Chapter One

The Right Thing

(U. S. only)

I'm sitting in McDonalds at Gatwick airport eating a sausage Mcmuffin, in fact I eat two, and feel guilty having just completed an eating disorder training course that says I should put distance between the impulse and the action. Why am I doing this; waiting for a plane? I look at Dessy, my husband, doing his paperwork, signing cheques and paying bills. I wonder if neither of us can say goodbye, since eating is my way out and paying bills is his. It's bizarre and my stomach plays a crazy game with the sausage McMuffins as I watch the second-hand speed around my watch – it's almost time to go to the departure gate and that means saying goodbye. Dessy gathers up his bills and neatly encrypted envelopes, looking really pleased with himself, “Well, that's a good job done,” he says, with a satisfied smile that belies his distress at my impending departure.

The goodbye is brisk – just a brushed kiss, almost like kissing a maiden aunt or a stranger. We both know that to linger any longer would be too painful and this pact we've made will seem insurmountable.

I'm exhausted from trying to manage three university courses, so I'm taking a year off to go to a well-paid job in America.This will allow me to repay my tuition fees without having to beg Dessy to loan me the money.When I suggested taking the job, I think he was so relieved that I wasn't going to ask him for the money that he said, “Well, I won't like it but it'll solve a problem, won't it?” His end of the deal is to finish decorating our house. During the four years we've lived there we've become complacent and the type of people that neither of us likes, and our house reflects our exhaustion and complacency.

“Are you sure you've picked out the colour for your study?” he asks, and I wish he'd just say I love you instead.

“Yes. I've put a cross on it,” and when I think of a cross I think of kisses, and long for a proper kiss that would tell me that he loves me and is going to miss me, but it doesn't happen and I understand. It's too hard to go anywhere near our love, for I might not be able to walk through the departure gate, and I know that it's the same for him.

“Don't wait,” I say, urging him away. Before I married him, I'd go to America several times a year and normally he'd wait until neither of us could see each other anymore by stretching and craning our necks, and I'd make him laugh by pulling silly faces or strongman poses. This time, however, I can't bring myself to do those things since I want him to go quickly.He does as I ask and when I turn around to see if he's still there as I queue to have my bags and my shoes searched, he's gone and I feel abandoned and alone. Does he have to take me at my word, this time of all times?

My shoes pass the test and I'm allowed to go through the metal detector as nothing bleeps. I guess I'm a safe person. I don't feel safe, in fact I feel far from safe.The departure lounge is full of people in a holiday mood and I feel even more alone, wondering if I haven't just made the worse mistake of my life. I'm going to be away from home for ten months. How on earth am I going to do this?I get homesick after just two weeks away from Dessy and England's green and damp countryside each time I go to America?

Yet it seems that I've developed an uncanny knack of being able to blot out unpleasant feelings or thoughts, because I walk along the moving walkway without thinking about how I'll manage without my soul mate, my friend and lover, for so long. Instead, I get to the departure lounge, panting, and fumble for my phone so that I can leave messages for the other people in my life that I care about.

“I'm just about to get on the plane and in case it crashes you need to know just how much you mean to me,” I say, with panic and a tinge of hysteria in my voice that is not tempered by the Valium coursing through my body.

I miss what's said overhead and watch people walk so confidently towards the boarding gate, and when I'm the last one left, still making last minute love phone calls, I feel an incongruous sense of urgency to get on the plane, thinking, Hey, don't go without me. I am terrified of flying and always hang back, but this time I rush towards the gaping open mouth of the plane, stifling my terror with indignation that I'm the last in line.

My handbag bumps into the people who are already seated. “Sorry, sorry, oops, sorry,” I say to mildly irritated passengers, seasoned travellers who from the tortured look on my face must think I'm neurotic or a relative of Mr. Bean. I kick my cabin bag under the seat in front of me and as the captain tells the stewards to prepare for take off, I frantically search for my seatbelt, and run my hand along the thigh of the man sitting next to me, praying that the belt is big enough to go around me.

“Sorry,” I say again, as his boyfriend, who's holding his hand across the aisle, glares at me while I yank the belt as tight as I can, trying desperately to stop a gruesome thought rolling around my head. If this plane goes down then at least I'll still be in my seat. 

I guess the Valium must be kicking in for I manage to smile at the lady sitting the other side of me as I feel the plane revving beneath me and the overhead lockers judder. They're loose. Someone should screw them down. Oh God, I hope nothing else is loose.I can't help but remember the time I stuffed myself into a tiny plane a year ago, terrified as usual, and certainly not prepared for the Captain to announce that a wire had “come loose. ”I mean, what does that statement do to someone who is terrified of flying? To retain my sanity I chase those thoughts away.

