Notes from the Diary, 2022

May 17th – May 23rd

At the Tavistock Hotel near Euston, in town for another session in Southwark, where the therapist and I explored what ‘home’ might mean, deep down…. Back in the centre, walked the sunny, familiar streets – already summer in the city – the rest of the day quite my own, a sense of freedom in my heart.

Back on base, in a very small way, the packing up began. A precious glass vase and decanter, once on my mother’s sideboard in Berlin, were stuffed with tissue, their edges protected with the cut-off toes of old tights, then bubble-wrapped, then put into tall cardboard cartons….

Shut down the legal wrangle with the housing association – a dragon only a bottomless budget could defeat – and because I also can’t afford to be ‘in dispute with any person or public body’… Actually got a refund from the solicitor – of money remaining in my account.

The big screen – to see Downton Abbey, a New Era. One of my fellow cinema-goers dismissed it as ‘absolute tosh’, but I loved it. Pure escapism: glorious clothes and scenery, lots of predictable but happy endings – and one beautiful death.

A second key email, in which I told Agent 1 that he was indeed The One. My choice to market the house – pushy, with the keen edge necessary for the sale of this particular stately pile…. Pressing ‘send’ felt like the slow pulling of a trigger.

May 10th – May 15th, 2022

Agent 1 rang me at a rather inconvenient moment. What did I think about his Terms & Conditions? As they’d only been sent the day before, had to confess I hadn’t studied them yet…

Coffee with a well-dressed acquaintance, bumped into in the street. Hadn’t seen her for quite a while; her hair, once raven black, was now snow white – not the result of severe shock, though she did mention a new energy bill, but an overall shrinking of her budget that ruled out the hairdresser. She’d even been to a food bank for the first time. When I later opened my fridge, it seemed to look far too full….

A beauty appointment felt an indulgence too, but the therapist undid the knots in my neck and shared several really useful tips gleaned from another client of hers, who happens to be – an estate agent.

Re-visited the agent I liked in Enfield – another day trip – and the Traveller and I traipsed miles around another area he’d identified as ‘viable’. Pleasant streets – 1930s suburbia, green spaces, very few bus stops – but couldn’t imagine actually living there.

Very tired, but my sleep even more broken than usual – lying there with the ‘world’s radio service’ for company, wide awake in the long watches of the night.

May 3rd – May 9th, 2022

A display of blue and yellow ribbons in the cathedral, there for a welcomer-guide shift, to keep my hand in and give my best tweed jacket a Spring outing. Then a service for Ukraine and the lighting of many candles. Someone unseen in the quire sang a prayer in Ukrainian which rose and filled the vast space.

A daft exchange with Tesco Man, who watched me heaving potatoes etc into the kitchen and confessed he’d never done an online food order ‘in his life!’ A bit annoyed, I asked him if there was anything else he’d like to tell me……but his reaction was just to chortle his way back to the van.

Very busy bee – more trips to the charity shop – and in the house, getting the front room ready for a hosting of the Book Group, maybe for the last time – re-arranging the furniture to encourage Animated Conversation – with wine, tea and cupcakes to aid the flow. Our choice of the month was a long, relentless novel set in the Spanish Civil War, when a dictator tried and failed to take a capital city…… The terrible, depressing theme of history repeating itself.

April 26th – May 2nd, 2022

Turned on the kitchen tap, but only a trickle came out. When I tried the other taps, a few drops, then nothing. The upstairs loo began to make loud gurgling noises, as if trying to flush itself. When the supply was restored later that night – a burst mains pipe apparently – there was no familiar flow. The water came out in a series of fits and starts and had a funny colour…

A day-trip south and thousands of steps around an area pre-scouted by the Enfield Pair. Got a bit lost, then a local set me in the right direction, pointing out an alleyway that the map on my mobile didn’t seem to know about… The next day, I was pinged, but the only person I’d been in ‘close contact’ with was the son I’d met for lunch and he didn’t have It…

