Saturday, 26 March 2016

The Long and Winding Road.

My first ever luxury spa break coincides with the terror attacks in Brussels. As I zoom up the MI to Leicestershire to rendez-vous with my mother (it's her treat) the music I’m listening to at full blast in the car is interspersed with distressing radio reports about the carnage in Belgium. We were in the city last summer so it’s still fresh in my mind, but anyone with even half an imagination is able to conjure an image of an airport departures lounge after a suicide bomb has gone off. 

I don’t need even half an imagination, however, because the scene is graphically described for me - for all of us - on the radio, in newspapers, and later on the television news, as ever, and ad infinitum. I suppose we don't have to listen to it, or watch it, or read it, if we don't want to, it's our choice. The news-maker and news-consumer can't exist one without the other, it cuts both ways. 

Why is our reaction to tragedy to pore over it? We all do it. Flicking through a newspaper my eye is invariably pulled to the death and disaster stories: the man who murdered his beautiful musician wife; the family of five who drowned together when their car slid backwards down a jetty (maybe that one really is an unimaginable horror, I struggled to read more than a line or two of that). Often I don’t get very far into the story before having to move on and turn the page because it’s too distressing, but still, these are the ones I’m drawn to. Why?

Because it’s about counting our blessings, our near-misses, and our might-have-beens. It’s about thinking: well at least that wasn’t me and mine, not this time, and feeling that flood of relief. And this, in part, is because modern life doesn’t prepare us for death and disaster in the way it used to for generations gone by. Death is no longer laid out in front of us in front parlours, scrubbed clean to be scrutinised. I've only seen one dead body up close: my grandfather's, and that's because I asked to see him (I wanted to put a flower in the coffin with him). Most of us just don’t see it. Most of the time we’re able to push it to the back of our minds, always trying to be normal, to carry on, to pretend it's not there. We go to work, we buy a Starbucks on the way in, we have a laugh with a colleague by the water-cooler, we invite family round for Easter and we're grateful it wasn’t us in that airport departures lounge, or on that tube train, and that we're fortunate enough to have a pay cheque to cash at the end of the month.

But disaster shadows us all, all the time. On the motorway speeding in the fast lane, one crazy jerk of the wheel could mark the endgame. Some actively seek out those risky moments, young men in particular, for the rare thrill, the near-death high: climbing a high cliff, base-jumping from a tall building, wing-suit soaring down the sheer side of a mountain. Perhaps they risk everything because they think they’re invincible, that disaster can’t touch them, that they have a guardian angel watching over them? Or perhaps they need to be near danger to feel alive? Middle One was obsessed with Philippe Petit for a while, the man on wire guy, he even learnt to slack line on the common in homage to him, and Petit is a perfect example of someone who needs (needed?) to live on the edge, literally, in order to feel something. 

Most people don’t need that. We live safe comfortable lives, we have family and friends and work and music and books and television to entertain us, and we have the vicarious grief and pain of others to gaze upon in the news. Terrible tragedy does serve a terrible purpose: it reminds us how lucky we are, and that our remaining time is precious.

Songs of Praise.

On the way north in the car I was listening to a CD my younger brother made for me: my life so far, in music. Touchingly he remembered all sorts of things I'd forgotten about in the correct chronological order, going back to music I liked as a child, some of which apparently had quite an effect on him. Embarrassing things, like Telephone Man by Meri Wilson (My brother: "I listened to it again and do you realise what that's about? Me: "Er, yes, I do, now,") then Abba, Carpenters, Elton John (dancing to Crocodile Rock in that basemen in Vancouver with my best friend, Stacey Gates), on to The Beatles, of course, and then all the 80s stuff I'd erased from my mind (Quiet Life by Japan) plus the usual: Stones, Kinks, Bowie, Roxy Music, John Lennon, Fleetwood Mac, and some one-offs I never tire of, like Make Me Smile (Come Up and See Me) by Cockney Rebel, which would be one of my desert island discs for sure, even some of my soppy guilty pleasures (Roberta Flack, Killing Me Softly). It was a sweet gift because music has such power to transport us back to a time and place like nothing else, except perhaps for smell. 

The moment we hear the opening bars of that something we’re there in the moment again, with that boyfriend, (Lay Lady Lay, Bob Dylan) or that mate, in her bedroom, getting ready for the school disco (Kids in America, Kim Wilde). We all have that, and we will always have that, until our particular endgame comes to claim us.

As I pulled off the motorway at the exit for the spa hotel, my brother’s CD was just finishing. The journey had taken longer than I thought it would, but at last the sat nav said there were only a few more miles to go. Suddenly there was a sign up ahead: is this it? I thought. Weirdly the very last track on my brother's compilation was beginning as that journey was ending: George Harrison's My Sweet Lord

Love E x


P.S. Easter. I might not believe in God but I do have faith in people, and always will have, even in a world in which we blow each other up in the name of religion. And Eldest is home. So bring on the celebrations, slaughter the fatted calf for the return of a dearly beloved boy, and have a heavenly one yourself. We're going to France for a few days with friends who have a house there, but I'll be back again soon, right here. Happy Easter.

