October 19th – October 25th, 2021
My third vaccination. Then, ‘in case of complications’, had to wait for a while with other boostered elders, imagining us all being rocketed into space like those rich and famous tourists with nothing better to do. My arm felt sore and foreign for days, as if it belonged to someone else.
Only 3 of us at the Poetry Group – this month’s theme: Fire – but an expansive and adventurous conversation about old flames and executions by firing squad, funeral pyres and forest fires….
Then another trip, to another great port and a high-ceilinged house, where Pablo greeted me with touching enthusiasm. A wild waving of the pom-pom tail, then leaps and licks. He either recognised me or liked my (L’Aimant) scent…
Took thousands of steps- keeping my fitness app happy – over wide tracts of common land, rampant with squirrels, to a lake with a view of Hayling Island and down a disused road, the traffic lights now obsolete, unchanging – the red, amber and green now forever black.
My son and I did some online research on (scary) southern property prices, an unmagical tour of other people’s homes and gardens, then an aerial look at my current address, nextdoor’s massive white-tented swimming pool monstrously visible from Google Earth…
An uneventful return to the capital, but as the train neared Waterloo, an announcement told us we were going backwards in time, to where the journey had started from….and that we’d ‘soon be arriving at Portsmouth Harbour, where this train will terminate.’
October 12th – October 18th, 2021
Waited for the rain to soften them up, so I could tear the cardboard boxes into pieces small enough to fit in the bin. The Traveller had been ruthless…’know you like your boxes and baskets, Mum, but these have to go.’ A voice called out from a window high above the yard, my neighbour on the detached side, perhaps excited by the unusual activity. ‘Everything all right?’ 3 lockdowns too late.
A midweek train to Lime Street station, while the North is near enough. The hotel room, the girl said, wouldn’t be serviced during my stay, ‘very short-staffed’. Next day, a clattering ride on the metro, in a friend’s good company, under the Mersey to the Wirral peninsula and Port Sunlight, ‘built on soap’ and the Lady Lever gallery, full of pre-Raphaelite and ceramic treasure – the star object for me the abolitionist medallion (Wedgwood, 1787) showing a fellow ‘man and brother’, in chains.
The last time I did the cathedrals; this visit, the museums and statues in a city once the centre of transatlantic slavery. BLM statements prominent everywhere, promising to ‘decolonise ‘ collections and exhibitions and ‘dismantle the systems of oppression’.
In the meantime, the gulls wheeled over the great port’s skyline and the docks whence so many sailed away from poverty and famine, over the Irish sea – bound for a New World, in the leaving of Liverpool.
The next Notes will appear on Wednesday 27th October.
October 4th – October 11th, 2021
A rite of autumn. Turned on the heating for the first time since April, a bit shocked by the massive hike in my energy bill.
Printed off several e-tickets, two for another day-trip and a reunion lunch near Trafalgar Square. A diarist, a nun, a poet, a charity fund-raiser, a bank manager. The expert in orchids couldn’t make it. Convent school survivors.
No Time to Die. The usual plot – a race to save the world from a selection of villains, countless cars blowing up in spectacular scenery… Preferred Skyfall, but a comfortable thrill to sit in a deep seat in an actual cinema with a huge screen, watching the biggest movie ever made.
A friend introduced me to one of her favourite places – a local wildlife centre, once the grounds of a stately home, now a gloriously green and overgrown garden crazy with bugs and birds, with a river running through it – the Trent. An encounter with an unexpected inhabitant, lumbering towards me in a field – a large Highland cow, with horns and matted hair falling over its face. Felt for it – so far from home – and said hello, stroking its thick rusty coat, fixed by a single soulful eye. The great head swung from side to side, responding to my touch, then we both slowly turned away.
The Traveller arrived. The long reclamation process, begun by his brother in the summer, resumed in earnest….because it’s time for all their stuff, guarded for so long and transported with me in three great Moves, to be resettled under their own roofs. One of the items to leave with him was his telescope, packed back into its own long box, off to see the stars from somewhere else.
September 28th – October 3rd, 2021
A brief burst into song. A Lion King lyric. The leader asked me if I was a soprano – certainly not! – then put several sheets of music into my hand, hard to decipher. That, and the Maria Callas types in perfect harmony, would soon make joining the Social Choir a group too far – but the sound we made stayed with me for days – Can you Feel the Love Tonight? In the unlikely venue of the Methodist Church Hall…
An early commuter-time train south – a day-trip, on the last day of September. Walked from Euston to Holborn, then over Waterloo Bridge and the dear old river Thames, still rolling along. To the third therapy appointment in Docklands, where we talked about intuitive ways of making the really big decisions…
On the home front, the boiler had its annual service. Asked the man if it was all right, as if inquiring about a difficult patient. ‘It’s fine and I’ve topped the pressure right up’….then seeing the instant look of alarm on my face, added ‘ and no, it won’t blow up!’ Followed by assorted reassurances, one an elusive explanation about safety mechanisms built into modern boiler behaviour, the finale being the really magic words – ‘I’m only a call away!’ He’s a Significant Plumber.
September 21st – September 27th, 2021
My cafe companion found his brunch disappointing, the eggs served on an ordinary roll, because the muffins had run out. It was something to do with a national shortage of carbon dioxide, a by-product of fertiliser, used in food packaging – and the price of gas. Crumpets, said Google, were also under threat…
Then my flu jab appointment was cancelled, due to ‘supply issues’ and ‘unforeseen road freight challenges’ – i.e. no drivers.
A visiting speaker at my art-appreciation group took us on an expedition into the curious world of Banksy – all anti-Establishment slogans and defacements. Sometimes witty, often juvenile. We wondered if it was art, actually, then turned our attention to coffee and capitalist cupcakes, still widely available.
They say everything is connected, but things had an absurd, mad-hatter party air this week – until an email arrived from a relative who told me his aunt had died at 70 in a care home in Bath, from a common cause. A woman I knew existed, but never met. My father’s niece and therefore my first cousin. Such a close relation, forever distant. The lightest touch of Covid’s long, still-moving finger.
September 14th – September 20th, 2021
‘Let the arms float up, keep the left leg light’…. I’d forgotten most of the moves – a beginner again- but good to return to real classes in the ancient art of Tai Chi.
An old friend got off the train from London, the start of a 5-day visit – sharing sunshine in the garden, meals in and meals out, a lot of wine and conversation…. one about our different religious backgrounds. Yom Kippur, she said, was coming to an end that evening but it was never her custom to observe it.
She’s a ‘jewellery person’ – dangerous to shop with – so I planned the perfect jaunt, into Birmingham and a ‘unique historic townscape’:the Jewellery Quarter. Like children who press their noses against toy-shop windows, we peered at glittering displays behind glass…. One establishment had a Fort Knox feel, one heavy security door closing behind us before another one opened ahead, red lights changing to green then back…. Where she tried on a ring that lit up her hand – a ruby set in gold, with diamonds. The price far exceeded her credit card limit, but an arrangement was come to and she bought it anyway. An Ethiopian opal was my temptation, but thought ‘son’s wedding next year!’ and ‘solicitor!’ which soon dispatched it.
The first in-person appointment with an NHS well-being counsellor, her ‘coping strategies’ trying to meet my daily dread of the future. Both of us in masks, muffling the exchange – upstairs in the local surgery, on plastic chairs in a room without a view.
September 7th – 13th, 2021
All in order on the home front, which was good for my Mental Health, until the shower stopped working. The usual yank on the cord that turns on the kettle-like appliance above the bath, didn’t. So Dean the Electrics, whose word must be taken, came round and said it was the switch and replaced the round box on the ceiling with a ‘superior’ square one….
Filled in a feedback form about the Treasured Houses trip, then began to sort out the ground floor of my own stately pile -ready to host a large group of ladies: the Book Club – which involved the concealing and shifting of assorted piles of paper from one place to another – and an absurd outlay on cupcakes…..
A concert in the cathedral. An organ recital – the music thundering over the audience seated in the Quire, which didn’t quite reach me. And a ‘welcoming’ shift, when a visitor asked me a cosmic question about Gothic architecture and brought my old guiding role back to life…
The Traveller celebrated his birthday – in Madeira. When a child, he was always glad 9/11 hadn’t happened on the same date.
His mother remembered standing in a shop in Pimlico, London- 20 years ago – and staring at a television on a shelf – Attack on America, in capitals across the screen. And outside, the contrail of a plane dissolving into a beautiful, bright September sky.
August 24th – September 6th, 2021
Another appointment at the dental clinic near Stafford, where my poor gums were numbed up and treated to a kind of power-wash. Don’t know what was in the anaesthetic, but felt spacey for hours afterwards and my friend said I was ‘rather giggly’ on the way back.
Painted my toenails ‘butterscotch’ – not that anyone noticed – ready for the second door-to-door coach trip this year, to The Treasured Houses of Norfolk. So August ended in one of the emptiest, least populated counties in the country, where the sun didn’t shine all week, the big sky solid with cloud over the flatlands of the Fens.
Walked miles around walled and labyrinthine gardens in vast swathes of parkland, some dotted with deer – which made a change; I’ve seen a lot of sheep this summer.
Sandringham, the Queen’s ‘much-loved country retreat’ was a disappointment, but Blickling Hall, once Anne Boleyn’s childhood home, was a Jacobean delight – and Holkham Hall took us on a proper, person-led tour, which led up a marble staircase then through a drama of the interior of state rooms and salons presided over by grand people in portraits.
The company on the holiday was as expected: the usual couples married forever, several well-heeled widows – and the odd brave man on his own fond of subjects like golf and fly-fishing.
It was all pleasantly olde England; the mellow limestone town of Stamford, a ‘top place to live’, the mediaeval port of King’s Lynn – but Hunstanton was a run-down reminder of a coastal community left behind. A few forlorn donkeys on the beach. On the horizon, a faint haze – which wasn’t the weather, but the cataracted cloud in my own eyes.
One of the best visits was to a farm with fields of purple-flowering plants. And an irresistible shop, where I spent a small fortune. Which was how my favourite month began – with the timeless, consoling scent of lavender.
The next notes will appear on September 6th.
August 17th – August 23rd, 2021
A welcome crunch on the gravel. A big man with a beard, a blonde woman and a dog got out of the car: the Portsmouth 3. The house became a family home again and a canine flag soon flew in the garden, as Pablo took possession of the lawn and bushes he seemed to remember.
The two human carnivores turned pescatarian and survived well enough. They had some special news – they were getting married next year and I was the first to know. Shed a traditional tear or two.
Took advantage of their being around to get a few things done dodgy to attempt on my own. Like going up a steep ladder to the loft, to remind myself what was actually up there – a first step to clearing it out. It was time for my elder son to reclaim items once transported from London to Wigan then Lichfield, including a poker set, football albums, a darts-board….. The fiancee said she’d do her bit and sell some stuff on e-bay….
And like Devon, a lot of walking the dog – one trek a 3 mile loop around a canal reservoir called Chasewater.
On the front room rug, one of the ugliest objects I’ve ever seen – frayed and greyish brown and a funny shape for a toy – that Pablo attacked and chewed at regular intervals. A real pig’s ear. Good for the doggy nerves, apparently.
On the last morning of the visit, got up very early to work on the new, milestone post – no.50 -absorbed in a deep, familiar calm – that lasted long after the heavily laden car reversed on the gravel on to the road and drove out of sight.
August 10th – August 16th, 2021
Disconnected in deepest Devon, staying with a cousin and his wife on their 7 acre estate behind several gates marked ‘private’. With its own wood and wild meadows – and no mobile signal, unless you climbed up an nearby hill…
The other residents were two rather affectionate dogs and two hens, one a rescue hen, ex-battery, called Freda. Not to mention the local foxes and roe deer. The cousin also owned half a horse, called Trump – but his real passion was antiques. I slept in a high Victorian bed with brass knobs on; the mattress, fortunately, was 21st century…
An expedition to Dartmoor, where rustling is rife, apparently, to visit friends – warm, hospitable people, who’d missed their cruises ‘terribly’ during lockdown. And long walks in the empty landscape. Only the odd car in a narrow lane, the occasional farm. Learnt a lot of country lore, like the differences between bramble, bracken and fern and the habits of hogweed…
The cousin showed a surprising interest in the book I was reading during the visit – about the V2, the silent ballistic bomb – until he told me about the last such raid in March 1945 in London, which buried his paternal grandfather for days and killed his grandmother and an uncle….
A few hours in Exeter; a tour of the cathedral, where the guide showed us the tail-fin relic of another bomb which had flattened a chapel… Outside, the flag of St George flew at half-mast, a mark of respect for the lives lost in Plymouth the day before.
Then the long train back to my own cathedral city. The mobile hummed with news and messages, catching up with itself. I was less pleased to be back; I’d bonded with the dogs, who’d whimpered on my departure – and missed the wild wood and the moorland that seemed of another world and time.
July 20th – August 9th, 2021
Shut the computer down again, checked the back door was locked and the taps perfectly turned off, then waited for the door-to-door driver to arrive.
Several hours later, a group of mainly pensioners crossed the border at Gretna Green and put on their masks – as the rules in Scotland required. Our coach was the largest and flashiest in the parking lot, ‘luxury traveller’ emblazoned on the side….
A widower sat next to me on the coach, a nice old chap who called me Stella. Gave up correcting him. ‘Been abroad much?’ was the first of a barrage of questions. ‘Read a lot, do you?’ Answered 1 in 3….. The ‘singles’ were seated together at dinner, so some alternative company.
The itinerary was indeed ‘subject to change’ – so the cancelled visits to historic houses became boat trips, one on Loch Lomond, the other on the Forth, under 3 bridges and past an island where speckled seals sunned themselves on the rocks. A cream tea in the afternoon was shifted to lunchtime, which didn’t agree with the widower’s digestive system…
Then Glasgow and Stirling, where the castle was closed – the Wallace Monument on a hill in the distance. Our guide in Edinburgh wore a kilt and a dagger down one sock and said we’d ‘just missed the floods…’ Then told us more about his misspent youth than about the city.
A strange incident at the hotel. Came back to the room, which didn’t feel quite right. It should have been serviced, but wasn’t – and several personal items, nowhere near the bin, were missing. Like my coffee bags, biscuits, tissues, paper plates… Nothing of value, but hardly the point. Stormed off to reception and told our courier, who had a word with the General Manager and filed a report. The Household Manager insisted I accept a bottle of their best wine, as a ‘small gesture’….And later, back on base, I had my third apology by email from the Operations Manager, who couldn’t spell…
August began in London, with my second therapy appointment near Southwark Park, staying overnight with the friend in Tufnell Park, whose lodger I may become. Then the tube to Hampstead and lunch with an ex-colleague, last met in March last year, only days before the whole country shut down.
A wild wind blew around the house in the Midlands and rocked a cradle in the treetop. In the morning, a broken bough lay on the lawn and near it the twiggy remains of a nest. And two broken eggs, the shells thin and white, a trace of yellow yolk on the grass.
July 13th – July 19th, 2021
The next Notes…will appear on August 9th.
Dire warnings from the Singles dating site – your messages and photos will be destroyed – didn’t stop my deleting the account.
A walking tour, with the Architecture Group – one a man I like a lot, who introduced me to his wife – a curt nod – a woman with a severely structured handbag, adding to a Thatcher air. He and I shared the odd glance – more interesting than the timber-framed buildings and mediaeval chimneys – an attraction still alive, but with nowhere to go.
My patio cafe re-opened and a friend and I sat under the 9-lobed, leafy shade of the fatsia japonica and talked geography and destiny….. the directions our lives had taken so far, one of us rooted in the Midlands, the other with several tendrils, but no roots anywhere.
Freedom Day, when so many legal requirements were lifted, but the hairdresser and I kept our masks in place; usually a sunny soul, she said she saw lockdown 4 on the horizon. Sections of my hair turned ‘sea glass’ green….
Loud shrieks from next door’s pool – the curse, so far, a failure; wanted to scream myself, but began to sweat instead -or ‘glow’ as my mother would have said. So spent the last few hours soaking my feet in my own mini-pool – a bowl of water chilled by a berg-like lump of ice from the freezer, until an Amazon delivery van drew up outside, and I had to splash my way to the door…
July 7th – July 12th, 2021
Shut down the computer, locked both doors, then took another train, crossing half the country to the coast…
For a visit to the Portsmouth 3 – and a miles-long walk with my elder son and his dog along an overgrown, muddy path that went on forever, above historic ramparts, defences built against a French invasion that never arrived: the Hilsea Lines on Portsea island. A sparkling ribbon of water in the distance – the Port Creek, heading to a harbour and the sea….
Dinner at Loch Fyne, Gunwharf Quays, once a naval base. Fish and chips taken to a heavenly level… then, last night – moderately excited – we watched the Euro final, (England v. Italy, who looked like hitmen in the Mafia) to the bitter, barbaric end. One commentator said, penalties are ‘sport’s answer to Russian roulette’…
An outside cafe in Eustonia, the area around Euston, London, where I acquainted my sons’ father with his ex-wife’s health situation. When we said goodbye, it was a faint, friendly echo of another ending – a divorce that divided a family created decades ago, but did not destroy it.
June 29th – July 6th, 2021
The Ladies – my garden angels – worked their wonders outside; the weeds soon vanished and while one moved a weary phlox to a Better Place in the border, the other trimmed the yucca from below -‘lifting its skirt’, she called it – to dramatic and floating effect. I worked too, beginning to clear the outhouse of unwanted items. Leant one against the lamp-post with a note attached: FREE BAR STOOL! X A few minutes later it was gone, as if someone had been watching and waiting for it….
In the town centre, a tiny man played a lot of pipes – the ‘music of the Andes.’ On his head, a large spiky starburst affair of feathers – a bit like the yucca – which shook when he stamped his foot.
24 hours in London; overnight in the largest hotel in the UK, the Royal National, in one of the 1,630 rooms. The Jubilee Line to Southwark, to see a transpersonal psychotherapist – an in-depth approach that helped me once before in my mid-thirties. Cried a river, but managed to tell her about the recent diagnosis and its impact. She spoke a language I’d forgotten but understood, referring to a ‘heart centre’ and ‘higher self’…..
Lunch the next day in Bloomsbury, still so Georgian and pre-War in character, in an oasis of a hotel garden. Then the Traveller and I returned to the British Museum and another exhibition, this one about a murder in a cathedral in 1170 and the ‘making of a saint’ – Thomas a Becket.
Watched England beat Germany, then Ukraine. Triangles of text messages flew between the Midlands, Enfield and Portsmouth, where another fan – Pablo – was also glued to the screen, barking loudly when goals were scored, then running round the room – as if on his own playing field….
June 21st – June 28th, 2021
A few days in Enfield, the northernmost borough of London, to stay with my younger son (the Traveller) and his GP wife. There was a lot to talk about – sea changes both sides – their calm company and informed advice a great comfort.
Walked miles – through parks and wetlands, over bridges, past historic buildings, one a Barclays bank with a plaque commemorating the opening, in 1967, of the first hole-in-the-wall cash machine in the country. (My health app was very pleased with me – I’d earned lots of ‘heart points’). Something tedious on TV: a Euro match at Wembley, England pottering around the pitch with the Czech Republic, though not as deadening as the latest Downing Street briefing about ‘coming forward’ for the jab – which took repetition to a new level….
