An Alternative Pantomime

Thankfully, hopefully, on an abundance of prayer, Jack should return home next month, following a 6 month tour in the Middle East. It’s been a fair old slog, punctuated by the various dramas that now seem typical of life in our family, but it finally feels as though the end of this particular road may soon rise up to meet us.

Last summer, as Jack prepared to go, busy with fitness targets and hot weather training, I spent some time job hunting, imagining, with Jack gone and the older children at boarding school, that I would have time to spare. If this had been a pantomime, there might have been a dastardly character offstage cackling Mwoah-hahahas: ‘A job, I ll give her a job.’

After a spell away from paid work, I had no idea what I might be suited to so my phone buzzed frequently from my directionless searches with invitations to try my hand at being a forklift truck driver, an Aldi store manager or a landscape gardener.

I finally settled on a position working alongside the police but I didn’t make it past page one of the online application. It seems the police like to be able to run checks on you when you apply to join them. If you have left Saudi in a hurry during a pandemic without properly clearing the country, there’s an uncomfortable CV gap that sets police sirens ringing.

Never mind. I decided, instead, to try for a position working for an Oxford charity. Maybe they would be more charitable about my situation… But even if they were, I realized I would never be able to do the hours and the zoom interviews were due to happen during our family week of wild camping, involving a composting toilet that I could foresee might not allow me to make the best impression.

As September arrived and 5 became 2, I again wondered how I would fill my time. The car and dog seemed to conspire at that point, in some sort of secret pact, to ensure I wasn’t bored. My husband had asked me to get our cars broken rear jet wash fixed whilst he was away. I got it booked in and asked for a quote. ‘£69.99- it’s a quick and easy job,’ the garage promised.

Whilst I was walking our elderly dog around a nearby field to fill the time, the garage rang.

‘Is it ready?’ I asked.

‘No.’

‘Oh.’

‘The pipe to the rear jet wash (I am paraphrasing here; my knowledge of cars is not great so please overlook all technical terminology), it’s been disconnected.’

‘Right?’

‘Whoever did this secured the pipe with a blue latex glove and some gaffer tape.’

As I say, my car knowledge isn’t up to much but I assessed this wasn’t good news.

‘So you’ll have to book it in for another day so we can get it sorted.’

I was going to have to spend another morning in that field. I had chosen the garage because it was near my son’s school, which was half an hour away from our house due to a pandemic-related last-minute change of address that meant we ended up living more than 10 miles away from where we were originally supposed to live and from the school I had arranged.

‘Maybe you should get a job at the school,’ my husband suggested when I told him I’d never be able to get work to fit my school day narrowed by the long drive there. Even Starbucks told me my hours weren’t feasible and that was shift work.

So after another morning by the garage, I collected the car, £250 lighter, and proudly squirted the rear windscreen. Lovely. Or it would have been if I hadn’t been dog-tired and barely able to see straight, clear windows or none.

The dog had started getting me up every night, pawing at my side of the bed and then pacing round to my son’s side (yes, I had already allowed poor bedtime patterns to creep in with a 6 year old suffering with Daddy separation anxiety). It was unbearable. Every night, it got worse. I bought specially moulded ear plugs that got stuck in my hair like chewing gum and made no difference. I listened to Amazonian rainfall music at top volume to drown out the scraping but he just scraped louder. (I will have to strike out any future plans to visit the Amazon as the sound of jungle rainfall makes me break out in a sweat.) I put him in the laundry room but he cried all night and bothered the neighbors.

‘I think it could be a combination of rheumatoid arthritis, separation anxiety from your husband and canine cognitive dysfunction,’ said the vet, sending me home with a pharmacy of medications.

I think I visited the vets 8 times in that first term, exploring every possible avenue. I begged the staff to help my dog (me). Amongst other things, he now wears a special collar that produces pheromones that a mummy dog makes to calm her puppies. I am tempted to buy one for myself. His bills are not far off the cars. The medication has helped minimally. The greatest improvement came when our youngest son discovered that his green dinosaur night light helps the dog to settle so I now sleep in a ghoulish glare that even my newly acquired, Rolls Royce of eye masks doesn’t obliterate. On a really bad day, I pleaded with the pet shop to sell me some canine sleeping pills but I was told, whilst drawing judgmental looks from the queue beside me, that there is no such a thing.

One morning, after very little sleep, our little one woke with a cough. This is something that would happen several times that term; visiting the Covid testing centre became a familiar outing for us. I was already fed up with the 2 hours of driving to the not-very-near school. I was certainly not going to be able to get a job whilst he remained there so I used the quarantine time to arrange a school move for the poor little thing. Bearing in mind, he didn’t like the first school move, this was a painful process, involving bribes, tears and a smart new scooter, making me temporarily feel like the pantomime witch.