Monday, 21 March 2016

Salmon with noodles.

It’s a weekday evening and I’m cooking dinner. Salmon fillets this time, with spring onions, ginger, garlic, chilli, herbs, peppers and okra - or ladies' fingers as they call them in the shops round here - oh, and some cheap white wine, for the juice. I don’t really use recipes. I’m more of an emotional cook, reacting to the ingredients I find in front of me when I open the fridge.

"Maybe you need to see a doctor?” says my friend. 

She's leaning against the kitchen island, watching me cook. I pour some of the wine into a glass and hand it to her. She says she doesn’t want it because she’s on a health kick. I’m not on a health kick so I drink it, for both of us.

“Why, what will a doctor do?” I ask, popping a lid on the food to let it steam.

She looks over at the fencing kit on the kitchen table. “Well, he might be able to help with your procrastination issues.”

I just told her about the fencing kit. I bought it for the boys before Christmas and it was all the wrong sizes. It needs to be sent back and exchanged for the correct sizes. It’s been sitting in a box on the kitchen table since then, waiting for me to deal with it.

“I can’t see how a doctor will help with that,” I say.

Youngest comes in. He looks toward the hob at the simmering salmon. “Why do we always have to have middle class food?” he says. 

He only likes fish fingers and chips.

“Because it's an evil plot to make you suffer,” I say.

He flounces off.

“You might be depressed,” says my friend.

I think about this. I had a friend who got depressed, properly clinically depressed. She climbed into the shower one morning and then couldn’t move. Suddenly her arms felt heavy as lead. She wasn't able to lift them to shampoo her hair. She just stood there, water pounding down around her, unable to wash, or get out. After that she didn’t leave her house or answer her phone for weeks. We - all her friends - didn’t know what to do to help. In the end I left some chocolates, a note, and some nice DVDs, on her doorstep. Pretty lame I know but she liked it, and she still mentions it. That was a long, long time ago. She’s fine now.

“I don’t think I have the right symptoms for depression,” I say, although I don’t really understand what these are. “Perhaps it’s a menopause thing?”

“Could be,” says my friend.

“What are the symptoms for that?” I ask.

“Putting on weight,” says my friend, “hot flushes, mood swings, headaches, insomnia, loss of libido, lunacy, forgetfulness...”

“Wow," I say. "Sounds fun. I’ve lost weight, I’m always freezing, I’ve always had mood swings, I don’t get headaches, I love sleep, I’m not saying anything about that libido thing, and I can’t remember that last one.”

I have some of this lovely crockery, from Heals.

“What did you think of the book?” says my friend.

That's her way of tactfully changing the subject, I think.

“I haven’t read it,” I say. “I forgot. I haven’t even read the Wikipedia page. There’s no point my going to book group tonight.”

“What?!” says my friend, “You’ve not read it? You're not going! When I’ve come all this way?”

This makes me feel bad, because she makes such an effort to come back to south London, especially for the book group she set up. She always stays with us, and I always cook her a meal. I like having her to stay. In fact, I love it.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll go.”

I’ll just have to fiddle with my phone or something, I think, while the rest of them sit around and intelligently discuss the book and I feel inadequate.

“My mum used to say, ‘stop the world I want to get off,’ when she got really busy,” I say, going to the pantry to find noodles to serve with the meal. “She was a teacher - a head teacher - so she never had time to sort out her cupboards, so she said.”

"I know that feeling," says my friend.

“I'm not particularly busy but I’d love the world to stop for a few hours," I say, "just so I could catch up with stuff: forms I haven’t filled in, books I haven’t read, films I haven’t seen, people I haven’t thanked, crap I haven’t taken to the charity shop, things I still haven’t sent back… and when I say I, I obviously mean you, too."

Middle One comes into the kitchen, just home from school, late, looking tired and cold.

“Have you been to school today without a coat on?” I say.

“Coats aren’t cool,” he says. “What’s for dinner?

“Umm...” I say.

“Because whatever it is, it smells amazing.”

"Thank you, honey," I say.

Love E x


P.S. "Why do we always do middle class things?" said Youngest, when we were out for lunch this weekend. 
"Why?" I said. "Are you planning to grow up and be a chav?"
"For god's sake, Mummy!" said Middle One. "No one says that any more. It's a roadman, now." 
"Really?" I said. "I thought that was someone who gatecrashes a party?" 
"Where the hell did you get that from?" said Middle One. 
"I think I read it," I said. 
"You really need to stop reading," said Middle One. 
He has a point, I thought. Except, of course, for the books for my book group.

The wonderful view from the restaurant.

Wednesday, 16 March 2016


“Are you taking pills for that?” I shout to the elderly woman on the end of the line. “Yes!” she shouts back, because they all shout. “Warfarin!” and they’re nearly all on Warfarin. Many of them are diabetic too.

She tells me about her palpitations and all the other things that are wrong with her. She can’t see well, her hearing is shot, her legs don’t work, she keeps having to have a quick lie down. ‘Off her legs’ is the expression my mother uses for what suddenly happens to people in advanced old age. 

