The Story of Plum and Me – Fifty Years On

Daily Mail 17.3.2016

Time flies when you’re enjoying yourself. It must. How else can I understand that next on April 16, Plum and I will have been married for fifty years. It doesn’t seem possible. I always thought golden wedding anniversaries were for old people. But we’re not old.
We were young only the other day.

That’s a joke, by the way. But, then, laughing at ourselves is what has carried us along since we met. Plum was 15 and I was 18. I can remember the exact moment. She was returning from hockey practice with a group of classmates in my one blissful year at a co-educational school. She had dark rings under her eyes, and, I later discovered, a tennis court in the garden.

That was the first joke – my tennis. I pretended I was keen when actually I was useless and just wanted an excuse to see her.

In small towns like Ormskirk in Lancashire where we grew up, everyone went out with everyone else for at least one date – so I went out with Plum’s sister, Ruth, at first. She would later marry my best friend, John. I said it was a small town.

Then, when she was just 18, Plum broke my heart by preferring a good looking German boy. That’s the unfunny bit of our story. I returned to London where I was a student, and didn’t see her again for eighteen months.

Then, at the end of November 1963, hunger dictated a reunion. Knowing that she was now in London, too, where I was unemployed and with literally only a couple of shillings to my name, I phoned her and jokily suggested that if she’d like to see me we could meet at the Wimpy Bar in Earls Court.

With just enough money to buy myself a cup of coffee I got there first and waited. I was nervous. Then I watched her walk past the window and make her way down the café to me. We were awkward. But, after hearing of my financial dilemma, she quickly went to the counter and bought me a Wimpy and chips. What a girl! Then we sat and talked, avoiding the subject of my broken heart – which, to be honest, I don’t think she’d much noticed.

What she didn’t tell me that night was that the coat she was wearing was one she’d borrowed from a friend, not wanting to meet me in something I would have seen many times before.

The following Friday she phoned me. She’d bought the Beatles new long player, their second, With The Beatles, which had just been released that day. An hour later she was at my bedsitter door with the record in one hand and her Dansette in the other.

I would like to say that from that moment we were a couple. But she met another boy the following night, and it wasn’t until a couple of months later that we finally got together. Not that I felt very secure. The following summer when I was enduring a nightmare of a first job in the economics research department of a City bank, she went on holiday to Devon with some old school friends.

Naturally I worried while she was away, a state not helped when an Irishman I’d known at university, forty if he was a day and as bitter as lemon, accosted me one night.

‘And do you trust your girlfriend while she’s away?’ he asked.

‘Of course I do,’ I said.

He gave me an old fashioned look: ‘I’m glad to hear it. But in my experience, when a woman wants it, it doesn’t matter if it’s a man or a monkey.’

Naturally I laughed off his insinuations. In fact I was still laughing at the memory thirty years later as I recounted the exchange to two old friends, when I heard Plum say very quietly, ‘Well, it wasn’t a monkey.’

She was joking. I think. But in a marriage built on jokes and teasing you never can be too sure.

We were married in April 1966, a church wedding in the sleety rain in Ormskirk. Louise, our first baby, turned up a year and a half later. She took thirty hours to arrive, and has been late for everything else ever since. I’d never seen anyone in pain before and burst into tears when I saw Plum in labour. The woman in the next bed was worried. ‘Is your husband all right?’ she asked Plum who, gasping in pain, had other things on her mind.

The next few years made our family. Plum, like most mothers, became the centre and I the light entertainment who sang songs and told silly stories. I might have had a flashier life but Plum was the heart of our home.

While I was off making my name, she was taking the children (Dominic had followed two years later) to playgroup, making their fancy dress costumes, organising their birthday parties, cooking, feeding, cleaning…doing pretty well everything really. That was how it was in my generation.

Husbands hadn’t been allowed anywhere near the delivery room when our first two children had been born, but by the time the third, Kieron, came in 1972, fashions had changed. Having taken Plum to the hospital in the morning to be induced, I went back at lunchtime to be told by a modern young nurse that my wife was on the point of giving birth, and that I should go in and be at her side.

‘Er, no, if you don’t mind I think I’ll just wait out here until it’s all over,’ I said.

The zealous young nurse wouldn’t have it. ‘Oh come on, Mr Connolly, you must go in. She’ll be so pleased to see you,’ she urged.

I wasn’t too sure about that, and still desisted, until she struck on the idea of my staying outside the delivery room and observing the action from behind the glass peep hole in the door.

That didn’t seem too dangerous. So I pulled back the flap and peered into the delivery room. There was the doctor, there were the bare thighs, the feet in the stirrups and the nurses who seemed to be repeatedly mouthing ‘push, dear, push’… It didn’t seem so bad from this distance.

Then, suddenly, it all began to happen, and, as the baby began to emerge, hands reached out to welcome the newcomer to our family. The nurse had been right. It was a wonderful, life affirming moment and this time I had tears of happiness in my eyes.

At which point a matron appeared at my side. ‘What’s going on here?’ she demanded.

‘Oh, Mr Connolly was too nervous to go into see his wife giving birth, so he’s watching from here,’ said Nurse Zealous.

‘But that isn’t Mrs Connolly in there,’ the matron barked. ‘It’s Mrs Evans.’

I swivelled away from the peep-hole. Not Plum? ‘Well, it looked like my…’ I stopped there.

