Chapter 8

Another Welsh Generation

(1985-2016)


I was still getting on famously with my cane, which I jokingly named "Michael", but I felt that my mobility needs would be better met with a guide dog. I applied to the Exeter training centre of the Guide Dogs for the Blind Association and someone was sent out to assess me. During that assessment, while stood outside our garden gate, I was asked how far I could see along the road. I said I could see the very last car and the bus stop just behind it. This was at least a hundred yards or so, and I was absolutely convinced that my answer had totally blown my chances. However, I was then asked to concentrate on the car and bus stop again, and to tell them what I could see inbetween them and where we were stood. My answer? “Nothing.” I passed the assessment, and patiently waited to hear back from Guide Dogs.

like most other people of my age, I knew I wanted to get married at some point, but nothing had developed with the two or three girls I’d been interested in. It had been all very much one-sided, basically, they weren’t interested in me. To be honest, I couldn’t really blame them, after all, who would want to take on the responsibility of someone with failing eyesight? It’s not really something that would attract you to someone is it? Well that’s how I felt about things anyway.

In April 1985, I attended an appointment at Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny with the Ophthalmologist. After concluding his examinations and tests, he said something that I would never forget. He told me that my results meant I was borderline between partially sighted and totally blind. In his opinion, it would be more sensible to register me as completely blind rather than partially sighted, because, given the pace at which my sight was deteriorating, I would most likely be back for another appointment in six months to be registered as completely blind.

I had been told that Gwent Association for the Blind were arranging a blind sports day, one of the activities being canoeing on Llandegfedd Reservoir near Pontypool. I was quite excited to go along, and my sighted guide for the day was my cousin Jim, who seemed to enjoy talking about all the canoeing certificates he had. I must say it was great fun, I really enjoyed it, but the best part of all was when Jim became the only person there to capsize a canoe that day!

For some unknown reason, I’d begun having the desire to meet and marry someone from southern England. Well, maybe the holidays I’d had with my parents played a part in it, who knows? I remember one day Phil asked me what would happen if I met a girl named Sue. I replied, “I wouldn’t touch her with a bargepole, one Sue Nixey is quite enough.” It wasn’t very long before I met someone, and, not only was she from the south coast of England, but my almost non-existent eyesight wasn’t a concern for her, because her mum was partially sighted! Oh, and I must add at this point, her name was, yes you’ve guessed it...! Interestingly, she had always said that she would have nothing to do with a boy named Jonathan, because they were usually poofs that played the violin. Well she had one of those correct anyway! But what was a southerner doing up here in the valleys of Wales? I soon found out! Friends of her’s, Cliff and Philippa Walters, had decided to move from Gosport in Hampshire back to Cliff’s birthplace, and Su had the opportunity to move here with them. So she did!

It was around this time that I went on my last holiday with my parents and the folks from Tyleri Court. But as Su and I had really hit it off, it was the only holiday I couldn’t wait to get back home from! It wasn’t long before a trip to Gosport was arranged to meet her family, well, not just to meet her family, but to get engaged while we were there! Prior to our visit though, Su thought she’d better phone up and let the family know. She had a gutt feeling that her dad wouldn’t be overly happy to find out that I was blind, but she had no worry that he would actually like me apart from that. So she decided to try and water it down a bit. While speaking to her father on the phone, she told him that I couldn’t see very well, to which he blurted out: “Oh my God he’s blind!”

Her dad was soon chatting to the next door neighbours, Collin and Monica Roff, more friends of Su, and he was telling them about me and that he wasn’t very happy that I was blind. I think he had the old stereotype blind man in his mind, sitting in my chair all day, calling Su to sort out this that and everything else for me, bathing me, dressing me, feeding me, all those sort of things. Collin managed to put his mind somewhat at ease by reminding him that “Margaret can hardly see past the tip of her nose and you love her don’t you?”

