Wednesday, 20 July 2016

This Old House.

The house stands empty and unkempt in a row of occupied and tended ones. Its vacant pretty windows gaze down upon us as we pull into its drive. We go next door to fetch the key. “Good luck,” they say. "You'll be needing it."

The front garden is tidy, a gardener sees to that, the shed is full of pristine tools. But as we open the front door a leaf-strewn carpet greets us, deep with flyers and mail. And as our feet creep down the hallway, a creepy feeling steals along my spine.

It’s midweek. Husband has taken a day off to visit his father’s house in the heart of the home counties. The one his father walked out of one summer’s morning three years ago to travel north and see a friend, never to return. It’s not a job to face alone, so here I am as well. 

A strong smell overwhelms us: damp, mould, regret. Or perhaps that’s just me, about the regret, that is, the damp and mould are for sure. I open the windows wide. 

In the kitchen every surface is covered: plates, food, mouse droppings. In the dining room, the table dips under the weight of books and yesterday's papers. In the sitting room, more of the same, plus vinyl, loads of it, stacked high, and warped, and ashes in the grate. Lots and lots of ashes…

“Do we need a bin liner?” says Husband.

“One?" I say. "Don't be crazy. We won’t get through this in a day. We will come back another time, with help.”

Each and every room reveals fresh horrors, or rather, stale ones. In the kitchen it’s the fridge, with mould the like of which I’ve never seen before, and rancid milk that’s years old. In the bathroom: a ceiling stain, where a little rain has lately filtered through.

I’m wheezy with the dust, and guilty with the idea of him here alone. We told him to sell up when his second wife died. “Come to London,” we said. “Get a place. Could be lovely. The tube. Pubs. Us close by."

He shook his head. “And what would I do with my stuff?” he said. 

So here it all is: the stuff that rendered him alone, without the know-how to reach out. He never did get the hang of his mobile phone, or email. No man is an island, so they say, but they’re wrong. The world keeps turning, and he wasn't able to turn with it.

I talk to elderly people every week on the phone, scores of them. They’re unwell, they don’t eat properly, they don’t go outside, and they don’t see anyone. But it's that last that’s the killer.

Fuck the stuff, I think, you should have got away while you still could. Don’t get trapped at home with your pain, that’s the old fashioned song this house is singing me, on warped and knackered vinyl.

“There’s nothing here,” says Husband, “nothing worth saving.” But after a while he finds a few things he likes: books, a load of classical CDs to rip. I find glasses that will come in handy, a couple of straw hats that might prove useful now we finally have some summer, and good kitchen knives, left out of their dirty drawer.

I go upstairs and there are her things on the dresser: lipstick, powder, paint, the moisturiser she was using that fine day, in 2002, when she went to hospital and never came back.

I open the wardrobe: all her clothes, bags, shoes, even her knickers, still here. Her hairbrush too, pale wisps of hair still clinging to ageing bristles.

Back downstairs in the sitting room, I scoop faded picture postcards from the sun-peeled window sills, pop them in recycling, pick my way across the floor, and there on a table is… a shrine. There's no other word for it. The book of remembrance from her memorial service. Some of her writing, poems, and…

“Jesus Christ!” I shout. "She’s still here!” Her ashes in the urn. (I told you there was a lot.)

We load the stuff into the car to take it away. We chat once again to the neighbours. As we reverse down the drive, a whole view of the house fills the windshield. Hold on, old house, I think, and I imagine spiders scuttling from secret nooks, mice reappearing from crannies.

For the time being it sits as we found it: abandoned, but hopefully not for much longer. Folks from London are keen to take on projects such as this, we are told, even though it's on the wrong side of the road, backing onto a motorway, and needs rather more than a new coat of paint. Someone will snap it up - and do it up - before too long. All we have to do in the meantime is make sure that the ‘stuff’ has been removed, piece by piece, and that finally the place is completely empty.

Love E x


P.S. Hoping that I don't have to clear out a sad old house like that one ever again. 

And by the by, while at a party on Saturday I chatted to someone who said he lives near Ravenscourt Park. Oh yeah, I said, so does my brother, and I was at a shoot near there, way back when: Sophie Ellis-Bextor's place. Cool, he said, were you doing the make-up?

Sophie Ellis-Bextor - a while back.

Wednesday, 13 July 2016

Pot Luck.

Pie (fish).

Fever. Burning up. So heavy limbed that the weight of my own body pins me to the bed. That’s me on Saturday morning. Every, single, thing, hurts, everywhere.

“What shall I get from the farmer’s market?” says Husband, coming into the bedroom in his cycling gear.

“I’m sick,” I say.

"Oh dear," he says, eating my toast. "You haven’t eaten your toast."

“No,” I say, “I’m sick. Thank you for bringing it. I’m not hungry.”

