Chapter Extract

Chapter One

It all began in Solden, a ski resort high in the Austrian Alps. It was December 1972. I was between jobs and Mum needed a break so we decided to go skiing. An unlikely mix as Mum couldn’t ski and I was hopelessly bad. I had no real interest in the sport and only wanted to go for the après skiing; the glamorous party nightlife with all its romantic possibilities. I had just turned thirty and I was looking for my Prince Charming. So far all that had turned up were toads.

Two weeks before I had just accepted the position of nanny to the family of an English Diplomat and his wife, who would be living in Germany for two years, and I was due to start the following February. It was a far cry from my dream to become a celebrated opera singer or my success in the music business world. Somewhere in my mid- twenties I had lost my way, yet I still believed my greatest dream, to get married and live happily ever after would come true. The skiing holiday with Mum was a brief escape from the disheartening reality of being thirty and single. I needed some breathing space to focus and take control of the direction of my life.

I was born the younger daughter of Dr Graham Patterson McCullagh, University Don, Senior Tutor of Queens’ College, Cambridge and lecturer in Pathology and Mrs Margaret Janet McCullagh, (nee Dick). Dad was a big-hearted Irishman. Born in Belfast, he was a heavily built man of medium height, with thick dark hair greying at the sides which he tamed with the liberal use of Brylcreem, a quirky smile and brilliant blue eyes. He also had an Irish temper. As a little girl I was scared when he got angry, but I loved him dearly. Everyone called Dad ‘Hog’ for reasons now lost in the mists of antiquity. He was musical, wrote poems and plays and had a great sense of humour. He was also very ambitious. It was Dad who first encouraged my musical ability and I sometimes wonder if he didn’t sow the seeds of my love of popular fiction with his cinefilm True Blue Harold. Made with his Irish friends, it was story of the Ultimate Hero who rides to save the Heroine from the Villain on Archibald, a six-legged horse. The 35mm film became a family heirloom, watched by us all countless times.

The eldest of three, Mum, was called Peggy from childhood, and was a mixture of Scots and English. An imposing and good-looking woman she had short brown permed hair and cheerful grey eyes and smoked heavily. She met and fell in love with this lovable, slightly excentric Irishman, while she was teaching biology in high school at Cambridge. As wife of the senior tutor, she regularly invited undergraduates to dine with them at home, and gradually managed to conquer her crippling shyness. Both my grandfathers were doctors as was Mum’s brother, my uncle Charles Dick, who had also played rugby for Scotland. Charles married a New Zealander, Annie Firth, and when their first child Ian was six they settled in Christchurch. In our immediate family there was my elder sister Janet, two years my senior, me and my brother Tony, four and a half years younger than me. Janet had inherited mum’s colouring with her long brown pigtails and grey eyes and took her role as the eldest child very seriously. Tony was a redhead like me, but neither of us were the true fiery carrot-tops. He was also the spitting image of Mum’s youngest brother Tony Dick who had been shot down on reconnaissance during WWII. Janet and Tony were the academic ones. In later years Janet trained to be a psychiatrist and Tony a GP. I was ‘the artistic one’ and not at all interested in medicine or attending university.

Coming from an English upper middle class family, I never remember us really wanting for anything. On sunny days when we were very small, Janet and I acted out our favourite children’s fairy tales in our big back garden. Janet took charge of casting and always insisted on being ‘the prince’ so that she could ride Huntingdon, the big heirloom rocking horse, to rescue the princess. I followed orders and played everyone else. A chubby four-year-old, in my woollen jumper and a crepe paper tutu over my tartan kilt, fat red pigtails flying, I darted in and out of our drawing room to the garden, alternately wearing a cardboard crown as the princess or waving a paper wand as I became the fairy godmother to Janet’s swooning princess. On the one occasion Janet let me be ‘the prince’, as I bent down to kiss her I nearly hit her in the face with the hilt of the big wooden sword strapped to my waist. Mum decided it was too dangerous so I was relegated to being the princess and everyone else for evermore. In the days after Mum came home from the hospital after giving birth to Tony, I watched with envy and longing as Janet cuddled him in her arms. Finally the day came when I was allowed to hold him. Carefully I was sat down and baby Tony was lowered in my arms. I proudly held my baby brother while Mum and Dad hovered nearby.