The young nurse, a flea in her ear, was quickly leading me away. We found Plum two floors down in the ward eating grapes and reading Cosmopolitan. ‘You’ll never guess what I’ve just seen,’ I told her.

Kieron arrived three days later, without me. I was lying low in the florists until it was all over.

Our family was now complete. For the next eighteen years, while I was chasing rainbows, Plum was buying school uniforms, helping with homework, organising Christmas and booking holidays. She did everything. One year when we were separated on the plane I was asked by the stranger in the next seat where I would be staying when we got to our destination.

‘Oh, I don’t know. Somewhere in Cyprus,’ I replied.

‘But this plane is going to Crete,’ came the answer.

‘Is it? Well, it must be somewhere in Crete, I imagine. My wife will know.’ It turned out we were going to Iraklion where we had a lovely holiday.

That was the way it went. All I had to do was earn the money to pay for everything, something I was good at sometimes and not at others, while Plum made everything work. When we’d married she’d thought she was marrying a journalist with a serious career and a pension at sixty five ahead of him. Too late she’d found she was stuck with a jobbing writer, who daily tightrope-walked on the brink of a whim.

All our friends thought we were doing well when I wrote a film called Stardust which starred David Essex. What they didn’t know was that, having given up my job on the London Evening Standard a year earlier and spent the advance that I’d been paid to write the film, I didn’t have a suit to wear to the premiere.

Those must have been unisex times, because Plum simply took out a velvet suit she’d bought and let down the sleeves and the legs. And, giggling together, off we went to my big night, me in a woman’s suit that fastened the wrong way. No one noticed. They weren’t looking at me.

And so the decades passed and the children grew. On holiday in Menorca one summer we all stumbled, blinded by the glare, on to the nearest beach, only to realise when our eyes became accustomed to the light, that everyone else there was naked.

Deciding that it would look as though we were prudish if we moved on, we decided to stay, eventually falling into conversation with a couple from Plymouth and their non-nude daughter of twelve. ‘The thing we don’t like,’ the husband said, ‘are the pantomimes these days, and all those blue jokes they now tell at them. We don’t like our girl hearing that sort of dirty stuff. It’s too rude.’

Plum and I nodded agreement struggling to keep our faces straight, as Dominic, aged 12, and Kieron, 10, tried to keep their eyes off the man’s very cute naked wife at his side. I had a peep, too.

Because my mother and my aunt were both widows they would always come to us for Christmas, so every year we would improvise family cons as a part of the festivities. And we never failed to convince.

There was, for instance, the time we showed them a video of the empty drain we’d been given by Dyno-Rod and told them they were looking at a medical exploration of Kieron’s intestines. Kieron pretended to be deeply embarrassed and upset, while Dominic said I was being mean to show it because it was personal.

Plum said: ‘Isn’t it wonderful what hospitals can do these days.’

And then the occasion I dyed my early greying hair bright marigold with the help of some stage make-up. Meeting my mother and aunt off the train at Waterloo, Louise told them she thought my hair was really cool, while Dominic said he thought I looked pathetic, which I did. Plum just shrugged and played the long suffering wife.

Yet by the end of the evening my aunt was overheard to say to my mother: ‘It takes a bit of getting used to, but it does make him look younger, doesn’t it?’ By the next morning I’d washed the dye out. Mother and Aunt laughed about the cons for years afterwards, as did we, a family amusing each other.

By this time the children were at their senior schools and Plum was working full time as p.a. to the director of the Courtauld Institute Of Art, while taking an Open University degree in her spare time. Quite where she found any spare time, I’ve never known, because she’s never had any. What mother does?

Nor was she ever fazed by the famous people I got to know through my work. On one occasion when I was considering whether to continue saving or sell some letters John Lennon had written to me she simply asked, ‘Do you think John saved your letters to him?’ Point taken.

Then one day a couple of years ago it was her turn to have a broken heart. For Plum, though, it wasn’t a metaphor. She needed an aortic valve replacing, which would mean that her heart would be stopped for over four hours, while they sawed through the ribs and fitted the new part.

I was terrified. Waiting on her bed on the day of her surgery, she had to keep calming me, until a little Chinese male nurse, who rather resembled Ho Chi Minh, approached with a dish of shaving foam and a razor.

‘I come to shave you,’ he said.

Plum looked at me, puzzled. Did he think she had a hairy chest?

Ho Chi Minh explained. ‘No. I have to shave you down there for catheter during surgery. Or would you prefer lady nurse?’

Plum was amused. ‘No. You’re a nurse. That’s all right with me,’ she said.

But, as Ho Chi Minh pulled the curtains around the bed, I decided it was time to make myself scarce. I mean, I know he was only doing his job, but it isn’t every day you see a complete stranger slapping shaving cream on, well, you know, your wife’s…

Ten minutes later when I returned Plum was wearing the biggest smile. ‘Wait until you see what he’s done,’ she giggled. ‘He’s only given me a Brazilian.’ And off she went into the operating theatre still laughing.

So, her heart fully mended, we’ve reached our half century, which we’ll spend on a second honeymoon in Venice. A family beach holiday when the grandchildren, Jack and Olivia will join us, will follow.

We married ludicrously young. But weren’t we lucky to meet each other? There have been ups and downs, as there are in everyone’s lives, but overwhelmingly more highs than lows as the years and laughs have rattled by.

Like I say, time flies when you’re enjoying yourself.