Saturday, September 29, 2007


Hello all

I have been banished to a small room in the local manor house for the foreseeable future by my wife, Dolores. She saw red a couple of weeks ago after a genuine misunderstanding involving a Belgian cake. It emerged that she had been planning a trial separation for some time, and that the issue of the cake merely provided the leverage she needed to force me out of the marital bed and onto a lumpy single mattress in a room that would find better use as a walk-in wardrobe. This blog is temporarily focused on my attempts to live a dignified life in exile.

My severely restricted view of the extensive grounds reflects my hypothesis that this room was never intended for habitation. Instead of gazing over a Capability-Brown inspired vista, complete with crumbling folly and a herd of rare-breed cattle munching contentedly, I see the gable of the rear East Wing extension jutting out over the courtyard. My room, you see, is in the attic, and the tiny dorma window was clearly installed to provide some natural light in the days when electricity was not available.

My other clue as to the original purpose of the room is the plethora of surfboards stacked up against the walls and furniture. To reach the single-door wardrobe I have to move five surboards onto my bed, and keep them balanced there by bracing one leg against the stack whilst I retrieve my shirt.

There is no sink, and indeed no tap anywhere in the attic. To use the facilities I must venture onto the 2nd floor landing, where there is a small bathroom. Outside the bathroom is a notice that says 'NO SOLIDS', which means I have to descend the stairs to the first floor landing whenever I need a number two. Unfortunately, this bathroom lies in the private quarters of the owner of the manor house, and as such is distinctly 'OFF LIMITS' to staff (except the housekeeper). I have been told that if I use the toilet at all I risk being ejected from the house, and I have therefore had to take advantage of movements of the staff during certain periods of the day. I won't bore you with too many details, but just to give you a flavour of how controlled I must be in my ablutions, here is the plan for the week:

2130 - 0730 - Not possible (flushing sound wakens housekeeper)
0730 - 0800 - Housekeeper takes shower - room unavailable
0800 - 0830 - Housekeeper has breakfast in room directly below bathroom
0830 - 0900 - Staff meeting (which I must attend)
0900 - 1230 - work in the garden (no access to house allowed)
1230 - 1300 - Housekeeper has lunch in room directly below bathroom
1300 - 1305 - Housekeeper walks round garden (Monday, Weds and Friday only)
1300 - 1700 - work in garden - no access to house
1700 - 1730 - Housekeeper eats her tea in the room below the bathroom
1730 - 2130 - Movement within house prohibited (housekeeper scares easily)

You can see from the above scheme that I am restricted to use of the bathroom during 3 x 5 minute slots a week. The weekends are no-go by default, as the owner of the house and his family turn up every Friday evening and stay until Sunday evening. During the weekend I am confined to quarters as the owner insists on total privacy. This means staff must vacate the premises. As I have nowhere else to go, I just sit in my room and read. Blogging is almost impossible - to write this entry I have had to feign illness and fool the housekeeper into allowing me a two-hour window to visit a doctor in the nearest town (about ten miles away).

I would like to say that I am able to exercise self discipline under such a regime, but sadly that is not the case. You see, those 5 minute slots on Monday and Friday are the times when I am allowed to talk to my wife. Dolores works as a cleaner on these days, preparing for, and cleaning after, the owner's visits. Fraternisation between staff is normally forbidden, but the housekeer has told Dolores she will turn a blind eye for 5 minutes on these two days. Our meeting takes place in the dining room, with each of us sitting at one end of the long mahogany table. Dolores asks questions related to my health and state of mind, and reports on the activities of the children - Ravel, apparently, has taken over many of the duties expected of myself, and is excelling at looking after No.3 whilst Dolores home-schools the twins. Each time we meet I tell my wife that I love her, but that I can't talk for very long as I desperately need to use the toilet. She, however, insists that we take all the time available to work through our issues, and that my ablutions cannot possibly be more important than our marriage.

This leaves Wednesday. Last week, the housekeeper did not take her walk around the rose garden, but instead decided to change the flowers in the bathroom as they had wilted prematurely. I was on my way to the room and only managed to avoid being caught by hearing the housekeeer singing something from the Sound of Music as she emptied the flower water down the pan.

You can imagine that I was absolutely busting at this point, and there was no way I could put off my visit to the toilet any longer. If the housekeeper was in the house, it meant the garden was empty. I had no choice but to run upstairs to the toilet on the 2nd floor, retrieve some toilet paper, run down the stairs and hide behind a hefty bush. I don't think I have ever experienced such a rush of relief in my entire life.