Back on base, arranged 7 chairs on the patio, ready for the art appreciation group I was hosting. Our subject was to start with D – so Dufy, Dix, Durer… It was a bit cold and when we went inside, I withdrew to the kitchen, to keep to the Rule of 6.
The last member of the group to leave came close. It would have been a fully vaccinated farewell kiss or hug, but we hesitated and settled for a light touch on the arm instead. It’s the new awkward.
The next entry will be on Wednesday 7th July.
June 15th – June 20th, 2021
A glint in the gravel – a metal ring and dangling from it, the crowned eagle of Kracow, belonging to the letter-box key that vanished two weeks ago.
A rather unwell and empty week, brightened by an afternoon in a garden, serenaded by birds, where Book Club talked about the choice of the month, the author a Yorkshire Shepherdess with a flock of children…. A date in Stafford fell through, so took self to an exhibition of ancient books from the cathedral’s own library, including The Anatomy of Melancholy, about concepts of mental illness in Tudor times…..
And being of disturbed mind myself, I did a bad thing. I drew a sketch of the latest addition to nextdoor’s theme park, a huge canopy above a swimming pool, rising high above the fence and so blighting any peace in my garden. Then intoned a light curse (my own composition) ‘wishing no harm to any living thing’ – and lit a match… The picture burned for a few moments, then I dropped it into the water in the kitchen sink. But becoming a witch was not the best way forward, and besides, the Universe wouldn’t like it. The faint smell of fire lingered for hours.
June 8th -14th, 2021
A train north to Crewe, then Wigan, where I wandered round the Grand Arcade, now far from grand – the big-name shops shut down, except for dear old Boots….
The room at the Premier Inn was sealed, with a window that couldn’t be opened, so one night was enough. Beyond the glass, a view of the Magistrates Court, with the huge figure of an angel holding the scales of justice built into the brick.
The next day, lunch at a country pub called The Travellers’ Rest with a man met only once before, in 2016 – at my ex-partner’s funeral. The food part was tricky – my appetite vanished in April – but good to share memories of the irreplaceable professor.
A drive to Lowton and an address in Slag Lane, where I used to live with the prof. Got out of the car for a few minutes, to look round the outside of the house. The garden was sadly neglected, the clematis torn from the wall, an apple tree cut down. A tattered grey towel hung on my washing line.
Then a short walk, arm in arm, round Pennington Flash, a lake created by subsidence – legacy of the coal mine once in the area. My companion was kind, but couldn’t tell him too much, so ended the afternoon early, before the tide of distress in me rose too high.
Back on base, my current address, I tried to take one day at a time. Applied a lot of suncream, kept clean and tidy and popped an anti-anxiety pill, which didn’t work. Then a friend made in Paris in 1968 phoned unexpectedly. She listened for quite a while, then threw me a lifeline from London. When she said that whatever happened there was always a home for me at her house, the tide broke.
June 1st – June 7th, 2021
A mental health assessment, over the phone. The young woman from the Well-Being team had a very long list of questions, about my ethnicity, sexual orientation, use of recreational drugs and criminal past, if I had one. Did I have any thoughts of self-harm? Not really, I said. Or – sounding a bit nervous now – of harming anyone else? This was a yes – I’d like to flatten the hedge-killers next door – but lied and said no…..
Managed to mislay the little key to the letter-box, so spent more than an hour looking for it, checking through the rubbish in the recycling bin, piece by piece, in case I’d thrown away the key with the junk mail….but no sign of it.
Two key conversations – the first with an old friend who knows, really knows, how visual a mind mine is, and the other with my cousin in Surrey, who said I had a Window and it was time to make a Plan to return south, where I’d have more support. An idea dismissed as unthinkable, until now….
Lay in bed one morning and watched a sizeable spider make its way across the ceiling, but didn’t mind, glad I could still see it. Later, sitting outside, I came close to killing some ants, but perfectly pointless – millions more in a nest somewhere – so watched them as well. And while they skuttled across the stones in crazy, zigzag patterns, a text came through from the NHS mental health people. They could offer me counselling – but it would be a ‘short-term intervention’ only and not until September…
May 25th – May 31st, 2021
Kept breathing, sometimes through a straw – one of the Zen pharmacist’s tips – and began to use the new smart machine, twice a day, watching its blank screen get busy measuring the pressure of my blood, calculating the beatings of my heart….
Realised I was powerless to stop the wholesale destruction of the front hedge, because, my peasant neighbour shouted, ‘most of the root system’ was on her side…. and argument was futile.
London. A day trip to spend a few hours with the Traveller, who agreed that a ‘bad thing’ had happened to my health but tried to cheer me up – ‘not a cure yet, Mum’… Lunch outdoors, a lot of Italian dishes on a too-small table in a street near the British Museum, then an exhibition about Nero – ‘the man behind the myth’ – emperor of ancient Rome, who died at the age of 30, having ordered the murder of 2 wives, his mother and members of a sect called Christians… a diverting dose of culture.
Late one night, a satanic red glow behind an upstairs window. Next door were having a bonfire – no trip to the tip for them – burning branches, piles of vegetation and probably what remained of a once-beautiful boundary: the hedge.
May 18th – May 24th, 2021
A mission near-impossible – making a face-to-face appointment with a GP; patient access online a sick joke. At the 11th attempt, got through to the surgery and past the receptionist questionnaire… till a doctor finally got back to me, booked me in, then told me to buy myself something from Boots….
Bought a copy of the Big Issue, to remind the universe I was quite a good person and to please hold the punches for a while, but came home one day to discover a gaping hole in the living boundary shared with my next-door neighbour. A whole section of an established hedgerow had been removed – with no warning or communication.
An outing through country lanes, the Staffordshire moorlands a dull blue in the distance, a pheasant flying over a field – a mottled streak with a long tail. Learnt the difference between the British bluebell and Spanish invader and how a single carrot fly can ‘kill a crop’ and liked the black tulips, but a cold wind made the Open Garden event hard to enjoy and knew I was poor company.
A consulting room without a window, at the back of Boots, where a young pharmacist with spiky hair showed me how to use a blood pressure monitor. The important thing, he said, was to relax before taking a reading – whereupon the demonstration of a device morphed into a lesson in meditation, focussing on the best ways to breathe and slow the beat of the heart….
May 11th – May 17th, 2021
Swept the patio, which was to have its own beauty treatment. A hose soon snaked through the window, but the tap connector didn’t bond that well with the tap, so little jets of water hit the kitchen floor… Asked the new man to go easy on the power-washing pressure, but think he went a bit mad, because my lovely subtle sandstone now shines rather too bright…
An afternoon that altered everything, as I knew it would; an appointment at a huge hospital 13 miles away, where the staff were as concerned about my blood pressure – sky high – as anything else. Photos, scans and tests in 5 or 6 different rooms, then they told me I had not one but two eye problems, the second a condition without a cure. So the bomb went off, but quietly – more like the soft thud of a door closing on the life led before. Only one thing helped: the courteous kindness of everyone I met, from receptionist to consultant. And the calm presence of a friend waiting for me in the car park – for nearly 3 hours – with a flask and a book.
So cold for May. When the rain-dance paused for a moment, I wandered into the garden, glad it was still there. A bush planted quite a while ago had burst into bloom for the very first time. Drank in its scent, a scent like no other. Lilac wine.
May 4th – May 10th, 2021
A home visit. Sat in the same room with someone not my family – the local bubble formed far too late in the day, but an occasion, even so. Separate sofas, windows wide open, but no masks….She’d never been upstairs, so showed her the rooms at the top – and the airing cupboard – with an odd detachment, as if to a prospective buyer of the house.
The new man cutting the grass seemed a bit unsteady on his feet, weaving about the lawn with his machine…. Surely not, so early in the day…. but he was only showing his creative side, trying to mow the lawn in wavy stripes, to echo the line of the path…
Sharpened a pencil specially, then took it to the polling station, where voting was a more colourful affair than usual, with forms in lilac, green and white, with labels on the boxes coded to match – but all the candidates up for election were ‘passionate about local issues’ so ticked Independents all round, who must have something brave about them…
So a few things happened – but waiting for the hospital appointment is like living with a time-bomb, ticking quietly in a corner, that nothing can defuse.
April 26th – May 3rd, 2021
On the train again – to a small town near Stafford and a dental clinic near a churchyard. Where the senior practitioner took lots of invasive photographs and told me my gums were in trouble and needed ‘a tighter collar’. A damaged molar at the back, he added, would have to go -‘it has no future.’ Poor tooth, I know how it feels…
Another ‘close-contact service’. The therapist waxed indignant about a twenty-something ex-client of hers who lied about being a carer so she could jump the queue and get vaccinated… The aromatic massage treatment was soothing, but its effects didn’t last for long and most of the week was on autopilot, a spectator of my usual routines.
Coffee out, sitting at a table in the street, layered up against the chill in the air. When I told my friend about the current situation – leaving the teeth out of it – she set the grandparent and handicraft stories aside and really listened – which got me through the rest of that day. Opposite the cafe, the Argos store was closed down. A few doors away, little was left n Debenhams. Rows of empty shelves and rails and on the ground floor, a huge open container piled high with hundreds of shiny black hangers – lean pickings for a shopper-vulture.
April 20th – April 25th, 2021
A chilling warning from Google on the new phone – access to my accounts had been ‘compromised’….TAKE ACTION, it said, in red – but all the security settings revealed were some ‘weak’ passwords. So I strengthened them, messing them about, making them quite impossible to remember, so had to write them all down. Then a message from Microsoft, who wouldn’t let me look at my emails, because of some ‘unusual recent activity’…..
A nicer message – a re-link with the Lowton years, when I lived in a village near Wigan. A friend of my professor, met only once before -at his funeral – got in touch and looked forward to meeting up again, to ‘reminisce’about him.
A group meeting in a garden, face to distanced face – but sharing more news and gossip than ‘art appreciation’ in the sheer pleasure of being together again, in person.
London, for only 4 hours – a trip on an almost empty train, sitting near a door, for the ventilation. My consultation was in Marylebone, an easy walk. In Wimpole Street, lettering in the wall of no. 50: ‘in a house on this site’ lived Elizabeth Barrett Browning, until her elopement with a fellow poet in 1846. Euston station was uncrowded – such a pleasant change – and on the return journey, the seats smelt faintly of disinfectant. Northwestern trains, ‘keeping our passengers safe’…
April 12th – April 19th, 2021
‘And how are you today?’ When I replied, ‘a bit fragile’, the nurse looked alarmed. ‘Any symptoms?’ No – so up the sleeve rolled, ready for the second jab of AZ. A new, uncelebrated status: one of the fully vaccinated classes.
Had my hair done – the works – two days after the doors opened again. She’d put in the usual platinum highlights, but had some wonderfully frivolous questions…. Did I want to stick with the streaks of teal or fancy a few streaks of violet? Then, in the unique sanctuary of a salon, we began to catch up on the more serious stuff – the threat to my sight and Sharon’s struggle with long Covid….
A shift at the cathedral, open for private prayer at a time of national mourning. A portrait of Prince Philip in uniform rested near the altar and arrangements of roses and lilies a bit past their best. The most solemn part of the funeral on television – when the coffin was lowered into the vault – was missed by an insistent knock on the door. A masked man, holding a crate. The Tesco delivery, an hour early.
Kept busy. Forced self to eat, finished the prosecco. Made some seasonal switches, like putting the boots in a basket downstairs back into the bottom of the wardrobe, replaced by lighter spring shoes…. Cleared piles of pine needles, watered the plants – several cans. Little lumps of dark foliage told me that a favourite called Actaea Simplex that I thought quite lost to the winter, was still alive and growing in the raised bed.
April 6th – April 11th, 2021
Wrote a message of thanks to the MP, whose intervention finally forced a proper response from an association that ignored solicitor’s letters. I would let him know how I got on with trying to sever the link between it and me – a ‘little local Brexit….
Should have gone to Specsavers a year ago, before the coronavirus came. Expected to choose a pair of smart new glasses, but a special scan you had to ask for showed up some serious ‘changes to the back of the eye.’ The rest of the appointment was – a blur. Sat in the Square for a long time afterwards, trying to absorb the shock. A few market stalls, not many customers. A trader yelled something about punnets of raspberries.
Back in the house, watched the news. The pictures on the screen were clear enough, the words beneath less so. The presenters all wore black and talked about Prince Philip’s death earlier the same day. One, waxing a bit poetic, referred to ‘the dying of the light.’
My new phone ignored all this; an NHS app congratulated me on the number of steps I’d taken that week – a lot of ‘heart points’ apparently – and Amazon had ‘great news!’ for me too. My parcel had been dispatched.
March 29th – April 5th, 2021
The visitor wasn’t entirely polite, making an immediate inspection of the property, trotting round corners and sniffing round the furniture. Shown the garden, he took liberties with the lawn – but my son and partner have trained their Shih Tzu well, so no puddles in the house… A year old, but still with a puppy vibe, he ignored me for a while, then decided to accept this new presence in his life, offering his paw by way of introduction, then licking my hands or face at frequent intervals….
An Easter blessing: the hermitage became a family home again; I hadn’t seen the Portsmouth Pair for 14 months. It was strange to smell meat cooking in the oven – they’re committed carnivores, I’m a practising pescatarian. The weather was warm enough to sit outside and sip wine in the evening sun.
Several outings, one far afield – to the rather featureless Cannock Chase, once a royal hunting forest. Another took us to a local wooded area with a meandering stream, where the trees opened up to a very wide open space of green, shrub and heath-land, the cathedral in the far distance. The same uninterrupted view a pilgrim or farmer in a cart would have seen approaching the city centuries ago. Pablo found someone to play with, also off the leash. When other walkers appeared on the path, they – or we -stepped very well back, waiting for them to pass – the only sign of our troubled times….
When the visitors left earlier today, the house felt empty, but I did not. A breeze blew through a window, the breath of another spring – cool, but kind.
March 23rd – March 28th, 2021
A year after Lockdown 1 was announced, I stood still in the nave of the cathedral, waiting for the bell in the tower to toll for the start of the National Silence to honour the thousands lost… A Silence deep but softly broken – by the repeated clicks of a camera recording the occasion.
The next day, a surprise in the letter-box – a copy of The Guardian. On Page 2, a large photograph showing me, my companion and other ‘worshippers’ spaced out in the nave, framed by the ancient pillars…..
Pathos in the park. A man in a yellow jacket and helmet, one of a team, was sawing deep into the side of what was once a whole, proud tree. It had already lost its crown, all its branches reduced to stumps. A long rope tethered it to a van parked some distance away. People passing by stopped to watch the tall form sway, then seem to right itself – resisting the rope – till the base broke clean across and what remained crashed to the ground. Then the man who had made the final cut sat down on the fallen trunk, as if on some great beast shot on safari.
Shifted some stuff around in the house, especially items at floor or low-level – to make some dog-proof or friendly space for a visitor soon to arrive.
March 16th – March 22nd, 2021
A tall, familiar figure, a rucksack on his back, breasted the hill near the house and crossed the green. The Traveller son, my Official Bubble. The long hug was lovely, but a slight shock to the system – the first physical contact for 7 months, except for the jab by a gloved hand.
So my special day, in total isolation last year, was spent in company inside and out. A friend turned up with some bubbly and sang a socially-distanced ‘happy birthday’ and we clapped on the doorstep. There was quite a long list of tasks to-help-mum, like some heavy lifting, but the most important one was to set up my main present: a new smartphone…..transferring the Sim and umpteen apps, customising the screen, shifting the icons around…
Several veggie meals and slightly heated discussions later – about Biden and Meghan and an in-law behaving badly – the Traveller left for London. The house and I were bereft – but there was now a new toy to play with. Sent a tentative text or two and soon discovered that the dear old Samsung’s successor had its own little ways. It tolerated its buttons being pushed, but preferred to be flicked or swiped…. I’m a bit in awe of my Google Pixel. Things happen on it very fast and its display face is very bright, its body super sleek; not sure if I can live up to it.
Found a new property maintenance person, a young man very proud of his state-of-the-art grass-cutting machine, so I admired its assorted accessories. He said nice things about the garden -‘a happy lawn, nice and springy under my feet.’ He’ll never replace my former Mr Fixit, my friend and life-coach, now retired – but he’ll do.
March 8th – March 15th, 2021
The fence trembled and a UFO landed in the garden, flung by the gale-force winds. It looked like a deflated dinghy, probably from the plastic pool in next door’s theme park.
The desktop mouse had its own mini-meltdown. The little red light went off and on,then the cursor began to dance all over the screen before freezing in a corner. Moved a button on the back of the mouse from side to side, which it didn’t like, then put in a new battery, which it did. Changed the bed sheets for the first time in 3 months, then emptied the trays under the toaster. The crumbs were quite a variety – from tiny sand-like specks to blackened irregular lumps, that made me think of a meteor. When I shared this observation with a friend, she sounded a bit worried. ‘You really need to get out more…’
A video arrived of Pablo, the puppy. It was his birthday and my son’s partner had put a party hat on his fluffy black head. He was also rolling a bottle around on the floor – Pawsecco!
Completed the Census. Was I a Christian or ‘ of no religion’? This was tricky. I love Easter and the fabric of the church, but never take communion. I believe in angels and a Higher Power, but not the Virgin birth. Had to leave the question unanswered; there wasn’t enough space on the form to speak my spiritual truth, as Oprah would say.
March 1st – March 7th, 2021
A man stood by the Pool, making low clucking sounds, talking to the ducks, who quacked back. Lockdown loneliness can do funny things to a person, though he might just have been into ducks.
Amazon told me the package containing a bottle of my favourite perfume was now in my letterbox, which was empty. Waited a few days, then started a chat with someone in customer service, who was ‘so sorry to have caused me this distress.’ Made a suitably brave response and he thanked me for my ‘kind understanding’. A replacement would be sent out at once, the courier company informed. Was there anything else he could help me with? He seemed to enjoy his job, so I updated my delivery instructions etc but he wasn’t quite ready to let me go…Was I happy with the service I’d received today? The new package arrived as promised and a few days later, the original item ordered turned up in the letterbox…. So the future is very fragrant.
A walk in the park. No hug or kiss, of course, and my companion and I stayed apart on the path, swapping scraps of news and Netflix tips. Then we turned to the Meghan and Harry horror show. She was definitely going to watch it; I wasn’t sure – but it all, we agreed, went back to Diana….
February 23rd – February 28th, 2021
The letter on posh cream paper didn’t impress my MP, whose office asked me to re-send it by email. So I filled in a ‘web-form’ and off it went again. Only few hours later, a personal reply came back – he’d ‘raise the issues on my behalf’…… An unlikely knight, perhaps, but one prepared to take a poke at the local dragon – the association that seems to own most of the land in our fair city.