I have to be honest, I really didn’t know quite what to expect when I finally met the family, but they were all very welcoming and friendly towards me, and I immediately felt that they had accepted me as part of their family. I’ll never forget something that happened during that first visit, a story that would be repeated over and over for years to come. We were all sat around the dining table, tucking into our food. I don’t remember what it was we were eating, most likely pie and chips, but there were peas as well. What I wasn’t aware of was that Su’s father was watching my every move, to the point that he had hardly eaten any of his own food. Well as you can imagine, chasing those last few peas around the plate is tricky enough for anyone, let alone someone who can’t see them on the plate! Somehow, miraculously, I managed to get the last two or three peas onto my fork, and as I popped them into my mouth, he suddenly began clapping his hands very loudly while exclaiming “bloody good job!” Su was absolutely mortified at this reaction, the exact opposite of how it made me feel! It actually cemented the way I felt about him.

My Social Worker for the blind, Barbara Evans, who was registered blind herself, had been trying to find me work. One of her suggestions was painting roadsigns. My reply to her was: “do you actually want drivers to be able to read them?” So she suggested I went to a residential course in Devon run by the RNIB, where I could choose what I wanted to be trained in to give me a better chance of finding work once I was back home. I chose mostly office type things, including learning to touch type, and operating computers and telephone switchboards. To top it all off, they even had an arts and crafts department! So on arriving at Manor House in January 1986, one of the first things I found out was that, although you could choose what you wanted to do, you simply had to do lathe work. This filled me with dread, because if there was one thing I hated in school, it was using the machinery in woodwork and metalwork. When I was in school, I had some sight that I could see at least partially what I was doing. Now, I had virtually no sight at all, so the chances of me being put anywhere near those machines was a big fat zilch! And I told them so! I was promptly told if I didn't agree to do lathe work, I couldn't do any of the other things that I wanted to do. I think they thought by telling me that, that I'd change my mind and agree to do the lathe work. Wrong! I simply told them, “OK, put me on the train back home then.”

They weren’t ready to give up that easily though, and I was hauled off in to the big boss’s office. Don Jackson sat in his large swivel armchair, and began his task of trying to persuade Jon to change his mind. But Jon’s mind was already made up. Nothing they said was going to change that. Well, one thing would have, and that was if they agreed to leave out the lathe work, but I knew that wasn’t going to happen! “Do you realise what an opportunity you’re going to miss out on by leaving?” I was asked. I remained mostly silent. In fact the only response Don got from me was, “Please put me on the train home.” In the end, he gave up, and my ride to the station was duly arranged. So, you’re probably thinking that everything was fine now as far as I was concerned, but you’d be wrong on two accounts. Even though I knew I wanted to go home, I also knew that it was going to cause me two major problems.

The first of these problems was that I was now going to have to travel home from Torquay...completely alone, the only assistance I would be getting would be from the train staff, getting on the train in Torquay, and getting off the train in Newport. It was me and the big bad world. I was sat in one of those carriages that are divided into compartments, where six people sit, three sat facing the other three. It was deadly quiet, no one spoke. It felt awkward and lonely, even though I wasn't actually alone now. I may as well have been. It wasn’t the first time I'd travelled alone away from home, I'd bought a number of day out tickets and travelled on buses to places like Bristol, Gloucester and Hereford, but I had some useful sight then. This was my first solo trip as a totally blind person, and it was frightening!

On top of that I had something burning away at my mind and heart all the way home. No one else knew this, but Su had told me that if I didn’t stay at Torquay for the three months, it was over between us. It felt as if my whole world had fallen apart around me. I know what you’re most likely thinking, that this horrendous situation I found myself in could easily have been avoided simply by staying at Manor House. But for me, that wasn’t an option. I had no choice. I just had to face the consequences, come what may.

Eventually, we arrived at Newport, and a member of staff escorted me off the train and to a phone booth so that I could phone for someone to come and collect me. It was late at night, there were no buses home, and I didn’t think sleeping overnight in the railway station was a very good choice. But who was I going to phone? It was pointless phoning Su, it was over, so who else could I phone. I just didn’t know what to do. In the end, I did phone Su, but she couldn’t come and fetch me because the car was in the garage. Great. Now what? Ah! Phil! Yes yes! Phil wouldn’t mind, I’m sure he wouldn’t mind! So I phoned him, and he agreed to come and take me home. At this point I let out a huge sigh of relief, I was finally going to be back home! What I wasn’t expecting was for Phil to bring along a mutual friend, Nigel. I just thought he wanted some company or something. But Phil and Nigel had other plans.

