For the first time since arriving in the UK, I woke up without writhing around in agony. The neck pain was still there but considerably more subdued this morning. It was fitting that the problem was now mostly healed, given today is our last day in England. Although we have enjoyed ourselves here this time around, this trip will go down in memory for me as the one in which I was in constant agony. I’m also not convinced that my viral infection is completely gone. Even with the smallest of exertions — such as getting into and out of the car — I feel completely out of breath. My breathing has, therefore, been laboured for most of the time. I think there are multiple reasons for that. Breathing in deeply causes my neck pain to intensify, so I’m constantly taking shallower breaths anyway. My body is still fighting off something as well. Perhaps the most significant contributing factor is the simple fact that I’m overweight and out of condition.

One way that my health issues have influenced me during this trip has been evident through these blogs. Normally, I’m considerably chattier about what I write about. I happily go into detail on various stray thoughts triggered by the day’s events. That often results in me diving down rabbit holes and contemplating various issues of the day. During this trip, my blogs have been sparse — just a couple of pages a day in some cases. I’ve concentrated more on the facts and events and less on the thoughts around them. I’ve had so much pain trying to sit at the laptop that I’ve rushed through the blogs more than I otherwise would have. The irony is that I’m just now starting to feel more comfortable behind the keyboard. Now we’re on the ferry heading back to continental Europe (I’m writing this entry a day late — it’s already tomorrow).

Anyway, pain or no pain, we drove over to Dad’s this morning. Today is his birthday, which is essentially the reason for our being here. As a special treat, Annie, one of my two older sisters, was visiting with her husband, Lee. Ever since we moved back from Australia five and a half years ago, we’ve made several attempts to try to synchronise a visit with them. However, each time we tried, she was away on holiday. We were starting to wonder whether she was scheduling her holidays to coincide with our visits.

Annie was her usual chipper self. I would have liked to spend more time with her, but Paul had other plans. He had arranged a new washing machine for Dad. It was free from a friend who no longer needed it but was contingent on it being collected. Our car was the only vehicle available with enough space to fit it in. Paul had roped me into driving the twenty-five minutes to go and fetch the machine. We did that, but it ate into the time we had to spend with Annie & Lee, who had to head home at noon.

Even though I wasn’t doing any of the lifting and shifting, I was still finding I was out of puff for most of the day. What was especially hilarious was Paul’s solution to getting the rather heavy washing machine from the car into Dad’s first-floor maisonette. He went in search of a trolly but came around the corner with a pensioner’s walking frame. After Lee and I calmed down from the laughter, Lee and Paul eventually manhandled the beast up the stairs and into Dad’s kitchen. Both Paul and Lee looked knackered after all the exertion, but they succeeded, nevertheless. It would have been enough to send me over the edge.

Having paid our respects to Dad, we loaded into the car and I drove to South Ockendon train station. Sandy had arranged to spend the afternoon with Kerry. I would try to keep the kid alive for the rest of the day while Sandy went off to enjoy herself.

When we arrived at the train station, I went into the small ticket hall to operate the ticket machine for Sandy. Unfortunately, there was a message indicating the machine was in maintenance mode. The ticket counter was closed, but someone was sitting there, so we asked what we should do. Because of the automatic ticket barriers, it’s impossible to get onto the train platform without first feeding it a ticket. That meant Sandy couldn’t just board the train and buy a ticket en route. The woman behind the counter seemed quite disoriented about what to do with us. I think it was a security guard, not a regular train ticket agent. The best she could offer was for us to drive to the next station over (Chafford Hundred) and buy a ticket from there. While trying to talk to us, she was also in conversation with someone else via the radio, although we couldn’t hear what the other person was saying. This 3-way communication made it all rather confusing as to who was saying what to whom. We ended up leaving frustrated but decided to head for Chafford Hundred anyway. What worried me was whether this maintenance problem might not have been isolated to just this machine at South Ockendon.

When we got to Chafford Hundred, everyone was starting to get a bit testy. As we were leaving Ockendon, I suggested driving Sandy all the way to Kerry’s house. Jae then piped up, saying we should first drop her off at Granddad’s and then come and get her since she didn’t want to sit in the car for the half-hour there and half our back. I thought that was being a little self-absorbed and inconsiderate. We ended up proceeding to Chafford Hundred, but you could have cut the atmosphere in the car with a knife at that point. Sandy and I walked into the ticket hall at Chafford Hundred as soon as we arrived, and I started to buy a ticket from the machine. The next problem was deciding which was the correct train station. To cut a long story short, Sandy and I disagreed about that and were at each other’s throats. I had reached my limit. I raised my hands, shrugged my shoulders, and declared. “You’re on your own,” and walked back to the car — leaving the ticket purchase process unfinished. It was one of those safety valve release moments.

Subsequent SMS messages Sandy sent separately to me and Jae revealed she had successfully bought a ticket and was on the train heading in the right direction. Jae and I had a bit of a laugh at the clear delineation of tone between Sandy’s messages to me compared to those to Jae. Her messages to me were loving and conciliatory. She had asked Jae, on the other hand, whether ‘Dad had gotten over the rejection yet.’

Since I had a legal obligation to at least try to keep the kids alive, we stopped at the Maccas at the Lakeside retail park (not the one inside the shopping centre). I used the opportunity to guzzle another half a handful of painkillers. It was needed.

