understood her reason for doing what she was doing.

He was just afraid she was going to make a real fool of herself.

“No. I didn’t ring anybody, but I will sell all these. Every single one of them. You’ll see!” his wife responded, with apparent confidence.

She too was engaged in a cover-up job. How she wished that the words of her mouth were echoing the real sentiments of her heart.

But they weren’t. Deep down there was this niggling fear.

It was going to take a lot of selling to get rid of six dozen trifles.

And it was going to take a lot of eating to get rid of them if she didn’t!

Where could she possibly find anybody wanting to buy 72 homemade trifles?

That was the question.

SOLD OUT

As Phyllis drove up the lane towards the main road that morning, she prayed.

“Lord, please guide me. Direct me where to go with these trifles. I

need to sell them, but I don’t know where to start.”

Stopping at the end of the lane she was in a quandary. Should she go right, or should she go left. It was hard to be sure.

After a momentary pause Phyllis decided to go round to her parents’ house. That would be a good place to begin. If her daddy liked them it would always be a start!

As she drove along she was conscious of Wendsley kicking the back of her seat. He loved the car. The crows of his laughter cheered his mother. It made her feel this was going to be a worthwhile jaunt.

When Phyllis arrived in the farmyard of her parents’ home at Gracehall, near Dollingstown, her father and mother were on the go. They were going about their early morning farm duties.

They both approached the car, each from a different angle.

Her mother appeared slightly concerned. “My goodness, Phyllis, you are up early this morning. Is anything wrong? Where are you off to?”

Ethel Blakely enquired.

Tom, her father, peered into the back seat. When he had satisfied himself that everything was normal he spoke to Wendsley. “Hello there, my wee son,” he began. “Where’s your bottle today?” In addition to having taught Thomas to whistle, the boys’ granda derived particular pleasure from another of his achievements. He had taught both Thomas and Wendsley to hold their feeding bottles. This proved to be a great help to their mum, for it meant the boys could take their own drinks. It was no mean feat either, considering the very limited coordination the boys had of their limb movements. It was the fruit of hours of loving and painstaking labour.

Phyllis got out of the car and smiled at them both. “No. There’s nothing the matter, don’t worry,” she was quick to assure them. “I just wanted to show you something.” With that she flicked open the boot.

There, carefully packed on their big flat tray, were six dozen dainty trifles.

Her parents just gazed in wonder and amazement.

“Where are you going with these, Phyllis? Where did you get them anyway?” her mother asked eventually, after the initial shock had subsided.

“I didn’t ‘get them’ anywhere, mummy,” Phyllis replied. “I made them and now I am going to try and sell them. But I wanted daddy and you to be the first to taste them. Away down to the house there and get a couple of spoons would you?”

As Ethel made for the house to fetch the spoons Tom chuckled to himself. “What will you be at next, Phyllis?” he laughed. He had heard Hertford poke gentle fun at some of his daughter’s ‘get rich quick’ ideas, now and then.

When the spoons arrived, Phyllis encouraged her parents to take their pick of the desserts. As they ate, she explained.

“I took a notion to make these trifles for three reasons. Firstly, the boys love them, so I have to buy them. Secondly, I can make them at home in my own time, and then thirdly I hope to sell a few of them to make an extra pound or two. Help us to buy some little extras for the bungalow, if you know what I mean.”

By the time Phyllis had finished her explanation, her dad had almost finished his dessert. He scraped and scraped at the bottom of the little plastic tub, in case he would miss some. When he was sure there was absolutely nothing left he placed the spoon in the container and prepared to hand it back to his daughter.

As he did so he pronounced his final verdict. “That was really delicious, Phyllis,” he said, heartily.

“Take another one there if you like,” Phyllis invited. Her dad didn’t need to be told twice. When he had repossessed his spoon he did just that!

When the score in trifles was dad two, mum one, Phyllis prepared to get back into the car and rejoin Wendsley who had been watching the proceedings through the window.

