The secret to a happy marriage

When people ask me: “What’s the secret to a happy marriage?” – oh ok, actually no one ever has. No one ever would, it’s a ludicrous idea, but let’s suspend disbelief for one moment and pretend they did. I would reply, “It’s no secret why I have a happy marriage (and by happy marriage I mean we are not divorced) it’s because of Stefka, the cleaner.”

The main reason we have a Stefka is that my husband is an uptight arse. He is off the scale of uptight arse-ness. For example, he thinks letters (bills) need to be opened straight away whereas I think they have to be left alone, to fester on various surfaces for a while. Only once they have become a familiar sight, do I feel able to attack them. I eat a lot of biscuits too and I think it’s my right to eat them anywhere. In bed, in the children’s beds, and most importantly over the computer keyboard. He thinks this is “messy” and he always knows I have been at the biscuits, even when I deny it, by the crumbs around my face. (I hate wiping my face because then my make-up will come off.) You can imagine how he felt having Dad to stay. My Dad makes Catweazel appear well-groomed. My Dad’s idea of washing up a cup is to add another tea-bag.

So husband and I are basically very incompatible. The first secret of a happy marriage is to marry someone compatible, so this is very bad news.

The second secret though, is that there are then several options. Give up now – (my usual preference), grind the other person down, (husband’s usual preference) or throw money at the problem (husband’s second preference)

Three years ago, we went the way of husband’s second preference.

Unlike most compromises, Stefka is fab. Once every two weeks, she does all the jobs in the house that I don’t like: short of opening the bills and wiping my face. Oh and she won’t fellate husband. Not for £8 an hour she won’t. But she will iron, dust, wipe and hoover. Husband is happy we don’t live in a, as he puts it, “a shit-hole”, and I am happy because, “what’s not to like?”

On the other hand, I don’t want people to think I’m completely lazy so I don’t actually tell anyone about the cleaner. To get round this, I say, “Oh Steff is over this morning,” and my friends are too well-mannered to ask, “Who’s that?” And if anyone comes over on a Wednesday afternoon after ‘Steff’ had visited, (and that is the only time I ask people around), and if they say, “Cor, it looks tidy here,” I say, “Oh really,” and wave my hand about a bit. “do you think so?”

Is that bad?

I think it is.

As for the fact that having a cleaner is a middle-class identifier. Bring it on. Just as many people feel like a slim woman trapped in a large body, I have always felt like a middle-class girl trapped in a working class world. When I was working at Romford market as a kid, I would dream I was at Mallory Towers:  Am I going to object to a cleaner on class-grounds? Hell, no.  I have already had to give up pilates so we can have her.  I’m the kind of person who walks round Waitrose going: “yes, I’ve arrived,” even if I can only afford a tin of soup.

Stefka loves the children most of the time. She gets annoyed, disproportionately, when they swap clothes and toys. “It’s for GIRLS,” she says furiously to Arnie in a princess dress. “It’s not good for you.” When Mini plays with her cars, she whips them away into the toy box: “You want to hoover now, Mini?”*

And when Ray went to the woods on a school trip, she said, “It’s very good for him. How many weeks he stay there? He make his food in the wild?””Um , no Stefka, just the morning. He’s got a packed lunch.”

Every other Wednesday night, me and husband hunker down in our gloriously tidy living room and he says, “What did Stefka say today?” And I repeat some funny little Stefka-ism. And we laugh and laugh: See, Stefka isn’t just cleaning the house: she bring us together in so many ways! She’s like a fairy godmother or a dating agency or something. Husband calls her Kafka and says that one day she will turn me into a giant cockroach.

When Stefka first came to us, she would bitch about the other people she worked for.  There was the one who lived in the middle of nowhere who made her walk miles through the dark to get to her. There was the woman who wanted her immaculate house cleaned five times a week despite having no children to mess it up – yes really. There was the one who was always late back from the gym, leaving Stefka shivering at the front door.

Recently though, she seems to have ditched the rubbish families and only has “nice” ones left. She tells me about them: “Jane over-pays me. She insists I take the extra £20 every time.”  Or “Louise gives me a lift. Even though it’s a fifty mile round trip, she does it.” Or “Mrs Brown made me dinner. She is a wonderful cooker.”