“Okay,” he says, dropping the papers on my toes, where they sit, heavy, on my toes.

“And I can’t read,” I say, “and I can’t get up.”

This is a problem because these are the things I usually do on Saturday mornings, after breakfast in bed.

“Cod?” he says. “Plus a nice piece of beef for your parents coming tomorrow? Eggs and sausage? Duck eggs?”

I'm going to be sick, I think. Duck eggs, schmuck eggs. Always with the food. Breakfast time, Husband likes to talk about lunch. Lunch time, he likes to know about dinner. Dinner time, he likes to chat about what we’re eating tomorrow. Food glorious food. Buying it, putting it away, preparing it, eating it.

Don’t get me wrong, I like food as much as the next woman, and I like cooking up something good, which is fortunate, because we're not a beans on toast kind of family. But sometimes thinking of something for everybody to eat all the time brings me down, especially when I'm struck down with something.

In the last week - I’m counting Monday to Saturday - I have cooked a bolognese, which then turned into a lasagne, with chips, a fish pie, chicken with lentils, salmon with noodles, risotto, and a fry-up. I think that’s it, but honestly, it could have been more. I can’t remember, because I’m sick.

Thighs (chicken).

"Ok, cod and beef and some eggs," I say. "You can hold the sausage, it's bad for us."

I go to sleep again. Sometime later I am woken by the sound of music, guitar music. Husband comes into the bedroom.

“He didn’t go fencing then,” I say.

“He went,” says Husband, “and then he came back.”

“Wow,” I say. I look at the clock: it’s nearly three.

"Shall I start lunch?" says Husband.

Lunch, schmunch, I think. I’m not hungry. I still feel terrible. I will never be well again. I’ll never leave this bed. I’m doomed to lie here forever. Poor me.

"You could warm the grill,” I say, getting up. 

I stumble into the kitchen. "Fried eggs?”

“I’d love a fried egg,” says Husband. “The boys like scrambled. Both?”

Scrambled, schmambled, I think.

I cook fried eggs, and scrambled eggs, and bacon, and mushrooms, with tomatoes, yellow, and red.

"Why do I have to eat meals?" says Youngest, coming into the kitchen.

“Just, because,” I say.

“I don’t like them,” he says.

“What do you like?” I say.

“Sandwiches,” he says.

After lunch I go back to bed. Much later Husband comes into the bedroom. “Shall I start dinner?” he says.

Dinner schmimmer, I think.

I slip back downstairs and cook a fish curry, but not from scratch, I use a packet, which I keep in the pantry, precisely for days like this.

“Why all this food all the time?” says Youngest, at dinner.

"Because," I say, "that’s the way it is."

Sunday, and I’m feeling myself again: completely better. Phew. My parents visit. My father and I spend the whole time in the garden. 

"Did you read about Monty Don?" says my father, as we're re-potting the fig tree, "loathes begonias."

"Mmm," I say. "I'm with Monty."

"Red ones are nice," says my father, "in a pot."

Husband cooks beef, roast potatoes, Yorkshire pudding, and carrots. I come in from the garden and cook greens and gravy.

"Not more food!” says Youngest. “I don’t want all this food all the time.”

My parents leave for their train at six. At eight Husband comes into the sitting room, where I am reading. “Supper?” he says.

“You must be kidding,” I say. “No one wants supper, surely.”

“Well…” says Husband.

I go into the kitchen. I put out leftovers: bread, cold beef, cheese, cucumber, tomatoes, salad…

“Come and get it!” I shout, loudly.

“Get what?” shouts Youngest, louder.

“What do you think?" I shout back.

“I don’t want food!” shouts Youngest. “I keep telling you.” He comes into the kitchen. “What is it then?” he says.

"Bits and pieces," I say. “If that isn’t what you want then I don’t know what is."

“This is just what I want,” he says. “I'm going to make a sandwich!”

Sandwiches, schmandwiches, I think.

Love E x


P.S. Now he wants a sandwich every day, just, for, him. Fine, because I could really do with a little less cooking. (And now Youngest has the fever.)

Stir-fried left-overs.

Wednesday, 6 July 2016

Russian Roulette.

I’m on the M4 early heading westward to Heathrow. I thought it would be easy because it’s Wednesday, and early, and I’m going out of London, but I thought wrong and we’re late. 

To make matters worse Middle One has paired his phone instead of mine to the car bluetooth system so we’re having to listen to The Coral and Mystery Jets the whole way.

"Elizabeth," says a doom-laden voice from the back of the car, because as well as Middle One I have two of his friends with me, a girl and another boy. The doom-laden voice belongs to the girl.

“Yes?” I say.

“I’m looking at the M4 on my phone,” says the girl, just as a police car passes us, blue lights flashing, “and I hate to tell you this, but…”

“Go on,” I say.

