“Why Beryl! How lovely to hear from you after all these years. Yes - doesn’t time fly! Is it as long as that? Goodness. In Bristol? Are you really? Yes - that is close. Of course we’d love a visit. How exciting. This week? We’d be delighted. Until the 20th - er - lovely. Yes - see you both Friday for lunch. Looking forward to it so much, it’ll be marvellous seeing you both again. Old times! Yes indeed. Bye.”
During this conversation my husband, John, was counting on his fingers with a nervously raised eyebrow.
“The 20th? Good heavens woman - that means we’ve got them for ten days. No-one just ‘drops in’ for ten days! It did suddenly seem a long time.
Retirement may technically mean you sit and do nothing, but anyone who has reached this exalted state knows otherwise. We both tend to be busy, and although we hadn’t seen Paul or Beryl for ten years, we knew them very well and the thought of two completely inactive heavy smokers for so long was daunting.
By next morning our fears had worked their way to the back of our minds and we were looking forward to their humour and general cheerfulness as we enjoyed breakfast. It was a lovely day. The birds were singing, the river rippled so peacefully, the coffee smelt good and I hadn’t burnt the toast. All was well with our world. The dog barked to announce the arrival of the morning mail. It came complete with a card from Beryl telling us that Paul had managed to get two tickets for Cardiff Arms Park on Saturday. It was to be their ruby wedding on Sunday, and would we please book an especially nice dinner for six at some especially nice restaurant. Six because Beryl’s brother and his wife would be there also, to help them celebrate. How nice it all sounded.
I booked dinner at one of the best places in town, and in honour of the occasion rescued a seldom-worn dress from the nether regions of my wardrobe and ironed its numerous pleats with surprising pleasure, looking forward to a delicious meal out. As the men were off to the Rugby in Cardiff I arranged for a little ladies lunch in Bath, and organised a gathering for some mutual friends for the following week. By Friday there were flowers in vases, meals had been fixed, last minute shopping completed and even the dog had been brushed.
“Hello! How wonderful to see you! You don ‘t look a day older!” Kiss - kiss - “A bottle of wine - how kind of you, you really shouldn’t have. The guest room has a lovely view of the river, we do hope you enjoy it. You have your own bathroom - such a help as we get older. Where’s your luggage? On the pavement. Paul has a bad back. Poor Paul. I’m sure we can manage. Yes - these old leather suitcases are heavy aren’t they? Especially with those reinforced steel corners. Five of them - how nice.
We chatted, we laughed, we re-hashed old stories. After lunch I dashed into the kitchen for a ten minute potter. Beryl came in after me. Could she please have some hot milk to help Paul digest his lunch. He had an acid stomach.
“Certainly. Poor Paul. What a shame.”
The afternoon continued with more chat and stories and upsettingly full ash-trays. They couldn’t join us for a dog-walk because of Paul’s bad feet. Tea had to be accompanied by lightly toasted bread with a ‘scrape’ of butter. Cakes were too sweet, and liquids could not be tolerated without solids, as that did things to Paul’s acid stomach. Warning bells had not yet rung, but when later on in the evening that same stomach
downed three gin-and-tonics without as much as a peanut I ungenerously thought - perhaps a choosy acid stomach. Just before dinner I was in the kitchen and Beryl joined me. Her air of ‘isn’t this fun’ was turning into ’how lucky you are not to suffer as we do.’
“Anne dear - is it alright if we eat straight away. Its Paul’s acid, its been rising all day and he can’t sleep till he’s got it down again. Eating helps, but he must eat several hours before he goes to bed or he doesn ’t sleep at all, and its half-past six already.”
Cheery smile. “Of course Beryl. No problem.”
“Mm - that does smell good. What are you cooking?”
“Artichoke soup. Its one of our favourites.”
“Mm. Nice. Actually I can ‘t eat soup. It gives me the most frightful heart-burn. I hope you don’t mind. Its my hiatus-hernia.”
“Oh! Please don ‘t worry. I’ll see if I can find something else.”
“Lovely. Sorry to be such a nuisance. That does look a delicious fruit salad. You’ve put such interesting things into it. Actually Paul can’t eat fruit. It makes the acid rise. He’s very fold of ice-cream.”
With a smile that was losing its elasticity - “Dreadfully sorry, but at this moment I don’t have any ice-cream; but I’m sure I’ll find something.” Arsenic perhaps. By some good fortune I remembered a tin of Ambrosia Rice Pudding - won by John at a Hoop-la years ago. Paul loved it and had two helpings.