Before too long we're in the air and I'm asleep.Disjointed figures float before my eyes as I dream of the last few weeks and all the goodbyes I've dreaded and endured. I awake to an irritated, over-painted air stewardess who would look more at home babysitting her grand-children than flying the skies with her glamorous cohorts.

“Pardon?” I say.

“I said, 'fish or chicken'?” she says slowly as if I'm stupid.

“Chicken, please. ” As she hands me a tray I notice that this will probably be the last time I'm given a knife and fork to eat my dinner before having to cope with merely a fork and my fingers. I hate plastic cutlery (In England, “tableware” refers to place mats and cruets, table decorations and candle stick holders; cutlery is the utensils you use to eat with). However, little do I know that within hours all my cutlery will be plastic and my plates, paper.

I try to use my knife and fork but give up as my elbows offend my neighbours, and the boyfriend is still glaring daggers at me across the aisle as I accidently nudge his lover. “Sorry,” I grin inanely at them, dropping my knife and swapping my fork into my right hand, resigned to the fact that when with Americans, do as Americans do, even though I'm not on their soil just yet. I pass my tray back to the harassed, painted lady and nestle back into the seat and think of the changes I've been forced to make in order to sort my life out.

My ambition has always been to be a chartered clinical psychologist, but in England after finishing an honours degree in psychology, at that time there was a waiting list of eight years for a place to study clinical psychology. There was also a cut-off age limit of forty years and as I was forty-four when I finished my first degree, it seemed as if my ambition was beyond my reach. I was fifty-one when I saw an advert offering the same course in Australia with no age limit, and after reaching the final interviews and I'd already started packing, I was devastated when I wasn't offered a place. Undeterred, I decided to enrol at a college in London to complete my psychotherapy training, having already done three years at another college.However, within a few months an advert appeared in the Psychologist magazine offering the same Australia course in London, so I applied for a place. I never expected to be accepted but I was, and I found myself in a situation where I was nearly at the end of a PhD researching psychological and sociological factors implicated in teenage suicide attempts, and at the and a Masters programme in Psychotherapy. I couldn't give up either, having spent so much time, determination and money just so that I could be a clinical psychologist in order to help children and young people.

Always do the right thing, rang in my head. Okay, I can do this, I thought. I'll juggle three university courses for this year and at the end of the year I'll have finished my Masters training in psychotherapy and my PhD. Then I'll only have this one course to do and that'll be a piece of cake by comparison.

Only I didn't realise just how awful it would be. My life had begun to resemble a hamster frantically running on a treadmill going nowhere. I was tearing on and on, driving for hours to get to Greenwich, the eastside of London a few miles away from the Millenium Dome, attending classes in body only, and then racing across a traffic-congested London to my next psychotherapy supervision appointment.Then there were course assignments that needed to be handed in on time, and all this as well as working fulltime as a probation officer, which was a difficult and challenging job with sixty open cases between two offices. I was exhausting myself and getting further and further into debt, with only a smidgen of time for my poor, patient husband, and none for myself.

I remember exactly the moment when I decided I had to change my life. The National Probation Service decided that one person from each office had to be trained to work with sex-offenders and they chose me, particularly as I worked between two offices, so from their perspective I'd be twice as valuable. I know that sex offenders have their issues as well, need to be treated with respect, and need help too, but my ambition has always been to help children and I couldn't bring myself to work with their perpetrators.

I tried to explain to the office supervisor that I had my own issues about perpetrators, having inadvertently allowed a family friend into my home, who then went on to attempt to groom some of my children. I knew I couldn't be objective, but the needs of the National Probation Service in the United Kingdom were paramount – I was the one chosen to train in sex offender treatment and that was that.

I felt hopeless, as if all the years of studying were going to be for nothing. I made my decision easily, almost as if it had been made for me and I had finally listened to what I needed to do. I had finished the fifth year of my psychotherapy training, was at the write-up stage of my PhD and had completed the first year of the clinical psychology course at Greenwich University. The decision was crystal clear to me – I was going to take a year out, go back to work in America with children in a behaviour health care facility, pay off my debts, and finish writing up my PhD thesis.

However, unbeknown to me at that time, my PhD supervisor had found another job and left the university without telling any of his students, so far from being at the write up stage of my thesis, I still had two years to do to catch up with all that he'd let slide. I found this out the week before I flew out to America and I was in despair. At least I got to meet my new PhD supervisor and she was mortally embarrassed that this could have happened at a prestigious English university. She was so outraged that her department paid my tuition fees, and she drove me relentlessly, for which, looking back I am eternally grateful, although at the time I couldn't see it and cried every day. My husband had no idea what to do other than pat my head helplessly, wondering why women are so emotional. (I didn't do a lot for female-kind. Sorry.)