No comments about fertiliser, thanks.


Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Belgian delicacy (part II)

Hello all

Sorry for the long absence. Not that many people have noticed. Blogging is a very fickle way of life -you need to keep up a constant presence or else people will drift away and your name is quickly forgotten.

Some analogies there with my actual life. Since being forced out of my former Institute by an act of arson, I have been largely unnoticed by society, and the steady flow of requests by the media for stories about parasites have all dried up. I'm thinking I might have to drop the 'celebrity parasitologist' moniker, and replace it with something like 'McCrumble down and out in rural Suffolk'.

My marketing manager, the occasionally intelligent Dr Mark Booth, called me the other day and demanded to know when I was going to get back on my feet. 'My feet have turned to mud', I lamented - not a metaphor, in fact, but something close to the truth as I was standing in a very soggy patch of soil when he called my mobile.
'Come on Joseph. I know you well enough by know. You can't resist the lure of science. Sooner or later you'll want to get things going again, find a lab, start some experiments. We need you to get going Joseph. The scientific community needs you.'

I understood what he meant, of course. Parasitology is a discipline from which it is impossible to escape by means of simply burning down your laboratory. Even now, with my life at perhaps its lowest ebb for many years - even now I can't but help think that one day I'll be dissecting rats once more, making new discoveries about the parasitic worms that lurk within. It is this single shred of optimism that keeps me going.

In other news...

The thorny problem of my Belgian delicacy was finally resolved this week. It turned out to be a misunderstanding of epic proportions. The belgian delicacy in question was not, as everyone suspected, a person with whom I had an adulterous liason, but a chocolate cake with a personalised message, inscribed by one of Belgium's finest cake decorators, for my wife. I had been drunk when I made the order, and had asked Clara to use 'Belgian delicacy' as a code against Dolores knowing what I had ordered. It was my own way of trying to show her how much I care.

The cake arrived a few days after I finally plucked up the courage to phone Clara and find out what had happened. This time there was no ambiguity, and the misunderstanding was rapidly resolved. I gave her my address, and she said that she would have the cake sent by courier. It was her uncle who would decorate the cake with the message that I had specified. Five days later and the package arrived, addressed to myself. I was busy painting the coffee table that Ravel had made from an old pine door when Dolores delivered the package. My wife was not smiling, and spoke with a flat voice. 'It says here, on the package that it is from someone called Clara. Clara lives in Belgium, according to the address on the back. Coincidence?'

'No darling!' I exclaimed cheerfully, thankful that the issue was about to be resolved. 'It's something for you!'

'What are you on about? Are you taking the piss Joseph? I've just about had enough of this. '

'No really, darling. It's a surprise. Please just open it. You'll see.'

'It's not addressed to me. You open it', hissed my wife, throwing the box at me. I was holding a can of paint at the time and caught the box awkwardly. It slipped from my grasp and fell onto the door, which was lying horizontally between two wooden crates. In a reflex-driven attempt to to stop the parcel from bouncing off the door I dropped the can of gloss paint and leant over the door. The paint can landed on the floor and discorged its contents over my feet, and I missed the parcel. It bounced off the other side of the door and landed in a deep puddle. Dolores, seeing my anguish at the possibility of losing the parcel, made the immediate, and not unwarranted, conclusion that the contents were somehow valuable to me. Her reaction was nonetheless somewhat extreme. Instead of striding off in protest, she walked round to the other side of the table and deliberately stamped on the parcel. She was wearing wellingtons at the time, and the large surface area of her footprint made a substantial indent in the parcel itself - I estimated that she managed to compact the box by approximately 50%.

Satisfied that she had destroyed the contents, she walked away. I was shocked by her behaviour, but determined that this misunderstanding should go no further. 'Stop there!' I shouted, my voice full of emotion. 'It's just a cake Dolores! Please believe me. It was meant to be a surprise. It's for you. Please come back!'

My outburst managed to stop Dolores in her tracks. She turned round and paused for a moment as if thinking how to respond. When she did finally speak, it broke my heart. 'Screw your cake Joseph. Screw you, screw this place. You want to keep up this charade then do it alone. I've had enough.'#

'But it was all a misunderstanding..', I shouted. 'Please - just look inside the parcel. It was for you. It was a cake, for you. The whole thing was about a cake. The Belgian delicacy was a cake all along. Clara was the person who arranged the cake. It was just a misunderstanding Dolores. Please check the box.'