Dinner came and went. Bed-time arrived. This involved ‘the night tray’. Our spare room has its own kettle, mugs and assorted paraphernalia for assuaging night-starvation. But they needed their ‘night-tray’. On it sat two glasses of iced water, two mugs of hot milk with saucers perched on top to keep them warm, one plate of biscuits, a thermos of cocoa and an ash-tray. They went to bed early, so obviously the acid had ‘gone down’. Where to? I wondered. Ten o’clock found John and I relaxing with a quiet whisky - when…..
“Er - Anne?” The door opened to reveal a well-creamed, nighty-clad Beryl. “Can we have some more pillows? Paul has to sleep sitting-up, and my hernia needs extra support. I hope you don’t mind.” Pale suffering smile.
“Certainly Beryl. N o problem. How many do you want?”
Pillows were produced, kneaded, and adjudicated for suitability. Ten pillows were piled on that bed. It seemed that ours were too thin. But ten! It took me more minutes than that to convince John that nine nights with no pillows for us would not be as bad as he thought it was going to be. It was. It was worse.
12.30am. We were just beginning to come to terms with our pillow less state. There was a tap on the door and a reedy little voice cooed “I’m so sorry to disturb you both, but Paul can’t sleep. He finds the duvet too hot. Can we have some blankets instead”
As an all-duvet flat we no longer have any blankets. However we managed to rustle up some picnic rugs and extra sheets from high shelves in inaccessible cupboards before tottering back to bed where we slept twitchily till morning.
Saturday breakfast, and somehow the sun wasn‘t shining quite so brightly, and I burnt the toast. Remember the ‘very lightly toasted’ bit! Paul spooned three prunes onto his Muesli (fruit? I wondered) and then sat blinking at it.
“Anything I can get you Paul? I confess I get absent-minded at breakfast.”
He looked at me reproachfully. “I haven’t got a fork.”
For muesli?! “Er - sorry Paul. How silly of me.”
“He uses it for his prune stones>“ said Beryl frostily.
“Oh!” said I.
Saturday passed. The lunch was fun. The game at Cardiff was a good one.. Sherry was being sipped and the day’s events discussed. Then - came that doom-laden voice - so quiet - so…………
“Anne - poor Paul has been struggling with his acid all day. He hates to make a fuss, but he’s not at all well.
Could we ask you to cancel the dinner at the Restaurant. Perhaps you could cook something for us - not too fancy. It would be a shame if he were ill on our anniversary.”
Wouldn’t it just. Why! Oh why - have I no strength of character. What prevented me from saying “No. I can’t fix a party for six on a Sunday when it is now half past seven on a Saturday. And anyway - I’ve just ironed my multi-pleated dress. No - I can’t.” But of course I did., I took a dive into the deep-freeze and emerged with churlish, chilly fingers, a lot of useless rage and two guinea-fowl. What now? He didn’t eat fruit. She didn’t eat vegetables or cheese. He had to eat early. She didn’t drink wine, though she did hint that champagne was good for hernias. He drank a little red (like half a bottle!) but Merlot brought on the acid.. She couldn’t eat soup. He hated avocados (which I actually had of course) Neither could eat tomatoes and neither could digest onions - ‘unless very well-cooked’. Garlic? Don’t even mention it. And this was supposed to be a celebration dinner. Forty years of married life. Forty years of rising acid., N o - no - don’t get nasty. It was a special occasion and my rage was making me feel guilty. it’s a funny thing - but feeling guilty has nothing to do with guilt. John stoked me up with a gin and tonic to ensure my nasty nature didn’t rise any higher than Paul’s acid, and I got to work.
The dinner came and went, .Monday came and went. On the Tuesday I gave them grilled trout with toasted almonds. An acidic, bony error. Wednesday morning as I cleared away the prunes Beryl announced that the acid was winning, so they had decided to go home the next day. How it could have won was beyond me. Their bathroom was like an assault course of antacid flagons. They were everywhere. Marked - honestly -Beryl and Paul. It helped ‘keep the amounts right’. I had horrible night-mares of Paul’s insides being choked with viscous cement - if there is such a thing. I should think he bleeds milk of magnesia.
The next day they left, with John having to heave those armour-plated suitcases. The day after that we had the party for our mutual friends, but of course, without the star-guests. One of the wives came into the kitchen armed with a meaningful grin.
“How did you get on?” she asked. I was just mean enough to tell her. She shrieked with laughter.
“Think yourself lucky!” she said “We had them for two weeks. The children were in tears. The Au-pair walked out and Peter went out to a fictitious job every morning at nine and didn’t come home till five!”
We put away the ash-trays and - best of all -we had our pillows back.