Once I was in the car, it began. They thought I should go back to Torquay! If only they knew what I’d just been through...they wouldn’t put me through this. But I couldn’t tell them. I just wanted to be home, no more hassle, was that too much to ask? It seemed it was! Nigel got to a particular part of the route home and more or less gave me an ultimatum, “Left takes us home,” he said, “or right takes us to Torquay..which is it going to be?” I couldn’t believe what was happening, I just wanted a lift home, that’s all, nothing else, and here I was, more pressure. “Home...” I replied. But that wasn’t enough for them. “I’ve got enough petrol to get to Torquay, which is it going to be?” Nigel continued. I could feel my temper beginning to boil up, I really didn’t want to have an outburst, but it looked like that was the way things were heading. I’d been through so much that day, this was getting way too much. “Home...” I repeated much more firmly than previously. Again I was prompted, and again and even more firmly I gave the same answer, but it pushed me over the edge and I lost my rag. I felt dreadful. The atmosphere in the car fell silent for the remainder of the journey. To be honest, I had no control over that situation, as far as I was aware, Nigel could have been heading to Torquay anyway, I wouldn’t have a clue, until we came to some familiar feeling roads. Thankfully he didn’t go right, he did take me home, for which I was extremely grateful. Some time later I found out they thought the only reason why I wanted to leave Torquay was because I didn’t want to be away from Su. If only they’d have known!

I’m pleased to say that Su didn’t hold me to her threat, or promise, however you care to view it! I found out the only reason why it was said was to try and encourage me to stay there for the three months, after all, this was going to be a tough time in my life, I’d never been away from home alone for any length of time. I could understand why it had been said, but even that wasn’t enough to make me stay there! As Su was already able to touch type, she agreed to give me lessons. I knuckled down to it, and was very proficient at using a typewriter in just two weeks! So, with the events of Torquay now behind us, what was to come next? Well, we both knew we wanted to get married, and now that I was going to be home for three months rather than away for three months, we began making our wedding plans and looked for a house.

So, in May that year, we “tied the knot”, and began our new life together. Unfortunately, we had been misled when viewing the house we had decided on. We thought the area of ground at the rear belonged to us, but it was a number of months later when we found out it didn't. So what made us realise this was the case? It was the morning we woke up to discover a digger and building equipment on the site of our supposed garden! Our actual garden area consisted mostly of a 1 metre wide path that ran along the back of our house, which also happened to be a right of way.

It was while living there in Vivian Street I received a letter from Guide Dogs to say a suitable dog had been found for me, but Su and I both felt that because of the situation with the lack of garden, it wouldn’t be fair on a dog to have such a tiny area to use, and so I informed them that my situation had changed. Since then, I have met guide dog owners who have successfully coped with no garden at all, let alone a microscopic one. I now know that if I'd given Guide Dogs more details on the reasons why I felt my circumstances had changed, they would have found ways to work around it.

Even though my parents had decided they’d prefer not to have children, Su and I felt somewhat different about it. We were aware that if we had a daughter, she would definitely have the genetic eye disorder Retinitis Pigmentosa, either as a carrier or a sufferer. If we had a boy, there was a fifty-fifty chance that he would get it. We weighed up the situation and decided that we were prepared to take the risk.

By the time Su was due to have the baby in the Spring of 1987, she made it quite clear that she only wanted a son. To be honest, I’d have been happy with either. Su even told me if it’s a girl she can stay in the hospital, to which I replied if it’s a girl she’s coming home with me and you can stay in the hospital. But Su got her wish, and our son Paul was delivered by cesarian Section at a little before half-past one in the morning.

My maternal grandmother was absolutely overjoyed at the news that she was now a great grandmother, and began phoning friends and relatives with the news. We arranged for her to visit Su and Paul at the hospital, and, as you can imagine, she was eagerly anticipating it! Very sadly, she suffered a severe stroke, and was admitted to the same hospital that Su and paul were being cared at. Even more sadly, she never met her great grandson, because she didn’t survive the damaging effects of the stroke. She was eighty-three years old, and was the most wonderful grandmother anyone could wish to have.