We spent summer holidays in Northern Ireland and Scotland and sailing on the Norfolk Broads. I loved mooring at sunset and spent hours weaving tiny mats from the rushes I picked from the boggy banks. The smell of Irish peat bogs still evokes a feeling of joy and laughter within me. Out on a day trip on the Broads with friends, we were hit by a sudden gust of wind and our boat keeled over water pouring in over the gunwales. Convinced we would capsize and drown trapped under the boat, I leapt for the side. Dad quickly dragged me back by the seat of my pants as Mum screamed to find Tony who had disappeared under the water that now slopped in the bottom of the boat. The boat righted itself and we were all safe, wet and rather shaken, but the incident instilled in me a terror of boats tipping up.

All of our family were musical, so there was always music in our house. As a nine-year-old I remember happy times sitting beside my dad at the grand piano in the family drawing room as we sang Irish ballads and songs from operas by Gilbert and Sullivan. Dad would belt out ‘Jerusalem’ in his fine baritone, accompanying himself on the piano hitting mostly the right notes with a splattering of wrong ones. On other days when he coached me to sing, he’d repeatedly bang the key and bellow at me to listen to the note. I quickly learned to sing in tune. We had our own family orchestra made up of Dad on cello, Mum on viola, my sister Janet as first violin, me second violin, and friends on the horn, oboe and piano. My brother Tony played the cymbals. We read Shakespeare in the evenings as a family and went to the undergraduate performances of the Bard’s plays.  My father also wrote hysterically funny poetry - mostly doggerel about people and places in our lives. My passion for gardening was born as I struggled to weed our overgrown sunken rose garden and planted carrots which kept mysteriously vanishing, eaten by snails. TV had only just been invented. We lived in an elite academic world, with a home filled with love, laughter and antiques, where Mum and Dad laid on sumptuous dinner parties, the polished mahogany dining table glistening with cut glass, Wedgwood china and silver.

 Aged twelve, I joined Janet at Westonbirt, a prestigious girls’ boarding school set in beautiful grounds near Tetbury in Gloucester. I loved boarding school but at the same time got very homesick. We could only see our parents once a term and every day I rushed to where the mail was set out hoping with all my heart for a letter from home. Mum and Dand were very good writing each week, but I always felt a keen a sense of loss as I finished each letter. The following year, returning from a holiday in Scotland, Dad suffered a stroke. He stopped the car got out and lay down by the side of the road as Mum attended to him and we sat terrify in the back of the car. The day is burned into my memory. It was terrible to see Hog, who had always been the life of the party, struggle just to move. Dad managed to walking with a cane but had a second stroke and died shortly afterwards. I was thirteen. I have a photo of him taken shortly before he died. His hair had gone white from the shock of the illness, but he still had his quirky smile. Before we left for the funeral I sat at our grand piano where Dad and I had sung and played together so often. I sang one of his favourite songs, remembering his hands as my tears splashed across the keys.

After Dad’s death Mum got a job as a lecturer in health and education at Homerton Ladies College at Cambridge, teaching teachers how to teach. She was now a single mum and quickly her ‘friends’ from the university evaporated. Before he died, Dad was highly regarded by his peers, in line to become President of Queens’ College, and would have possibly received a knighthood. Seeing others take the path she and Hog would have taken together was a bitter pill for Mum to swallow. I only remember seeing her cry once after her died. In those days you were not encouraged to show your emotions but I believe she suffered because she never really let herself grieve for Dad. She was a strong, courageous woman who got on with looking after her kids as best she could. Back at school Janet and I wore black armbands as a mark of respect for Dad but this only laid us open to sniggers from some of our less sensitive schoolmates.

