Romance after years of living together is a bit like the once dizzying wallpaper you’ve become so used to it you wouldn’t notice if it bit you on the bum.
I forgot this important fact until this weekend when I suddenly realised that my father is possibly one of the most romantic men I have ever known. I don’t think Mum would actually agree on this one as the litany of forgotten birthdays, anniversaries and other such important occasions compounded by the purchase of inappropriate gifts stretches back some forty odd years - each forgotten tribute to be cherished in the annals of family folklore.
It was Sunday and Mum had trotted out to the outhouse to rummage in the depths of the freezer for something suitable for lunch before we wended our way to the pantomime at the Georgian Theatre Royal in Richmond.
I was warming myself nicely on the Aga, the Boy was playing being a witch in the other room and Dad was reading the Sunday papers and for the first time that weekend there was peace - oh for at least five minutes!
It was broken by a heartrending shriek from outside and Mum shot into the house screaming: “Oh! It’s terrible, terrible! There’s a rat outside. I can’t stand rats! They’re horrid things, oooohhhh!”
Of course, instead of comforting Mum as she collapsed onto a chair, we all - from the warmth and relative safety of indoors - peered out the windows to see if we could spot the terror of the outhouse. There was nothing to see.
“Honestly, you lot! It’s gone in between the outhouses among all those tiles you won’t find it now; I hate rats nasty, horrid, dirty things…” she went on for some time along this train of thought and as I listened with half an ear I was taken back in time to a trip we did while based in Brunei.
It was the ascension of Mount Kinabalu in Sabah – you know the thing you do as a happy family holiday at Easter time or as Dad would say a bit of team bonding, a character building pastime for all the family to enjoy.
From this you might be able to surmise that over the years I have a developed somewhat cynical view of my parents’ best efforts to engender the spirit of adventure into me, their eldest daughter.
We set off on a bright warm morning from the tourist camp to climb the last few thousand feet to the top. An exercise that Dad said would take about a day to the summit camp. Once there we would have supper and overnight it before the big push to the top at 5 o’clock in the morning returning for breakfast and our descent.
The hut at the summit camp was fairly basic – but luxurious compared to some of the places we had and were to visit with Dad on our travels. It was a bit like a long low bungalow and had slatted windows, which you could open when it got hot. There were lots of bunks and a rudimentary kitchen. Mum was on cooking duty and we, I think were helping ,I can’t remember exactly. But at some point there was a commotion from the kitchen area. I believe - but will no doubt be put right – that Mum had a problem with pests of the whiskered variety who quite literally sat in a row watching her every culinary move. I can understand that this might be quite unnerving as Mum had not even had the advantage of watching the acclaimed Disney movie Ratatouille, which in itself was not even a sparkle in the producer’s eye – in fact perhaps the producer was not even a sparkle in his own father’s eye – I digress.
Having been subjected to such scrutiny Mum was totally unhinged and such was her fear that she actually pushed me from the top bunk in order to sleep as far away from her tormentors as possible.
I lay in the bottom bunk too close to the floor for comfort and zippered up to my chin in an ex-army sleeping bag. I kept as still as I could in the moonlight in order to listen for the soft pitter patter of claws and the swish of long scaly tail on the floor. But it was not from the floor that they came but from outside, up the drainpipe and along the ridge to the bottom of the window at the foot of the bunks, I saw several of the little blighters scramble up the cantilevered window pains to the top where they were able to push their noses in and slither through to jump the short distance to the foot of the top bunk. Then they scrambled down the bed, dropt softly onto the floor and headed off towards the kitchen in search of food and other edible commodities.
It gave me a feeling of great satisfaction that despite my mother’s best efforts she still had rats crawling all over her that night. I, at the then tender age of 16, felt that I should have been on the top bunk and that her maternal feelings should have outweighed her baser instinct of self-preservation.
A movement in the flowerbeds near the bird feeder caught my eye.
“Dad, it’s there!” I whispered.
“Where?” he said craning his head over mine to get a closer look.
“There in the flower bed going towards the feeder…
The young brown rat lifted its nose and quested with its whiskers. It tensed, listening, then relaxed and started to skitter and jump about which I thought quite cute until I realised it was getting rid of the birds so it could eat the scattered corn on the ground. It looked sort of innocent and almost cuddly and I motioned to Mum to look at it. I could feel her shuddering disgust behind my back. I turned towards Dad but he had vanished.
When I looked for the rat again it was gone as well and I decided to get Mum a coffee to help calm her nerves. She continued to shudder for some time.
A deep-throated retort and we all stopped, frozen, trying to work out what was going on. The Boy rushed in from the other room. “That gave me a fright,” he announced. “But I’m not scared,” he continued as he hugged me round my hips and pressed his head into my body.
I passed him to Mum, who looked a bit bewildered, and started to make my way towards the Hall from where I would be able to go upstairs from whence the noise had emanated.
As I reached the foot of the stairs, Dad swooped down them shotgun in hand. He gave me a triumphant look. “There,” he said grinning, “That’s what you get from sniper training!”
And with that cryptic remark he stalked off outside to retrieve his prize from the flowerbed and lay it at his mistress’ feet. Needless to say she was not amused. And from the foot of the stairs, listening to Mum scolding my father to take that revolting thing away and out of her sight, I realised that he had done a most romantic thing.
His Lady had fled in terror from a monster and he without wasting a moment and with no thought of his own comfort had slain it.