Needless to say, my mother was equally as excited to meet Paul, and, without a shadow of a doubt, he was her pride and joy. Because of failing health, my grandfather had moved to Cardiff to live with his son and daughter-in-law, Brian and Jean, and it wasn’t long before we arranged a visit so that he had the opportunity to meet his great grandson. In late 1988, my grandfather sent Paul a very early Christmas card, in which he wrote: “Bye bye baby Paul, it was lovely meeting you.” Shortly afterwards, we heard that he too had passed away, at the age of eighty-six.

Meanwhile, Michael and I continued battling the big bad world. Many of the streets in our home town are on a steep camber, so when trucks are parked at the kerb, they are on quite a tilt. Needless to say, their huge wing mirrors are then dangling midway over the pavement at head height. This was the situation one day when I was heading up to visit my family. I was in my usual brisk 'let's get going' way of doing things, when my face firmly met one such wing mirror! When Su next saw me, she thought I’d been beaten up. We Realised this just wasn't good enough, and seriously discussed the situation as a whole. It was obvious that the way forward would be for me to re-apply for a guide dog. By this time, the association had opened a new training centre much closer to home in Cardiff, and we had moved into my grandparent’s house which had a large garden.

In due course, I was invited to attend an assessment at the training centre at 40 Cathedral Road. This was an impressive building that had been left to the association by Lady Trevillion, in fact, the property was named Trevillion House in her memory. something happened on this assessment that didn’t happen on my first one, and that was the opportunity to have a walk with a fully trained guide dog! It was the most amazing feeling being led around by a gorgeously handsome and superbly trained yellow Labrador, named Herby. Of course, me being me, I began convincing myself that Herby must be the dog for me. After all, they wouldn’t let me have a walk with him if they didn’t think he was suitable, would they? I mean, they match the dogs to blind people, and his handsome good looks would definitely match mine...well, OK, maybe not the good looks. Whatever, I was completely wrong...on both counts. The good news at the end of the day was that I had once again passed the assessment, and was back on the waiting list for a guide dog!

Paul was a little over two years old when I received the much awaited phone call from Emma at Guide Dogs. She told me my dog’s name, Troy, his breed, Golden Retriever cross Yellow Labrador, and the date our training was to commence. The quality of my mobility and life was about to change, not just a little, but dramatically!

Very unexpectedly, my mother died on 30th January 1990 at the home of family friends. Apparently, as my parents were walking up the hill to our friends’ home, she said to my father, “these hills will be the death of me...”. I’m told that she was enjoying their company, was in really good spirits, and was having a good laugh. Suddenly it became very apparent that all was not well, and a doctor was called for. But it was too late. Obviously my father was absolutely stunned at what had just happened, and other friends told me how they saw him carrying her belongings as he walked home, a lonely figure in a dark, dismal evening. The one expression I remember my dad making regarding her death was this: “I feel cheated.” They'd been married for a little under thirty-nine years, and, no doubt had both thought they’d have plenty more years together. Life can be so cruel.

From about 2010, dad’s health began to deteriorate. He spent quite an amount of time in both Nevill Hall Hospital in Abergavenny and Ysbyty Aneurin Bevan in Ebbw Vale. At one point he came home for around ten days, and regular visits were arranged by home carers and nurses. It was quite obvious though that my sister, who by this time had lost all her sight, was finding it increasingly more stressful trying to care for him. It was then decided that he really needed to go in to a nursing home where he could get the care he needed. First of all he went to Grosvenor House in Abertillery, which was really well positioned in relation to where I live, as it meant my guide dogs Eddy and Max were able to learn the route there so that I could visit him whenever I wanted without having to rely on someone else to take me. After some time, it was decided to move him to the Jah Jireh nursing home near Merthyr Tydfil, but as his mental health continued to deteriorate, it was necessary to move him to a nursing home that specialised in dementia. So in June 2015, he was moved to the Bank House Nursing Home in Ebbw Vale, and it was there on 28th September 2015 that he finally passed away at the age of eighty-eight. Despite the progression of his dementia, it wasn’t until the last week or so of his life that he wasn’t aware of who we were, or even whether we were there, and amazingly he always seemed to remember my guide dog and retired guide dog’s names, Max and Eddy.