Re-created an inauthentic but spacious feel to the house – hiding stuff in the oven and washing machine and under the bed – then checked the patio and yard for pigeon droppings…

Estate Agent no.4 was a decent, safe-hands sort, slightly camp – the only one to appreciate the ingenious nook-and-cranny shelving in the airing cupboard and the mock leopard-skin rug. When he opened one of the wardrobe doors, he soon shut it again – a sweater about to fall on his head. He’d done his research, so the valuation was realistic enough but a tad unambitious. I said to him what I’d said to the others, that I couldn’t afford to undersell the house. ‘Well’ – an empathetic sigh – ‘the market is a bit funny at the moment’…. I was to leave it with him; he’d be in touch.

April 19th – April 25th, 2022

As if sorting out the rubbish wasn’t fiddly enough – plastic bags in the black bin, plastic bottles in the blue one, a new accessory to the wheelie family arrived: a hideous bag, for paper waste only….

Checked the patio and yard for pigeon poo – one of the last rites before the valuation visit. Estate Agent 1 (call me Andy) took off his shoes at once, though I hadn’t asked him to, revealing pin-striped socks. A chat about my plans, then a guided tour, including the loft. When he climbed down the ladder again, a cobweb clung to the socks…

Agent 2 asked about shoe removal, clearly glad to keep them on. A friendly type, he was more than happy to talk about the market, comparable properties, the role of a surveyor et al, but when we got to percentages and price points, I soon lost the plot.

A pleasant interlude or two, like a talk about Native American Art and artists with names like Kay Walking Stick and genres I’d never heard of, like porcupine quill art and healing paintings set in sand. Everything in tribal belief had a spirit, from buffalo to mountain to tepee….

Agent 3 (shoes on) was awful. Late, with no apology and when I questioned a valuation much lower than the others, he said I had to be realistic and that he’d been ‘in the business since 1987’. The patronising tone ruled him and his agency quite out. I’ve never liked the name Alan.

So a new kind of search took shape – for the right agent and the Goldilocks price for a garden with a mini orchard and a house full of natural light, both with spirits all their own.

April 4th – April 18th, 2022

Another swill of liquid iron, to make sure my blood sacrifice would be acceptable, then made my way to the Church of Latter Day Saints, a white and red NHS van waiting outside. My 43rd donation. No chance of a tea or coffee afterwards – the Mormons don’t approve of such stimulants – so had to settle for some squash and a custard cream.

A mini-break in town. The hotel room, a mile from the lift, had no desk and no hand-wash or shelving to speak of and the reading light by the bed didn’t work. No chance of a hot drink here either, because the only receptacle provided was a plastic ‘glass’. When I complained to the Duty Manager, he offered me a different room (declined) and two breakfasts – hitherto unincluded – which were accepted.

Met my cousin at the V&A museum, for an exhibition about Faberge and his forever fabulous jewelled and enameled eggs, designed for the Tsar in Imperial Russia. Also popped into Harrods, but it lost its glamour and romance a long time ago, except maybe for the food hall.

Back on base, the Ladies, who have been together for nearly 40 years, worked their usual magic. The shrubs were trimmed into shape and a bright photogenic plant appeared in the raised bed… While the garden angels banished the weeds, I emptied the outhouse so that Dean, the electrician, could inspect the heating and lighting in there…which would give the little brick building a new name and identity: the Garden Room!

A day or so later, I put on some pearls – because pearls are power – and walked into three estate agents. The first called me ‘madam’, the second called me ‘dear’ and the third was a well-brought up Bertie, electric with enthusiasm, who asked my permission to use my first name….

Had a hot cross bun and thought of going to the cathedral service, but the Easter message of hope and rebirth rang rather hollow with so much horror and war in Europe and beyond. My apple trees seemed to mean a lot more, now tipped with pink and white – in a sudden burst into blossom.