A few days later, with life returning to some degree of normality, the jet wash, once again, wouldn’t spray the rear windscreen. Must need more windscreen wash, I thought. I gave the reservoir a good drink and thought no more about it. The same thing happened a few days later. I should have filled it to the brim, I thought. So I gave it another 6 litres. The same thing happened the next day. I checked under the car for leaks. Naively, I was pleased not to find one. I rang the garage (nowhere near my sons school by then) and they told me to take it in. After another morning spent in the field, I was told that the pipe running to the back of the car, which delivers the jet wash, had a leak. Hence the decision by a previous owner to disconnect it with latex gloves.

‘So can you replace the pipe?’ I asked.

‘Yes.’

‘How much will that cost?’

‘£600.’

‘What?!!!!!!!!’

‘There’s now 18 litres of jetwash swilling about in the bottom of the car. I’m going to have to remove all the seats to drain it. We’ll need it for a while.’

I tried to claim on the super-expensive warranty we got to cover any such problem but, its probably needless to say at this point in the story, it doesn’t cover the jetwash. As far as I can tell, it doesn’t cover anything save possibly the engine self-combusting in some very limited set of circumstances that have probably never happened before, nor will ever happen.

I called the garage that we bought it from. The guy I needed to speak to kept having to leave the office at 9am.

I paid the garage and eventually got the car back after 2 weeks in a loan car.

‘So if I hadn’t bothered about the rear jet wash working, I could have myself saved myself £850?’ I asked the kindly garage owner as I drove away. In her enigmatic face, I thought I detected a hint of pity and embarrassment. She didn’t reply.

I haven’t even mentioned the backdrop to all of this: the fact one of our children at boarding school wasn’t having an easy time settling. In between the garage and vet visits, I drove to the boarding school 17 times last term. That’s over 34 hours of driving! Nor have I covered the Christmas holidays and the current situation of home schooling…

I am not sure when it happened but somewhere along the way, I dropped the idea of trying to get a job. It turns out I already have several. Clubbed together, maybe I m the chewing gum trying to stick our family together, albeit often not very successfully.

I wonder now, as I reflect back, if there was actually no wicked pantomime villain lurking in the wings. What if the person off-stage was a fairy godmother, trying to save me from myself: ‘Child, you have work enough already.’

I haven’t blogged for a year and, spiritually, I have been all over the place, mistaking things, missing things and sometimes listening to the wrong voices. At times I have compared myself to others, especially military wives with jobs, who do all of the above on top of their 9-5. Occasionally, I have had to silence a voice in my head that says ‘You’re useless, you don’t contribute, you couldn’t do a regular job even if you had the chance.’

I have tried to make sense of where I fit into the pandemic by looking inwards, to myself, a possible job, some extra money to fund the garage and vet bills, and when that’s all been too much, I have sought escapism, from Netflix series to my weekend glasses of wine to scrolling though FB, Instagram and the news. My attention span has reduced from these restless, unsatisfying pastimes, which are fine in moderation but not when you’re screen time report is too embarrassing to divulge.

I haven’t been plugged into a church over the last year because we moved during the pandemic and it’s actually far more of a discipline, to my mind, to get online for a service than to drive to a building. Without a consistent structure to life, and with so little time to myself, I have struggled to do the things I know would help, like reading my Bible and praying. If I am honest with myself, these things have felt like more jobs to add to my to-do list.

The result is I have shrivelled inwardly. As ever, I have rediscovered that when I try to manage in my own strength, I am blocked by my weaknesses, my limitations and the fact I can’t magic things how I want them. Often I won’t even see that I am trying to cope alone. I will steadily start to sink, distracted by the external pressures, the internal worries, the external coping mechanisms and the internal voices.

Two weekends ago, I took part in an online zoom conference for Christian ladies. The children loved it as they played on the X box all day (they want me to do another one!). It was a discipline to stay online but it seems to have reset something within me.

Instead of bemoaning the cost of the car, which has now become lopsided (a passenger suspension air bag has gone), I am grateful we have the money to pay for it. Instead of wishing away the long nights with the dog, I am happy this faithful soul is still with us after 14 years. Instead of feeling I ought to have a job, I realize I am fortunate we can manage without me having one at a time when people’s mental health is being tested by the pressure of trying to work and home school.

Clearly, we aren’t in a pantomime with villains and godmothers but I do believe we are in a spiritual battle. We always have been but right now, for many of us, it feels closer than perhaps we have ever experienced it.

When I returned to my field by the garage yesterday for the air bag saga that is now unfolding, I found the grass flooded by the rising river filling up with rain. My usual path was hidden beneath the water. In looking for firm ground, I found another route, discovering a bridleway I didn’t know about.

In this spiritual battle, we must find firm ground if we are to stand. The weekend conference reminded me that the ground we need to remain on is Jesus. It’s so simple and he makes it so easy, yet I often make it much harder than it needs to be.

I meandered for almost a year and yet he’s still here, with arms wide open to welcome me back. He has jobs for me to do, I am sure of it. They may not be the ones I’d pick myself but that’s ok, it turns out I wasn’t very good at job hunting anyway…

A prayer for anyone seeking firm ground:

Most churches have online services. A good one is Holy Trinity Brompton in London:

https://www.htb.org/htb-at-home-catch-up

but there are so many options and I always think it’s good to look locally.

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