My ambition has always been to work with children after qualifying as a Registered Nurse and as there were no vacancies on the Isle of Wight (on the south coast of England) I looked further afield. I found an advertisement in the Nursing Times to work for a large Children's hospital. My five children were ecstatic at the thought of going to America and so we all travelled to this wonderful country in 1990. I was terrified to leave the sleepy, safe, tiny island but I followed my dreams to work with children. It was an amazing experience but initially I only stayed just over a year because the city had a terrible gang problem and I was scared for my teenagers. However, I made lifelong friends there and America has been an important part of my life ever since.

For years I've stayed with a colleague who accepted my presence in his home with the same nonchalance as his two pet lapdogs.“Oh, you're back,” they would yap for thirty seconds, and then go about their business of nestling into laps.Eighteen months ago, after a family emergency, my friend had to move from the area and so suddenly I had nowhere to stay. It was a turning point for me. I had to ask myself whether America meant anything to me and if it did, I had to find myself new lodgings. I thought about it a lot and decided to take control of my life and make things happen for me rather than just sit there and let them happen to me.

Twelve months before I left England, I took a week off from my English treadmill with a mission in mind. I walked down a leafy subdivision behind my beloved hospital and put an orange flier in every home's mailbox. It said, Registered Nurse seeks lodgings. I'm quiet and respectful and when I'm not working or sleeping, I'll be studying and completing my PhD. Let's share each other's cultures.

I flew home a week later, my heart in my mouth, my future in the hands of strangers, and wondered and waited. Days later an email arrived and suddenly there appeared to be the perfect answer and the perfect situation; a daughter taking care of her mother with Multiple Sclerosis, needing, “financial help and a change of face to amuse her mother. ”

Greta and I chatted over the Internet in the months before I was due to leave England and she seemed so perfect, so friendly, and I couldn't wait to meet her. When she told me that she had given up her English fiancée in order to care for her mother, I thought, What an amazing human being, one who obviously knows how to do the right thing.

So, armed with a place to stay that was mutually beneficial to each of us, I left my English treadmill and my dear husband, who promised faithfully to finish decorating the house while I was away. I set out to follow my destiny – to work with children, to write up my PhD, and to clear my tuition debts.

The Valium's wearing off, and I sense an uneasy tremor in my stomach, which lurches horribly every time the captain puts the 'fasten your seatbelt' sign on and we plummet through turbulence.

Please let this be over soon, I pray, my head is so full of bargaining prayers that I can't even begin to fret over what might be waiting for me when I touch down.  I become neurotic as I watch the flight information that shows exactly where we are.As the plane edges towards Atlanta on the screen and begins its descent, my nails leave a permanent indentation on the armrests. I mumble hurried prayers, and as the ground swings up to meet us and the tyres screech, a sigh wheezes from me. The engines slow as we taxi to the terminal and I display the blasé cockiness of a seasoned traveller, which belies my terror and my profound relief.

Now that the business of flying is out of the way and I'm safely on the ground, I allow myself to wonder what might be awaiting me.Will Greta turn up? I mean, I don't know her from Adam even though I have her address and I could take a taxi if she doesn't turn up. But if she changes her mind about having a lodger she could just turn me away, and then I'd truly be alone with nowhere to go and no one to care about me. It's not a nice thought. I long for Dessy and tears prick my eyes, but when the longing threatens to engulf me, I chase it away.

“Don't be so daft,” I chide myself and force my feet to walk to the barrier where I think I see her. It takes me a second to work out that of the few people waiting at the barrier it has to be her, for she is not waving and hugging the weary passengers. I force a bright smile on my face and give a cheery wave.

I am amazed at my ability to be able to squash all the warning bells that ring through my head. It started last night – last night seems a world away, which it is. Dessy and I had wasted our last night together in an attempt to ignore our impending goodbyes by logging onto the Internet. Finally after all the months of chatting on the Internet, Greta had allowed us to see her image on the computer and I'd had a sinking feeling in my stomach when I saw her straggly hair and bloated body. I had instantly reprimanded myself and thought how outraged I'd been at the over-eating training programme I'd attended a few weeks ago, when someone had said that fat people have no control over their lives. I've always stuck up for the underdog, tried to do the right thing, and in the past have ignored my gut instinct in the pursuit of being fair.And last night when I saw Greta's appearance was one of those times.

Greta lifts her hand in some sort of greeting as I walk towards her to give her a hug. I try to ignore the way her body instantly freezes with human contact.

I'm anxious – maybe she is too.

“It's so good to meet you,” I gush. “You're so kind to come and meet me. ”I mean it. It is good of her to meet me, but every part of my body and instinct is screaming at me to run and book into a Holiday Inn.