“Cook,” I say, mutinously, because one time, Stefka asked me to help her with her English. “Mrs Brown is quite a good cook.”

I’ve got a bad feeling that our cleaner is going to dump us. That, or she’s going to ask for a pay-rise.  And then I panic, eat more biscuits, because there are three of us in this marriage and that’s they way we like it. Then I look for the number for Relate.

The End

*If, like me, you think the secret to a happy childhood is to let boys and girls play with any toys they like and if you are unimpressed with the way some stores are marketing their toys along gender lines, then please support this brand new campaign.

This wedding dress

My sister brings Dad over for dinner.  She is exhausted from clearing out his old flat.  She is carrying a large cardboard box that has ‘Paid: £4.99’ scribbled on the lid.

“I thought you’d like this,” she says. I open it straight away, still in the hall.

It’s Mum’s wedding dress. It’s creamy white, beautiful. I had no idea it was still around. I gently peel the tissue wrapping away. I feel like I am nursing a sick bird and I’m frightened I will break its wings. I unfold the dress and hold it up. Dad says, “Brings tears to my eyes that does.” Mini shouts, “I love you, mummy,” as she shoots past on the way to Scooby Doo on telly.

I never dreamed about dresses or weddings. I was a jeans and tank top girl with a homemade fringe. and every time a Wedding Invitation appeared on the mat I would groan. Weddings were places to be kissed by old ladies with moustaches or to eat salty food stuff I didn’t know the name of. But family parties were always like that, and I enjoyed them well enough. My ambivalence about weddings ran deeper. Even when I was only seven or eight, I couldn’t understand the big deal.  I loved my cousins and my babysitters, or whoever the bride was, but on their wedding day, they seemed to shrink in front of me. I would look at the groom and puzzle: why on earth was she marrying this one? Afterwards, the brides said it was the happiest day of their lives, but I was never convinced. I mean, if it were, would they really need to say it?

But this, this is a different wedding, a different dress.

It is long, so long, I have to hold it high over my head to get the full sense of it. Mum was much taller than me, and there is a train too. I am amazed it fitted in this box. It is made from a heavy cotton. I think it’s nothing like my wedding dress was but in some ways it is: It’s a dress that holds together two contradictory states perfectly: don’t look at me, but also, oh but if you must, you will see, I am, umm, classic and elegant?

Mum and Dad married early in 1963. So, after the Cuban Missile Crisis – The world came close to annihilation – wouldn’t that weaken your defences? and before JFK was shot. Mum was four months pregnant with my sister at the time. The families didn’t know, or at least, no one admitted they knew. The dress played an important part in the concealment. I know the facts about the day – The Cumberland Suite, chicken and potatoes – but I don’t know Mum’s feelings. I don’t know the answers to the questions: Were you in love? What kind of marriage was it? Did you have to fold yourself into something small to fit?

I take the box upstairs and put it under my bed. I wonder when I will take it out again. I find it hard to look at. It is one of the few things of Mum that we have left.

It seems hard to imagine that if it weren’t for her in that dress, that day, everything would be different.

Husband comes up and asks if I’m ok. I feel as though I am expected to say this, rather than actually feeling it, but I go: “Maybe my nieces or Mini will wear this one day.” I can’t imagine.

“Or Ray or Arnie?”

It is his little joke. Ha, I say and we go downstairs and have dinner.

Saturday night out at Homecove court

There are about fifty armchairs arranged in a circle, about forty women and only five or six men. Dad, Mini and I hesitate at the door. It’s seven o’clock on a Saturday night, it’s Homecove court’s monthly meet up in the communal lounge and it’s Dad’s first time which is why I’m accompanying him.  The sign in the foyer said to bring drink and nibbles. Dad’s contribution to the party is a half bottle of flat lemonade. I am relieved he hasn’t attempted nibbles. I have brought along a box of Milk Tray which reminds me of men in balaclavas. I hope the ladies will love Milk Tray. In his flat, before we came, Dad had said, “Gawd, blimey, Milk Tray? That’s too much!”