“There’s been a huge, massive, enormous accident," she says.

"Where?" I say.

"Further on up the road,” she says.


"How bad?" I say.

"Bad,” she says.

“Yes, but how bad?”

“Fifty minutes from here until we reach Heathrow, bad,” she says.


Middle One and his two friends are going on a school trip to Russia with their A-level history group. The rendezvous time is eight. It’s already past eight and we only just passed the GlaxoSmithKline building. 

I get out a bag of sweets and pass them around.

“If we miss the flight, guys, I know it’s my fault,” says the boy, “because you had to pick me up from Trinity Road.”

"It's not your fault," I say, “all part of the service. And you won’t miss your flight, your teacher built in masses of spare time.”

I know this because the original rendezvous time was 9.00, for a 10.55 flight. It was changed to 8.00 in the blink of an eye, at a school meeting in which the teacher took fifty minutes to deliver information that could easily have been condensed into a snappy fifteen, or even an information sheet. Do they think parents have time to kill?

Why oh why did I decide to drive? Stupid me. Stupid. Naïve. Foolish. Me. They could have got the tube. Now I’m stuck in this traffic jam and I can’t even remember the reason. It had something to do with enjoying driving and having my music in the car, and wanting to meet my brother for coffee in Hammersmith because I haven’t seen him for a while.

I pass my phone to Middle One. “Dial my brother,” I say.

“That’s a bit shit,” says my brother over the car phone, when I explain that I might be late because of the jam. “I’m free until 9.45 but then I’m playing tennis, so if you get here later than that we’ll have to do it another day."

I end the call. "Did I ever tell you about the time I missed the Acton turn off when I was meant to be directing a shoot there?” I ask Middle One.

“Yes,” he says.

“The RV was in a laundrette,” I say, “and I ended up having to go all the way on the M4 to Heathrow before I could turn back.”

“Yes,” he says, "you told me."

“I knew the crew was waiting for me in the laundrette (which was actually quite beautiful) and I was so stressed, I nearly died.”

“Yes,” he says. ‘You did tell me.”

“I thought I was going to have a heart attack. If there hadn’t been a central barrier between the two lanes, I would definitely have done a u-turn from the fast lane on the motorway.”

He doesn't say anything.

Well, clever-clogs, I think, I certainly didn’t tell you that the feeling was so overwhelming, and physical, that I started to menstruate right there and then in the car, even though I wasn’t due to do so for several more days - so ha! And I still don’t tell him this, of course, because that would be way too embarrassing and he would be totally “grossed out.”

"Everyone is telling me to bring them something back from Russia,” says the girl.

“Yeah,” says Middle One, “they all want vodka.”

“No one is telling me bring them anything,” mutters the boy, quietly, from behind me.

"You're 17," I say to Middle One. "You're not supposed to drink vodka, let alone buy it in Russia."

"I think you should turn off, Elizabeth,” says the girl, who is 18, and therefore exactly the right age to drink vodka in Britain and in Russia, so she tells me. “I think you can get to Terminal 5 via Terminals 1, 2 and 3.”

Middle One and the girl begin to field a succession of calls, texts, and WhatsApp messages from other friends who are also in cars crawling along the M4 being driven by other over-indulgent/unemployed (sorry, ‘freelance’) parents needlessly dropping their kids at Heathrow. 

"You should come off,” says the girl.

“You should stay on,” says Middle One, at exactly the same time.

“I can’t make a decision with everybody talking at me at exactly the same time!” I shout. “Help me make a decision! Where do I come off?”

“You just passed it, Elizabeth,” says the girl.

“Brilliant.” I say. “Oh well. I need to know for sure anyway. I’m not leaving this road without proof.”

"Someone’s dad just said we can’t get to Terminal 5 via 1, 2 and 3,” says Middle One, his phone clamped to his ear, “and this jam clears in a minute.”

He's spot on, as usual, and it does. We get to Heathrow at 8.55. The three kids leap out. “I’ll see you soon,” I say, holding Middle One to me and kissing him good-bye. He dashes off with the girl as the boy takes his bag from the boot and turns to follow.

“Hey,” I say, “I forgot to tell you.”


“Will you bring me something?" I say. "From Russia?”

“Very funny," he says.

“It doesn’t matter what,” I say, “just so long as it’s for my eyes only.”

Back in the car, I pair my phone to the bluetooth system and drive off, straight into a London-bound traffic jam. 

Love E x


P.S. The things we do for our kids. But I did have a few minutes with my brother in a café round the corner from the Polish Centre on King's Street, which had just been vandalised. Whatever happened to live and let live?

From Russia, with love from my boy.

Wednesday, 29 June 2016

What Is Life.

Grandpa Mac.