“Good flight?” she asks curtly, walking away before I can answer her. “Come on, walk this way. Baggage is down here. ”

I feel so uncomfortable as she marches off in front of me. I sneak a look at my new landlady and automatically think of the sentiments that woman at the training session had voiced. I had frowned at her at the time and I'd known that my nostrils were flaring with distaste when she had said that she wouldn't consider offering therapy to a person who was very overweight, for it would indicate a profound level of psychopathology. Yet watching Greta waddle off towards the baggage claim, I can't get the woman's words out of my head.

I don't know what to say, so I chunter on about the flight and how I managed to stop myself feeling afraid, but as she raises one eyebrow at me, I feel stupid and weak.

“Go over there,” she orders, “then you'll be the first to get your bags.”

I do as I'm told, stifling the thought, Hey, I've been waiting around for nearly twelve hours, five more minutes isn't going to hurt. But I do as she says, trying to squash the image I have of her being the sort of person who would beat her way to the front of a jumble-sale queue (garage sale line). I don't want to push in – it's not me, and I know that my bags are very heavy, so to get them off the conveyabelt will mean that I'll have to swing them to gather momentum, and I'll be just as likely to beat some poor old person over.Luckily my bags come out last, rattling their way towards me after the old folk have moved away.

Greta storms off ahead with one of my suitcases and I tug at the other, wishing Dessy was here to help me. She is already in the distance and I start to feel really girlie as my hand hurts with the weight of my bag. I need my man. I try to keep up and feel as if I'm three feet tall with my mother about to shout at me to hurry up and stop dawdling. As I try to ignore the pain in my hands and shoulders, I begin to wheeze in the humid heat and tell myself that now is not the time to have an asthma attack.

“Oh, thank you,” I wheeze, lifting the end of one suitcase as we try to haul it over the electrical wiring in the back of her car.

“Oh, maybe it's a bit close to the wiring,” I say, full of concern, having once knocked out the wiring in my friend's car with my heavy suitcases.

“No!” she says emphatically, and I feel silenced and stupid.

Come on, Celia, get a grip, I think, tears springing into my eyes. You're exhausted. It'll be all right, you're just too sensitive, and so I smile and say, “Thank you,” which she ignores.

I try to focus on the drive. I've missed the trees and landmarks that all hold sweet memories for me.

“It's so beautiful,” I say, feeling awkward, desperate to dispel the anxiety in my stomach and to bridge the gap between us. I realise that it's likely to seem strange. After all, despite chatting on the Internet, we don't really know each other, but I'm troubled because I know deep down that I'm capable of feeling really close to complete strangers if they are capable of reaching out to me. I try again.

“I just love autumn (the fall), the trees are so beautiful. I'm never here during the fall.The airfares change on the first of November back home so I always miss it. I always miss Halloween, too. I can't wait to experience Halloween. Do you have many children in your neighbourhood? Oh, I do hope so as I long to be a part of it,” I gush.

She looks at me sideways.

“There are some, I think,” she says, “ but I don't really do children. I prefer animals.”

I remember last night when Dessy and I were on the computer and she had written, “I hope you like pets. ” My heart had sunk even further for I don't do pets. It's not that I don't care about living creatures, I do. It's just that as a child I had some unfortunate experiences with horny dogs that kind of put me off fur and slipperiness. I've never quite managed to get past the idea that any creature with its genitals on show should be wearing underpants, and not doing its business in public or on the road.

“Animals don't seem to like me,” I say, lying, for they like me rather too much.

“Give me animals to people any day,” she says.“Oh, that reminds me, I must pick something up for my mother. ”

“What's your mother's name?” I ask, ignoring her slight against human beings and the association between animals and her mother.

“Ellen. ”

“How is she?” I ask, full of concern. I deduced from Greta's emails that she was up to her eyes in responsibilities, being the sole carer of her fifty-four-year-old mother, having no brothers or sisters to share the burden. She had told me that she had given up her fiancée and a life in England to care for her mother, and while reading those emails I felt as if I was in the presence of someone very special and self-sacrificing. So why don't I feel that now?

“She's a bitch, always calling for something. I'm sick of her. D'you know that the other night she woke me up in the middle of the night and asked me to get her a breath freshener. Can you believe that? I told her to fuck off. I can't believe it, a breath freshener!” She shakes her head. I'm shocked and don't know what to say. “The evil bitch just thinks that I'm being mean to her, but she's so lazy and a liar. She's says that she does things but she doesn't at all. You know, her friend is just as bad. She's crazy, you know.  I told her! She asked if Ellen could stay for a weekend but when she brought her back she hadn't done the things I'd told her to do. I told her that she'd never stay with her again 'cause if she can't look after my mother in the way I tell her to, then she's not going again. You don't mind if I smoke in the car, do you?”