There is one small sofa in the room unoccupied and I throw Mini on it and grab the adjacent armchair for Dad.  A man behind a massive organ/keyboard/CD-deck thing is playing war-time songs really loud. He is one of Homecove court’s three managers and resident Dee-Jay. I am glad I have Mini for my entertainment. I make her take around the Milk Tray. I promise she can have one herself after. I hope people are thinking she is cute and not, what are these people doing here? They are not over 55!

“Is it someone’s birthday?” One lady asks kindly. She has a big, gummy smile.

“My Dad has just moved in.”

“Wonderful!” She tells her friends and they nod at each other and laugh.

I prod Mini to keep going. “Offer them around. To everyone. Yes, him too.”

One lady drops her chocolate. I wait for her to pick it up, and then notice her hands are shaking too much and she can’t bend. The chocolate has rolled under her chair though. I can’t get down there. I say, “Oh dear,” and when she refuses a replacement, I shove Mini to the next person.

We’ll meet again is playing. Dad says to me, “I bet you don’t know this.”

“Course I do,” I snap. He starts talking to his neighbours. Then he turns back to me. “This is Joan and Harry.”

“Hello Joan, Hello Harry,” I say.

When they turn away, he whispers, “They are not a couple though.”

“Oh, ok,” I say, “and?”

Mini loops the room once again with our chocolate ice-breakers to sounds from the 1950’s. The same people say yes. The same people say no. The same people ignore us.

One woman asks me. “Where’s your dads flat?”

“Seventh floor,” I say. Am I expected to say the number?

“At the front or at the back?” she asks, her hand on my wrist.

“The back.” She loses interest. I think it’s because Dad has no sea-views.

One of the men takes a chocolate. He says to Mini. “Look!” A quick sleight of the hand and the chocolate disappears. Mini and I are spell bound. Wow! Then he produces it from her ear. She is so young that she almost doesn’t know how odd that is.

I say, “that’s great!” and he winks. “Thank you.”

The dee-jay puts on some 60’s music: Like a bouncing ball, I’ll come bouncing back to you.

A group of four women get up and to my surprise, they start dancing. Not in my wildest dreams, did I imagine there would be dancing. Mini gets up and starts twirling around too.

The woman next to me chats. As Dad would say, “boy, she can chat!’ She is an outsider too. Her sister though, has lived here for 17 years – since she was 60.  I want to say she doesn’t look a day over 75.

Dad grins at me. “I’m going to dance.”

“Really?” I say incredulously, I mean what about me?

“Are you coming?”

The idea of dancing fills me with horror.  I am back, thirteen, at the school disco and wanting to cry.

“What about your knee?” I hiss. Don’t abandon me.

He says, “it’s only shuffling.” Sheesh.

He gets up and joins the ladies but just as he does so, a six foot tall smart Grandad comes in to the room, and there is a veritable frisson among the dancers as he takes to the floor.  Alpha Grandad has working knees and hips and he knows all the steps. I worry for Dad – he has never looked smaller – but what Dad lacks in height he makes up for in thick skin – he shuffles away happily unaware of the Adonis in his midst.  Then, Mini joins them and I am scared she is going to trip people over, although if she trips over Alpha Grandad that won’t be so bad.  She does roly polys in the centre of the floor. I feel too self-conscious to move and wonder what’s the matter with me – the only middle-ager in the room – I am both too old and too young to join in.

At the end of the song, Dad sits, a bit puffed: “Did you see? They loved dancing with me.”

“With the other fella, you mean!” I say, but he claims he didn’t notice him. Mr Dee-Jay puts on some music, from the 70s now, and a few more ladies take to the floor. Alpha Grandad busts some moves. He looks like a pudding in a plum, plum, plum.

Harry and Jean have fallen asleep in their armchairs and Harry is snoring gently. (They are not a couple though) It is 8.30 pm.