At sixteen I was thrilled to be made a prefect and Second Head of my ‘House’. I also made my singing debut, singing the solo soprano part with my friend ‘Leggy’ Lesley Neill, in a joint schools performance of Haydn’s Creation.

Dad’s death disrupted our tranquil, sheltered family life forever. After much soul searching Mum transferred Janet to the local high school in Cambridge and for some time Tony struggled without a strong male role model in his life. For years I was haunted by repetitive nightmares where I would find Dad and then he would vanish or I would go hunting for him and not be able to find him, and wake up in a sweat. Yet a part of me set the loss aside and I saw us just as a regular family getting on with life.

After school I studied ‘A’ level Music at Cambridge Technical College. I also studied violin with Elfrida Allan, a gifted teacher and performer who became a close friend of our family. I biked to and from Tech over the Cherryhinton Road Bridge, the wind always in my face. As soon as I learned to drive, Mum generously lent me her car and I dropped her off to work and picked her up after my lessons. I went to my first Ball at RAF Cranwell with my New Zealand cousin Ian who had won a place at the prestigious RAF college and was now was living with us during the semester breaks.  I joined in with the glamorous university student life, was invited to cocktail parties and went to my first Cambridge May Ball held in June. At Tech my teachers Margaret and Norman Hern were quite extraordinary in their musical ability and dedication to their students and in the acclaimed musicians they mixed with. My passion was singing. When I sang I went into another world that lifted my spirits and filled my heart with joy. My dream was to become an opera singer, my idols were Joan Sutherland and Maria Callas and I played and practised on our grand piano at home for hours. It was the skill and encouragement of my three amazing teachers who inspired me to play better and work harder than I had ever done my life so that to my astonishment I was accepted at the Royal College of Music, London, to study violin, piano and singing. But singing was still not my first subject and after a fight I was allowed to change so that it was and to study German and Italian as well. At the end of the year I was honoured to be presented with first prize for both languages by Sir Malcolm Sargeant. My singing teacher Mark Raphael a gentle, talented musician who had recently retired from an operatic career in Europe, was perplexed by my inconsistency in my singing. Sometimes I would sing like a bird, at other times it would take the whole one hour lesson for me to relax and warm up. Yet my passion to become an opera singer never waned. Mark, however, was less hopeful. Close to the end of my time at the Royal College of Music when I suggested I try for some singing scholarships he said, ‘You have the voice but not the personality’. It was not what I wanted to hear and I was determined to prove him wrong. I applied for all the scholarships I could find and won a one-year scholarship to study singing at the Akademie für Musik in Vienna, Austria. When I told him the joyful news he shook his head sadly and told me how bad teaching in Vienna was.

I set off to Europe with high hopes. In Vienna I learned fluent German, paid my way by teaching English to two delightful Austrian children and met an American Ellen Culkin, who was also studying singing and we quickly became close friends. For that whole year we froze together in minus seventeen degree Viennese winter temperatures and boiled in the summer heat. Yet there had been some truth in Mark’s observation that I had led a too sheltered life. I didn’t know how to compete in this musical world where egos were big and you had to push your own barrow. I thought you were ‘discovered’. I didn’t understand how to turn the opportunities that came along to my advantage and I subconsciously aimed for second best. When my scholarship came to an end and the opportunity arose to approach the top operatic vocal Coach in London alongside my friends from the Akademie, I didn’t take it up. Instead I returned to England and took the second best option studying with a retired operatic baritone with an excellent reputation as a coach. He turned out to be a lecherous old man who during my third lesson grabbed my boobs. I ran from the room in embarrassment vowing never to return. Feeling lost and disheartened, I returned home and much to Mum’s dismay, enrolled in a six month shorthand and typing course. Mum made no secret of the fact that she considered shorthand typists at the bottom end of the food chain.