My wife did not check the parcel as requested. Instead she took several deep breaths before taking a few steps closer. What she said next broke my heart for the second time in as many minutes. 'OK, Joseph. So it was a misunderstanding. If you say there is a cake for me in the box then I believe you, and I'm sorry I stamped on it. But...just how many more misunderstandings do we need? How many times are you going to put me through the emotional grinder then tell me it was all a misunderstanding? Am I supposed to forgive and forget every time, just pretend it doesn't matter?'

'What do you mean...?'

Dolores was more than ready to tell me what she meant. For the next fifteen minutes she talked non-stop about what it all meant. By the end of her monologue I was left in no doubt that our marriage was not the rock-solid edifice I always imagined. Somewhere along the line, and I'm not sure where that happened, I had started to take my wife for granted. At the end of her outpouring she made that quite clear, before finally telling me that she needed some time alone. I had no option at that point to agree to move out of the barn for some unspecified period. That afternoon I packed my bags and moved into a spare room in the manor house. This was made possible only by the fact that Dolores works there as a cleaner two days a week, and told the housekeeper that I was going to do some gardening. We agreed that I would not pester her during her working hours, and that we will talk again in a few days.

I am now sitting in my small room, contemplating where I have gone wrong.

The message on the cake, by the way, said 'To Dolores, my everlasting love. For you, I will do anything.'


Saturday, September 08, 2007

Belgian delicacy

A couple of weeks ago, I recieved a phone call from someone in Belgium, called Clara. You can read a transcript of the conversation in the last post. I did receive a second phone call from Clara that was unfortunately overheard by my wife. More of what transpired in the aftermath of that phone call will be revealed at the end of this post.

So what else can I report? Should I tell you all how my world has diminished since being forced to leave the Institute I loved? Should I become nostalgic for a life I once was proud to live, replaced now by a a daily, almost prescribed, routine of looking after children and helping my former research assistant to continue converting the partially converted barn in which we are all sequestered? I doubt you come here to listen to such sounds of melancholy after the joys of previous posts, so I won't bore you with the depressing details. Suffice to say that I am not quite the man I would like to be at the moment. Something has changed within - I can't quite put my finger on it, but it feels as if some of my joi de vivre has been extinguished.

When I look around me of an evening, I am forced to admonish myself for being so down. Here is my beautiful wife, mending the socks of our twins by candle light (they are currently being home schooled, as the local schools were full and we are awaiting news of an application elsewhere). Over in the corner of the barn are the boys themselves, climbing over bales of hay whilst playing a game of 'fox and hounds' (the exact rules escape me, but the winner gets to bite the loser until they start crying, apparently). Outside is Ravel, the most faithful person I have ever had the pleasure to meet. He is putting the finishing touches to a coffee table made from an old pine door that someone in the village gave us last week. Despite having no paint-stripper, sandpaper nor plane, he has still managed to remove 3 layers of gloss and bring up the original grain. When I ask him how he does it, he points to a thick layer of paint under his nails and tells me that he 'scrape away the paint like removing frozen ice off windscreen.'

No3 is now 5 months old, and is becoming a handful. He can't quite sit up, but tries at every opportunity. He can't crawl, but put him down on any surface and he'll roll over onto his stomach, raise his head, let out a grunt and kick his legs manically until he gets too tired. On the one hand, I am looking forward to the day he can actually move under his own steam, as I won't have to carry him around all the time on educational tours ('look, here's some grass, here's some hay' etc etc), but then I suppose when he can walk I'll spend all my time holding his hand and still doing the tours. The twins are keeping their distance, and for that I am truly grateful.

Ravel was initially keen to help with the child rearing. He told us that he had helped raise his younger brother, and was therefore an experienced baby sitter. Taking him at his word, we left he baby with him one afternoon whilst we hitched into the nearest town to visit the job centre (there wasn't one). On our return we found the baby in the field outside the barn with a piece of rope round one ankle. The other end of the rope was tied to a stake. In the hands of our infant was some sheep dung from a pile next to the spot where he had been deposited. Dolores managed to extricate the unsavoury excrement, and summoned our assistant. She immediately banned him from any more child care activities until he had read at least 5 books on the subject.