My neighbour, however is neither dancer, nor sleeper, and she is talking again. She has to shout for me to hear her and I have to shout back.  I think she says she loves whist and bingo nights. Or maybe she wishes there were more rubbish collections.  I bellow, “this is great fun, isn’t it!” I watch Mini cavort around unselfconsciously. It is a gift to be that uninhibited.  Even so, I wish I hadn’t let her dress herself today. In her brown trousers and bulky cardigan, she looks like a spherical something from the Milk Tray box.

“And everyone here is very nice?” I enquire loudly as the music moves on to the 1980’s. What an original dee-jay!

“Oh yes. See that woman,” my neighbour shouts, pointing to the loveliest lady of all, the one who pulled her friend with the shaky hands out her chair when she couldn’t lever herself up. I think she looks like my mum might have done.”When she first came here, she cried all day long and wouldn’t even leave her room. Her husband had just died and she missed her family so much. Now look at her.”

I do. Suddenly, I find the sight of this smiling woman who after so much pain is dancing her heart out to Abba, so beautiful that momentarily I am lost for words.

On children’s writing

Mini can now write the ‘M’ for Mini. She scrawls M’s across pages and trails them around the house. She calls them dragons teeth. They look like mountain ranges. They are strong and in control like her. Me and husband make impressed faces at each other. This is great but it’s also unfortunate, because Arnie, who is 16 months older, can’t write yet. Well, his ‘A’s’ are like, Um, I dunno what they are like. They are not like A’s that’s for sure.  At 12, Ray has no problems with his writing and never did.  It’s all, “how long does it have to be?” with him.  His French teacher marks him down for poor presentation and he is outraged. “You should see his writing!”

Arnie is left-handed too. Grandad didn’t realise, and the other day, even after he had realised, he still tried to get him to use his right hand. I told him, “Dad, we don’t do it like that anymore.” But neither of Arnie’s hands works well yet. It’s odd to have a left-hander in the family. It’s like a little cuckoo in our nest. We don’t understand the genetics. I remember how he came out of me, one arm aloft, like superman. Perhaps that’s what did it after all.

When I watch him trying, I think how frustrating writing is. I too am struggling – makes no difference which hand I use – everything I write comes out wrong. What I imagine is so very different from the final result.

I am writing a children’s story for the Mumsnet Walker Bedtime stories competition. I think of all the children’s books I have dismissed over the years and think, hmm, this is much harder than it looks. The first time I started to read my story to Mini she slid off the sofa and said “Boring, I want to watch telly.” She wouldn’t come back and I thought holding her down to read it would probably go against the spirit of the thing. The problem is, it’s about a little boy called Arnie. Who wouldn’t be annoyed if the eponymous hero was your brother? Sibling rivalry will have clouded her judgement. Next time, I decide to tell her the same story but with her name instead. She sits through it, correcting the name-change when I forget, and sneaking envious glances at her toys.

I think, I hope the judges are more discerning than you, Mini, which yes, also spectacularly misses the point. Husband says kindly, it’s because there aren’t any pictures. Hmm.

Sweet Arnie listens all the way through, of course he does. He is definitely awake too: I watch his greeny, brown eyes blinking at the screen. He says, “That was nice, mummy.” The boy can’t write to save his life but he has empathy in spades.

Grandad is flying the nest

My niece was bewildered by the plastic key sets she received from elderly relatives for her 21st Birthday.

“What is all this?” she asked.

“They’re symbolic keys. It means you’re old enough to have a key to your own place.”

“Oh? 21? I’ve had a key for years.”

Her expression said I would have preferred money.

My expression agreed, you’re not wrong there.

At the weekend, Arnie, Ray and Mimi go off with reluctant husband to their swimming and Dad and I set off to the estate agent to get the key to his new flat. He’s old enough to have a key to his own place. As we get in the car, my heart is light. The oldest child is leaving home. Sure, there will be washing, cooking and back for the holidays, but I am not too anxious. My hope is that Dad makes lots of new friends and remembers to take all his drugs. Perhaps he’ll find a nice girlfriend?