Well actually, I'm asthmatic so I do mind, I think, but I say nothing, already feeling, I want to say intimidated, but I think scared would be nearer the truth.

She lights up and sucks the polluted air into her lungs and opens the windows.

“Pretty day,” she says. “I love it when it's like this. I love to have the windows open and have the fresh air in my hair. ”

She opens the windows by remote control and suddenly my hair, which hasn't been combed for almost a whole day, is flying out behind me like an advertisement trailer from a prop plane. Those bits that are not flying out behind me are in my mouth, stuck there by G force. I try to retrieve them from my throat and maintain my dignity at the same time, but it's not easy and I don't mange it.

“Well, actually, I'd prefer it if the wind was not directly in my face. ”I fiddle with the controls and she shoots me a disapproving look.

A sigh escapes her as she presses a button that sends my window shooting skywards. Suddenly I feel very anxious, but I'm so exhausted from the flight and the awful unfulfilled goodbyes that I can't trust my judgement. Yet deep down I know something isn't only incongruent, it's just plain wrong. My head is so befuddled with jetlag that I can't figure it out, so I try to ignore my sense of disquiet and fall silent.

“Y'know, I've given my life for that woman. I was engaged to be married, but no, she got sick and I had to give him up and come back to look after her full-time. ”

“How awful,” I say, thinking what it would feel like for me if I'd had to give Dessy up in order to go and look after someone else, but then I think of alternatives. I'd have done anything in order to be with Dessy and look after the person who needed me. “Couldn't he have come out here to be with you?” I venture.

Something horrid flashes across her face. “I don't think so. I couldn't inflict my mother on anyone else. ”

“But if he loved you surely it wouldn't have been an issue?” I ask, feeling confused.

“Oh, he wanted to come,” she says scathingly, “but he didn't have a degree and didn't seem to realise how important having a degree is here in America. I wasn't going to end up taking care of him if he couldn't provide the kind of life I wanted. ”

I fall silent again for I don't know what to say.There seems to be a chasm between us. I don't feel like telling her that I married for love, not money, and that I have to work full-time because I made a choice to marry a man I loved, despite him only being able to earn a low wage. She isn't going to understand it and so I don't waste our precious love story on her. It feels as if she's only told me part of the picture, and I'm sure there's more that she'll reveal later because it doesn't really make any sense to me – love is love, just that and nothing more.

She flicks ash outside the car as she drives, swerving in front of cars and bawling at the other drivers for being in her way.

“Does your mother smoke?” I ask, in order to make conversation to reduce my growing anxiety.

“Huh, she used to but I put a stop to that. There's no way that she's going to smoke,” she says, taking a hard drag on the cigarette between her lips and breathing in deeply.“The stupid bitch would set fire to the house if I let her smoke, so I put them where she can't reach them. ”

An image flashes into my mind back to the days when I was training as a nurse and caring for a wizened young man lying awkwardly on a waterbed, bony and shaking as Multiple Sclerosis ravaged through him.Blind and incapable of doing anything for himself, his only pleasure was to smoke a cigarette, and we student nurses would take turns lighting up for him and guiding his hand to his mouth.The thought serves to increase my anxiety, for if we could do that for him, a person who we weren't emotionally attached to, why couldn't Greta do that for her mother, even if smoking may cause cancer – the poor woman's dying anyway. I try to dispel my dismay and slip into a persona where I try to please, and I hate myself for it.

“It must be hard,” I say, trying to be empathic but feeling as if I'm giving her permission to be abusive about her mother. While I want to let her know that I realise the strain she's under, I don't want to collude with her, but as she talks it sounds like a mother-bashing bonanza so I change the subject.

“You know, it's kind of a tradition with me to go from the airport straight to Burger King,” I laugh shrilly. “My friend used to pick me up and we always went to the same place. I was amazed when the assistant remembered my name, for most people can't even say my name properly in America. Isn't that strange?”I'm talking too fast and I know it.

There's that sideways look again and I feel chastised and stupid once more but in a split second she smiles the sort of smile that turns my stomach. “Well, we best not break with tradition,” she says, swerving the car around the corner, making the wheels screech.

Ah, I think, I'm wrong. That's a really sweet thing to do. Bless her.

I flirt with the assistant who's long since forgotten my name but valiantly tries to remember, and Greta rides along on my crest with American humour that I don't understand but which feels better than mother-bashing.With a bagged burger in my hand and a few warm fuzzies from the assistant who has no teeth, I get back into the car.