Getting on is no joke, this elderly lady informs me, which is not what I want to hear with a birthday of my own in the offing, even though I know the alternative to getting old is definitely worse. I'd rather hear jokes, but jokes are thin on the ground with this malarkey, so it’s important to keep things light, and loud. 

“Do you have enough food in?” I holler, to the next one down the list, a lovely old gent.

“What’s that, love?” he says.

“Food, I said! Are you getting enough?!”

“Oh! Yes, thank you for asking.”

"Good. Right. Well, we're here if you need us."


"If you need us!" 

“You’re made for this job,” said the woman I work with at the charity after the first time I did it, moments after I'd burst forth from the tiny windowless room at the back of the office there, where they keep me hidden away so I don’t disturb anyone with my incessant bellowing. That first session had been long, a particularly exhausting one, but incredibly rewarding; I couldn't wipe the grin off my face.

“Yeah,” I agreed. “I loved that. Soooo much better than filing and data entry,” which is what I did before, and which I was totally crap at because I didn't concentrate properly and kept drifting off and making mistakes. 

“I’ve finally found my thing, something I’m good at… chatting!”

It can be a bit of a downer, but every now and again there’s a surprisingly up-beat soul to talk to. Case in point, last week, when I commiserated with an old lady about her recently deceased husband. “Don’t worry, dear,” she giggled. “I didn't like him. He was handy with his fists, knocked my block off on more than one occasion. I took him to court and everything and the judge actually turned round and agreed with me. Me! Took my side in the matter.” Okay. Goodness. Didn't see that coming.

It goes without saying that all these old people are house-bound, which is why I’m ringing them in the first place, and a lot of them are bed-ridden too. Each week I’m left haunted by their stories. By the time I get off the phone after a couple of hours every Monday morning, there are all these little snippets of information tumbling round my head like a jumbled wash load: whites, colours, wool, synthetics, all in there together. And speaking of dirty laundry, one old lady cried down the phone to me this week because her washing machine had flooded her kitchen floor and she couldn't get in touch with the repair service.

We're failing these elderly people, hundreds of thousands of them up and down the country in boroughs just like mine, leaving them to fend for themselves. "I'm lively, just lonely," one man told me this week, and it was so apt, I actually wrote that down. There’s got to be a better way.

 “Can’t you come round?” the broken washing machine lady pleaded. “You sound like such a lovely person. Please come.”

But there was nothing I could do but listen. “This is the telephone befriending service,” I explained, “home visits are a whole other thing.”

Last week left me feeling particularly low, listening to tale after tale of sickness and befuddlement. One lady said she’s not left her flat in six months. Six months! She was on the top floor of a block and couldn’t get down the stairs. “I’m just marking time,” she told me. “I look forward to bed from the minute I get up. I turn in as early as possible, taking two hot water bottles with me to keep warm.” It was heartbreaking.

The contrast between most of these elderly people I speak to for the charity and my own parents, who are the same age as a lot of them, couldn’t be more pronounced. My mum and dad are incredible, fully active, on committees, still teaching, writing, organising events. My mother does Zumba classes. My father grows veg and shimmies up trees at weekends in the community orchard he helps to manage. Despite knocking on in years he’s as fit as a fiddle, still with a zest for life; “nifty” as my little niece quaintly described him the other week.

A lot of it is attitude, I think, as I sit listening to tale after tale, as well as what’s in the genes. Sure, there’s the luck of the draw, genetics-wise, but there’s also a refusal to give up and lie down. My parents grab life by the scruff of the neck, and they’re optimists. Well, my mother’s an optimist, my dad just goes with the flow and does what she says, which is the perfect model for a successful pairing, as I keep telling my husband.

And then the other day, just when I was feeling quite down about the whole thing, a cheery voice suddenly answered my last call of the morning.

“How are you today? “ I asked.

“I’m okay,” said the cheery voice.

“And what are you doing right now?” I enquired.

“Reading the paper,” she said. “I’m very interested in current affairs. I like to stay up with what’s going on.”

“Good for you!” I exclaimed, because this was an extremely unusual turn for one of these conversations to take.

“Yes, as a matter of fact I think we should stay in the EU,” she said, all of a sudden, a propos of nothing.

Jesus, it's the fucking EU again, I thought.

“Okay. Right. Interesting. So what’s your take on that?” I asked politely.

“I think we should remain in it,” she said.

“Do you?” I replied, because this was also not what I was expecting to hear, somehow.

“Yes,” she told me. “I know all the young people these days are for out, but I’m all for in.”

“Sounds good,” I responded. “Do you mind telling me how old you are?” 

I don’t usually ask this because it sounds cheeky, but there was something about the timbre of her voice that interested me.

“Not at all," she said, "I’m 99.” 

“99!” I said. “Wow, that’s so cool.”

“Yes,” she said, “that’s what I am.”

Which made me smile.

Love E x


P.S. She also told me she was extremely worried about the prospect of Donald Trump becoming president of the United States, which I thought was very selfless of her.