The ‘road map’ out of lockdown sounded sensible, but the thought of umpteen more un-bubbled weeks tipped me over an edge. The usual counting-my-blessings line of defence didn’t work this time. So calls were made to my lads, both hard at work hundreds of miles away and an SOS text sent to a friend, who said I should have reached out sooner, but have my pride…
A mini-Lent. 7 dry days, but ate some lardy cake, one of the most fattening things on the planet – so went on a counter-cakewalk, an extra lap round the Pool. The next day’s breakfast was meant to be a treat: a meat-free fry-up, but the ‘plant-based bacon’ rashers, cooked according to instructions, had the taste and texture of some alien creature, nothing like a pig, with slightly slimy skin…
War-baby-boomers were taught not to throw food away, so I had a word with my mother, who died in 1963, to explain the situation. The second chat this week. She would have been 110 yesterday.
February 15th – February 21st, 2021
Strange goings-on next door. Not the semi-detached Polish side, but the others – a lumpen lot who don’t do neighbourly conversation and keep an empty shopping trolley in the front yard. Bangings, thumps, raised voices, then a crash. Expected an ambulance or police car at least, not an ordinary van and only two men in helmets, bright jackets and masks – who removed several items from the house, including a broken bath and toilet pedestal, which lay on the pavement for hours. Will never know what actually happened, (a collapsed ceiling, the bath falling into the front room, one of the sizeable sons still inside?) but took a perverse comfort in it all. Nice not to be the only one with domestic dramas….
Corona cases and death rates falling fast – but after nearly a year numbed by the numbers and graphs – ‘next slide, please’ – the good news was as hard to take in as the bad. Except for one shining statistic: my elder son had his first jab, much earlier than expected.
Still felt very February, but a sign of spring in the garden. Selected an apple from the storage tray in the outhouse, put it on the grass and waited. Moments later, two blackbirds hopped out of the bushes. One seemed to nudge the apple towards the other, in a kind of bird ball-game. Then they touched beaks and began to flap about, fighting over the fruit. Either that, or they were cementing their relationship…..
February 8th – February 14th, 2021
Woke up one morning to an icy house, because the heating hadn’t come on and fault signs were flashing on the boiler. A little prayer to the god of all things plumbing, then I knelt, turned the black knob beneath the Baxi, to top up the water pressure, then waited for the sinister hiss in the system…. This worked, but rang the man anyway with a few questions about boilers behaving badly in winter and when best to adjust the timer. ‘Some people,’ he said politely,( not ‘older women living on their own’) ‘over- think their boilers….’
The key kept sticking in the back door, so squirted some WD40 in the general direction of the lock – which also worked – and did a dark materials laundry, but nothing really happened. No more distant relations emerged out of the ether. Watched a few more crime cases – oddly restful – and The Dig, for a spot of culture, a film about Anglo-Saxon treasure.
Walked into the centre, for a change. It was still there. Not quite a ghost town, but icing on the pavements and few people around. Sale signs everywhere in the windows of shops still shut and behind the glass doors of stores closed for good, piles of unopened mail. A man in a mask waved at me from across the street. Waved back, but had no idea who he was…
February 1st – February 7th, 2021
A friend rang. ‘I’ve just had my jab!’ The question of late 2020, ‘What tier are you in?’ has now mutated to -‘Have you been ‘done’ yet?’
Posted a proper letter – posh cream paper, matching envelope – to the House of Commons, Westminster: a request for advice about my dispute with the local – and very powerful – housing association. I last wrote to my MP in Camden, in 1988, a much louder cry for help, trapped in a tiny flat on the 8th floor, with two children.
A couple of ‘new’ relatives I never knew existed. One dead, one alive – a man in his 30s who found me on ancestry.com, then on Twitter, who turned out to be my first cousin (once removed). His email told me about his late father, a poet, my uncle’s elder son. When I told my first cousin (unremoved) about this development, she filled me in on some delicious family history: scandals and fallings out and a recently uncovered heroic tale about another young relative from the Great War, who set explosives in tunnels under enemy lines…
Out for a walk one day, I found a flight of steep metal stairs – Tesco’s fire-escape. Perfect for adding a little ‘uphill effort’, as my son had instructed. So I climbed right up to the top, rather pleased with self. Then a voice from far below.
‘Are you all right up there?’
A security guard had spotted me. The Hulk in a black uniform, a radio close to one ear.
‘It’s ok,’ I said,’ just doing a bit of extra exercise!’
A long careful look, then he called up again – very slowly, as if talking down a possible suicide.’
‘Better come down now, madam…’
January 25th – January 31st, 2021
The snowman slowly sank to the ground and melted into himself. Built by local children, with twigs for arms, he’d stood guard outside the house for three days. My contribution was a carrot – to make a traditional nose.
A shot in the arm. No queue at the surgery, where a retired doctor turned to a tiny vial of vaccine with a silver top, containing 10 doses of the most precious resource in the world, and gave one of them to me.
But nothing really changed. Ordered the odd item online – to have something, if not someone, to look forward to. The school playground nearby was still deserted. Newly installed by the path around the Pool – a bench with a shiny brass plaque: ‘in loving memory of Marjorie, 1940 -2020’ but heavy breathers still jogged past, going round in circles….
Walking, however, felt more – purposeful, and the Traveller set me a new target: a minimum of 2 hours a week, ‘with some uphill effort’. When I pointed out how flat the area was – no handy hills – he said I’d just have to find a few gentle slopes – or steps, even – and ‘think positive!’
January 19th – January 24th, 2021
Tuesday. The letter came, translated into 16 languages. An invitation to make an appointment online at a vaccination centre ‘near me’, which turned out to be a 10 mile taxi or train ride away – so I aborted the form.
Played a few mind games, trying to do something different each day, to add a bit of variety to lockdown life – like using only the back door instead of the front and eating my main meal not in the evening but much earlier. Devised a few word-wheels too, setting self a silly target or two – like finding 78 words from President – central letter ‘e’, verb forms ending in ‘s’ allowed…. (achievable)
A walk through the ancient churchyard on the hill, surprised by snowdrops. A lone man followed the same frozen path – and a moment of unease, but only because I’ve seen too many crime series: scenic murders set in Wales, L.A. or Morecombe Bay….
Also watched the Inauguration across the pond, moved less by the songs and speeches than by the field of flags below Capitol Hill.
Friday. A text arrived, inviting me to make an appointment…at the local surgery. The receptionist sounded as excited as I was. Asked only one question: which vaccine is it? Jodie, who might have been Julie – haven’t worn the hearing aid for months – wasn’t sure, but rushed off to find out. ‘It’s the Oxford one!’ I was thrilled, grateful and proud. Made in Britain!
The sky turned very pale and snow fell, the heaviest for many years. A great drift of white settled around the house and the doorsteps disappeared.
January 12th – January 18th, 2021
A knock on the door alerted me to the Amazon parcel left on the step. No sign of the person who put it there. Was about to go back inside when there was a stirring in the bushes and a startled bird shot up in the air. A moment later, a man emerged, doing up his trousers. A sheepish backward glance, then he leapt into his van and sped away. Wasn’t bothered – the poor lad was only answering the call of nature and probably doing the ground a bit of good, as well…..
A short piece appeared in a volunteer newsletter, keeping the little journalistic flame alive. A review began of the contents of the filing cabinet – my paperwork HQ – drawer by drawer. A new domestic marathon. Kept some key bills from the water supply company, but dumped years of ‘special-offer invitations’ to take out extra ‘plumbing protection’ against a long list of horrors like blocked drains and burst pipes….
Shifted any appointments to the spring, waiting and hoping for the only date that seems to count, the one the NHS will set. In the same city, hundreds of slightly older people – heathens and believers alike – lined up for doses of what one called ‘modern holy water’, dispensed in an ancient place of pilgrimage and sanctuary, now a mass vaccination centre. The cathedral I can see from my kitchen window.
January 5th – January 11th, 2021
My long-distance Bubble, the Traveller, had a Daring Plan. This involved a private testing service, a walk from Enfield to Euston and a train north – but head conquered heart again, so no, best not…..and the Tiers soon began to dissolve into the third National Lockdown.
Then, a Symptom. I’m a toast person, but thought I’d sample the special breakfast cereal bought for the visitors, expecting a festive flavour of chocolate and fruit, but it tasted strange, more like cardboard. And drinks that day were dishwater in my mouth. Otherwise, I felt fine and after all, it was well over a week since the dicing-with-death dive into Debenhams….
Took the cards down, revisiting the lovely pictures and messages, especially one from a very old friend, presumed dead. We hadn’t been in touch for quite a while and he hadn’t replied to my email back in April.
Yet another dank, dark, grey morning, but pushed self outside, as if in a wheelchair. The afternoon was brighter, so put on the duvet-coat for the second time and went out for another short walk – realising, moments later, that I was breaking one of the Rules: exercise permitted only once a day. Was the man in an unmarked van parked over there a spy?
For some reason, this transgression cheered me up no end and when I returned to the house – The Hermitage – and made some coffee and the familiar aroma filled the kitchen, I knew it would taste just as it should, like the real thing.
December 22nd, 2020 – January 4th, 2021
Christmas came and went. On Boxing Day, a shift at short notice; someone couldn’t make it. On the way to the cathedral, a flash of blue knees – a man jogging past me on the path, wearing a red and white Santa hat. Some visitors lit candles, others sat in silence in the nave. A woman wept. 28 people counted in and out, if you included a large infant, enraged to be confined in his buggy.
On the way back, a Moment of Weakness – a brief dive into Debenhams’ closing-down sale. It wasn’t crowded, but the top floor wasn’t well-ventilated and a sense of unease lingered for days. The beautiful bowls I came out with may not have been a bargain.
Storm Bella passed over the city. Snow fell, but soon turned to slush then overnight, to ice. The lids of the bins froze shut.
The 31st. Big Ben tolled time on Brexit, the huge historic moment ruined by a TV presenter who didn’t know when to shut up. Covid carried on regardless – still in control. Most of the Midlands slid into Tier 4, where Staying at Home was the Law, as before. And in this way, one year died into another and the century turned 21.
December 15th – December 21st, 2020
Frustration – the kind only a computer can create. WordPress decided to update its ‘manager mode’ software. The familiar icons disappeared and the user-friendly ways of inserting or moving images and text went awol. So the new post had a long and difficult birth.
The quarantined self kept busy, getting ready for the much-loved visitors. Bedding washed or aired, presents wrapped for the puppy, the walls decked not with holly but with the odd angel and pine cones with glitter on….
Saturday night and tears before bedtime.The last-minute briefing from Boris cancelled Christmas, after all. The drive up from Portsmouth, now Tier 4, would have had a good excuse – an unbubbled isolation, nothing Barnard Castle – but we decided the risk wasn’t worth it.
The Solstice. Hoped to see a Great Light: the conjunction of Saturn and Jupiter, but there was too much cloud cover. The only bright object in the longest night sky was the street lamp, now shining again, repaired by an unseen hand.
The Diary is taking a break. It will resume on January 4th or 5th, 2021.
December 7th – December 14th, 2020
The street lamp nearest to the house stopped working, plunging the front garden into darkness. Reporting the fault was like going down a virtual worm-hole of websites, forms and tick-boxes. Lighting, it turned out, had been outsourced; the council had nothing to do with it….
A shift at the cathedral, now open only ‘for prayer and reflection’ was very quiet, because the few visitors who wandered in soon departed. I lit 3 candles for people past and thought of adding several more – for others still alive – but that would have seemed on the showy side.
A few last errands before the 10th, delivering cards by hand and queuing in the Post Office to have my large parcel weighed and sent south. ‘What exactly’s in it?’ the counter person demanded. A bit nosy, I thought but told her : a tea-towel, 2 pillowcases, 3 stocking fillers and an aromatherapy set. She wasn’t too happy about the last item, so consulted her list of Prohibited and Restricted Goods. Which I looked up later too, for interest/future reference. Essential oils were all right, but no aerosols, no alcohol, no ammunition. And no hair removal cream…
When I came back, I shut the front door on the outside world, but only for two weeks this time – to make Christmas as risk-free as possible. A new quarantine – but by choice, not edict.
December 1st – December 6th, 2020
The city centre, now in Tier 3, and a dip into the dying Debenhams. A slightly ghoulish goodbye, but went rolling home with a bargain – a cabin case on wheels.
Two appointments. The new dentist, now trained not to call me ‘my dear’, had his revenge and charged me the earth to repair a filling, scale and polish. Then the hairdresser, happy to be open again. My blue streaks soon fell to the salon floor…
My very own Black Friday. The culprit, a kettle – which suddenly stopped working. Tried it in a different socket, which upset my very own circuit-breaker in the fuse box. Everything went off. So, on an icy morning, no heating, no lighting, no computer, no coffee, nothing. Properly panicked, then rang the electrician, who came within the hour. An unlikely angel in a beanie I couldn’t hug, whose mobile never stopped ringing. Threw the kettle away, but a new Appliance Anxiety set in….
Santa’s Grotto made its annual camp appearance in a neighbour’s front garden. Yards of fairy lights, elves climbing and twinkling up a drainpipe, a blow-up snowman and family and a reindeer leaping across the roof.
A plan was hatched for the Portsmouth 3 to drive up here for Christmas. Pablo the puppy in the back and a chicken in an ice-box in the boot for them, festive fish for me.
November 24th – November 30th, 2020
A cold day, but threw open all the windows and put on a mask, preparing for the plumber. Who sighed and shivered and fitted a new thermostat on a bedroom radiator, then adjusted the pressure gauge on the boiler – a domestic duty I still shrink from.
Phone dates kept me going, but also logged into the Singles site to continue a conversation or two. A message in the inbox with a difference – from a ‘generous’ Shropshire Lad, 81, whose photo was upside down… inviting me, a total stranger, not to chat but to ‘escape the winter’ and join him on holiday at a Naturist Resort in the Canary Islands….! You really couldn’t make it up.
A shared walk in sharp sunshine – around the local Pool and Cathedral, then past playing fields and allotments and into a churchyard…. ‘reading’ the stories behind the names, fresh or faded, on headstones, straight or crooked. One new plot was decorated with plastic toys. Then my companion noticed something small and rounded on the ground, its snout buried and snaffling in the fallen leaves. A hedgehog. Spiny and solitary, as is its nature. A Lord and his Lady lay nearby, deep under an old yew tree – silent, evergreen witness to war and plague of the past.
November 17th – November 23rd, 2020
Standards slipped. Got washed every morning, but spent most days in slob-wear, including pyjamas. Read the meters, swept up a few more leaves, waved a duster around. Amended a draft letter sent for my approval by the solicitor, who should be paying me. Got half-way through re-ordering the books on the study shelves, some old friends I’d forgotten all about.
So nothing really happened, except mid-week, when a date was kept at the Church of Latter-Day Saints – a Covid-secure blood donation centre under a Mormon roof. The man in the elevated chair nearest mine, who looked like a displaced Jeremy Corbyn, was a first-time donor and the nurse kept a close eye on him. He had to keep flexing his fingers, she said, ignoring his scowls, to ‘aid the flow…’
A stream of Alerts from Neighbourhood Watch told the usual tales of attempted burglaries, purse-dipping and the theft of tools from vans, but had to read one twice to believe it. Lockdown looters, who must have mental health issues, broke into a building site this week and made off with several boilers...
November 10th – November 16th, 2020
The tray of unblemished apples from the mini orchard left on the pavement outside disappeared fast, which was encouraging – so I sorted out another one…
A masked man, slippers over his trainers, crouched in the corner, fiddling with the phone, then crawled on the carpet, investigating the area under the TV and the hub , muttering about divided signals and frequencies…Then the Virgin engineer delivered his diagnosis. ‘You need a new TIVO box’, but – brightening a bit – ‘I’ve tightened all your connections!’ Suppressed a giggle and looked suitably grateful instead.
Like before, in Lockdown 1, non-events became unnaturally important. Amending my Asda online order, adding items to the basket, was a diversion but the delivery itself was a Disappointment. Because a Wayne drove all the way from Walsall with a few nice things in his van, but missing one Essential Item. My organic milk was ‘unavailable’ and they’d made no substitution, which forced me into a local shop the next day. Something understood. It was a Punishment – for being unfaithful to Tesco.
November 4th – November 9th, 2020
Followed the election on the other side of the pond – the interminable ‘too close to call’ contest ‘for the soul of America’…
Lockdown 2 began. The cathedral closed to visitors and my shifts there came to a halt, as before. People now wearing masks even in the open air.
No dialling tone on the landline, which made outgoing calls impossible. Manoeuvres like unplugging the phone from the socket, consulting manuals and You-Tube videos made no difference, which led to the special ordeal of trying to contact Virgin Media and an hour’s wait for a response from God-knows-where and someone who called me Madam but couldn’t have cared less until I did a diva and got a Priority Appointment with an engineer….
But the adventure of the week was a journey into the interior of one of the wheelies. I’d thrown a pile of old magazines into the brown garden-waste bin, instead of the blue recycling one. A mistake it felt vital to rectify – so I tipped the bin forward and stuck my head and an arm inside, but the arm was too short, so had to enlist the help of a long stick to retrieve the now leafy editions of Which and Woman & Home….
October 27th – November 2nd, 2020
A very long queue of the Vulnerable outside the surgery, spaced out on blue circles meant to be 2 metres apart. Inside, another wait on another set of (orange) circles, for a nurse to shoot a syringe into my arm. The free flu jab. The NHS test came back negative; I didn’t have It, at least not last week.
I wasn’t going anywhere nice, but scrubbed and dressed up anyway – because it was a date to celebrate, even if only over the phone, with a glass of something sparkling. The elder son’s birthday. My miracle of 1984.
A Last Coffee date – one single householder meeting another indoors, in a cafe once part of a church. Outside, a preacher stood in the market square and told us we were all sinners and going to hell. Only Jesus could save us from the devil in our midst. Not the Virus, the other one.
Hallow’een. Shop-spun cobwebs spread on a bush, a few fireworks in the distance. At the witchy hour of just-past-midnight, the city slid into Tier 2.
Time to brush the leaves from the lawn, pick the last of the apples from the ground. The new wind chime hanging on a branch sounded a dull, doleful tinkle and twisted around and around…
October 20th – October 26th, 2020
The trees on the green opposite the house shed almost all their leaves – winter in autumn – but something wild and wonderful in the sky above the Pool: a skein of grey geese, flying in formation.
Felt a bit sorry for self, until I heard from a friend, who wasn’t – even though she’d buried her husband of 50 years a few days before. He’d been in a care home for years and hadn’t known who she was, or even who he was…
Strange meeting. My first experience of Zoom, using a neighbour’s laptop at her house. Curled my eyelashes for the occasion, but the session ended abruptly before my ‘appearance’, ‘timed out’, apparently. So the world would have to wait for my fascinating talk on a ‘warts and all’ portrait of Oliver Cromwell….
Did the Covid-19 home test, with difficulty. A 12 page booklet of instructions, assorted labels, a vial, a swab, a bio-hazard bag and an origami-like cardboard box absurdly hard to assemble. I could just about avoid my gums, teeth and tongue for the back-of-the-throat stage – but couldn’t ‘find my tonsils’, because they were taken out in 1951.
October 12th – October 19th, 2020
Chainsaw massacre. The tree surgeon and his team reduced my glorious apple trees in height by half, maiming the shape, slashing the branches overhanging the fence to the ground. It had to be done, but too heart-breaking and brutal a process to watch for long.
A little ‘society’. A chilly morning with one friend in her over-ventilated conservatory, coffee out with another – lovely in an embroidered blouse and see-through latex gloves, which rather spoilt the look. She was, she confessed, ‘ a bit paranoid’ about touching anything.