It’s the lovely estate agent Katy again. She greets us as faamily, tells us how wonderful the flat is and produces piles of paperwork that Dad must sign a billion times. He declares loudly that there is too much and I whisper back, “it’s normal.” Even louder he says that the deposit seems very high, much higher than he thought, and I hiss, “It’s what we agreed,” and Katy shrugs. “Oh, that’s standard.”

I remember that while I have rented perhaps ten different properties since I was nineteen this is Dad’s first time. He left his parents home in his early twenties and went straight into his own property. It only cost the price of a button or something. Times have changed.

I watch him scrawl his name on the endless forms next to the crosses. I can do Dad’s signature. When we were kids, he thought it was funny to get us to sign his cheques. I spent many a happy hour improving my forgery.

“Ok, now the money,” smiles Katy but not before she’s offered to move in with Dad.

“I’ve got my cheque book,” says Dad.

“We don’t take cheques,” says Katy as though Arnie has offered her one of his pre-chewed bogies.  I think her being my step-mother is looking unlikely. Then she says brightly, “how about a card?”

“I don’t have a card.”

My Dad is a dinosaur. I can hear husband’s gentle and encouraging voice in my head and he is saying: you idiot.

The first bank I drive to is shut. The next one is shut. It’s Saturday. Most banks are shut. I do what I should have done twenty minutes ago and google it. There is one open about thirty minutes away. Dad says, “Why does everything go wrong?” and I think ah, so this is where I get my quick-to-dishearten spirit from.

I pull up on the double yellow next to the side door of the only bank open on a Saturday. Dad struggles out the car into the road. I text husband who, while a hands-on father, is only hands-on with all three children for a limited period. “Sorry darling. Had to go to bank.”

Out of the corner of my eye, I realise Dad has not crossed the road to the bank. Instead, he is wandering in the other direction towards the high street, where the streets are paved with chewing gum and you are some kind of wuss if your dog is not a massive illegal breed.

“Dad,” I holler. I can’t leave the car because I’ll get a ticket. The traffic wardens are on commission round here. “This way.” I gesture wildly. I parked right outside the bank. Why has he not gone into the bank? Is it merely a symbolic bank?

He doesn’t hear. I shout. I shout again. People are looking at me. Finally, I leave the car and run towards him, clenching madly, and shout from there. He stops in the middle of the road. He cups his hand to his ear. “Wha-at?” A line of cars rev furiously behind him. The hooting commences. I imagine the massive illegal dogs in the back of the cars frothing.

“Wrong way!”

He comes back and tells me he doesn’t see so good. “Why don’t you wear your glasses then?”

“Oh yeah,” he says. So he sets off, once again, to the bank that I had parked next to.

When he comes out, he is as smug as if he has produced a rabbit from a hat. He has just found out something amazing: The bank gives you money! It’s not just buttons.

“I’ve got £500,” he shouts.

“Eh,” I can hardly speak for my frothing. “You need £700.”

“Big S owes me £200,” he says.

I groan. I don’t trust Big S. And the reason I don’t is because Dad has told me repeatedly that this he is untrustworthy.

For fucks sake.

We haven’t got Big S’s number, naturally, so we have to ring up Big S’s friend first. When we eventually get through, Big S tells Dad he’s got flu but if we go and meet him, (twenty minutes in the other direction) he’ll have the money. Its all him doing us a favour.

“What are we going to do?” says Dad, a man in despair. “It’s all going wrong. I’m going to lose this flat, aren’t I?”

Husband texts me. “When you coming home?” I want to text back: ‘stop being Asda-dad’, but I write: ‘Nearly done.’

We are NOT going to lose the flat. I drive to the meeting point. I tell myself this is normal and this is standard.  Sneezing, Big S hands over the money and I feel it would be churlish to check the notes in front of him. Not with all the flu germs on. Not with his dog looking at me like that. Husband will kill me if I get killed.

Finally, we go back to the estate agency to see what Katy does next. The money is handed over. Big fluey S has done us proud. We shake hands. We get the key. The key to the door. The nest is emptying. Out in the big wide world, we are 21 again.