“Your mom does know I'm coming, doesn't she?” I ask.

“Of course,” she says, with duh written on her face. Then she giggles the same little sweet laugh I'd heard over the Internet, which I'd found so endearing. The only word I can think of right now is incongruent, and as goose bumps spring onto my arms in the humid heat, I immediately wipe the word out of my mind.

As she drives I'm lost, even though I know this neighbourhood, and when she swings into her house I truly can't remember having put one of my fliers in her mailbox almost a year ago. She says nothing and I wonder if she's feeling as nervous as I am. I know that I would be if someone was coming to stay in my house for the first time, even if I knew them, let alone a stranger. I stand there feeling rather helpless as she orders me around, telling me which bags to take out first, and what she's planning to do to the garden.

“That's the car,” she says.

“Pardon?” I ask, not knowing how to respond, and there's that duh look on her face again.

“You know, the car I emailed you about, the one I said I'd hang on to in case you wanted to buy it before I get rid of it elsewhere. ”

I suddenly feel a rush of gratitude that wipes away the previous hour of misgivings.

“I didn't get any email about a car,” I say, ignoring her deep drawn-out sigh.

“I wrote saying I'd hang on to it, even though I could sell it several times over, to see if you wanted it,” she says, with impatience biting at me like a het-up terrier.

“How much are you asking for it?” I ask steadily, trying to control myself.

“Two thousand dollars,” she says. “You can pay me four lots of five hundred dollars if that would help you out. ” She glances at me.“I wondered why you didn't say anything about it. ”

“Thank you so much,” I gush, genuinely grateful for being given the means of transport and instalments to pay for it. I hadn't expected to be able to buy a car for many months, which is why I chose this neighbourhood so that I could walk to work. I'm also grateful that the car comes recommended.  I mean, a car that is only worth two thousand dollars is likely to be loaded with troubles, but to be offered one that comes with a history of good behaviour is a godsend. “Is it running okay?” I ask, trying to sound as if I know something about cars when I know absolutely nothing other than where to put the key and the petrol – I mean gas – I'm in America now.

That duh look is on her face yet again and says, “I'd hardly sell you a car that was a pile of crap when you're living in the same house, would I?”

Now I feel incongruent. I feel reassured about the car being okay but completely chastised and ridiculed, but decide to ignore it. Anxiety and exhaustion wash over me and I long to be alone so that I can cry for my man, be alone with my thoughts, my sorrows and my fears. Although everything inside me yells that this is all wrong and I should run far away, I ignore it because I'm exhausted and have nowhere to go.What helps me to grasp a remnant of sanity is knowing that there's a parcel waiting for me somewhere in this house, one that I'm desperate to open. But feeling as anxious and bereft as I do, I don't want to open it right now. I want to open it slowly, on my own, because the contents is utterly precious to me and I don't want to share it until I'm ready to, quite aside from the fact that it would be the height of rudeness to rush into my new home, ignore Greta and her mother, and rip the parcel open. I have to do the right thing.

I follow Greta into the house, scanning around as I go through the door with my heavy suitcase, aware that my wheezing has returned with the exertion. I let it sit on the floor while I get my breath back. Greta waits for me, rolling her eyes. As I attempt to slow my breathing I feel confused.The room feels odd.The front door opens straight into this room where I'm standing and I can't tell whether it's a hall or a living room. I decide that it's a hall but then I change my mind when I see in the corner of the room a huge pile of mechanise, odd things, totally unrelated. There's a hideous old-fashioned flowered bedspread in a see-through plastic zip-up bag, an orange storage box, a tapestry footstool, various gardening tools and household tools all still in their boxes, dumped in an untidy pile. There's also a television sitting in an oak unit and in front are two chairs placed either side of a small, white marble table, which confirms my decision that this must be a living room. But why is there so much rubbish in the corner of the room?

I feel nervous about meeting Ellen. What happens if she doesn't like me, or if I don't like her? This is my future for the next ten months and possibly more. This is an arrangement that should be beneficial to each of us all but it needs to be comfortable for all of us.

I feel nervous and disorientated as I step into the house. Something is really wrong and being jetlagged and exhausted, I can't discern what it is. Greta barges through the door and pulls my suitcase into a room at the side of a short corridor.

“This is your room,” she says, dumping one of my cases against a wall. “Let me show you the bathroom,” she orders, turning me around and hustling me into a tiny room opposite that has a really repugnant smell about it. She points to the toilet bowl that has a plastic contraption under the seat with a pile of something very nasty beneath it in the bowl.“I'm trying to potty train the cat,” she says proudly.

I know that my face is betraying me but I can't help it. I'm reminded of my youngest daughter who once tried to draw attention to one of my failings when she said with horror and shame in her voice, “Mum, put your face away. ” I know that everything I feel is like a beacon on my face.