The result of her injunction on Ravel has simply put more pressure on me to provide care for the baby. I have not shirked my responsibility, you will be glad to hear, and in fact I have taken it upon myself to provide as much of a stimulating but comfortable environment as possible. To this end, I instructed Ravel to make a sling from an old shirt and I now carry the infant wherever I go, singing nursery rhymes and engaging No 3 with gurning and baby noise whenever possible. My efforts seem to be paying off, as Dolores has become noticeably less stressed in recent weeks.

Except, that is, for one occasion last week, when the edifice that is our marriage took an almost fatal blow to its foundations. And all because of a Belgian delicacy....

'Hello, is that Joseph. It is Clara here. Can we talk?' said the flemish voice. My phone had rung just as we were eating dinner.

'Er not really. I'll call you back later if that's ok?', I said tentatively. Dolores was busy feeding No.3 and was talking to Twin X, and didn't seem to notice I was on the phone. I hung up and carried on eating. The dinner finished, I made my excuses and walked to the back of the barn. Clara's number was in the recent calls list. It was an international number, so I made a mental note not to talk for long. 'Hello, it is me, Joseph', I said when she answered.

'Oh Joseph. Good. I have been waiting to talk with you for a week now. I thought maybe you were not so keen any more.'

'I er, no that's, er not it', I stammered. I still could not remember who Clara was, or where we had met, but I was somewhat worried that something had happened between us that she wished to follow up on.

'Good, so you wish to go ahead with it then.'

'I'm not sure Clara. You see I...'

'But you have already paid Joseph!' exclaimed the lady, laughing.

'I have?'

'In cash. You said it was best that way so your wife would not find out by looking at your bank statement.'

'I did?', I hissed. I was becoming increasingly confused by where this conversation was heading. Awful thoughts were beginning to form in my mind.

'Ok, you were quite drunk at the time. I think maybe our beer was too strong for you, eh?'

'Sorry, Clara, but I have to admit, I don't actually remember paying for anything. Could you just, er, run me through what happened?'

'What, the whole evening?'

'Er, yes, actually. You see, I, er, suffer from a, er, a spontaneous amnesia disorder', I said. It was a lie, but I wanted the conversation to move forward and not admit to having been too drunk to remember. Clara laughed, and I sensed immediately that she was not convinced.

'OK, Joseph, whatever you say. We had a very nice evening together you know. We talked for a long time and then you told me that you and your wife do not get along so good and I said what you need is a Belgian delicay and that I could provide you with that. You said yes, please help me. Dear Joseph, you then said I should refer to it always as a belgian delicacy, in case your wife should hear something. You seemed so unhappy Joseph, how could I refuse? Now all we need is to confirm your address and your delicay will be with you very shortly.'

'I, er, yes, of course. So, just so I fully remember, what is the, er, delicacy exactly?' I asked, my fertile mind wandering from the sublime to the ridiculous. I may have received the answer there and then, but my attention was drawn away from the phone by the unmistakable sound of Dolores coughing.

Now, keen readers of this blog will be aware that sometimes I get into situations that take me by surprise. I don't know why it keeps happening, despite my best efforts to prevent such circumstances, but I do know that my initial response is nearly always the same. It is marked by a feeling of panic, that hits my mind and spreads throughout my limbs at an astonishing rate. I can progress from presenting myself as a lucid, intelligent man to a discombobulated, un-coordinated idiot within seconds.

I'm not proud of this reaction, but feel compelled to record it for posterity, and to hopefully bring about a more complete understanding of who I am, each time it happens. I won't go into details here, and I will leave it up to you to imagine exactly what happened next, but suffice to say, within a few seconds I was weeping like a schoolboy who has just been caned and Dolores was shouting the dreaded D-word.

It took me six hours to calm her down. I had to first confess that I didn't really know what had happened between me and Clara. I swore to her on Number 3's life, that I would never be knowingly unfaithful. She quite rightly told me that that wouldn't count if I was too drunk to remember anything. Dolores then made me promise to go to the GUI Clinic, and declared she would be withdrawing herself from any physical activities for six months (the length of time required for antibodies to a certain well-known viral infection to develop).

We are one week into the six month period. I've kept my phone switched off the whole time in case Clara rings again. I have a feeling this story is going to be one those where, unfortunately, I have to say....

******TO BE CONTINUED******