March 29th – April 3rd, 2022

One chore a day, continued – but cleaning the bathroom stretched to two, more of a Challenge than expected. Using toothpicks for the little holes in the shower head and cotton wool buds for the soap scum around the taps worked well enough, but the water-stains on the screen were stubborn. The fancy liquid from Waitrose wouldn’t shift them, but vinegar from the kitchen – eventually – did.

Light snow. Packed a rucksack,(one of 5 in the wardrobe) with the Essentials: a few toiletries, perfume, pyjamas and a change of undies – for another overnight stay in the tall house in Tufnell Park, the one with the exotic inhabitants – the heroic chef, the couple with tatoos. The oldest lodger, a bald roadie with a beard, shot me the odd wary look, perhaps because he saw me going up and down the stairs that night then up and down again for no apparent reason. My fitness app had told me there were only 500 steps to go before I reached my goal: 10,000…. Slept well in the spare room, though the bed, which folds out from the wall, has no headrest to it, so the pillows always fall off the back in the night. Had to take the tube to get to my appointment in Southwark, but at least it was warm down there in the tunnels.

Back in my own house, found it hard to get and stay warm, though the heating was on – and the vest and the socks. Not unwell, not quite right, something in-between. Three letters arrived, held together by a rubber band, addressed to the previous owner, her name recognised from over 10 years ago, who doesn’t live here any more, who could be anywhere.

March 22nd – March 28th, 2022

Hampstead, London, where I met a dear friend, another March birthday. We were both a touch too fragile for the intended Champagne Brunch, so settled for pink and pasta instead…. Some 2 or 3 hours later, I picked up my little black bag from the hotel and headed back north to my parallel universe.

Plodded on with the Preparation – the clearing and sorting stuff out. Out went a nice teddy-style coat, which I hung on the fence outside. Didn’t see who took it, but within minutes it was gone. 3 bags full for the Hospice shop, with odds and ends like a pair of plastic shoe trees I’ll never use…. Washed down all the doors downstairs; Tesco and Amazon Man stopped by.

A festival event, with another friend. Not the free love muddy field variety but an interview held at the Guildhall with a BBC presenter about his new memoir, ‘The Gift of a Radio’. An ‘eccentric’, lonely childhood, described with humour, without bitterness; the questions he wished he’d put to Barack Obama and a Serbian general-war criminal… Then a wine bar, where we exchanged stories about our own parents and siblings and school experiences and the grants that made going to university possible for girls like us.

March 14th – March 20th, 2022

On reconnaissance again to Enfield, where a Visitor sticker was put on my coat so I could attend the U3a monthly meeting in an ex-church hall. Met a Janet and Mary who said ‘there’s always a lot going on around here’, but didn’t seem too cheerful about it. An overnight stay with the Traveller son and his wife in a slightly unnervingly spotless and tidy house, which seemed to invite a few messy touches….Some shared research on Rightmove for a suitable shed in the borough.

A pause – 2 local gatherings cancelled on account of Covid, key members testing positive, somewhat to their surprise. Then back south again for a weekend special: a family meal in Camden Town to celebrate my ex-husband’s birthday and mine the next day. A lot of Greek food and wine, the brothers on best form, their father’s forensic demolition of a lamb shank a sight to behold.

The Portsmouth pair stayed in the hotel room next to mine, so we could spend the morning together and walk around a well-trodden area – below the windows of the flat once called home, Queen, Russell and Brunswick Square, Great Ormond and Lamb’s Conduit Street and Coram’s Fields. The afternoon in my other son’s company and a trip back in time at the British Museum – to the World of Stonehenge, ancient enough to put my own new number into pleasant perspective….

Mid-evening, I was alone again in the room on the 6th floor, but well and truly birthtified and nicely relaxed, when the fire alarm went off, stopped, then sounded again, much louder than before. So I grabbed my handbag, went out into the empty corridor, then careered down the escape stairs – thinking Grenfell, Ukraine – till I got to the door that said ‘push to open’ and found myself in the street. It was, Zoltan at reception told me, a false alarm. One of the cleaners had wiped a red button too energetically, activating the warning system….