My face has always been an open book and right now I know that my nostrils are flaring showing what's on my mind. That's disgusting. I've never seen anything so disgusting.

A cat has pooped leaving a parcel resting sedately on a pile of kitty litter blocking the toilet. I feel grossed out as I've never seen anything like it before, and the sight of it makes me want to run million miles away. Clutter I can just about deal with, but cat doings and kitty litter in the toilet is just about more than I can stand. I'm plagued with a bizarre image that pops into my head and try as I might I can't get rid of it. If the cat's parcel is too big to flush away then what on earth will happen to one of mine? It'll be like the Titanic run aground, and I know right now as I stare down the toilet with my nose assaulted and my nostrils flaring, that I will never be able to use this bathroom. Constipation is already my bedfellow.

She pushes past me saying, “Just think of it, with training, the cat will be able to use the bathroom just like you or I and there'll never be any need for filthy kitty-litter boxes in this house. ” She says it with pride and I know that I'm not keeping up with her, for I'm still having trouble with my flared nostrils. I truly never expected to have to share a bathroom with a cat, sharing one with a man is bad enough, but not a cat, and again my imagination starts to run riot. If a cat is expected to emulate a human's bathroom habits, am I expected to copy the cat's bathroom habits? Oh, lord, all that licking and grooming. Oh, no, I just can't even begin to go there so I shut down my imagination as soon as it begins to take flight. Gross! But not only do I shut down my imagination, I shut down everything else that would have compelled me to run.

She pushes past me. “This is my mother's room,” she said, standing in the adjacent doorway, which I assume is an invitation for me to enter, so I do. The sight that reaches my eyes makes my heart lurch.A frail lady, who is only months older than me, lays in the bed, shaking all over with the involuntary movements that Multiple Sclerosis inflicts upon its unwitting victims, and my heart hurts as she reaches out a trembling arm in an attempt to shake my hand. I love her immediately and I try desperately to silence the glaring incongruency between this open, sweet, courageous woman before me with the derogatory ways in which her daughter has described her. I try to ignore my thoughts, for they tell me that something is seriously wrong in this house, but I'm so exhausted and distressed that I can't work it out right now.

“Hi, my name's Celia,” I say, smiling at her.

Her voice shakes as she welcomes me. “Well hello, Celeste. It sure is a pleasure to meet you. ”

I want to giggle but I grin instead and say, “It's a real pleasure to meet you, too. ” I grasp her hand, giving it a squeeze, and hang on to it so that it doesn't shake away from me.

“Welcome,” she says, and I thank her while Greta walks off.

We chitchat for a while and then I leave Ellen to go to my room, writing four post-dated cheques for the car. I retrieve the gifts I've brought: a catering pack of Lemon Curd for Greta, as she said she loved it when she was with her fiancée in England, and Belgium chocolates for her mother. Weird gifts I'd thought, but I know how one culture longs for the taste of another. I remember having German students each summer when my children were little and they always brought a gift related to their culture – a big juicy sausage!

I feel a bit better as I see my things laid out, never realising just how much comfort I would get from the sight of my knickers. I start to put things away in the skinny little drawers that are not really big enough to hold all my not so skinny drawers. I put my precious pot of Marmite on the window sill, salivating at the thought of it on toast. The pot of lemon curd is huge and very heavy, so I take it to Greta.

If I'd been confused about whether the lounge was a living room, the next room confuses me even more. The floor area is completely covered with filth and clutter. I can't even begin to take in what's on the floor. I think I see a piece of bottle-green carpet that's completely covered in crumbs and clods of dust underneath a mountain of stuff.  At first I think I've stepped into a garage. There are no tables or chairs but around two corners of the room are kitchen cupboards and a cooker. So it must be a kitchen, but how could anyone let their house be such a mess, especially if they knew someone was coming to stay?To hide my embarrassment, I hand Greta the lemon curd and babble on about how scared I'd been that my bags would be stopped for being too heavy. She smiles a little grin that is sicklier than the lemon curd and it makes my stomach turn.

“I brought your mother some chocolates, I hope she's allowed to have them,” I say, suddenly worried that she might have diabetes added to her list of troubles.

“Oh, she loves chocolate,” and she points to a large box of truffles on the counter.

“Oh, good,” I say, and follow her back into Ellen's room.

“Celia's brought you a present,” Greta announces and I thrust the parcel into her shaking hands. She looks like a child at Christmas, with delight and surprise in her eyes.Concentration screws up her face as she attempts to hold the box and find an edge to rip. Greta comes to the rescue and says, “Hey, shall I get it started?”  She rips an edge of wrapping paper.