 ‘As long as you don’t end up in a typing pool,’ she said one day puffing out her cheeks and shaking her head. She was happy when I applied for and got the job of Secretary to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, London. While my shorthand and typing were abysmal, my organisational skills were exactly what were required and several months later I was promoted to concert manager. While this was not fulfilling my dream to sing on the operatic stage I enjoyed working with the musicians and I could use my German speaking skills. Along with office work, my duties included going to the Royal Philharmonic concerts, liaising with the musicians including some of the music greats like conductor Herbert von Karajan, and up-and-coming stars Zubin Mehta of the Three Tenors’ fame and Edo de Waart, one-time director of the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. For a while I was happy.

But I found living and working in London lonely. I decided to move and took a job with the BBC Training Orchestra, in Bristol. Naïve and still not understanding the advantages of ‘getting a foot in the door’, when the orchestra was abruptly closed down, I baulked at accepting a position as a clerk with a number in the BBC, which was how positions were allocated. Instead I accepted the position of secretary to a local businessman. Three weeks into my employment, his partner absconded with all the funds, my boss went bankrupt and I was out of work. Hence the need to escape to the ski slopes of Austria.

Mum generously shouted the holiday. Despite my lack of expertise on the slopes, the ski scene promised glamour and romance as I searched for my knight in shining armour. Sölden lived up to that romantic ideal with its quaint little chalets, icicles hanging from the eaves of their snow-covered roofs, snow-laden fir trees set against glistening white pistes and an ice-fringed stream that trickled through the narrow main street.

Skiing was a whole other matter. On the slopes each morning, already exhausted from struggling into my ski gear, I was stiff and mostly terrified. Always at the back of the adult beginners class I quickly earned the nickname, Fraulein Holz-beinen, Miss Wooden-Legs.

‘Schnell! Schnell! Bend-ze-knees!’ my Austrian ski instructor shouted at me gesticulating with his ski pole to hurry me up. Lazily he lifted one ski turned and headed smoothly back down the icy rutted track. A sight in my black ski pants and ancient grey-green parka, I struggled to imitate him and failed miserably. With my knees locked, I gingerly crept down the narrow path that wound seemingly endlessly and increasingly steeply between the fir trees, the gap widening between me and the class as they sped confidently downhill. Once at the bottom it was on to the chairlift to endure the terrifying climb up to repeat the downhill run. I discovered the best way to cope with the awful experience was to fortify myself with several glasses of hot sweet cinnamon-flavoured red wine known as Glühwein. Skiing after lunch was always easier.

I quickly palled up with another young English skier in the beginners class called John. Much the same age as me, he kept telling me I reminded him of his ex-girlfriend whom he had recently painfully broken up with. A sure-fire way to make a girl feel great! Everyone in our class was pairing off and he was useful as someone to take me out in the evening. Mum was not interested in nightclubs so I would leave her happily ensconced in bed with her Agatha Christie thrillers, cigarettes and her playing cards, and I would scrunch through the snow with John to a nearby restaurant that had a small dance floor.

I was more interested in dancing than listening to John’s endless tales of heartbreak and woe, and jumped at the chance to dance with a handsome, dark-haired man with big brown eyes. I was immediately attracted to him. He wore dark trousers and a soft lilac sweater over his shirt and waltzed beautifully. At a break in the music he asked if he could buy me a drink. Shamelessly I abandoned John, and this gorgeous man and I sat down at a table on the other side of the room. He introduced himself as Jim and we easily started chatting. He was staying with some of his mates in Hoch Sölden, a village further up the mountain. I asked him what he did.

‘I change light bulbs,’ he replied with a grin.

My heart sank. My British class-conscious upbringing surfaced.

‘Oh really,’ I replied, in my plummy English voice, trying not to show my disappointment. I had already begun to like him.