Our song

Over half-term, husband, kids and I visit the in-laws. I like going there. They are, what my Grandma would say, “Very English people.” Nothing fazes them. Their home feels steady, safe and paid for. They keep chickens too so we get to take fresh eggs home.  This is great because Arnie has decided he will eat egg if it is scrambled with a touch of pepper thus, in one swoop, we have doubled his food repertoire by 100%.

The in-laws ask us if we are doing anything for our upcoming second anniversary and husband and I laugh guiltily because we have both forgotten it. How could I have forgotten it? This time two years ago I was as miserable as sin, fraught with anxiety and arguing with husband-to-be twice daily.

One of the many bones of contention before the wedding, apart from the obvious ones such as: why aren’t you changing your name? How much is this going to cost? and what’s wrong with goulash? – was the issue of ‘our song.’  Husband-to-be and I had met in that most romantic of places – cyber space – so we didn’t do what people normally do, which is, I assume, meet at a party and have a smooch at the end of “Careless Whispers” thereby rendering Careless Whispers ‘their tune’ forever and ever. So we didn’t have an ‘our song’ and in darker moments I wondered if the absence of one meant we weren’t meant to be together.  Although it seemed very artificial only two weeks before the wedding, I decided to find us one. I knew it didn’t have the importance of Obama’s choice of song for his campaign – oh ok, I thought it had equal importance actually.

The trouble was our favourite songs weren’t appropriate. Husband likes ‘Suspicious minds’ and the ‘Mr Brightside’. – (I detect a theme here). I like the songs of the heartbroken: ‘Nothing Compares 2 U’, or ‘Tainted Love’, although I have a hankering for songs like ‘Joleen’, ‘Valerie’ or ‘Mary’. Not so good when your name is Bill. Or Sandra.

It was as bad and as fraught as choosing the baby names. I would make lists and husband-to-be would knock them off only instead of “too posh,” “not posh enough,” it was “too naff,” “not naff enough.”

We had lots of contenders but nothing stuck. For a time, we were both happy to compromise with ‘Nobody does it better,’ but it seems a bit in your face about shagging. Anyway, as I said to husband at the time AS A JOKE. “What if it’s not true?”

Two days later, when he started talking to me again, he had the suggestion of ‘Only you.’

Looking from a window above

its like a story of love

Can you hear me?

I was keen but not sure about the lyrics. What window? What story?

Not long after that, I re-discovered the best song EVER: Depeche Mode’s ‘Enjoy the Silence’.

All I ever wanted

all I ever needed

is here in my arms

I was delighted: I ran into the dining room where husband was once again struggling with the red curry versus goulash. Christ, who has goulash at a wedding?

“Is this not the best love song of all time? The music, the lyrics, the everything about it is great. And it’s about US!”

Husband-to-be looked shifty. “Um…I…yeah, it’s a great song but…you know that girl I used to…”

Ok, not that.

In the end, the wedding went well. We got through it much in the same way we get through our marriage: It is different to how we imagined but hopefully it’s ‘good different’. The red curry was lovely. I felt and still do feel massively fortunate to have such a good man as my life-partner. (Women in my family tend to have a low life expectancy so that’s not too onerous.) And, I got an ‘our song’ too.

Anyway, as we drive home from the in-laws, chuckling at having nearly forgotten the anniversary, our song comes on the radio and it is one of those beautiful moments of synchronicity, a crazy coincidence which suggests there is order in the chaotic universe after all. It is like a shot of adrenalin to the heart. Our whole relationship is flashing before my eyes: those first tentative emails, those first terrible dates, the first time we slept together without shagging, the first time I had my haircut and he didn’t notice, having the children, going on holidays, laughing, meeting each others’ eyes across an empty room. Yes, all that. And I realised that the actual song didn’t matter – it’s like a photo and even if the photo is fuzzy and unflattering – it still is a trigger for a thousand memories.

“When I come home…

Yea I know I’m going to be I’m going to be that man who comes back home to you

And if I go…

Yea I know I’m going to be I’m going to be that man who going over you”

“Darling, it’s our song!” I say, beaming.

“Is it?” says husband. Fortunately, when he sees my face, he does a quick save. “Oh yeah, course it is.  Nice one.”