It was as the first few bars of Kathleen Ferrier's What Is Life started up at my paternal grandfather’s funeral that I finally lost it. That, and my grandmother breaking into sobs. So it is at my father-in-law’s funeral on Friday. It’s the music, specifically the aria O Isis Und Osiris from The Magic Flute, together with hearing his partner crying. 

Maybe we shouldn’t have music at funerals, I think, as I clench and unclench my fists in a bid not to cry myself, which doesn’t work. Music makes it so much harder to hold it together. But I guess that’s the point. I remember at my grandfather’s funeral What Is Life was followed by the duet Au Fond Du Temple Saint from the The Pearl Fishers. I gritted my teeth and focussed on the EXIT sign over the door, reading those four neon letters again and again, and still I fell to pieces.

We're in Sunderland, which feels strangely apposite, because today is also the day we learn of Britain’s death in the European Union. The people of Sunderland in particular have made their feelings on the matter crystal clear. It's a day of endings then, in more ways than one. A day of mourning, of letting go, a day for Mozart’s Requiem to be played through loud speakers on railway station concourses, perhaps.

Our family is mourning ‘Grandpa Mac,’ as he was known to the boys, publicly at the funeral, privately within hearts. We're also here to be reminded of his life: that he was a bright grammar school boy, the only one in his class who could spell chrysanthemum at the age of eight (I had to use the spell check), and who knew all the kings of Scotland in the correct order so he was able to point out to the astonished guide at Holyrood Palace on a primary school trip that one of the portraits was missing (turned out he was right, it was being cleaned). That he went on to Trinity College Cambridge in 1957 to read French and German and then worked as head of the German, Dutch and Afrikaans Acquisitions section of the British Library. That he twice appeared on the television programme 15 to 1, and once won it. That he loved classical music, Brahms and Mozart especially, and the two sons he didn’t get to see enough of because he was divorced from their mother in 1973. That in retirement and after the death of his second wife he went back to his home town - Sunderland - to visit his friend Lynn, and never really went home again. They knew each other as teenagers. She had been married to his friend, and was now a widow. She meant the world to him. And I think it was Lynn he had loved all along.

Standing at the entrance of the crematorium waiting for the coffin to be lifted from the hearse, I saw something moving in the bushes: a hedgehog. It walked directly past us toward the crematorium door, exposing its surprisingly long legs, one with a limp, for all the world as if it was going in to pay its respects. At the last moment it curled into a ball right there. It could have been a boot scraper, except that as we filed past, it suddenly flared its prickles.

Second Hand News.

Rewind to a crazy couple of days in the run-up to the funeral, trying to source suitable clothing for three boys who mostly wear jeans and t-shirts day after day. Because who has funeral clothes hanging ready in the wardrobe? Turns out, not us. 

A charity shop visit at the eleventh hour saves my bacon. Two dark jackets, one of them from Paul Smith, trousers in various sizes, four tops, a dress, shoes for me, (okay, so the shoes are from Clarks), I haul it all back home.

“That will never fit,” says Eldest, trying on one of the jackets in the kitchen, and very much proving his point as his skinny frame disappears inside. 

"I only saw one size," I say, "try this." And I hand him the second jacket, as Middle One tries the rejected one. Both miraculously fit.

We go to York by train; three hundred pounds for five of us because it's booked last minute - scandalous - but we don't have a choice. We stay with my parents before and after the ceremony. We catch an early train home on Saturday morning so Middle One can play at a local school fair (sorry, rock festival). We collapse at home, tired, so tired, in part because of the funeral but also because some of our party foolishly stayed up late arguing about Brexit the night before. The roundheads and the cavaliers had nothing on this for dividing a family.

“Don’t think I can play at the fair, after all," says Middle One, "feel knackered, feel like lying down.” And he drops his bag and acoustic guitar in the hall (he won't leave home without it).

“Oh, you can,” I say, “and you will, you’re committed now, you promised, and a musician needs to keep his promise or he will look unprofessional.”

I feed him lunch when all I want is a cup of tea, because being hungry probably has something to do with it, probably a lot to do with it, and he comes round, fortunately, (there’s nothing like feeding a man to get him to do what you want). 

His performance is a pleasure to watch. In particular I like to see the way his hands move so expertly across the frets. He ends up being introduced on stage by our lovely new MP, Dr. Rosena Allin-Khan.

Afterwards he bumps into friends from his old school in the playground. “Could you possibly take my stuff home for me?” he asks, "in your car?" Meaning the heavy electric guitar, the even heavier amp, the leads. Not for the first time I’m turning into a roadie. "Then can I go out with them for a bit?”

“Okay,” I say. “And yes, of course you Khan.”

Love E x


P.S. Not my pun, second hand, Sadiq had it first, but let's do it one more time for our new MP.

Middle One on stage with new MP Rosena Allin-Khan.