Next up was another visit to Smyths toy shop. Joey would have one more opportunity to spend the remainder of his pocket money or to dip into the money in his bank account. The plan was to visit Smyths first and then head into Lakeside to visit The Entertainer, where we picked up some Bakugan for him the other day. Smyths had a few things Joey was still keen on, but he really struggled with deciding whether and where to spend his money. It really was quite a dilemma for him. We spent 45 minutes staring at the rows of shelves where he was torn between a couple of Lego sets. Ultimately, he picked out the smaller set, but I could tell he really wanted the bigger one. He also wrestled with the concept of borrowing from his savings account to get him across the line with how much money he had to spend. Since we were also heading into Lakeside, he might still find something at the other toy shop, so he reluctantly conceded we’d been there long enough and we should leave. I still had Jae with me, so I had to balance her needs against Joey’s. Fortunately, for now, at least, she seemed to be in a good mood and not too put out by all the hanging around.

We left Smyths and headed to Lakeside. It was now spitting with rain, so I found a spot in the multi-story car park. We made our way straight to The Entertainer. I hoped Joey would bounce back from his now sombre mood for not being able to get everything he wanted from Smyths. However, when we arrived, there was a sign on the door indicating the shop wasn’t open on Sundays. Damn! Joey doesn’t cope with certain emotions. He can’t process them well. One emotion that he struggles to deal with is disappointment. A setback like this could push him over the edge. When that happens, he can become sullen and noncommunicative for several days. As a parent, I find this difficult to watch. I don’t like seeing my children in distress. We are on holiday and that includes the kids also. I want them both to be happy and to enjoy themselves.

Since we had some budget left, I decided I’d treat Joey by getting him the other Lego set he was wrestling with in his head back at Smyths. That would resolve his problem and bring him back into the real world and a happy disposition. Sandy and I have had a long and sometimes tortuous journey with finding the right balance on how to manage Joey and his emotions. The dividing line between tough love and spoiling him doesn’t lay where it would for neurotypical children. Despite it being frowned upon by normal parents with normal children, we have found that bribery can sometimes be necessary and effective. I told Joey I would go back to Smyths, and I would buy him the other Lego set. That was enough to prevent the further worsening of his mood, not to mention everyone else’s ability to enjoy themselves on this holiday. It was a strategic decision to salvage what might otherwise have turned out to be a really bad day for everyone.

With the prospect of getting what he really wanted, Joey perked up reasonably quickly. To further lift the mood, I bought both kids a hot pretzel and a couple of glazed doughnuts. Since I was going to be spoiling Joey, I had to balance the equities and do likewise for Jae. She picked out another Slipknot T-shirt and a few bits from the HMV shop. She beamed when I slipped my phone forward at the checkout to make payment while she was fumbling for her bank card.

We mulled in Lakeside for a bit longer before we made our way back to Smyths. We had no rush. Despite my back aching from all the mulling, which I hate doing at the best of times, I deliberately let the kids dictate the pace. Unfortunately, for me, at least, Jae could mull for her country in the world championships.

We eventually found our way back to the car and over to Smyths. We wasted no time in finding someone to help Joey with the Lego set from one of the higher shelves. I did make sure that Joey understood he would need to wait until we were back home before he cracked open the box. There’s no way we’d be able to keep the set constructed during the trip home. Every cubic centimetre of cabin space will be crammed. He understood this and was happy to capitulate to that requirement.

With two happy, fed, and, most importantly, still-alive kids, we went to visit Dad. Michelle, one of Dad’s carers and good friends, was there. One of my nieces, Amy Lee, was there, which was another nice bonus. While there, Paul called John Ashley so we were able to have a brief chat with him also. Paul had earlier wagered that John would forget to call his dad on his birthday. I thought I’d scupper that bet with a well-timed message to John reminding him of the date. Much to Paul’s protestations, John claimed his call was unrelated to my earlier message. That’s a win for Chris! 

After hanging around at Dad’s house for a bit, we made our way back to the house, but not before I slipped Amy Lee a little pocket money. We left Jae there while Joey and I picked something up for supper from the Derwent Parade chip shop.

I was able to write up some notes for the blog, but that’s about all I could do. The pain had crept up on me again, and I just couldn’t sit at the computer for very long. I spent much of the evening on the couch watching some Harry Potter on Netflix.

Sandy eventually messaged me that she was on the train and heading back to Chafford Hundred. I left Joey playing merrily in his room and drove the few minutes over there to collect her. Shortly before she was due to arrive, she called. There was some issue that prevented her train from stopping at Chafford Hundred or Ockendon. Instead, she got out one step earlier at Grays. It was just an extra five minutes up the road, so it was not a huge problem.

Sandy was in a good mood when I collected her, although Grays apparently had two sides to the train station, and I had parked on the opposite side to where she was. That gave her a few extra minutes of walking, which was the last thing she needed. She told me all about her fun afternoon with Kerry, but she was clearly tired.

With tomorrow being our day of departure, we exchanged a couple of messages with the host about when he would come by to give us back our £150 security deposit.

We spent the remainder of the evening polishing off that Harry Potter movie before tucking into bed, both thoroughly exhausted.