‘Do different’ is Norfolk’s motto and so it makes perfect sense to me that I have always felt so at home here because I have always ‘done different.’
I’ve never been one to worry about what other people think. My dad always taught me that it doesn’t matter what status anyone has, what matters is whether they are a good person and kind to others and that stuck with me. Wherever I went, wherever I worked, I never felt phased by the seniority or fame of anyone (well apart from Peter Cook). We are all simply human with different doses of luck and ability, no one is better than another, other than by how they behave.
Dad’s occupation was personnel officer for the Co-operative Society. He had a big whacky RAF style moustache, always wore a blazer or a suit, half moon glasses to read with and sometimes used his MCC tie as a belt and more often than not you’d see him with a big fat cigar in his mouth. People loved him. His father was a Colonel in the Royal Pioneer Corps who wrote novels, he was also a fundraiser and events co-ordinator with his own colourful history, my stylish Grandmother mingled in High Society. When their marriage broke up the wealthy lifestyle they had led came to a pretty abrupt end. Their story is worthy of a novel in its own right.
However, I should get back to the point of ‘do different.’ My father once said to me ‘tell me what you want to do and I will see if I know anyone who can make it happen.’ I didn’t know what I wanted to do. When the careers advisor at school asked me, I said the first thing that came out of my head ‘an actor.’ I didn’t want to be an actor at all and I have no idea what made me say it other than I’d heard other girls at school say they wanted to work in a bank, one wanted to be a tax inspector. Both those occupations sounded incredibly dull to me so maybe that’s why I said actor. I honestly don’t know why but I sat there dutifully while the careers master told me all about RADA. It sounded interesting but the thought of performing in front of anyone shrunk this shy young teenager back into the seat of her chair.
Once my exams were done, my plan was to escape to Greece. One of my English teachers had always been enamoured with Greece and listening to her made me really want to go. So instead of going straight to college to do my A’Levels, I answered an advertisement in the local paper and joined an Anglo Greek family in Athens for a year, which turned out to be of the best years of my life. It wasn’t so much a job (I was hired as an au pair to two lovely little girls) as like joining a new family. At first I was homesick and their Grandpa gave me whisky to cheer me up and it worked! I loved Greece, I loved the weather, the people, the beaches, the excitement of living in such an amazing ancient city and most of all I loved the family.
Then tragedy struck. I had known my father was unwell before I left but nothing could prepare me for him being diagnosed with dementia. I asked to go home but my mother assured me that there was nothing I could do and told me to see out my year in Greece. My father wrote me letters asking when I would come home. I was torn. My life in Athens was idyllic but I really wanted to be back with my own family too and my plan was to go back to college when I returned.
I saw out the year.
Typically for me, I decided to return by bus. My last little adventure before settling down back into what was supposed to be some kind of normal. I sobbed all the way out of Athens, I was only 18 and had no idea if I’d ever return.
My whole family came to greet me at King’s Cross station. I will never forget it. After an exhausting two days with no sleep, I stepped off the bus to embrace my father and he had no idea who I was. The Dementia had already taken hold. He stared at me with confusion and I felt my heart snap.
This man who had held me in his arms to comfort me so many times, who had been my buddy through all of my childhood, who had entertained us with his humour and funny ways simply stared at me with his now empty brown eyes. The thought of this moment makes me sob even now.
I went to college and got on with my studies. It wasn’t easy coming back after a year’s break but I enjoyed the studying and met my lifelong best friend there. At home my father’s health grew progressively worse and it became quite a challenge coping with his illness while trying to live the normal life of a teenager. I rarely had boyfriends and if I did, I met them at the end of the road so they didn’t see how my father was. One of my college lecturers unexpectedly turned up on our doorstep to give me a present for looking after his house while he was away. I grabbed the present and shut the door before he could see my dad who by now was constantly confused and always disappearing on long walks where occasionally he got into trouble because people didn’t understand that kind of illness in those days. Not that many do now but it is better known.
In a way we had to cut ourselves off from the outside world to cope with Dad’s illness. My mother became my father’s carer, to this day I think about how incredible she was. She had some help from my sister and I but she tried to protect us from it all, however, there came a time near the end when we had to step in and make sure she didn’t go under herself.
One of the things we share in my family is a wicked sense of humour and somehow it got us through all of this but as a young woman this whole period really took its toll on me. My father died on my sister’s birthday and just a couple of months before my 21st. I made a vow that should my mother ever need my care, I would step up and eventually I had to.
I hated my first job, it was part-time and I didn’t like the people. My mum came to visit me one lunch time and told me in no uncertain terms that if I didn’t like it I was to give it up because life is too short to be miserable. The assistant manager told me I’d never find another job (bitch), within in a week I was in a job I absolutely loved. That taught me never to be trapped where you don’t want to be. I learned the lesson with work but never in my personal life until much later.
While I always ‘put my all’ into any job I had, I also sought adventure. I married too young and lived to regret it. Eventually I escaped and lived in London awhile but Norfolk pulled me back with it’s wide open spaces, quirky inhabitants, incredible beaches and ancientness. It is where I feel most at home in the world and I’ve been fortunate enough to travel quite extensively.
Eventually the office jobs were stifling me so I decided to set up my own business where I definitely ‘did different’ and it is there a whole new story began but more of that another time…
‘…this corner of England which once it holds your heart is more lovely than any place on earth. Beautiful with a hint of secrecy which haunts it, as the memory of a dark and tender sadness clouds the brilliance of a summer day.’
Lilias Rider Haggard (Norfolk Notebook)
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