Exercise of the week. The latest home delivery arrived ‘without plastic bags’, which I didn’t remember opting for….so several crates were dumped on the doorstep, which took ages to unload. Good for the planet, bad for my back. Very large and sandy-haired, the delivery man bore a distinct resemblance to Henry VIII. He watched my efforts with interest, his stance very square, waiting patiently to get his crates back…
October 6th – October 11th, 2020
Update on The Puppy’s Progress. Pablo saw the sea for the first time. He barked at it for a while – as if at an enemy – then padded into the water and started to roll about in it….
Exercise of the week: cleaning the kitchen windows. This involved climbing up and down on a stool, kneeling on a cushion on the work-top, then standing in the sink, swiping an insect on the glass, using two cloths – one damp, one dry – and a spray that said it was ‘streak-free’, which is always a lie.
Prepared a little speech and forced self to go next door. After several rings of the bell – a dog growling somewhere inside – my Polish neighbour appeared. It was an acutely uncomfortable ‘chat’ but a deal was struck. I’d sort out the trees and make no second complaint; she’d move the eyesore blocking my View. When at some point she told me her husband had left her, the children – and the dog – the speech was abandoned…..
An invitation from Imperial College, London – to take part in ‘the largest Covid-19 research study in England.’ My name had been chosen at random , it said, and swabs would be sent in the post….
September 28th – October 5th, 2020
Thought my mobile might be too old, but no, the NHS Covid-19 app installed itself on the home screen and duly informed me that my area was ‘medium risk’…
A leisurely lunch date I’d really looked forward to shrank to a brief chat outside a cafe in chilly weather. The man I’d eaten-out-to-help-out with in August now said he felt uncomfortable ‘sitting anywhere inside’, even near an open door or window. A decision I respected and resented in equal measure.
A large box delivered last week remained unopened, because I couldn’t face what I knew it contained: a ring, a painting and letters spanning 57 years. Dispatched by the daughter of the friend in Brighton who died a year ago.
Amazed that my tweet about masks had actually been retweeted, posted another one and even created a new hashtag. Had to research that bit. Also began a new micro-blog on a community site. Wasn’t sure what to call it, till I saw a local car park more like a lake, flooded by all the heavy rain, still falling. So it has to be, ‘The Second Wave’.
September 22nd – September 27th, 2020
A Stuart came to service the household god – the boiler. He chatted a lot, proud to be a ‘key worker’. I wore a mask; he ‘never did’…’in and out of people’s houses all the time, to be fair…’ One of his customers hadn’t gone out for 6 months and wanted him to wear protective gloves, but he ‘wasn’t having that…’
Missed more than one group gathering, because my attendance would have broken the Rule of 6… Threw away a pile of 2020 travel brochures – city breaks and cruises – ships that never sailed. Counting the days took on a new meaning. A week since the trip to London….
A visitor to the cathedral was reluctant to use the hand sanitiser station and fill in the required track and Trace form. Clutching three carrier bags, she shook her bowed head, but didn’t speak, turning to leave. After some gentle persuasion, she whispered her name in my ear, so it could be written down. A rummage around one of the bags produced a grubby phone which – after another eternity – displayed a contact number. Then off she went, as if set free, down one of the great aisles, past the blind arcades and rows of carved heads, vanishing into the Gothic shadows.
September 15th – September 21st, 2020
A two-night stay at the Club near Russell Square, London. No newspapers near the leather armchairs this time, to ‘avoid cross-contamination’. With the Second Wave approaching fast, I packed in as much as possible….
A walk along Millbank, the Thames at low tide, a bike wheel lodged in the mud. An exhibition at Tate Britain, about one of the bad boys of late Victorian society: Aubrey Beardsley. An appointment in Harley Street; a bit of therapy in real shops.
Got on one bus before putting on my mask – a mistake rectified moments later, but the risk was there. It was also there in the restaurant where I met a friend I’d not seen since February – in the animated conversation that bounced over the table. There were very few other diners and the bare-faced staff made a fuss of us, supplying us with free champagne and taking photos ‘for social media’. It was only later we realised no mention had been made of Track and Trace…
Back on base, the freezer filled with stewed apples, but hundreds still hang on the trees, pink with the last of the summer sun.
September 8th – September 14th, 2020
A nice lunch out left an unpleasant taste. I paid the bill, began to turn away, then realised I’d been short-changed. The man at the till, the owner of the cafe, soon produced the missing £10 note but avoided eye contact; we both knew it was not an honest mistake.
A monstrous new shape rose high behind the fence, blocking the precious View west more effectively than earlier marquees had done. A trampoline, usually kept at the bottom of next-door’s theme park. On my side, something long, slim and white poked through the bark under the trees – a bone. The remain of an old dog’s dinner, I hope…
The Traveller’s birthday, spent not in Madeira, (‘too risky’) but in Norfolk. Tales over the phone – of wildlife on the Broads and the sighting of seals off the coast.
Returned to work in a public space, but a huge one, with ancient doors wide open: the cathedral. A much-reduced role, with a hideous title. Once a free-range guide, I was now a Visitor Enabler – a kind of traffic controller, equipped with a radio and a clicking device that counted numbers in and out. The new job description included ‘managing access to the toilets’ and, at the end of the shift, a lot of spraying and wiping – sanitising any surfaces the Enabled Ones may have touched…
September 1st – September 7th, 2020
A different dentist at the same practice, who kept calling me ‘dear’. Happy with my implants and veneers, but worried about my gums, he wanted to refer me to a specialist, elsewhere in the county, where ‘we send all our patients’ which sounded a bit sinister. ‘Are you a smoker, my dear?’ No, I said, gritting the teeth in question.
A visit to an antiques centre. Came home with a vintage wooden trolley. My companion said it was definitely more high tea than cocktail…
The legal Battle with Bromford began in earnest – seeking to sever an unfortunate link between the house and the local housing association. Which meant hours of work, re-reading all the relevant literature, making notes, printing off emails, drafting possible replies….The solicitor, an optimistic soul, said he hoped for ‘a swift resolution to the matter.’
Came across an old copy of Cosmopolitan, bought in 1971 – full of girls in hot-pants wearing lots of beads, articles on What to Wear to an Orgy and ads for cigarettes, aimed at the modern woman. Virginia Slims, ‘stylishly long’…The magazine had a chill to it and smelt of storage, a past lived in a box in a garage and under a long series of beds.
August 25th -August 31st, 2020
An unwelcome letter from the BBC, about setting up my ‘new TV licence’, which was free last year. Ignored it, on principle.
Three near-empty trains south-west, to Salisbury. The hotel was an ancient inn, the room ’boutique’ (poky), with a wood-beamed ceiling. The city was quiet; no visible Russians. A riverside walk, with views of water-meadows and the tallest old structure in England – the slender cathedral spire. Constable country.
The cathedral itself has an austere, icy beauty – all uniform lines in pale Jurassic stone. One of the world’s best-preserved, original legal documents was on display: the Magna Carta of 1215. Nearly walked over the grave of a ‘statesman, musician, sailor’, his name etched into black granite. Edward Heath. A much smaller slab – set into the same transept floor- said only: E.B. 1789.
Treated self to a gourmet dinner, amazed by the modest size of the bill. I’d forgotten about the eating out ‘to help out’ scheme.
Back on base, I turned the computer back on and looked up a beloved friend on Facebook. It was her birthday, but I’d sent neither gift nor card. There she was on the screen, smiling at me – as if she were still alive.
August 17th – August 24th, 2020
Daily Apple Duty: picking up fruit already fallen and trying to reach others still on the branches, before they dropped next door…
My Garden Angels appeared – the Ladies – not to help with the hundreds of Bramleys and pear-shaped Siberian crab apples, but to dig up and move the mock orange and the hebe, one in the wrong place, the other too shallowly planted, to better, deeper homes in the ground. A tiny brown ball of fluff, a baby robin, introduced himself.
Another venture into social media, with the help of my publicist, the Traveller – by remote control of the computer. Opened a Twitter account, then posted a Tweet – about the meaning of masks.
A walk, required for my Mental Health, could have been my last. Turning into an unfamiliar path, I heard a loud crash and a moment or two later, found the way ahead blocked by a tangle of branches, still in motion, torn down by the violent winds. No witnesses; just me and a broken tree.
Back inside, a bit shaken, I had a stiff coffee and made a packing list for my rucksack and handbag. Travel-sized sanitiser, a few face-coverings, senior railcard…
August 11th – August 16th, 2020
My morning coffee tasted decidedly odd, which wasn’t surprising because I’d forgotten what I’d done the evening before. One of my Natural Household Remedies, which involved filling the kettle with water and white vinegar, boiling it, then leaving it overnight to de-scale itself….
Coffee out one day was normal enough, in the new way – contact details taken, the drinks half pre-lockdown prices. My companion shared some Really Useful insider information about the cathedral. There’s been a lot of ‘prayerful’ letting go: staff redundancies.
A visitor to the Patio Cafe came with a warning about a plague of a traditional kind, only a few streets, gardens and compost bins away. Rats! Deprived of sure sources of food in the closed city centre, they’ve apparently taken to migrating further afield. The good news was that they seemed to be on the move again – probably back to the bright lights and their favourite re-opened restaurants.
August 4th – August 10th, 2020
A familiar figure appeared on the path opposite the house. Tall with auburn hair and blue eyes – the Traveller, who’d come on a near empty train from London. Unseen and un-held since last December.
So I spoilt him silly, but a lot got sorted out. He upgraded my Virgin Media package and got such a cheap deal on my Singles sub that I decided to continue till it ran out. An Action Plan was made for pensionista’s future and my phone was purged of Whatsapp photos, transferred to the desktop, to create some storage space…
A proper Lunch Out at my favourite restaurant, the tables safely spaced out, which made for a classier, airier ambience.
A Polish head suddenly appeared over the fence, to complain about the apple trees – the overhanging branches and all the fruit dropping their side…. She smiled at my son, but not at me.
The hottest day of the year and ‘tropical nights’; a shared view of one of the Consolations of living in this place. Beyond the offending orchard, a fabulous flamingo sunset.
When he left, desolation. Had to have something to look forward to. Time to take my own quiet train to somewhere.
July 28th – August 3rd, 2020
A check-up, at last. The dentist, who was very charming and sympathetic to the state of my gums, also had a thick Brummie-ethnic accent, so some of what he said was lost in translation.
A cut and colour, at last. The hairdresser said I didn’t have to wear a mask, but the rules were changing again soon… She feared the salon wouldn’t survive a second wave. I wasn’t the only client living alone and upset by the lack of community spirit in my area; told her I’d looked up the prices of houses farther south – in places like Chichester or Winchester. Way above my budget. Went in several shades of grey; came out with streaks of brown, platinum and turquoise….
The man who mows my lawn and makes me laugh trimmed a hedge and shaped a shrub or two, then removed the ivy that had crept up to the window – but there was a new invasion in the garden: a small army of ants which appeared out of nowhere and assembled on the patio.
July 21st – July 27th, 2020
Art Appreciation in the open air, talking about a picture of a tiger in the jungle by a man who never left France and Croatian folk scenes by someone I’d never heard of, which is how I learnt a lot about Naive painters, from Henri Rousseau to Ivan Generalic… I did Rose Wylie, a late success at 86.
My favourite soap finally caught up with real life, sanitiser a new prop on the set and the cast keeping social distances in the Street. A friend and I agreed the new government rules were confusing, neither of us sure how many people could enter a house or sit down in a room…
Burton-upon-Trent. The town’s a current hot-spot of infection, but only 2 hours in the super-sterile endoscopy department of the huge hospital there, the staff all clinical kindness, survivors of April’s front line. Then back down the A.38 in style, in the embroiderer’s shiny green Peugeot – like an olive on wheels.
Noticed that the ivy below my bedroom window had begun to invade it.
July 14th – July 20th, 2020
My patio cafe re-opened, the sunshine shared with a friend, who showed me a face mask she’d made – and embroidered – herself.
Another appointment by telephone, this time with a nurse, pre-hospital procedure. She had a long list of questions. ‘Did I’, for example, ‘have any metal?’ Which turned out to mean assorted nuts and bolts like a pacemaker, a hip replacement or new knees. Had to disappoint her; my tooth implant didn’t count.
A treatment at a beauty salon, a contactless massage – by machine. My turn to support the therapist who kept in kind touch during lockdown. Most of the money she got from the government went to a greedy landlord.
The doorstep and porch got their own beauty treatment – swept and scrubbed free of years’ worth of dirt from the road. A passerby watched this performance with interest. His mum used to do the front step in 1950’s Manchester, he said. ‘It was the cleanest in our street.’
A watch unworn since February was an hour slow. Lying deep in a drawer, it missed the Spring Forward and told the wrong time.
July 7th – July 13th, 2020
A lot of people wanted to be my friend on Facebook, which would have boosted my poor morale no end, if I’d recognised any of them. A real friend said they were probably contacts of people I did know. One face and name did seem faintly familiar, but from the very dim and distant… My favourite restaurant, about to open again, sent me a welcome back voucher; they’ve ‘missed me and hope to see me again very soon,’ but they’ll have to wait a bit longer.
Another non-event. Took my old dental records along to the surgery – but the appointment with my new dentist had been cancelled. The receptionist looked tragic; ‘He’s on indefinite leave…’ then clamped her mouth shut. The city centre was almost deserted. A young man sat on a bench, wearing only a thin tee-shirt in the rain, rocking back and forth. A second Covid casualty?
Pablo – the pooch in Portsmouth, my grand-puppy, has now been chipped and groomed; he’s had his vaccinations and a haircut. Mine will have to wait till August.
June 30th – July 6th, 2020
Too cold and wet for any social ‘bubbling’ in the garden, so only a series of micro-events – like sharpening a few pencils, killing a few slugs, typing a notice for the letter box, about delivery parcels. NOT to be left with the neighbours, but tucked under the laurel bushes or if soft – thrown over the side-gate….
One unnoticed moment of domestic glory. A summary. The lid of a face cream pot fell into the bathroom basin and got stuck in the plug-hole, God only knows how. Such a perfectly tight fit I couldn’t get it out – not with a nail file, knife blade or piece of wire. Drilling a hole into the thick plastic lid with a bottle opener took brute strength – so that idea was soon doomed. The You-Tube solution – attaching a suction pad – didn’t work. Which is where it all got a bit Heath Robinson. Put a blob of blue tack on the lid, anchored with a length of heavy duty packing tape, a couple of matchsticks on each end….and on the umpteenth attempt, this contraption lifted the lid and the plughole was free!
One key step – into social media. The time finally felt right – so I created a page, personal data kept to a minimum, played with the privacy settings, added a photo – and joined Facebook.
June 23rd – June 29th, 2020
Bird-watching. Looked up to the skies one day and saw a great shape with rounded wings flying a wide, circular path – riding high on warm currents of air. A buzzard, our commonest bird of prey. A raptor, with a cutting edge beak.
A few hours later, closer company. A blackbird, perched on a TV aerial, a roof or two away, pouring its heart out in a summer song. The notes will die away soon and won’t be heard again this year, not till next February. I’ve learnt a lot about nature in lockdown.
A really awkward appointment at the health centre. Nervous notices everywhere, like No Face Covering, No Entry. Both patient and doctor in masks, an examination over in seconds, questions and answers a bit muffled and kept to a minimum… The GP was apologetic -‘ We aim to get you in and out of here as quickly as possible.’
The cathedral was open for only two hours – a mean window of time, ‘for private prayer and reflection’. Just wanted to be there for a while, for the solace of the stones. So I drifted in, then sat down on a sanitised chair.
June 16th – June 22nd, 2020
Hit the high street, but not for long – still a hermit in recovery. The assistants in the shop, all visored-up, asked me not to touch any of the shoes unless I wanted to try them on… Walked out with a pair of gold plimsolls, to support the local economy.
There was a hand sanitiser station nearby – new street furniture – and at the cash machine in the bank, a young man was reassuring, a disinfectant spray in his hand. ‘We wipe down the key pads and the screen after each customer….’
Back outside, I lowered my mask again and an acquaintance waved hello. We talked for a while about how things were. When he edged a little nearer – such a natural, friendly movement – I stepped back, to keep a proper distance between us, till a few moments later, the gap began to close again. Forward and back, a side-step or two. Dancing in the street.
My Portsmouth son said he had some Big News. My heart leapt. At last, at last! But the new addition to the family has four legs and a tail. He and his partner are the proud parents of a round-eyed, black-haired puppy they’re thinking of calling Pablo.
June 7th – June 15th, 2020
Thought I’d get creative, follow some step-by-step instructions, and make my own face covering – but soon abandoned the idea. Life’s far too short to cut up an old tee-shirt or pillowcase, so ordered a few extra online instead.
A trip into the city centre, unseen since the middle of March. The few people around didn’t smile and saw no one else in a mask. The woman in Boots, though, wore clinical gloves and a visor and served me from behind a see-through screen, as if I were a patient, not a customer.
From a distance, a tree in the precinct had unnatural bark. Someone must have got up a ladder and wound a very long rainbow-coloured scarf around the trunk. In the market square, a statue was roped off with red and white tape – but no one will topple this local hero from his plinth, because unlike his friend James Boswell, whose monument is only yards away, Samuel Johnson was an opponent of slavery; black lives certainly mattered to him.
In one shop window, the headless models held placards with slogans like ‘Stay Safe’ – a bit tired-sounding now – while another displayed a heartfelt message: We’ve missed you! See you on Monday!
I’ve missed the shops too, but the streets out there will be too crowded today.
June 1st – June 6th, 2020
Sat in someone else’s garden, in the shade of an old apple tree, sipping wine and water and eating cake. My neighbour and I agreed that the bigger lockdown picture was starting to crack from side to side. We both knew people making non-essential journeys or overnight visits, not to mention the anti-racist protests in the streets, thousands strong, frightening the horses….
My second public appearance took me to a local convenience store – just for my Saturday fix, a newspaper. There were only three other customers – all barefaced like me, but following a one-way system – blue arrows painted on the floor. Was in the shop for less than ten minutes, but couldn’t get home fast enough and others were aghast. Why hadn’t I worn a mask?
Another safety scare. Something amiss with my online payment methods, no idea how or why. A security code number popping up where it had no business to be. A rogue firm could be emptying my account….The Portsmouth Rock checked out my computer settings, but belt-and-braces was best, so rang Nationwide to cancel the debit card in question. A sweet girl called Lisa, following a vulnerable customer script, was reassuring. There was ‘no suspicious activity on my account’…….
Sorted out some summer clothes – trying a few things on – and made a shocking discovery. My favourite dress had shrunk.
May 26th – May 31st, 2020
The first visit to a public place for over 10 weeks. The people in the queue tried to respect the Rules, waiting 2 trolleys apart – give or take a trolley. Once inside, I was the only shopper in the supermarket wearing a mask and got some funny looks. Decided against wearing the latex gloves – too fiddly. The girl at the checkout, shielded by a perspex screen, wished me a ‘safe Saturday’….
Back in the street, a man stepped into the gutter to give me a wide berth and a few minutes later I crossed the road to avoid an approaching family. The oddness of it all suddenly hit me like a truck.