Ellen's face is a picture when she realises that the coloured shells on the box reflects the exquisite shell-shaped chocolates inside.

“Ooh,” she said, her eyes sparkling, and there's something between us immediately, “Oh, thank you. ”

I grin and rip the rest of the cellophane off showing her the chocolate shells inside the box and she dives into them with the desperation of a dry alcoholic. I feel a bit humbled – it's only a little box of chocolates and she's slightly too grateful.

Leaving Ellen tucking into chocolates, Greta urges me to follow her out into the lounge.

“This chair is so comfortable,” Greta says, placing her broad hips into an armchair and reaching down beside her ankles. “Here, if you really want to relax, pull this,” and suddenly without warning she's flat on her back, head back, legs up, with her belly shimmering, not knowing where to settle.

I'm surprised and embarrassed, and pray that she's not going to try to force me to have a go, so I quickly sit in the other chair, a Victorian armchair.

“Well, this chair is really comfortable,” I say slightly too fast. “Good for my back,” daring her not to challenge me to a turn in the booby chair.

I want this chair,” she says, to my relief, “so that I can relax in it, then Ellen can wheel herself into this space in her wheelchair. ”

I'm relieved but vaguely confused. When Dessy comes out at Christmas, where's he going to sit? I guess there's always the orange storage box which looks sturdy enough to support his weight. I thought that living rooms were supposed to have chairs in them, but once Greta takes her chair there'll only be the one chair left, which I guess will be my chair. I can't even imagine finding the space in this cluttered room to put another chair. I want to ask, “Where will Dessy sit?” but I say nothing.

I'm still confused. Where does Greta sleep? I know I'm jet-lagged, distressed and missing my man, not to mention my five kids and four grandchildren, but my brain doesn't seem to be working properly.Everything seems to be a little off wack. My heart also plummets, for one of the things I've long for after living in our builder's yard house in England is cleanliness, tidiness and a lack of clutter, yet this place makes our house seem like a show home. Again I stifle my gut instinct – why do I do that?

I put my psychologist's hat on in order to try and make sense of it all, yet as I do I justify it all away, and do what we humans are good at, denial and reframing things to fit the way we want, or need, to see them. It's obvious to me that poor Greta needs help and she's not coping at all well, but never mind, I'm here now, I think with bravado, and I'm going to help her.

I return to my room, which has been cleaned, and retrieve my teabags, an English must have and my Marmite, and return to the kitchen. I step over the clutter to put my things in a cupboard to try and help me feel as if I belong. I'm scared that in the low lighting I might trip and break a bone and until I start working I don't have any health insurance, and even then not for ninety days. Fear induces a sharp longing for the home I've left only hours ago. If I were to fall and break a bone in England, all my treatment would be free under our National Health Service, paid for by every citizen buying a national insurance stamp. Not only that, but I'd receive my full wage while I recovered.These things flash through my mind, and again I wonder if I've just made a huge mistake, even though it's the only way out of my situation as I see it. Enough sense seeps into my thoughts and tells me that I'm exhausted and I'm not thinking straight. Everything feels really strange and I'm uneasy, so I apologise for myself, saying that I need to go to bed.

“Aren't you going to open your parcel?” Greta says, with an edge in her voice that I can't quite place.

I grin at her. “You haven't peeped, have you?” trying desperately to play with her and entice her Free Child ego state out of hiding. That's what's wrong! It dawns on me in my exhausted, stressed state, that the core of herself, her Free Child ego state, is absent. I'm too tired to acknowledge what that means to me or to her mother, for all I want to do right now is to lock myself away in my room and allow the oblivion of sleep to embrace me.

“No, of course I haven't peeped,” Greta says. “Well, I'll see you tomorrow. Sleep well. ”

“'Night, and thanks again for picking me up. I really appreciate it,” and I do.

She disappears through a door leading from the kitchen down a flight of stairs. I guess that's where she sleeps. So, suddenly alone, I step over the mounds of clutter and filth to go to my room.

I poke my head into Ellen's room and she's busy tucking into the Belgium chocolate shells. Her Free Child ego state is set free to play and enjoy. I squeeze her hand to say goodnight, and as I smile at her, there's something in her eyes that I can't quite fathom. I was to later discover that it was the feeling of relief that she was no longer alone in this house with her daughter.

I shut my door and notice the parcel safely delivered in order to be here waiting to welcome me. It was the one thing that I'd focused on during all the goodbyes and the long journey – my precious parcel waiting for me – but I'm so exhausted, scared and bereft that I can't open it. I feel so sick that I throw my bagged burger into the trash, lie on my bed and silently sob into my pillow with grief and exhaustion until sleep steals me away.