He must have realised something was amiss, because, still grinning he went on. ‘I’m joking. I’m a WEEO, Weapons Electrical Engineer, a Lieutenant in the Royal Australia Navy. A group of us are here from Manadon Naval Base in Plymouth.’ My heart lifted. Suddenly those big brown eyes seemed to envelop me. Maybe it was the wine, the dancing, the atmosphere, suddenly he was very, very interesting. He was charming, easy to talk to and had a quirky sense of humour that almost destroyed our relationship before it had even started. I learned that he had just finished his degree at Plymouth Naval College, after four years in England and was posted to Portsmouth for the next four months until he flew back home to Sydney, Australia in late April. His twenty-third birthday was the week after Christmas. He was also in the advanced skiing group and learning how to race downhill. Determined to be honest from the start, I told him I was thirty, laughing that ‘I was baby snatching.’ I expected him to politely end our time together, but to my relief he said he didn’t see why our ages should make any difference to the way we felt about each other. I gave a huge sigh of happiness.

We stayed talking until the room was almost empty and restaurant started closing up for the night. Very tipsy, my spirits soared as we agreed to catch up again the next day. Mum opened one eye as I crept in to our room.

Much to my disappointment, I didn’t see Jim the following day, instead I ran into one of his equally good-looking Aussie mates in the late afternoon, who told me Jim had had a prang skiing and was recovering. Apparently Jim and his mate Warwick had decided to tackle a particularly difficult black run together. They were hurtling down one of the steeper sections when Jim caught his ski on a rut and lost his balance. Helpless Warwick watched in horror as Jim shot off the side of the hill, flew in the air and landed face down in the snow several feet below narrowly missing two huge boulders. When he didn’t move Warwick raced down to find him lying like some cartoon disaster victim, unable to extricate himself because both skis, still connected to his boots, were wedged vertically in the snow. To Warwick’s intense relief Jim was roaring with laughter.

‘Glad you’re here, mate.’ said Jim.

After freeing him and checking that Jim was unhurt, Warwick left him to make his way down the mountainside, which he did slowly on one ski, clutching the other ski that had snapped on impact. I was told he was sleeping off his experience and would be around later and could we meet up. Cheering up I set off to meet John to do the night toboggan run, organised way before I had met Jim. A crowd of us were driven up the mountainside to the start of the run. There we were warmed by several glasses of glühwein and then let free to hurtle down the mountain, village lights twinkling in the distance. Buoyed up at the thought of meeting Jim again and glowing from the glühwein I relaxed as we shot off the top of the slope. It was an exhilarating, madcap run as we slid and swerved downhill trying to guide our toboggan, while laughing all the way. I had never had so much fun in my life and the evening had only just started. At the bottom, feeling mean but deciding to be completely honest with John, I told him I was meeting up with the Australian. He stormed off angrily. I didn’t blame him. He was a definite ‘toad’ who had made the mistake of talking about his ex-girlfriend.

Jim, on the other hand, was far from a ‘toad’. Joyfully I hurried to find him. He took me to dinner, and we danced some more and I felt little thrills of excitement run through me as he held me close and we drank and talked once again late into the night. It had started snowing in the early evening and when we stepped out there was a thick carpet of snow. I was wearing the most inadequate shoes and started slipping all over the place, so Jim gathered me up in his arms and carried me across the snow. Gently he placed me down at the entrance to the lodge.

‘Will you marry me?’ he asked

I stared at him then laughed out loud convinced he was joking.

‘I’m serious. Will you marry me?’ he repeated.

I didn’t know what to say. Instead I let him kiss me. Then, my head in a whirl, I slipped inside the door and up to the room.

‘You know that Australian Naval Officer I told you about, Mum? He’s asked me to marry him,’ I burst out, still reeling with astonishment.

My mother looked over her book, my happiness and astonishment was mirrored in her face.

‘Well! Thank God you’re off the shelf,’ she laughed. She lit a cigarette and patted the bed for me to sit down and recount the whole evening. I leant over, gave her a hug and kissed her soft cheek. She had a special soft clean smell tinged with cigarettes that I always associate with her.