A friend came to share the last afternoon of the sunniest spring on record. She wore a white hat, a holiday dress and silver sandals – to lovely, shimmering effect – but talked of a difficult lockdown and a doomed marriage.
A later visitor was less welcome. Had to sprinkle cinammon powder around the garden, to deter a fat cat who likes to use it as a short-cut to somewhere.
Wrote the Last Post for the local news site. Inspired by the self-isolation phase of the corona-crisis, the series came to a natural close. It mattered a lot and thought I’d miss it, but no – the space now free in my time feels fresh and airy….
May 19th – May 25th, 2020
After two months’ zero social life, getting ready for a real visitor was quite a performance, but worth it. I’d thought of checking a length of string against the 6 ft fence or using a measuring tape on the patio paving, but in the end, didn’t bother – and just put the chairs 3 long paces apart. When a text told me she was five minutes’ away, I poured two chilled glasses of wine.
Such a simple, precious pleasure – to sit in the midweek sun, share stories and a picnic and have a direct conversation, even if one of us is a bit deaf and the other sometimes had to shout over the social distance…. We talked of holidays away from home – still out of bounds – and friends stuck in the Scilly Isles when the lockdown door slammed shut.
This was the highlight; the other days drifted past much as before, each one very like the next. The week could have been the weekend, or the other way around. A little indoor exercise – like cleaning the shower screen, which had never had such attention and freeing up some storage space on my phone, deleting a few files. And half a home pedicure, interrupted by a phone call – so only one foot so far…
One day soon will be different, when it will be time to enter a public place again. I never thought a shop or a bus would be a danger zone – but I’ll be well-armed, with perfume, gloves and a mask made of cloth.
May 12th – May 18th, 2020
Thursday evening’s Clapping for Carers ritual was more muted than before and confess to growing a bit weary of ringing the brass bell…. Maybe the virus too will start to die a natural death, if human hosts prove too hard for it to find.
The track made by my following in Captain Tom’s footsteps, up and down the back garden, slowly petered out – and I began to break out of my brick bubble. 58 days since I shut the front door on the outside world, I opened it again and locked it behind me – the keys strange in my hand – and left the house for a proper walk around a local beauty spot: a lake in a city that’s survived war and plague before.
I saw a man sunbathing on a bench, which was never illegal, and other walkers kept a smiling distance, but the way ahead was half-blocked by a group of anglers chatting together, only inches apart – as if they’d never heard of social distancing. I didn’t want to turn back, so pulled my scarf up and rushed past them instead. Any pleasure vanished from the morning.
The church by the lake was closed, as expected, a notice nailed on the ancient wooden door, inviting any passing parishioners to ‘Find us on Facebook’.
May 5th – May 11th, 2020
A small step, which felt like quite a leap – unbolting the side gate, reaching the pavement I’ve not trodden on for 8 weeks, then crossing the road and on to the green ‘island’ in the centre of the area. More a sortie than a proper walk – but good to feel different grass under my feet and see the house from the outside and so begin to lighten my own lockdown.
Otherwise, I spent a lot to time in slow motion, sitting around surrounded by piles of paper, working on pieces for the local news site or sifting through bank statements or other records. Or getting a few things done – like editing the tights and pop socks drawer, replacing a bin liner or pulling up the odd weed. Nothing much, but the less I did, the more fatigued I felt.
At night, the World Service told stories of other Biblical-scale disasters – like the swarms of billions of locusts devastating East Africa – which soothed me to sleep.
Friday’s V.E. day commemorations were a timely reminder of a generation who went to war, three-quarters of a century ago – and suffered years of separation from loved ones or who never came back. I flew the flag in the front garden, to honour the occasion, but a big wind tore it down the next day.
April 28th – May 4th, 2020
Did a dark materials laundry – one of those small unremarkable events that seem bigger than before. The washing machine isn’t on very often these days, because I’m wearing such a small selection of clothes, mainly soft stuff like hoodies and leggings – the sartorial equivalent of comfort food…
But part of me doesn’t want the Isolation Experience to end. It’s not unpleasant having only an unseen, private life reduced to essentials and to really feel the strangeness of a time a friend called ‘a hibernation, but in Spring.’
The early apple blossom has scattered now – pink confetti on the grass – but the unquarantined birds hop around the garden as if they own the place, which in a way they do – and sing their hearts out in a quieter, cleaner world. The Traveller, now restricted to running round a London park, says he saw a bird I’ve seen only caged in a famous Dutch painting – a goldfinch settled on a wall, then in free flight.
The highlight of the week: another home delivery, set up by the Portsmouth Rock – my son, the online slot-hunter. Good to see the friendly red van again and speak the usual sign language through the glass. A thumbs up from him, a mouthed thank you from me.
But from the same window, an alarming glimpse of the future. An anxious-looking woman in black, passing by on the pavement and wearing a makeshift mask – a scarf tied around her face, a knot above one ear – as if suffering from a terrible new type of toothache.
April 21st – April 27th, 2020
Drifts of smoke and the scent of sausages, probably Polish – signs that next door’s BBQ season’s started early this year. It was oddly reassuring, that my neighbours were so reliably annoying in these uncertain times. And when a ball came over the garden fence, I threw it back right away. Which felt quite good at first – doing the right thing – but an hour or so later, I realised I’d handled an object from Outside and forgotten to wash my hands….
I heard somewhere it’s a common feature of lock-down life, that vivid dreams come in the night. In one of mine, a woman looking like a younger version of me wandered deserted city streets and empty high-rise buildings, the lone survivor of some global catastrophe… But broken sleep and lingering fears about next-door’s ball were soon put into sharp perspective.
Every day has its punctuation point: the afternoon update from Downing Street. On Saturday, they told us we were ‘coming through the peak’ of the contagion – which was a good thing – but on that long mountain was planted a milestone. The official number of deaths in the United Kingdom had passed 20,000. Making April the cruellest month, thus far.
April 14th – April 20th, 2020
My book and other groups met without me, via a video link called Zoom. Invitations to join them were much appreciated, but resistible. Seeing people on a split screen just doesn’t appeal – and the unplanned break from normal activities is also a chance to refocus on other things, like reading and writing. Though sitting around a lot at a table surrounded by piles of paper or on the sofa could present a new and special danger: becoming a Blob.
So it was time to take action on two fronts. If the house was a prison, it might as well be a clean one – so a Grand Spring-Clean was launched, starting with the windows, at least on the inside. And inspired by Captain Tom, the 99 year-old raising millions for charity, another daily routine began – a brisk walk down the long garden to the fence at the bottom and back. 70 paces in total, 10 times. This was a bit depressing at first – so many weeds on the way, not to mention the moss – but there were surprises too, like a butterfly alighting on a bush, its wings translucent white and a heart-shaped gap in the hedge I’d never noticed before.
At other times, looking out of the study window over the deserted street below, the sense of unreality returned and life felt like some dark, contorted fairy tale. About a dragon-like disease roaming the land and an elderly princess, held captive in a castle tower, with little hope of rescue, her hair growing longer and longer…..
April 7th – April 13th, 2020
Boris wrote me a letter – a masterpiece of plain English – composed before the coronavirus put him into intensive care. In which he repeated what is now the national mantra: Stay at home, protect the NHS – and save lives.
On Thursday night, I put on all the lights in the house, opened the front door and joined in the third Clapping for Carers and Key Workers. Most people applauded, others banged pan lids together, while I rang a brass bell like a mad thing, as if telling them all that dinner was more than ready….
More bells on Sunday – when I ‘attended’ the Easter service live-streamed from the cathedral, stood up for my favourite triumphal hymn and heard the wonderfully real ringing from the ancient towers, across the city.
A whirl of non-events – the days broken up by moving from room to empty room. Spent most mornings in the study on emails or paperwork, then hit the front room in the evening. Not unlike a normal solitary weekend, but stretched out to the shape of a week, now nearly a month.
In the garden, the apple trees which produced no fruit last year broke into blossom, the grape hyacinths blazed blue and the spring sun shone very brightly too. A bitter-sweet contrast to the darkness in the world outside, where my daughter-in-law, a doctor in London, told me her care home patients have died in large numbers, often alone. And a day or so ago, a local acquaintance, an active man in his 60s, also fell victim to the virus still spreading.
Part of me used to feel all this wasn’t really happening; it was like watching some sci-fi film on television, with too many characters – but that sense of unreality seemed to say its own goodbye.
March 31st – April 6th, 2020
The community spirit hasn’t touched everyone. When I opened the front door one day, I saw one of my next-door neighbours, who works at Tesco, passing in the street. He said his usual ‘All right?’ – but didn’t wait for the answer. They know I live alone, but no friendly note from any direction.
Fortunately, the son in Portsmouth is a rock and managed to secure a new delivery slot….so fresh supplies arrived very early on Friday morning. It was still dark outside when 13 recycled plastic bags were dumped on the doorstep, including therapeutic items like wine, cheese and chocolate…
Some routines continued as usual, like washing and dressing, but I stopped wearing make-up and jewellery when the Isolation Experience began. They’re for my public, social self. Emails and texts became more frequent, but it was the dear old phone call – hearing the human voice – that meant the most…
An online chat also continued – this one with Essex Man, a mathematical cyclist in a ‘marriage of convenience’ who I’m very unlikely to meet, especially if the lock-down’s lengthened. Which adds a certain piquancy to what we say.
And last night I was proud to be one of the 24 million who watched the war-themed, word-perfect address the Queen, our precious Queen, made to the nation last night. Her finest moment.
March 23rd – March 30th, 2020
An inventory of the kitchen cupboard yielded some Really Useful items, like some dried pasta and a jar of jam ‘best before June, 2018.’ Managed to do an online Shop for supplies, which involved a long wait in a virtual queue and a 3 week wait for a delivery slot…
Began to ration my daily intake of news – too many global updates and death tolls and scenes of huge field hospitals being built in the cities – but one statistic was strange comfort: I’m one of over a billion people, in over 50 countries, now living in lock-down.
Some things continued as before. The bins were emptied, the post delivered. One new arrival in the letter box was a scarf, with a divine animal print, but no idea when anyone else will admire it. I’ve stopped wearing make-up and jewellery, because they’re for my public, social self….
The spring sun shone – but a sense of dread about friends and family, especially the ones in London or with ‘underlying health conditions’ made it hard to enjoy. The clocks leapt forward, but time itself seemed to slow down, one day blending into another.
March 17th – March 22nd, 2020
The cancellations continued – so no group meetings, no Tai Ch’i class, cathedral shift or trip south for a family celebration. Days before the ‘no non-essential contact’ edict, my sons were adamant. Stop going out.
So I put on some disposable gloves, dived into Aldi, came back and closed the front door on the world. A new Isolation began, the real thing this time.
A birthday in solitary confinement – but not an unhappy one, because of the kindness of others. Several offers of assistance from younger people still allowed out. One left a bottle of wine in the front garden. A delivery of flowers, too, with stern instructions from the sender: no contact with the driver, Mum. No touching the package, then your face….
A slight cough, but not a new one. Left the house only once, early in the morning, to post a letter, but it won’t happen again – because a neighbour suddenly appeared, putting out some rubbish….At least one bin and a fence between us, but even so – a moment of fear.
Began a micro-blog for a local news website, about the coronavirus experience, from an an imprisoned pensioner’s point of view.
March 10th – 16th March, 2020
Book Club, where we depressed ourselves pleasantly by discussing Educated, about a Mormon childhood and a father who believed in Days of Abomination and the imminent End of the World….which began to feel a bit topical….
Virus Upside 1. Another volunteer at the cathedral, a touchy-feely type who usually advances for a rather inclusive hug, limited himself to a distant bow from the waist instead. To which the only correct response seemed to be a curtsy….Elbow/fist bumps of course being out of the question. Too awkward/ undignified.
Isolation Practice for 3 days , not held hostage by the Bug, just no events or direct contact with other people and a stack of writing tasks to tackle….but the 3 became 4, because a friend cancelled our inter-birthday lunch at our favourite restaurant, as ‘too risky’. I’ve decided to Carry on – with Caution, washing my hands a lot, until ordered otherwise.
Photos arrived on the phone – scenes of sunsets and whales swimming free in clear water. The Traveller flew away from it all last week – to a province called Loreto, in Mexico.
2nd – March 9th , 2020
Mature Moments. Keen not to miss a friend’s call, took the land-line up to the study. An hour or two later, surprised by the silence, realised that the phone was never going to ring, because it was actually the remote control…..Then, mid-week, I mislaid my mobile. The land-line failed to locate it and it was nowhere near its usual resting places, like the chair near the charger. Couldn’t leave the house without it; the day ahead began to twist out of shape – I’d have to get a later train or postpone the trip altogether. A peculiar panic took hold, until I found it – hiding under a shopping list in the kitchen.
24 hours in London. A private consultation about treating a facial hollow, without surgery. Several trains and buses, so washed my hands a lot. The only people wearing masks seemed to be Chinese tourists. Met a friend next day in a Hampstead bookshop and exchanged the usual hugs and kisses on the cheek….
Joined a Walking Group for a few miles’ traipse through Sutton Park, once a royal hunting ground and now known for its density of holly, the greenwood still bright with berries. ‘The sign of a mild winter’, a fellow ambler said. His wife was at home, ‘unwell’…adding hastily, ‘only a sniffle…..nothing exciting!’
February 24th – March 1st, 2020
An unlovely addition to the Wardrobe, in elastoplast pink: a pair of NHS hearing aids, newly fitted and in their very own pouch – where they remain. A drop-in support group for Tinnitus sufferers, where I met a man ‘born deaf’ and counted my blessings.
A ladder bobbed along behind the front hedge, my window cleaner on his way. Storm Jorge swept through the back, loosening the washing line – which later collapsed and dumped clean clothes across the grass….and the new tree took a tipsy turn to the left. The Ladies (my Garden Angels) came and set it straight; we talked for hours about the World including HS2, which was ‘destroying the county’ and threatened, until the route was changed, to cut through their allotment. Hosted a U3A group, which discussed Sculpture from Rodin to Hepworth and polished off the mince pies left over from Christmas.
A nice invitation arrived from a Senior Single in Atherstone – but took a rain check, because back on the Lemsip diet and besides, have a permanent prejudice against anyone called Alan – my step-father’s name.
February 17th – February 23rd, 2020
Wet, wet, wet. The local landscape, once called The Moggs – marsh and bog – began to revert to type. New ponds appeared in the park, or ancient ones rising again to the surface…
A Georgian building, where I met a solicitor called Jason and discussed the Housing Association Issue. Restrictive Covenants, Title Deeds and Maladministration and how a freehold property is not always held completely freely…
London and Troy – the legendary city found to be fact and the subject of an exhibition at the British Museum. Marble heroes and epic poems on scraps of papyrus and what seemed like a thousand pots. A civilised curry that night with the Traveller and my ex-husband, his father.
Spring in Russell Square, crocuses in the grass. A huge crowd assembling before a March to Westminster. Posters anti-climate change (Liar! Liar! The Earth’s on Fire) and a lot of pink and orange flags bearing the sign in a circle of 2 triangles touching at the tips. The Extinction Rebellion symbol. ‘Meant to be an hour-glass’, someone told me, ‘because time’s running out’…
February 11th – February 16th, 2020
Made like a pilgrim, following the old path round the lake, in a deeply hooded coat and a leather bag on one shoulder, towards the cathedral….for my afternoon shift. The nave was even colder than usual, because the Storm had blown out a high window. Glass rained down from above, but missed Sunday’s congregation, which had just been moved into the choir…
Valentine’s Day. Found online, a blind date with a difference. A new electrician, who lightened my life. He safety-checked the loft and replaced bulbs in awkward places, like the back of the fridge – illuminating forgotten jars of mustard and hollandaise sauce, one from 2017. Then he investigated the innards of the fire in the front room, where he discovered a corpse – extracted with the help of my eyebrow tweezers. A large moth, not yet decomposed, fatally drawn to an artificial flame….
Another weekend, another storm. Dennis did for an outdoor event, so cleaned out the fridge instead, then picked up a pen –
February 4th – February 10th, 2020
The Surgery, again. In the crowded waiting room, a man in his 30s coughed a lot and looked about to expire. This was no ordinary sniffle. The patients near him frowned, but couldn’t move away. The unspoken question: had he been to China?
Another conversation with a married man who goes to one of my groups made something crystal – a strong and mutual attraction. Sitting side by side in a stuffy room, we agreed it was a beautiful day – the weather safe and simple ground – but when he added, ‘ a day for a walk, near trees and water,’ it took a real effort not to reply -‘let’s go!’
The lovely exchange made me sad, too. Couldn’t settle to anything, so got on a bus instead. A long ride to the end of the line – a town called Walsall. A Museum there, once a leather factory, reeked authenticity. Saddles, bridles, handbags and hides of different sizes and colours. Graphic descriptions of the tanning process and that earthy, ex-animal smell….Not a visit for a vegan.
Storm Ciara. The wind attacked the roof and forced an old conifer to bow before it. Both survived, but a new gap in the fence. One of the panels, torn from its posts, now lies in next-door’s garden.
January 28th – February 3rd, 2020
The Housing Association Issue (H.A.I.) sent me on a support and fact-finding trail, which led to the Citizen’s Advice Bureau, who sent me to the District Council office, where a Private Sector Housing Officer took an interest in the Case and said he’d ‘start digging’…He also had the power, apparently, ‘to demand documentation.’
A Microsoft conspiracy. The keyboard began to malfunction, the space-bar refusing to create any spaces, then the cursor went rogue, highlighting/deleting letters, making adding/amending words impossible. Google advice – to try pressing the insert key – sent an email that should have stayed safely in Drafts on a journey instead, so the P.S.H.O. got a message full of holes, where the missing text should have been…
The Day came. There were rumours of Remainers roaming the city in black arm bands, so decided not to fly the Union flag in the front garden. The size of my new TV screen made the Moment even more Historic; watched the Countdown and the pictures projected on to the white cliffs of Dover, then the message: ‘the UK has left the EU.’ Expected a surge of emotion, but the ‘new dawn’ took so long to break that all I felt was a muted sense of – departure.
January 21st – January 27th, 2020
The boiler man came to my rescue and gave me a refresher course on How to Adjust the Pressure. ‘Turn the black handle very slowly…no, slower than that…and keep your eyes on the gauge.’ I was later to save a chiffon scarf, its corner caught and sucked into the vacuum cleaner….
Met a few people I didn’t want to meet, like a radiographer at the community hospital, who did a Scan and a Probe, and a Liaison Officer for a local housing association, who want me to pay a nonsensical service charge on my freehold house.
Did my bit for the planet. The slender new tree was planted in a square hole dug deep into the ground. The bark’s still pretzel brown, but peeling in places to show pure white beneath.
Really struggled with Post 41. Several more drafts than usual. The perennial ‘problem’ – how open to be? What to leave in and what to leave out….
January 13th – January 20th, 2020
The last of the festive Lunches, during which we discovered a new, wonderfully divisive subject: the Royal Family, Harry and Meghan in particular. Two of the group came out as ardent anti-monarchists, who’d consign them all to Canada if they could.