The lift doors remained locked, so had to climb the main stairs back to the room left only minutes before. The coffee I’d made and abandoned was waiting, still warm.

March 8th – March 13th, 2022

Back on base in the Midlands, it was good to return to the house that’s never quite felt like home, but always a space full of natural light, and a shelter still standing.

Angie, who has experimental tendencies, suggested something new for Spring. Some untried colours had just come in…. so when I emerged from the salon, the faded slice of orange in my hair had turned a rather bright shade of pink, ‘hot raspberry,’ she called it.

Another day, my heart began to race – but this was no romantic rendevous, just an appointment at the dental clinic for another deep-clean of my afflicted gums. The hygienist explained that the shot of adrenalin in the anaesthetic did tend to ‘rev people up a bit’….

The lawn had its health and beauty treatments too. Its first mow of the year, then the men from GreenFingers arrived with rakes and machines to ‘aerate and scarify’ the grass, which looked a right mess afterwards, as if savaged by local wolves. The birds kept away from the garden for days; it had become a no-fly zone.

The next Notes will appear on March 22nd.

February 28th – March 7th, 2022

A very diverse dinner party to celebrate the landlady’s birthday – a feast prepared by her heroic new lodger, a man from Kerala but trained as a chef in Japan. Food for 2 vegans, 2 pescatarians and 5 carnivores, one with assorted ‘sensitivities’. The youngest guest wore a top with lace sleeves, which turned out not to be sleeves but designs tatooed on her arms; her Thai partner was equally patterned. The oldest, whose hearing aids didn’t work, found herself next to an American academic who never spoke above a whisper. Stories round the table – the same one I’d nearly set fire to the week before – got rather competitive, but the winner was a woman from Ireland who’d survived being bitten by a particularly poisonous snake in a jungle.

A Sunday walk on Hampstead Heath, the ‘lungs of London’, kites flying high in the sky and one of the best views of the city from Parliament Hill.

Enfield Town, to scout around. Found the community library, a department store and the estate agent I’d chosen online, who was very encouraging; he’d put me on their system, but not ‘activate’ me until I was ready… A native in a cafe warned me that a lot of ‘riff-raff’ were moving into the area from the east – not Russia, but other bits of the borough. Thought I’d visit the ancient parish church for a little local heritage or a more spiritual take on the area, but it was closed.

Somewhere on this trail, I lost a favourite pearl earring, but found I didn’t mind too much. Something small and glowing left behind. Maybe one of the riff-raff would pick it up.

February 21st – February 27th, 2022

A 3-day stay with my landlady friend and a drive south of the river to Barnes, where she wanted me to meet someone who lived in a retirement complex, close to the ‘village’ pond. It was a secure and charming property, but a set-up way above my budget, as I knew it would be.

Dinner in my friend’s kitchen came close to disaster. A tealight added a bit of atmosphere and when the meal was over and she was out of the room, I started to clear things away, moving aside a pile of paper still on the table, then turned towards the sink. I smelt it before I saw it – the corner of a catalogue in the pile and a napkin were curling in merry flickers of flame. It was all over in seconds – the items thrown into the sink and the candle of course blown out, but if I’d also left the room or been a tad tipsier…

Woke up the next day to a real catastrophe in another capital on a similar latitude to London….and a man on the radio saying something about ‘war again in Europe’. The news app on my phone soon invaded by scenes of the brave city of Kiev, the enemy at the gate.

Sitting again at the eventful kitchen table, became aware I was being watched. Through the glass door that led to the garden, the amber eyes of an urban fox were looking at me. Then with a flounce of a matching tail, it was gone.

The next Notes will appear on Tuesday, March 8th.