           The next day I introduced Jim to Mum and he wooed and won her over completely. To start with, he had the advantage of being a naval officer. Dad had been a Commander in the Royal Naval Reserve during WWII so Jim brought back definite happy memories for her. Jim was also charming, handsome and impeccably polite. The icing on the cake was that he bought us lunch. The food on our package tour consisted of variations on German sausage and dumplings floating in soggy sauerkraut. Jim ordered ‘real food’ for us; Wiener schnitzel with piping hot chips and fresh vegetables. Thrilled and beaming from ear to ear, I tucked into my schnitzel, Mum chatted with Jim. Two days later our holiday was over and Mum and I were back in grey old London.

We spent Christmas with my sister, Janet and her family in London. I was utterly miserable. Suddenly the magic of meeting Jim was replaced with the stark reality of being home. I cried myself to sleep at night, longing to be with my bubbly, cheery Jim again, to feel that surge of happiness whenever I was with him. I couldn’t wait for New Year’s Eve as Jim was coming to stay at our home in Cambridge. Finally, the day arrived.

As he turned into our driveway in a little green Triumph Spitfire, I rushed out to greet him. He leaped out and gave me a great bear hug. Joyfully, I hugged him back while Mum beamed from the front door. Jim was everything I was looking for in a partner.

On New Year’s Day I discovered his car had no reverse gear. We laughed as we shuffled our way backwards out of our driveway pushing from the seats with our feet. The discovery only added to my growing love for Jim and to the romance and fun of being with him. We drove to a favourite beech wood, close by where we strolled hand in hand along the ancient Roman Road, and as I tried to impress upon him the age of the road again he asked me if I would marry him. I still couldn’t give him an answer. The Christmas break was over, I returned to Bristol and Jim to Portsmouth.

The weeks that followed were truly happy. I felt loved and cherished. With his Australian attitude to distance Jim never flinched at the five hour journeys from Portsmouth to Bristol or to Cambridge, and each time we were together I fell more deeply in love. From my flat in Bristol we went horse-riding with cheeks flushed from the crisp January air, had pub lunches and candlelit dinners. In Cambridge we strolled through the Colleges and along the famous ‘Backs’, crunching across the frozen ground. I took him through Queens’ College that had dominated my childhood and he invited me to a formal Ladies’ Night Dinner at HMS Collingwood in Portsmouth. He looked devastatingly handsome in his Naval dress uniform, gold stripes gleaming, the tigers-eye cuff links I had bought him peeping out from his jacket sleeve, his kind brown eyes filled with love for me.

These weeks were also emotionally turbulent, as the date of Jim’s return home was rapidly approaching and the enormity of my decision on whether to marry him and move to Australia hung over me. Jim kept asking in different ways all through January. His love never waivered despite me being cheerful and chatty one moment or plunged into abject despair the next. One day I wanted to shout ‘Yes’, the next I wasn’t so sure. Australia was a long way away and I had never had an interest in visiting, let alone living, there. Yet somewhere deep inside me a voice kept saying ‘if you let this man go you will regret it for the rest of your life’. I said ‘Maybe’. I rang the Diplomat’s wife in Germany and apologised that I would not be able to accept the position as her nanny as I was getting married and moving to Australia. I am sure she thought I was lying. I hadn’t admitted it to myself yet but I had just given Jim his answer.

 Finally with a little trepidation I said ‘Yes’. It had taken six weeks of tears, joy and soul-searching from that first proposal in the snow. Jim rang his parents to tell them the joyful news. With no warning of an impending engagement, his mother’s initial reaction was ‘Do you have to?’ This did little to dampen Jim’s cheerfulness or his love for me as he chatted on about his bride-to-be and the coming arrangements, he was only sorry that his parents could not be with us as well.

On a frosty Saturday in Cambridge in mid-February, Jim bought me an exquisite engagement ring. Three milky opals flashing red and green were set between two rows of diamonds. I had no idea how right the choice was or that opals came from Australia. When he slipped the engagement ring on my finger my heart leapt with joy. For a split second I thought I could always give it back, a thought quickly rejected. As we started to plan our wedding I knew I had made the right choice.



© Anne McCullagh Rennie 2013