A Warning from the computer. Security Updates were no more. Windows 7 had shut down and I was no longer protected from malware, etc. Which worried me far less than the pressure gauge on the boiler dropping alarmingly low…
Dug out old trainers for an early morning walk to the other side of the city. A series of joggers passed me on the route, one a marvel of multi-tasking. Plugs in her ears, a phone in one hand, pushing a buggy with the other, a dog on a leash trotting behind.
An expedition into Shropshire with the Ladies, to a garden centre. (‘A growing passion for 50 years’.) Freezing fog screened the scenery most of the day, but a glimpse of the Stretton Acqueduct, an iron bridge of 1832, carrying the Union Canal over the road. On the slow drive back, several new passengers – a selection of shrubs and a Himalayan birch tree, which lay across the seats, its spindly, delicate branches resting on my shoulder.
December 31st – January 12th, 2020
Greeted the new decade in the garden and watched the indifferent birds.
Wrote a square-shaped poem about the new TV, which is still very Big. This month’s topic was to be ‘light and humorous’, the hardest yet. Read half of a faintly comical novel, published in 1934. Right Ho, Jeeves, the Book Club choice, about a valet and a ‘chump’ with a ‘good egg’ of an aunt….
Portsdown Hill, Hampshire, England. A long winter walk with one of the Portsmouth Pair, on what was once the bottom of the sea: a towering wall of limestone chalk, complete with caves. Around an obsolete Victorian fort and past a Memorial Plantation of 258 beech trees, each for the fallen of the Falklands, 1982. Lunch in a pub, with a view of the Solent and the peninsular city below. A low-set smudge on the horizon, the Isle of Wight.
Got my hands very dirty in my son’s Edwardian plot – to his astonishment – shaping the bushes and weeding away for hours (3 bags full) – rather surprised myself – and strangely happy, seagulls wheeling high above my head.
Returned to the Stranger with a ‘single unblinking eye’, the brooding Box in the corner.
December 24th – December 30th, 2019
Trying to get to know her better, asked the Traveller’s Wife, a GP, a few questions which her husband said were ‘too confrontational’. Maybe the one about the vote against home visits was a tad tactless…..A hug later suggested I’d been forgiven.
No decorations this year – except for some festive flowers and candles. The cards were put into a basket, not on display – to re-read in the new year. Two big boxes arrived. One was a fancy hamper, full of goodies nestling in straw, as if in a manger. The other, ordered in the Boxing Day sale, was a Smart TV, 3 times the size of the old one. The son set it up and showed me how to navigate the buttons on 2 remotes….
The Service at the cathedral was less well-attended this year and a small child squealed through most of it. On the one fine day, a long walk – one of us in vegan boots. Made him two main Promises: to write a lot and walk more intensively, for longer periods, to strengthen the pensionista heart. Lost my Roast Potato crown; the son’s spuds were boiled to near destruction, then dusted with flour – to perfect effect.
The Ghosts of Christmas Past were present, but kept their distance. The house now empty again, but there’s the new T.V. to learn to live with – and I have promises to keep.
The Notes are having a wee break; will resume 12th January. Every best wish to you for the new decade. Tessa.
December 16th – December 23rd, 2019
Post-Election, a mixed mood among my acquaintances. A few Remainers, sunk ‘in Despair’, also sported jolly jumpers alive with reindeers and robins and Merry Christmas messages…
A Hearing Test at a cottage hospital clinic, in a room without windows. The audiologist, who didn’t introduce herself, had a long list of questions. Had I ever had a blow to the head, chemo or radio-therapy? A pacemaker fitted? A bit bored by my medical history, she soon confirmed what I already knew: ‘ mild hearing loss’…but – in a brief flash of empathy – ‘not bad for your age!’
Moved out of the main bedroom, the only one with a double bed – to make room for the Traveller and his Wife. Over the weekend, we talked about Climate Change, here and abroad – from bush fires to Brexit. Their local MP wants to abolish the monarchy, apparently, which didn’t stop us watching The Crown on Netflix – and loving it.
December 9th – December 15th, 2019
A busy week for my arms. The doctor gave me a mini-lecture, took a vial out of a cupboard, then stabbed its contents into my skin. After 10 years of invitations – all resisted – said yes to my first flu jab.
The Mormon Church hall, the donation centre, red and white vans parked outside. Last time, they wouldn’t take my blood. Since then, I’ve eaten a lot of spinach, eggs and pumpkin seeds – to make sure it was iron-rich enough – and this time, it was. So a large nurse with a tinsel tiara put the needle in….
Nottingham Man arrived in my little city. A few unremarkable hours in public places; showed him the mediaeval streets and historic buildings in relentless rain. Shared a (broken) umbrella, but no singing or dancing in the puddles and an awkward kiss goodbye in the car park.
The polling station was empty, but the usually stubby pencil on a string was new and sharp. A monolith with a square slit and battered corners stood waiting – the black metal ballot box. An electric Exit Poll; an Election Night to remember. Stayed up till the early hours, watching the results rolling in… A People’s Vote – the real thing!
December 2nd – December 8th, 2019
A buffet dinner party, with a real log fire in a Victorian grate, where I met a Morris Dancer – not in costume, other people’s wives or husbands and several members of the local cycling community.
Lime Street station, Liverpool. Met by a friend who treated me to lunch at his Club. The Athenaeum, founded in 1797 as a private reading room for gentlemen, away from the hoi polloi….Pamphlets and periodicals still laid out on a polished table. A portrait of George III looks down on the Members – jackets and ties required, no tipping allowed. Leather chairs, crimson and gold pillars, very high ceilings – and a magnificent spiral staircase leading to the old library, with views of Primark in the street below.
The Walker art gallery and an exhibition called An English Lady’s Wardrobe – a shopaholic’s between-the-Wars collection of clothes, most of them unworn…Bed that night in a Premier Inn close to the station.
The cathedral crawl, continued. 2 unlovely buildings: the Anglican one, massive in sandstone, with no atmosphere – and at the end of a road called Hope, the Catholic construction in concrete. A faint whiff of incense inside, then down numbered steps to a truly Great Space, with vaulted halls in purple brick: the Lutyens Crypt.
The West Coast line about to be taken over by a different company, so caught my last Virgin train home.
November 26th – December 1st, 2019
The crystal earring thought lost forever suddenly flashed from the bottom of a handbag. Changed batteries in a torch, the dust bag in the vacuum cleaner, the setting on the boiler, played with Minnie – my brand new wireless Mouse….
Samples of my bodily fluids were collected, labelled and sent away, into the System. The Advanced Nurse Practitioner didn’t know anything about an ultrasound scan; I was one of 29,000 patients, she said, to 23 doctors.
A Cuisine Club dinner, around a round table so vast that conversation across it was more of a shouting match, soon given up. The rice was nice. At another event, someone asked me how I was. Hesitated, then told her – which was a Mistake, because she’d been to ‘4 funerals in as many months’ and there was no competing with that.
Black Friday indeed, but for the bravery of ordinary people on London Bridge. Near-miss memories of Westminster and another bridge, March, 2017.
On the only dry day of the week, two men came and dug a trench, then put up two new fences with concrete posts. Had to raid the rainy-day piggy bank to pay for it. The next morning, the garden was gone – lost in thick and freezing fog.
November 18th – November 25th, 2019
The young GP, who listened closely to my vague symptoms of something or nothing, didn’t have time to examine me – but set up some tests, to ‘rule a few things out’…. Have confidence in him, but seeing the same doctor a third time is unlikely.
The endless wind and rain did for the fencing at the side of the house. It collapsed in the night and crashed into my neighbour’s yard, exposing the ends of old wooden posts, almost rotted away…
Hosted 2 groups. My choice for the Book Club was Modern Nature, about the creation of a shingle garden at Dungeness, in Kent and the impact of AIDS in the 1980s. Only one of us had read the book from cover to cover, but we all remembered the government leaflet with the warning image of a tombstone on the front. The Art Appreciation meeting was accessorised with R.A. magazines and mini cupcakes.
The soft, late-night crunch of a car outside – the welcome arrival of the Portsmouth Pair, who shared the weekend. The trees on the green almost bare, but pre-Election leaflets began to fall into the letter box – all promising Change and a Better, Greener Future.
November 11th -November 17th, 2019
Wednesday, World Kindness Day – so complimented the window cleaner on his traditional methods and sparkling result – but Network Rail weren’t taking part and cancelled my train south. A long wait for the next one, other would-be passengers pacing the platform like expectant fathers.
Brighton, Sussex. Beggars with educated accents and tents on the pavement. Made like a tourist and visited the Royal Pavilion, George 1V’s favourite palace, a riot of exotic decoration. Indian domes, Chinese dragons, Egyptian furniture with crocodile feet…
A hotel room with a view of the sea, on the 7th floor, and a heater that didn’t work. A fuzzy horizon – not France but a wind farm.
Next day, a cab to an overgrown churchyard and a sign:’ Tomb Trails available.’ Trees still ablaze with autumn. Then a crowded, chilly chapel and candles round a wooden box topped with flowers. A spiritual style of funeral service, ending with a 60’s soundtrack – Strawberry Fields Forever – followed by a Woodland Burial, where my friend of 57 years would be ‘absorbed into nature.’ Champagne and food in a pub and a few vaguely familiar faces from university days – like me, changed utterly. Didn’t, couldn’t approach the family, but her ex-husband embraced me. ‘You knew her longer than I did.’
Next morning, a last look through the window of room 718 and a glimpse of a small boat before it slipped out of sight. A single white sail, just visible on the pale grey water.
November 5th – November 10th, 2019
Raked up a lot of golden leaves on the lawn, while my Mr Fixit cut the laurel bushes at the front down to size, clearing space for new bulbs to go into the earth beneath: grape hyacinths. A robin introduced itself.
Met Nottingham man half-way, in Derby, the uneven streets with puddles more like pools. An ex hippy-biker with tatoos, pierced ears and a sweet tooth. He poured an alarming amount of sugar into his latte and told a good traveller’s tale, one about facing down a pack of wild dogs in the Californian desert. An attractive character, but with a dark family history, maybe too dark…
Found the trousers ‘lost’ last week, then promptly mislaid a favourite crystal earring. A blouse left out on the washing line was frozen stiff in the morning.
October 28th – November 4th, 2019
Days came and went. An NHS excursion – tried to make an advance appointment to see the GP I’m registered with- just for an MOT – but the receptionist behind a high counter was an Unfriendly Face, who spoke in a smoky whisper and told me to ring up early the next morning, when the ‘rotas were released’. Managed to use the online booking system instead and now have a 10 minute slot with a doctor at a village outpost of the practice….
Two spooky characters on the doorstep one day – rather pale, in black suits. Surely not canvassers, so soon? But no, only Jehovah’s Witnesses. A few night-time knocks on the door, but didn’t answer it, pretending not to be there. Which in a way I wasn’t – I was back in London, on another Hallow’een 35 years ago, a prize-sized pumpkin, waiting for my second son to be born.
Wasted hours failing to find a pair of winter-weight trousers hiding in the wardrobe or on a shelf behind the handbags…..then pinned brooches on two coats and a jacket. Poppies: one knitted, one crystal and one silk.
October 21st – October 27th, 2019
In slow motion. Pottered about, hit the bottle a bit, spent too much online – but kept a few long-standing arrangements.
St Albans, Hertfordshire. A flurry of texts between 70-somethings going on 17, survivors of the same convent school, then another Reunion Lunch, this one at Loch Fyne. The usual orgy of reminiscences and fishy dishes to die for, though one of us ordered only ice -cream…
Shoplifted in Oxford Street, London. Decided against buying a sweater in a shop, then walked out with something I’d picked up but not paid for. A little scarf – label still attached – that I’d forgotten all about, your honour…
Back on base, booked another trip south, to Sussex – and did this and that. Then changed all the clocks.
October 14th – October 20th, 2019
A massive shop at Waitrose – and a cab back to the house – mainly fuel for the Traveller, still an eating machine, if a more mature, meat-free one. Did a few interesting things with vegetables and halloumi, in his honour. Worked together on pensionista, improving the site and discussing her future. Stories of the last trip to Herculaneum and new plans -to see elephant seals in Argentina. After he’d gone, found a pile of discarded clothes on the second bedroom floor, like the old teenage days….
‘It is with great sadness…’ An email arrived on Thursday, announcing the death of the beloved friend in Brighton, which stopped the week.
October 7th – October 13th, 2019
A talk about Evolution a big disappointment – delivered at breakneck speed by a lecturer who assumed his audience knew all about the Pre-Cambrian period and the prehistoric rabbit’s place in the great scheme of things…
More satisfying – dinner at a Thai restaurant called the Rainbow, in pleasant company. Veg and prawns in translucent, crispy parcels and multi-coloured, sculptural salad.
Great balls of paper, crushed then tossed in the basket. Spent far too long trying to say something original about my choice of topic for the poetry group: the Moon. The first few drafts complete rubbish – ‘the distant darling of lovers and dreamers…’
A plan to head south to Sussex aborted – so down the garden instead, to dig up a bush that planted itself without permission a year ago. A Buddliea, butterfly duty done. The roots put up fierce resistance – a battle not yet won – but space must be made for a rose.
September 30th – October 6th, 2019
An afternoon at IKEA, where my companion ate a lot of meatballs and bounced on several sofa-beds, while I hunted bathroom cabinets….A brief but huge dumping of rain flooded the road back, the water bubbling back from drains unable to cope.
A 3-day trip into Hampshire, via Birmingham – to Winchester, once the Saxon capital of England. To collect another cathedral, the east end built on less than solid ground. Evensong, a violin recital and a descent into the deepest and oldest part of the building: the Crypt, often flooded in wet weather. Then a walking tour- up and down the oldest high street in the country, a royal city full of stories, clocks and dogs.
A seasonal ritual and ode to melancholy. Packed away the last of the summer clothes and unzipped bags scented with cedar and lavender – the late autumn/winter wardrobe.
An ongoing source of bemusement. Pleasant/absurd quasi-conversations online with men I’m unlikely to meet. One Chat, with someone touring France in a caravan, never got off the ground. Another, with an ex-biker in Nottingham, a hippie in a hoodie type- who really ought to be called Robin, but isn’t – revved up a bit. Because one Message made me laugh. I must have a ‘very capacious handbag, to collect all those cathedrals!’ And did the natives notice their disappearance?
September 24th – September 29th, 2019
In the high street, the window was still plastered with offers of trips to Turkey or Caribbean cruises, but the message on the door- a handwritten scrawl – ‘from all the staff at Thomas Cook’ said, ‘We’re so sorry….’
Extra shifts at the cathedral, where the usual role of guide morphed into security guard cum art assistant – minding the famous portrait of a local hero, on loan from London. A rope in front of the painting kept visitors at a distance, but not the very small one who darted under it, to get a closer look at Dr Johnson.
The ‘world’s biggest coffee morning’ in a hall, but surprised to find everyone singing Golden Oldies (Cliff, Dusty, Elvis) at full throttle, except for a man silently weeping in a corner. This turned out to be a Dementia Cafe. The Macmillan charity event was in a different part of the building.
A shiny young man strode into my bedroom and took a measurement or two. Then we continued a tour of the house, including the airing cupboard. It was National Home Evaluation Week and the estate agent was enthusiastic. ‘Very sellable’, he beamed, but had I ever thought of a loft conversion?
September 17th – September 23rd, 2019
Kept as busy as possible to keep assorted demons at bay.
Joined a walking group, led by an expert on waterworks….following the route of a Victorian tunnel cut deep into Triassic sandstone – to secure the supply of clean, anti-cholera water to the city. Many of the access shafts now built over, but some still there, marked by manhole covers.
Also underground, a dark and windowless cellar – for a Wine-Tasting evening, where we swirled 8 varieties of grape around our glasses, then sniffed and sipped, as instructed. From an Austrian Veltliner with a ‘forgiving flavour profile’ to a Bordeaux with ‘ a lot of backbone’. One of the Tasters was a bishop, flamboyant in a salmon pink shirt.
Outside, the road was re-surfaced with a fine grey gravel – with a surface-of-the-moon quality. A network of silvery trails on the paths and patio, so time to scatter blue pellets far and wide – as if sowing seed. A lot of slugs died.
Sat around in the house for a while in extra layers of clothes – like Michelin Man – then gave in and put the heating on for the first time. A new autumn began.
September 10th – September 16th, 2019
The phone filled with images from Italy and Spain. The Traveller left Pompeii and Herculaneum to celebrate his birthday on Mount Vesuvius, while his brother – on a break in Alicante – missed the floods there by only a day.
Heritage Weekend. Several ‘open houses’, including a mediaeval almshouse , still sheltering ‘poor women of the parish’. Morris dancing in the market square, then a Walk led by a guide pretending to be a 7th century local hero-saint called St Chad….a group trail after a man in sandals and smock, carrying a shepherd’s crook. Nobody paid us the slightest attention; it’s a very English sort of city.
My beauty therapist – a wise young soul – told me her loneliest clients weren’t pensioners like me, but the ones aged between 30 and 50. It was time, she said firmly, for me to open a Facebook account.
A local man with learning difficulties trimmed my front hedge- and a chunk of next door’s – with great enthusiasm and let 2 cups of tea get cold. Told him my name more than once – but he didn’t seem to like it and called me Kate….
Said a few what could pass for prayers for an atheist friend in need of a modern miracle. Someone I can’t afford to lose.
September 3rd – September 9th, 2019
Ate a lot of ice-cream, trying to hold on to the summer. Wrote a few reviews on Trip Advisor, which got me hundreds of points and an absurd new title: Attraction Expert level 8!
Another appointment in town and an overnight stay at my favourite hotel. In the courtyard garden at the back, a large water feature, the bottom glittering with pieces of silver and copper. A fellow guest appeared at my side and said, ‘Make a wish!’ I wasn’t carrying any money, but he found pennies in his pocket and handed one over. Then we threw two coins in a fountain.
A group visit to a boutique-style cinema, The Red Carpet – to see Mrs Lowry and Son, about the Lancashire painter of factories, mills and ‘matchstick men’. A hermetic relationship that – somehow – didn’t suffocate the man’s spirit.
A liaison that began online – and lasted 7 dates in Stafford – shut down for good. Which felt bad, then sad, then right. A heavy but attractive man whose wife died only months before we met, too soon. A solitary walk soon afterwards felt like another form of farewell….around a local marina, past hundreds of boats. One, painted red and called Dancing with Dragons, was moored next to another with fading letters on the side: Theseus.
August 27th – September 2nd, 2019
An inverted triangle of a trip. Cross-country to Ely, once a small island in the eel-catching Fens – the flat wetlands of East Anglia. A tour of the colossal Norman cathedral, Oliver Cromwell’s house and the Museum, once the city gaol – with a condemned cell and display of cruel and unusual punishments, like a spiked iron collar….The Traveller and I also met my Last Childminder – the woman who once looked after him in London while I went unwillingly to work, a boy who now towers over us both….
Then south for a first-time stay in the Portsmouth Pair’s new house. Dinner in the Quays near the Dockyards, the great ships’ rigging sketched against the sky. Back to Waterloo, then Euston and the way back north.
In my absence, strange fruit fallen under the apple tree. A multi-coloured beach ball, probably from next door’s inflatable pool. Played with it for a moment, then threw it back over the fence.
