Following her husband's sudden death at the age of 36, Eleanor took six weeks off work in order to be with her four-year-old daughter, Ruth. One of the decisions Eleanor made during that time was that she would have to switch from half-time working to full-time working if she were to make ends meet. That was easy to arrange since we were short of staff. Not so easy to arrange was what to do with Ruth.
Up until her father's death, Ruth had gone to a childminder while Eleanor was at work. But the childminder was fully booked and could not extend the times she looked after Ruth. Eleanor scoured the area for child care, but it was in great demand and none was available. The most any of them could do was to put Ruth on a waiting list.
Then, just a few days before Eleanor was to take up her full-time job, a council nursery round the corner from our offices called to say that they had had a cancellation and could now offer Ruth a place. However, the place would not be available until two weeks after Eleanor was to take up her job, and if it were not accepted right away it would be offered to someone else.
On the face of it, the solution might seem straightforward: Eleanor could simply extend her six weeks off by a fortnight, or return to her existing mix of part-time work and childminding until Ruth took up the nursery place. But these possibilities had a drawback.
During the time that Eleanor had been off work and at home with Ruth, rather than easing them into a new normality, their isolated bubble of melancholy had become ever more intense and introspective. Having experienced a bad abnormality in their lives, Eleanor had come to believe that her response to it had introduced an additional bad abnormality. As is often the case with putative restorative action in such matters, it had created more problems than it had been intended to address. Both she and Ruth needed to get back into a world of normality, and soon.
Amongst Eleanor's concerns was Ruth's diet. Always inclined towards fussy eating, she had gradually narrowed it further to cornflakes, cheese rolls and little yogurt pots for children. Fussy eating is when children don't eat what their parents think they should eat. Consequently, there is a range of eating habits that might be placed under the heading of fussy eating, though not necessarily by all who see them. But through her job as an educational psychologist, Eleanor had seen enough of it to know the risks it posed.
Eleanor's attempts to widen Ruth's diet were met with a resistance and an apparent distress that worried her yet further, and she quickly backed-off. The fact was that she had lost confidence in herself and didn't know what to do. It was not simply that she was not a prophet in her own land. She was also not a prophet in her own land in her own mind.
We were talking about Eleanor's situation in the office one day when someone asked why we couldn't look after Ruth for the two weeks until she went to the nursery. After all, the building was always staffed and we were not unaccustomed to children, and Eleanor herself would be around, if out and about for much of the time. No other service was housed in the building. We had a toy cupboard too. It was a historical legacy from the long gone days when children were taken away to be assessed and treated in unreal contexts before being returned to the real contexts in which the concerns about them had arisen, concerns which invariably then continued unabated. And we had an office full of post-its, paper clips, typewriters, phones, and stamps – both postal and rubber – those things alone surely representing nothing short of heaven for a little girl.
Although looking after Ruth in this way would also be an abnormality, it would, we reckoned, at least be a good abnormality. So, we decided to do it. For once, the office pedant proved useful. He could find no obstacle to this in the extensive council paperwork. And our insurance covered having children in the building even though it seldom if ever happened by the late 1980s, that too being a historical legacy of the long gone medical model.
Ruth spent the next two weeks happily bubbling around the office, delivering letters to the various rooms, painting pictures for us to decorate our walls, filing papers, sticking post-its on things and falling asleep from time to time. While it seemed to be good for her, it was certainly good for us to have this excited little soul running around. It was in fact rather uplifting.
At lunchtimes, she would eat from her lunch box, its contents never varying beyond a cheese roll and yoghurt. Even on Fridays when we took her to the pub for lunch with us, she would eat only from the little box. It being none of our business, nobody said anything. In any event, it would have been unlikely to achieve much except frightened resistance and possibly even entrenchment.
All too soon, it was time for Ruth to take up her nursery place. For Eleanor, the elephant that had been on her horizon was now on her doorstep. The nursery had a strict rule that children were not allowed to bring in any of their own food or drink. As Eleanor dropped Ruth off for her first day, she saw that the notice board displayed that day's lunch menu: sausage and mash followed by semolina. Her alarm mounted accordingly. Fearful of losing the place, she had not mentioned her concerns about Ruth's eating habits and was worried that when these became apparent, she would not only lose the place but also be thought of as a bad parent.
Her heart was in her mouth when she went to pick Ruth up at five o'clock on that first day. One of the nursery staff, Jackie, shepherded Ruth through the other parents towards her mother. 'How did it go?' Eleanor asked nervously. It all went fine, Jackie told her, and Ruth had made lots of new friends. No doubt clocking the surprised response that Eleanor was struggling to conceal, Jackie, who had seen it all before, added: 'They'll eat anything if their little pals are eating it'.