“If you don’t sell them, Phyllis, bring them back and I will buy the whole job lot from you,” her father promised. His comforting assurance was a measure of both her parents’ appreciation of their daughter’s handiwork.

Phyllis waved goodbye, and as she drove away consulted her Heavenly Navigator again. “Where now, Lord?” she enquired. “Where next?”

Her Lord was expected to be a signpost. And a leaning post. This was, however, always and only as a last resort and always and only when it suited Phyllis.

On her way back to Donacloney she stopped at three grocery shops.

She didn’t need to go any further. Her Lord, her Guide, her last ditch Leader, had prepared her customers and directed her car.

In those first three shops, her first three calls, Phyllis sold all 69 remaining trifles.

She drove home with a light heart. Wendsley chortled away in the back seat and she glanced at him every so often in the rear view mirror. He was happy and she was happy. It was great.

But would Hertford be happy? Would he even believe her?

When the car pulled up at the front of the bungalow, Hertford appeared as if from nowhere. He had been secretly, almost anxiously, waiting for her to return.

Trying again to mask his concern with a wisecrack, he asked, “Well, what is it for lunch? Trifles, I suppose.”

Phyllis smiled as she helped her husband unbuckle the straps around Wendsley’s car seat. “No, Hertford. I’m sorry it won’t be trifles today,” she replied.

Hertford set off towards the house carrying Wendsley. When she had taken the empty tray out of the boot she followed him in. As he was installing his little son in his high chair in the kitchen, Phyllis rather deliberately propped the tray against a table leg beside him.

Her husband got the message, but he still had to ask the question.

“You didn’t sell them all did you?” he enquired, almost incredulously.

“Yes, Hertford, I sold every single one of them. Didn’t I tell you I would?

And what’s more I only visited three shops!” Phyllis retorted. There were two things she purposely omitted to say, though. She didn’t dare confess to her mental misgivings prior to her selling expedition, or to the fact that she had prayed to her Lord for guidance.

Indeed in all the excitement she had even forgotten to whisper a ‘Thank You’ to Him.

Over lunch much lively discussion took place. Where Phyllis had been.

What people had said. How much the trifles had sold for. These and many other topics were chatted through at length.

Hertford just couldn’t hear enough.

Shortly after 2 o’clock when he had returned, rather reluctantly, back out to work, the phone rang.

“Phyllis, is that you?” the voice at the other end of the line had a request. “Could you bring us some more of those wee dessert things tomorrow? We are sold out already!”

“I could certainly,” Phyllis was happy to respond. “I will have them with you in the morning.”

When Thomas and Ford arrived home from school, the trifle-maker found her husband in the yard. “I have to go to the shops for more stuff, Hertford,” she told him. “I will take the boys with me.” Having belted all three of them safely into their individual seats in the car, Phyllis set off. Her mission was to buy yet more jellies, custard, trifle sponges, tinned fruit, fresh cream…

After watching the car speed away up the lane, Hertford decided it was coffee time. He would go into the house and make himself a cup.

While he sat idly by the table, sipping his coffee and staring at the empty tray still propped up at the table leg, the phone rang again. It was five past four.

“Is Phyllis there?” came the query.

“No. I’m sorry she’s not,” Hertford replied. “She’s away out to do some shopping. Can I take a message?”

“Yes. I’m sure you could,” the caller continued. “Just ask her to bring us two dozen more of those trifles tomorrow, if she could. They have been very popular today. We are sold out already.”

“No problem. That will be OK. I will tell her when she gets back,” the once sceptical husband assured thes hopkeeper. When they had said their ‘Goodbyes’, he replaced the receiver.

Now he was convinced. These trifles were going to take off after all.

The joking was over. He wouldn’t, he couldn’t, make fun of Phyllis anymore.

She was on to a winner this time!

Noel Davidson

Continued next month…