August 19th – August 26th, 2019
Hot outside, but the woman at the checkout in Tesco was wearing a woolly hat – pulled right down – and fixing me with a long, malevolent stare – as if I’d jumped the queue or interfered with her trolley, or worse. The man sorting out the shopping said ‘don’t mind her. She’s got dementia…’
A divided day in Derby, a city ‘vibrant’ with more obese people in one square mile than I’d ever seen. One of them shared her mobility buggy with an over-sized infant eating crisps, the vehicle festooned with carrier bags. The same streets spilled with floral displays and a building of beauty rose above it all: the under-rated Georgian cathedral – all calm curves of cream and gold.
On the way back, a young man manoeuvred a long wood and metal box on and off the train, with t.l.c. It must have been a musical instrument, but the secret-sorrow expression on his face suggested a coffin.
Lunch with another Lady. The usual catch-up and putting the world to rights, thence to talk of Other People, especially ones not quite themselves. Told her about the Tesco ‘incident’; she shared concerns about a cousin convinced we’re all descended from aliens…which in some cases – we agreed – could well be true.
August 12th – August 18th, 2019
Congratulations from Ernie! The Premium Bonds held for years actually coughed up a small prize…and a refund arrived from a company which had wrongly charged my account, so off to Waitrose for some classy comfort food and wine.
Posted a booking form and s.a.e. for a local event, but left out the cheque – which was just as well, because I hadn’t signed it… The usual routines and gatherings held the week together, though the reading group’s choice of book (Tin Man) was a struggle. To be fair, the fate of characters who left me cold moved others to tears…
Investigated a far corner of the outhouse, once a post-war coal ‘scuttle’ – looking for a garden tool that wasn’t where it should have been. Cobwebs settled on my ashen hair and Miss Havisham appeared in the mirror.
Saturday would have been my 37th wedding anniversary – except for the divorce.
August 6th – August 11th, 2019
Some things got a bit too much. Like the death of a dear friend, fears for another’s future – and my own. Suddenly overcome in the street, I leant my head against a wall; a passerby paused: was I all right? Reassured, he walked on by. A strengthening moment -the kindness of strangers.
A special Date, with Vincent. During Members’ Hours, before the end of an exhibition at Tate Britain, London. His name on a vase of sunflowers went straight for the heart. Van Gogh: dead for 120 years; pictures wonderfully, painfully alive.
Back home, a loud squeak upstairs, as if from a man-made mouse – which turned out to be the smoke alarm’s battery running down. Consulted the manual, again…then got back on the ladder…Outside, the loud whirl of fallen leaves in the wind and rain of a Midlands monsoon.
July 30th – August 5th, 2019
Who would have thought the sky could hold so much rain? A retro-Spring in the garden – no fruit expected this year, but new leaves appeared on the apple trees, even a flash of pink blossom – barely there in April.
A private-patient optical appointment in London. My right eye has never been quite at peace with the left – in appearance or function.
The stand-off with Stafford Man began to soften, but accepted an online invitation to lunch with Another – in Derby. A bit of Brexit in everything!
An unfamiliar area in my adopted city – once quarry-land, lanes banked with the sandstone which created the cathedral. Coffee with a fellow poet in bare feet in his bungalow on a hill, the visit punctuated by the chimes of two case clocks – one a Grandmother – not quite in unison…
July 23rd – July 29th, 2019
Watched a lot of news, to deflect the post-Portugal blues. Boris I came to power; a Brave New World may – or may not -have begun.
Thursday: got up very early to hoover downstairs before the heat built up – preparing to host a Group – then lived through the hottest July day on record, maybe ever. Filled a hot water bottle with cold, to keep the bed cool. Lightning lit up the room – even through the blinds – strike after strike…
A few nights before, a man jumped into the lake not far from the house, to cool off – and drowned. The picture-perfect view will never be the same.
Walked on the Moon. My usual shift at the cathedral, where a huge photograph of the cratered surface carpeted the floor of the nave. 50 years since the ‘small step’.
July 9th – July 22nd, 2019
A cruise down the Douro, the ‘river of gold’ that flows through Portugal from its source in Spain. Shining green water, reflecting the steep slopes of the Valley, terraced with vineyards…Dream-like views, offset by a series of locks, one the deepest in Europe – a sinister affair with slimy black walls and ‘guillotine’ gates…
The captain’s name was Jesus – so we felt in safe hands… Later in the cruise, he took the ship down to the mouth of the Douro, where it meets the Atlantic.
The ‘spacious’ cabin was actually cramped; opening the wardrobe door cut off access to the ensuite! but otherwise a beautiful boat, every meal a banquet – served with a flourish by flirtatious off-duty matadors (except here, they don’t kill the bull.)
My companion’s moves on the floor were unexpectedly abandoned – a Dancing Queen with bells on! but soon decided to join her… so we both flung ourselves around and made exhibitions of ourselves.
A near-escape on the sundeck. One of the crew sharply motioned to me to sit down – moments before the ship sailed beneath a bridge low enough to decapitate a Diarist…
A week of highlights – from ancient walled villages and baroque chapels all high on hills and on pilgrimage routes to cathedrals and port wine cellars. In the golden city of Salamanca, a Fat Lady sang to us – a Spanish Edith Piaf, writ large – the songs in no need of translation. Love, betrayal, pain…but her finale was a tourist favourite: VIVA ESPANA! which jollied things up again.
After hours of delay, a frightening return flight. A very small plane soon ‘lost’ in total cloud, then severe turbulence.
Back on base, I emptied the old suitcase and threw it into the black bin – the wheels too wonky to survive another journey.
June 26th – July 8th, 2019
Enfield – and an Indian meal out with the Traveller, his wife and his father – and her parents. Three of us drank wine, the others only water. The conversation didn’t flow – but a friendly and overdue occasion.
The National Gallery, Trafalgar Square – and pictures in an exhibition: Sean Scully’s lines and squares. Chequered landscape, tide on tide.
Shallow puddles around the washing machine. A plumber checked out the pipework and felt around and under the rusty appliance, and laughed. ‘A soggy bottom!’ Be that as it may, still had to use it pro-tem, so lined the floor with cardboard, tea-towels and old newspapers….
Pre- cruise preparation. Polished some silver jewellery (a chance to shine); painted the toenails Riviera Blue. Put a few personal affairs in order – a phone call to one friend, an apologetic text to another, because you never know.The ship could also spring a leak….
Note – the Diary is taking a break. Will resume July 23rd.
June 25th -June 30th, 2019
A body on the patio. Fallen from the roof – or the sky, a collared dove, its tiny head turned to the side, oddly like the profile on a coin. A decent burial required, but shrank from the contact. A day or two later, it disappeared – undertaker unknown.
Binge-watched a series on Netflix: Designated Survivor, about the White House and the comfortingly crazy world of Presidential politics.
A drift of BBQ smoke over the fence. Screams from the inflatable pool; loud thumps of music from a pop-up tent. The people next door, seeing in summer.
The last there-and-back in a month of trains. Destination: a suburb in Greater London, once a royal hunting ground.
June 17th – 24th, 2019
From Waterloo station, London, to a city of ships, seagulls and the Portsmouth Pair’s new home, their first visitor. A tour of the Edwardian terrace revealed lots of storage space and period details like a fireplaces and high ceilings. The previous owners had three dogs; had to reassure the new ones the faint canine scent would fade in time and become part of the house’s history….During the visit, a dull wrenching sound outside and a van driving off – the SOLD sign being removed and taken away.
When I sneezed a few times on the train back, a faint chorus of fellow passengers – Bless you!
Back in Staffordshire, three hardy perennials visited a garden open for charity – the new lady gardeners and me. A very English afternoon: a dense display of plants and flowers in full bloom – a bee and butterfly paradise – with roses round arbours, frames, even a telegraph pole, a sundial half-hidden in a bush and home-made Victoria sponge in the tearoom.
On my own imperfect patch, the tall screen of conifers needed a short, back and sides, so my neighbour-mower-handyman-life-coach got on his ladder and busy with his hedge-cutter – and sliced through the washing line!
June 10th – 16th, 2019
Backwards, by train, to Leeds, where the route to the centre was lined with barriers and modest crowds. A series of skinny women were belting through the streets – the annual Triathlon, apparently. When the winner flashed by, a loud cheer went up. The churches and galleries on my list all closed. An overnight stay in a 6th floor room with sealed windows, which I hate -so an uneasy sleep.
A cafe next day – to meet a long-lost first cousin for the first time: my mother’s brother’s surviving child….We talked for hours and hours, one with a standard English accent, the other with a slight Geordie lilt. Both tall, in similar outfits (striped tops and jeans) and speech patterns, with the same second name and shared Celtic roots in Durham. A posh lunch in the Victoria Quarter – at the Ivy, with its wildly OTT tropical decor. To celebrate our getting together at last, one of this year’s great Gifts….
Winter returned. The heating went back on, the sandals abandoned for boots. And wet, wet, wet – a monsoon in the Midlands.
Packed a case for the next trip – to Hampshire.
June 4th – June 9th, 2019
Thought I’d been stood up in Stafford – another novel experience – but no, his bus was late. He carried a red umbrella large enough to shelter a family of 4 and wore a charity daffodil pin on a bright blue jersey; I was in non-committal, neutral tones. TV screens in a pub showed scenes of President Trump and the Queen. Another odd – but not entirely uncomfortable – couple. Lunch at the Swan, an Inn with one internal wall built entirely of old suitcases – the hard-edged, rectangular type, without wheels.
Another 3-day visitor, the Traveller, who helped his mother update this site and gave her yet another patient tech-tutorial. Watched the D-Day coverage together – the best on CNN – one of us a bit tearful.
Wore a new cardigan inside out for most of a day. Thought it felt a bit odd.
Readied a rucksack for a trip to Yorkshire.
May 28th – June 3rd, 2019
Birmingham. A visit to the under-marketed marvel of a 17th century house: Aston Hall, rich with oak from trees once cut down in the park. Polished floorboards and panelling, hidden spaces and a round-shaped hole in an elaborate Jacobean staircase – made by a cannon ball in the Civil War. Charles 1st spent a night here – just the one – sleeping in a sumptuous four-poster bed – before the battle of Edgehill. The scent of seasoned wood; the creak of history.
A beauty appointment, for ‘semi-permanent make-up’ – which tatooed my fading eyebrows back to life. The pigment used was called ‘macadamia’; the result a bit Cleopatra.
The nearest branch of Nationwide, for a big Bank of Mum moment – the same-day transfer of sterling – in real time – to help with the purchase of a house on the coast I’ve never seen. The young manager who assisted me with the process almost as thrilled as I was!
May 20th – May 27th, 2019
Eurostar -Lille -and a rustic little station called Froyennes. The ‘field trip’ to the H.Q. of an ancient catholic order, not far from the French border. A warm welcome from the nuns, one of whom remembered counting the German planes as they came over the countryside in 1940. The Mother Superior of the community was once a Loreto girl, one of the gang.
A spartan but pleasant room, the walls bare but for an icon or two. No need to lock the door. A candlelit Vespers; sat at the back as I always had in the classroom. Two of the party brought boot-loads of wine and champagne…A lot of laughter and looking back on school days. Got a bit Horrible Histories at times. 7 Remainers, including the M.S, and 2 Brexiteers – but no hostilities.
Tournai, the oldest city in Belgium. Blond beer in the Grand Place, then the vast Notre Dame, with its 5 bell towers. Full of scaffolding inside. Plastic chairs, black limestone pillars. A cold character of a cathedral.
Calais. Heavily armed guards on the platforms, as if to make sure we didn’t turn back.
A night at the Royal National, for a change. The largest hotel in central London (over 1,600 beds). Coach party paradise, miles of identical corridors. Never again.
May 14th -May 19th, 2019
The new rail was taken off its battens, lengthened with a piece of the pole discarded earlier, strengthened with a steel rod, then put back. The carpenter’s a creative. Later realised the altered end had a slight kink to it, but persuaded self that this added a rustic feel….And at least – no more holes in the wall.
The plot thickened in the garden, too. The Ladies – aka the Angels – dug holes and trimmed laurels. A lilac bush now sits near the back fence, company for lavender in a tub and last week’s ground cover. 3 shades of purple.
Topped up the supply of euros, made the usual map of what-to-wear-when. Preparation for tomorrow’s Enid Blyton style adventure. 8 go to Belgium. To visit a friend from our convent school days, who became a Bride of Christ.
May 7th – May 13th, 2019
The carpenter came and put up the handrail for the stairs, which turned out to be too short – too much cut off the pricey white English oak pole – so there’ll have to be a second coming…
Teeth scaled and polished in Primrose Hill, London , then an early dinner with the Traveller, who’s thinking of Uganda – or Japan.
After the train back, walked home from the station and fell flat on the pavement. Puzzled. Wasn’t tipsy and the heels were not high, then noticed a pot-hole in the asphalt surface. The cross-body bag cushioned the fall, but lucky it wasn’t the road. So no harm done – except to the knee of my jeans. A tiny tear, faintly frayed at the edges.
Hailstones, then heavy rain – but new plants still put in the ground. ‘This way, ‘ said the angels of the garden, ‘you won’t have to water them!’
April 29th – May 6th, 2019
A Guild of Guides meeting in a building once a Bishop’s Stables, for a talk called, What is History? It was clearly : a bit of Geography or Economics or a vision of Progress…or Something Else entirely. One of those cosmic questions that get you nowhere – but good clean fun for a Monday morning.
Another long walk with Stafford Man, in green and open country still with the freshness special to April. Past Follies, cows, bull-rushes and boats – till we came to an old pack-horse bridge over quiet but troubled water, where three rivers meet to make one.
May – and a councillor came to the door.. “Local elections,” he enlightened me, “were not about Brexit.” Would have called him another patronising reason never to vote for anyone or anything again, but he turned away too quickly. His leaflets went straight in the bin, but did cast a vote the next day – for an Independent candidate.
Picked up the payment from America, with pride. The nearest Western Union agency turned out to be not Tesco or the Post Office, but the Co-op.
April 23rd – April 28th, 2019
A text from a friend who lives in Sri Lanka. After the Easter attacks, schools and churches are shut, holidays abandoned and a police curfew’s in force all over the island.
Still collecting cathedrals. A coach trip to Southwell Minster in Nottinghamshire, England, where a Norman door stood wide open. Famous for mediaeval carvings of creatures and leaves of stone, so finely and deeply cut you can slip your hand behind them….
Closer to home, down the road, another Church – of Latter Day Saints, sometimes used as a blood donation centre. It should have been the 40th offering, but my iron levels were too low and they sent me away with a leaflet – which told me to eat more turkey, prunes and spinach.
A bit down, till an email arrived – from another friend soon to suffer chemo or radiotherapy treatment, or both.
Storm Hannah threw herself about, thrashing in the trees and flinging flowers and twigs around with wild abandon – the wind echoing even within the walls of the house.
Almost the end of April, the cruellest month.
April 16th – April 22nd, 2019
Goings-on in the garden. Hung, aired and beat a rug on the washing-line, which snapped – so had to tie a bow in it. A black cat appeared from nowhere – green eyes, with a death stare – then vanished over the spiked fence. A wild whirl in the air: pink and white ‘butterflies’ – short-lived blossom from a neighbour’s cherry tree.
A couple of local gardeners came to inspect my borders and raised beds and offer no-nonsense advice. One wore a madly multi-coloured cardigan, the other camouflage combats, as if ready for some undeclared state of war. Liked them – probably angels in disguise – so decided to let them loose against the weeds and other Undesirables…
When the Portsmouth pair arrived on Friday, the house became a family home again. The weather more summer than spring, so we sat on the terrace in the sun, drinking deeply of wine and the scent of the grass. Contrails of planes in the sky and in the evening, the sudden solo rising flights of birds.
The cathedral full of floral displays – yellow, green and white – and marvellous music. But over the Easter Sunday service, a shadow. Sri Lanka.
April 8th – April 15th, 2019
A spot of exercise: bought a black rattan ‘bistro’ chair from Tesco and carried it home to put on the patio. Then sat on it till sunset.
Also put my head above a parapet; sent an email in ‘a spirit of goodwill’ to the cathedral Committee – about their attitude towards volunteers, which may or may not bear bitter fruit….
An indoor fair; a ‘Vintage Soul Event’ in the town hall. Tarot readings, dream catchers, retro bags, angel-wing earrings – but came away with only an ‘uplifting’ bar of soap, made in Birmingham.
A third date and a bus from Stafford to Stone. A long walk along the Trent and Mersey canal, then a pause in an ancient waterside pub. Past boats and gardens alive with blossom, following the path under a bridge or two. The sun kept on shining and somewhere along the way – a new friendship was born.
April 1st – April 7th, 2019
A Chinese banquet one evening, en groupe. A pesci-veggie version for me amid the usual indoor barbecue table effects. The next day, the cold bug – dormant for a while – struck again. So back to the Lemsip and cough drop diet.
In slow motion, cancelled arrangements and kept close to base – but the latest domestic drama had me high on a ladder: the smoke alarm went off, repeatedly. No smoke, no fire. Took it down from the ceiling and dug out the manual. Battery non-replaceable, so dusted and vacuumed the alarm instead, which settled it down.
Early nights and novels about spies and skulduggery in Tudor England. Oddly restful reading, but watching The Bucket List was a mistake.
March 25th – March 31st, 2019
Picked up the ball…so a second Date in Stafford – in the same park and the same beer garden by the river Sow. He came with a ‘peace offering’ – 2 books, about saints and churches, which belonged to his late wife.
Two events in town: co-hosted a Lunch in Knightsbridge, near Harrods. Ten around a round table – friends from way back: school, university, work and Paris in 1968. They came from Chester, Brighton, Tufnell Park, Kensington, Golders Green and Lichfield.
A rally in Parliament Square, Westminster. Deep in a huge crowd, surrounded by ordinary people of all ages, a few in wheelchairs. An army of police nearby, but a peaceful protest with a prom-like atmosphere, complete with ‘Rule Britannia’ finale. Someone gave me a large flag; waving it felt a bit undignified, so I stood on a stone step and held it high, for the breeze to catch it. For once, not an observer, but part of the News…
March 19th – March 24th, 2019
Covered a lot of ground – by bus, train, on foot. Family gatherings for two big birthdays, my ex-husband’s and mine. Wetherspoons and a taverna in Camden Town. Attracted at such times to the river, so on the first day of Spring and World Happiness Day, apparently, over the Wobbly Bridge to see Pierre (Bonnard) at Tate Modern, his pictures drenched in bright colour. The Thames its usual muddy khaki-green, the water agitated, flowing fast. High tide.
Back on base, a feedback request form from the boiler repair company. In view of my recent service experience, would I recommend Baxi to my friends? The TV licensing people sent me a reminder in red – mine had ‘expired’ and if I didn’t pay up, there could be Consequences…A nice chat with an Adam reassured me that yes, watching the box was now free…
Plant news: something wonderful on the windowsill. While I was away, Arnold produced new shoots – three slender coils of green. The aspidistra’s gift.
March 12th – March 18th, 2019
The ‘No Doorstep Callers’ sign ignored again. When one knocked, I opened the door, keeping the chain across – Staying Safe, as the Neighbourhood Watchmen advise. Spoke through the narrow space, but the mystery caller made no answer. He just turned on his heel, sharpish – so only the briefest glimpse of a frightened face and the back of a shabby raincoat.