February 15th – February 20th, 2022

Outside Waitrose, waiting with my trolley, someone stole my taxi. I’d ordered one at the customer desk, given a number to quote to the driver – but when the cab drew up, a rather substantially-sized woman appeared out of nowhere, said it was hers and gave me a death-stare. My number was on his phone, but the man looked at us nervously and hesitated. I was wearing my new combat jeans and thought for a second of ramming her junk-filled trolley with mine, but stepped aside instead, more surprised than anything. An uncivilised shopper, at Waitrose!

Talked and listened to self more than usual, trying to decide the next steps on 3 fronts: legal, financial and moving south. Put new folders together, adding to the existing stack, offsetting all the throwing out….

The gathering storm – but wanted to go to a meeting about making public buildings more dementia-friendly and got ready to go out, planning the route. Nowhere near trees or cranes; my hardest hat, in case of flying objects. But Eunice had other ideas. When the winds started to tear through the garden, my oldest tree seemed to sway, so had to stay put and keep an anxious eye on it. Next door’s Monstrosity – the plastic roof over an illegal swimming pool – was tethered by ropes to great barrels of Castrol, but struggled and struggled to escape the bounds of earth….

It failed, unfortunately; my tree survived too. The only sign of the storm the next day was an object overturned on the lawn, like some helpless metal insect, its legs up in the air – a patio chair I’d forgotten to put away.

February 8th -February 14th, 2022

Peru. Not the deepest, darkest land of Paddington Bear, but an exhibition at the British Museum. The story of a world without writing and mountain cities, rainforest, the driest deserts on earth – and human sacrifice. Lots of severed heads painted on pots.

Read our book club choice of the month – set in another lost and high society, the one of debutantes and ‘coming out’, the life of a Lady in Waiting.

When a friend cancelled our date, I went to the restaurant anyway and lunched alone, which would have been radical once. Later in the week, an aromatic body treatment – beauty therapy – was better than any counselling.

At the cathedral welcome desk again, a slightly awkward moment. A visitor told me he was a campanologist, who ran courses in the ancient, athletic art of bell-ringing and would I be interested in learning it? This deserved some sort of witty reply – there was a compliment in there somewhere – but couldn’t think of one, so just smiled a vague smile instead. Couldn’t really see myself swinging on the end of a rope in a tower…

Didn’t expect a Valentine – but the item in the letter box was the very opposite of romantic: a garden waste removal permit, something to stick on the side of my brown wheelie bin.

February 1st – February 7th, 2022

Hours spent trawling through documentation and old diaries, trying to track down a key date or two – ‘evidence’ for my solicitor – so much detail to get lost in, but a single aim in mind: to end the Horrible History with the housing association, not quite ready to cave in, after all. Also revisited my lipstick collection and applied one in a shade called Sunset Coral, resuming a routine from the Mask-Free era. And sorted out several more books for Tesco’s ‘library’, like a Portuguese dictionary in tiny print and a battered copy of ‘David Copperfield’, for the versatile reader….

An appointment in Harley Street, to thank my surgeon-acquaintance for his referral to Moorfields and talk about corrective filler treatment. Then the tube to Southwark to find the cathedral tucked away almost underneath the arches of the railway. Crossed the Bridge, passed St Paul’s and the Old Bailey, then headed north to Holborn. A personal best: 17,505 steps.

So on the fifth floor of the Bedford- with its view of Centre Point, Senate House and the roof of the British Museum – I slept long and well that night, soothed by the sounds of the city – the low hum of a hotel’s inner workings and traffic in the streets below and distant drone of aircraft in the dark glow of the sky. The Lullaby of London.

January 25th – January 31st, 2022

A reproachful email from Surrey wondered if I were still in the land of the living, because he hadn’t received the usual Christmas card – one of 3 posted in good time, which never arrived…

The Indoor Cafe opened a couple of times for visitors and kept on breathing, counting my blessings – but on another empty day, beset by questions with no answer (when would the next blow fall? when would my sight start to fail?) just didn’t know what to do with myself – so got on a bus to a nearby town. The ancient capital of Mercia, where an Offa had his palace: Tamworth. The weather was freezing, so too cold to enjoy the outdoor market and the castle was closed, but below it, two rivers as ever met – the Anker and the Tame. On the bus back, a slightly unnerving sight – elderly identical twins in identical outfits, the same hooded anoraks, the same scarves, shoes, even shopping bags…

Near dusk the same day, my app told me I was some 500 steps short of reaching the Goal, so I paced up, down and around the gravel beach at the front of the house for no apparent purpose to the outside world, back and forth, sometimes in circles, with a twiddle here and there, till at last the 10,000 steps were taken and congratulatory confetti rained down on the screen of my phone. As I went back inside, a brief glimpse of an astonished neighbour at a window – and a reputation as a local eccentric probably sealed.

January 18th – January 24th, 2022

Hibernation. Wore the same woolly socks for days, as if in a lockdown winter. A new routine in the bathroom – pro-balance, anti-dementia – which involved cleaning my teeth standing on one leg and using the brush with my left, undominant hand. This creates ‘new neural pathways’ or so the man on the radio said.

When I did go out, took the usual pleasure in deciding what to wear, truffling through the wardrobe – it’s all exercise – in search of items hiding in there somewhere. A Guild meeting – a work-related event, no dancing – and a talk by two of the Archetypes ( members of the architecture group) about Rochester and Truro cathedrals, which made me want to go there.

Then a nasty shock from the solicitor, who told me that the housing association (with which the house has an unfortunate legal link) was threatening an innocent old lady – me! – with court proceedings. Punishment for challenging their right to impose obscure service charges. Rang my elder son in a panic and we composed a response together, but this particular dragon demands to be paid and fed and can’t be slain. It’s a battle lost, not won.

January 11th – January 17th, 2022

A nice letter from the council’s Park Department, ‘delighted’ to tell me about their plans for the open space opposite the house. They were going to plant a tennis-court-sized, ‘carbon-capturing’ – Mini Forest!

Met a friend for lunch, my choice a slice of quiche with a strange texture, which turned out to be paper – a napkin stuck, unnoticed, on a soggy bottom…The manager apologised ‘unreservedly’, which sounded a bit like Boris and co.

Put on the lanyard with its turquoise ribbon and did a spot of revision about the history and architecture, ready for a welcome-guide shift at the cathedral. I was alone on duty and there were very few visitors, one a small girl who I showed where to find some tiny sculptures in the Lady Chapel, easy to miss, of angels and a unicorn. When the people had gone and the shift was over, a moment of deep peace in the great Gothic nave – where I felt the spirit of the place and the silent solace of the stones.

January 1st – January 10th, 2022

A little lighter in the afternoons – another tiny tilt towards the sun – and on the second day, a double rainbow appeared in the sky, a bright and beautiful covenant curving over the house. But the year didn’t feel that new; some things stopped, others went on.

The pretty pink pills – the beta-blockers – didn’t agree with me, so that was the end of them. Resumed the Tai Chi. The NHS counsellor offered more sessions beyond the usual cut-off point – she’d ‘learnt a lot from me’ – but thanked her and said goodbye, promising to fill in a feedback form…

The house smelt of cheese. The present from the Enfield 2 was a hamper from Selfridges, including a French cheese so ripe its mould was escaping from the little wooden box. Far too fragrant for the fridge, so I left it out to bloom a bit more, hesitant to put it in the bin. A gift, after all; maybe the new penicillin, or a cure for Covid….

The spaced-out signs on the station platform – Stay Safe and 2 footprints – almost faded away, but masks still on the trains. 24 hours in London: Docklands and Islington. Christmas trees abandoned in the streets, prostrate on the pavement, awaiting collection. Pictures at an exhibition: Late Constable, the ‘cloud king’, at the Royal Academy.

A cold, hard look at my finances, appropriate to the weather. Could I even afford a shed south of Watford? Studying the figures and making a few calculations didn’t exactly spark joy, but glad I have enough marbles left to do so. Maybe a broomcupboard….