Not an online banker – so transferred some funds from one account into another in branch. The woman behind the counter was suspicious and took me through a long series of ‘standard’ security questions. Had anyone put me under pressure to move this money? Did I look that stupid or vulnerable?
Signed up to a local protest group – one of a national network – about the eternal shambles at Westminster. Might – or might not – go on a March, more than 50 years after the last one. The issue then: apartheid.
March 5th – March 11th, 2019
The wind from beyond the Fens tore across the city and the snow that fell overnight vanished in the morning. The grass had its first cut of the year, then the lawn-mower – my neighbour – and I put the world to rights in my kitchen. From something rotten in the local council to the current dangers to democracy…
An embarrassing message from the editor did for the Second Date. His next text apologised but made it clear the ‘ball was now in my court’ – where it’s likely to remain. Though part of me’s tempted to throw it back.
24 hours in town, for an appointment in Old Street and a catch-up with an ex-colleague in Hampstead. From the hotel window, a view of the tops of the trees in Tavistock Square and the old road from Euston station to the Strand. Three red buses in a row, then an ambulance, which overtook them all and sped out of sight.
February 26th – March 4th, 2019
An email from America. An invitation from a blogging ‘agency’ to write a ‘guest post’ for them, for a small but significant fee. The other contributors all seem to be famous or ‘feminist activists’ – not my style… so we’ll see. A confidence boost, all the same.
Found something lying in the road – a soft heap, with treadmarks all over it. Not a cat, but a black cardigan. Washed and dried, a perfect fit. Also washed Arnold’s long pointy green leaves in warm milk and water, then polished them gently till they shone. Keeping the aspidistra flying.
A near-Blind Date. I’d seen the man’s photograph on the Singles site, but so scared on the way to Stafford I nearly didn’t get off the train. Turned out to be the warmest winter day on record, the sky above the beer garden a heavenly blue and the park full of ducks and daffodils. A pleasant, inconclusive encounter with a semi-retired newspaper editor.
A greater thrill: the Portsmouth son found a house he likes, so checked it out online on Right-Move. A private peek behind a shiny black door, into someone else’s bedroom, bathroom, conservatory. Period features, Pop Art pictures on the landing….
February 19th – February 25th, 2019
A ‘viewing opportunity’ at a just-built Retirement Complex nearby – taken just to see what it was like. A saleslady showed me round an ‘age-exclusive’ apartment with a walk-in wardrobe and then the communal lounge, furnished with a few down-sizers, who must be very well-heeled indeed.
Eight hours in town. A convent school reunion near Leicester Square, then walking through sunshine and other Squares (Russell, Brunswick..) to the British Library and the Members’ Room, where the Traveller was waiting, to spend a little time with Mum – and soon to fly to Spain.
Communications: a lovely long conversation on the landline with a friend in Epsom – voice to voice, in the old-fashioned way. Loud drilling noises from next door – the Polish neighbour doing his DIY thing again. During a lull, I tapped lightly on the wall – Morse-style, as from an adjoining prison cell – and a couple of taps came back…
February 12th – February 18th, 2019
The joy of Jane. Book Club at mine and a return to an old friend: Pride and Prejudice.
Two items in the letter box: a leaflet promising me ‘the ultimate weather protection’ for my bricks and walls, featuring fungicide…and my first free TV licence. Funny Valentines.
Took part in a Street Furniture Survey, organised by the council. We paced the pavements, clipboards in hand – feeling important – then filled in the forms. Mine noted the number and condition of the local lamp-posts, litter bins and the like – or lack thereof. Plus a dog- fouling notice pinned on a tree.
A working weekend; processed a lot of paperwork and pulled up a few weeds in soft spring sunshine. Threaded a needle twice – to darn the heel of a favourite sock, then to alter an easy hem, which led to sorting out the sewing basket and finding a tin scrap of the past. My mother’s thimble.
February 4th – February 11th, 2019
The engineer came and replaced the pressure relief valve and recharged the expansion chamber and had a cup of tea. I learnt a little more about the boiler’s inner life, but a sense of dread – of another imminent disaster – proved hard to shake off.
So I went to a travel agent to book for a cruise on the Nile, but it had sold out – so paid a deposit on a Douro one instead. Then to a new hairdresser’s, for a retro re-style – a kind of mullet, in silver…
Didn’t want to stay home alone with the boiler, so made an effort and went out for my first meat-free dinner, with the Curry Club. The special menu didn’t include prawns, so had chicken korma – without the chicken, plus an extra poppadom. One diner mentioned the B-word, but dirty looks all round soon shut him up…..Walked back under a cold clear sky – but because it was warm, the house felt less empty than before.
January 29th – February 3rd, 2019
Until the weekend, nothing much happened. Woke up on Saturday to a cold house, the boiler flashing a fault. So I added a bit of pressure, as many times before. But too much, this time – because water began to gush from the overflow pipe outside – pools soon forming on the patio – then the worst bit. Water began to enter the kitchen….
Freaked out, then turned off the supply tap, with difficulty. My installer’s advice over the phone didn’t help, so to be safe, turned off the system. Better to be cold than risk a repeat of last year’s disaster. As long as a body can bundle up, boil a kettle, wash in the sink, flush the loo…
The boiler company customer support line said it wasn’t an emergency; played the pensioner card and they made it one. An engineer would be with me soon.
In the meantime, the alarm went off on the landing. Rushed upstairs and checked the mini-heater I’d pressed into service – but there was no smoke and no fire and the alarm stopped by itself.
January 22nd – January 28th, 2019
Winter has come. The wheelie bin lid frozen shut. Read the meters and fed the numbers into my account; the bill still very high, so turned down the thermostat and wore socks over socks. Saw a young man with a smartphone sitting on the icy pavement outside a shop, one leg stretched out in front of him, the other, missing.
Kept busy and read a lot, trying to block out chilling news from different quarters – about one friend’s recurrence of cancer and another’s likely diagnosis…In denial, at a distance.
A stormy Sunday night, the wind howling in the street – so only a small attendance at the Holocaust Memorial Service. Candles lit, poems read, names written on luggage labels then hung on a ‘prayer tree’. And silence kept for reflection on an evil that still and always ‘passes understanding.’
January 15th -January 21st, 2019
An enlightening lunch – listening to a friend with a new lord and master – a rescue dog, who takes her on regular walks and visits to the vet. The garden’s ‘a wreck’, but he’s – more or less – house-trained and has his own bed in the kitchen. What sounds like servitude to me is a joyful free choice for her. Promised to make the puppy’s acquaintance, glad it isn’t a cat.
A day-trip to town, for a private eye appointment. Passed under the windows of a first floor flat in Bloomsbury. No glimpse of the rooms my boys and I once lived in; the curtains quite closed.
On the red route-master bus, a paper cup rolled round and round the floor, patches of white spreading under the seats. Spilt milk.
January 8th – January 14th, 2019
Birmingham. Pictures at an exhibition, then a group lunch in Grand Central, New Street station, under the atrium roof. All harmony – but paying the bill the usual awkwardness of card and cash, some of us with more expansive tipping tendencies than others….
A class here, an appointment there. No longer dark at teatime and some of the trees seem to think it’s spring – but a bleakness in the High Street. A last dip into M&S Simply Food, about to close down for good; Debenhams nearly empty. When the tearful woman in in my favourite boutique said she couldn’t go on, drew back – surely not a Samaritan moment – but no, she’d ‘had enough’ of the rates, etc – and was shutting up shop at the end of the week….
In the kitchen, a few seeds of change. Began to use up the animal products – the organic sausages, a quiche lorraine – but left some things on stand-by, like the tins of sardines. The future will be meat-free, but fish-friendly.
December 31st, 2018 – January 7th, 2019
New Year’s Eve. Anger on the Midlands train composed of only 4 carriages, because most of the passengers had to stand all the way to London. I was very lucky to get a seat, right next to the loo.
Tufnell Park. Sipped champagne with a dear friend – and a friend of hers – as the year turned from old to new….
The first day of 2019. A hike up Primrose Hill and down again into Regent’s Park, the sparse grass dotted with bottle corks. More joggers than walkers on the path. Views of the Zoo from a distance – warthogs snuffling around, wonderfully ugly – and camels in their enclosures, their expressions all snooty indifference.
A picture palace: the Odeon in the Holloway Road, opened in 1938 – to see a grotesque but much-acclaimed film called The Favourite, about Queen Anne. Dark in the street outside and just ahead of us, a flash of red. A fox crossing the road.
Another over-crowded train back. Re-entered the house to a reassuring sound – the hum of the heating coming on. The boiler, behaving itself.
December 25th – December 30th, 2018
Pigs in blankets for the Portsmouth Pair; when they left, the Veggie son arrived. Roast potatoes- the first pile in goose fat, the second in rapeseed oil – the closest I get to a signature dish. The resident blackbirds feasted on a bit of fruitcake and the remains of a mince pie.
A walk to the cathedral for the Service. The singing of the choir and congregation rose up to fill the vast space. The simple glory of the words and music brought hope and joy to my world.
Another crowded scene – at the football club-house, the red and white Blood and Transplant vans parked outside. No cancelled appointments, apparently. My 39th donation; 11 more to go, then they’ll give me a Gold Card.
The house felt very empty after the company of Christmas, but work to be done – drafting and redrafting the new Post, editing in and editing out. – to meet a special deadline: the anniversary of a death in Athens.
December 18th -24th, 2018
Far too much food shopping, as if for a siege. Before another raid on Aldi, blew out a tea-light, but forgot to lock the back door. Not out for long and the side-gate bolted, but even so…
Last year’s mystery card turned up again – a limp affair, addressed to an Anne I’ve never heard of…A few decorations went up, to please the adult infants. Festive fronds on the mirrors and an angel, suspended from a bookcase, now flies over the telly. Assembled a ‘wall-piece’/mobile of silver flowers and snowflakes, finished off with a bit of holly cut from next-door’s hedge…
The usual shift at the cathedral, now alight with a Christmas tree display – new tradition. An official badge on a ribbon round my neck. A slightly over-excited visitor mistook me for a lay chaplain and told me all about his mental health issues, which seemed to include Brexit. Murmured something at what seemed appropriate intervals, then he asked me to say the Lord’s Prayer with him, so I did and he went away.
December 11th – December 17th, 2018
A late Lunch with a friend, who’s unaccountably fond of foxes, so gave her socks with red cubs on them; her gift to me was also red: a poinsettia, borne home in the dark like a torch.
The festive season does funny things to people. A middle-aged woman passed me on the street. Sensible face, laced-up shoes, but tinsel around her neck and reindeer antlers on her head, with bells on.
The electric fire on much more than usual, with Storm Dierdre at the door; a ‘developing depression’ from Ireland, which figures.
Watched the latest dreary/horrific/endless episode of the soap opera Brexit’s become. My hairdresser – not a historian – thinks there’ll be a civil war…
December 4th – December 10th, 2018
An e-mailed photo on the desktop screen was something of a shock – because the wide-set eyes and faintly wistful expression so like mine. The face of the first cousin I’ve yet to meet, re-discovered at the end of October.
Bought a brooch in the crystal shape of a bee, then – in accordance with some universal law – later lost an earring, now out there with all the socks and gloves and other odd items in orbit….
Sneezed all week. Over-dosed on Vitamin C and the Lemsip diet only broken by the Book Club’s festive meal at a Clubber’s own period home. An abundance of candles and good company, foraged greenery on the table, real logs burning in a Victorian fire-place – and a visit from Secret Santa!
A seasonal ritual; wrote some Christmas cards – fewer than last year – then put them in a little sack, ready for the trek to the nearest post-box. A lot of angels in envelopes.
November 27th – December 3rd, 2018
Opened a box, more like a casket, then re-read the letters I’d save from a fire. Written by my father ‘on active service’ in 1943 -1944, full of passion and humour. Made copies of them all – for posterity – which took ages and used up all the ink in the printer.
Eight train journeys, two on the Tube. London to Brighton. A grey pall of weather over the seafront and what little is left of the West Pier – a skeletal symbol of neglect. Two old friends, once students at Sussex, sat talking at the kitchen table, one a Brexiteer, the other a Remainer, but in total agreement: it’s a Shambles. A cat-flap in the door, but the cat itself is now ashes – in a jar by the bread bin.
A coastal trip to Chichester and a gun, coin and curio shop, to pick up some precious items in person: five replacement war medals. No tours available at the cathedral – and the Arundel Tomb out of reach – because a special carol service was in progress. For dementia sufferers, all very calm – contained by carers – but a lot of ‘oohs’ and ‘aahs’ during a nativity play – especially when two surprise characters appeared in the nave, led by a small Joseph and Mary: real, live donkeys with large furry ears and sad, quizzical eyes…
November 20th – November 26th, 2018
The hairline cracks in the front room coving were filled in, then the decorator opened up the waiting paint pots…The magnolia slowly vanished under a tide of Pebble Shore grey and one wall went Wild Primrose.
Hosted a U3A gathering. Theme: Australia. So – Sidney Nolan and Ned Kelly, but one of the group, who reminded us that Aboriginal pictures – on rock, bark and more commercially, canvas – were the longest continuous art tradition in the world, also brought along a boomerang. Show and tell – another ancient practice.
Sat on several staircases in public places, like the library, with a tape measure – to check out the dimensions of the handrail and distances from top to tread. Because time spent on reconnaissance is never wasted and I need a rail at the right height for my own stairs. Many people passed me but showed no interest or surprise whatsoever. Just an uncertain smile or a very English ‘sorry’ or ‘excuse me’ – as if they were the one in the way!
A family weekend. The Traveller, now of Enfield, visited his Midlands branch, with my new daughter-in-law. The festive arrangements now decided. The vegetarian and carnivorous couples will come at different times….
Frost rimed the fence and the lids of the wheelie bins. The trees in the garden stripped-naked now. Cut back the buddleia and raked up heaps of damp leaves, as if from a modest forest floor. Which made me think of the fires that consumed a place called Paradise, over five thousand miles away.
November 13th – November 19th, 2018
Prepared the front room for its future – wiping down the walls, shaking out the curtains, culling the odd cobweb, shifting chairs towards the centre, to join the lamps and storage baskets….
A cross-country trip by coach. Rather surprised when the driver said Cambridge was ‘full of psychopaths’ – which turned out to be – ‘cycle-paths’. Not deaf yet, but it’s no use, will have to have the hearing test. Natural illuminations: the college buildings and bridges lit up by the low light of November, at its dark golden best. Behind a market stall selling woollen gifts, an old woman sat deep in a coat, knitting something – maybe a scarf or a tea-cosy.
Exhibitions at the Fitzwilliam. One about Virginia Woolf, as depressing as ever, and a display of needlework embroidered in the 17th and 18th centuries. Samplers – often the only surviving record of an ordinary young woman’s life, measured out in exquisite, tiny stitches.
November 6th – November 12th, 2018
A cheap, cone-shaped apology of a Christmas tree went up in the shopping centre.
The lawn was mowed and the brown bin emptied for the last time this year. An energy-saving bulb finally expired and from the top of a trusty ladder, changed it to an traditional one in ‘soft peach’. While up there, dusted the smoke alarm, which winked at me.
Worked on a poem for hours, trying to say something new about one of the oldest of subjects- the sun. The title: from Mourning to Morning, or Daylight. Settled on Dawn.
The Senior Singles site. A few neutral replies to messages received. One from a golfer, another from a Hell’s Angel, retired.
Spent half of Friday thinking it was Saturday.
Thousands came to the cathedral for the Armistice Service. No room in the Nave, or the Choir – so latecomers sat in the aisles or the arcading, anywhere. 8 Victoria Crosses were laid on the altar, wreaths in the Military Chapel. Then a ‘ceremony of peace.’ The Release of Doves. A large basket was opened. At first the white birds just fluttered in the air, then flew more freely…up up and away, into the sky.
October 30th – November 5th, 2018
Pinned a large floppy poppy on my coat. Made of silk, salvaged from an old straw hat. Planted one of those little wooden crosses in the front garden, adding a third name to the ones from WW2. A distant relation called Cecil, also killed in action -in 1915.
The card to the old friend met in Paris was returned, unopened – but a welcome message in the Inbox, from a first cousin I’ve never met. Lost – and found.
Another reunion lunch in London. Of seven ex-convent schoolgirls, including a poet, a nun, an orchid-fancier and a bell-ringer! Nearby, what looked like a homeless encampment in a side-street – but in Covent Garden, a man in a sleeping bag, not in a doorway but on a busy pavement outside a bank.
Portsmouth, for my son’s birthday. The D-Day museum, a seafood supper, a walk around Gunwharf Quays, then the glittering waterfront. A ship left harbour, bound for France – or the Isle of Wight.
October 23rd – October 29th, 2018
Lit a candle, washed and dried my hands with care, then read a letter for the first time. Handwritten in black ink, on very thin paper and dated 1941. From my father in East Africa to his father, in Aylesbury.
At the Architecture Group, met a not unattractive actual architect, who told me he was fond of Art Nouveau. More Art Deco myself. A tiny, unmistakeable spark – but he was far too thin and terribly married.
A patriotic Thursday in town. The British Museum, for lunch with ex-colleagues from my Pimlico period. Very open conversation – over a carafe and aubergines in a puddle of sauce – from life in Sri Lanka, Cyprus and Ireland to dementia and love-making in later life….. Thence the British Library, for a strenuous exhibition about the Anglo-Saxons: room after room of priceless illuminated manuscripts, gospel or prayer books.
On the Virgin train back, sat next to an exquisitely polite young man enjoying a drag show on his i-pad, but quietly. He also smelt divine – a huge improvement on the usual evening commuter spraying junk food all over the place.
Changed all the clocks. Altered the timer on the boiler. Back to Mean Time again, but it seemed a spring forward – straight into winter.
October 16th – October 22nd, 2018
Down country to Coventry – the city that planning forgot – but the ruins of the old cathedral are still hallowed ground and feel it. In the modern one, two wooden beams, found in the rubble after the Blitz of 1940, hang bound together on a wall. Behind a glass screen, but narrowly open at the sides – so just possible to reach out and touch it.The Charred Cross. A natural relic.
Back on home turf, met a real live councillor – newly elected and walking the streets, asking people about any local litter or parking ‘issues’. We had a nice chat – me and Angela – and she promised that new bins and signage would appear in the area….
Out alone after dark – rare these days – I looked up, as you must – and saw the dear old familiar patterns of stars in a clear night sky. Bright company.
October 9th -15th, 2018
Summer came back for a day. Sandals and tee-time again – but the leaves kept collecting on the shingle in piles shaped by strong winds. The remnants of Hurricane Leslie or Storm Callum, can’t keep up.
My hair fell heavily too, so had a very short cut and rediscovered my ears.
‘From a plantation in Jamaica to high-society London.’ A talk ‘set’ in the 18th century about a freed slave called Francis. A Black History month event – but not why I went. He became manservant and surrogate son to a local hero and lexicographer called Samuel. The man in front of me had a very large head, which obscured most of the slides.
76 years since they were created, my father’s wartime cartoons were hung up on a freshly painted surface, in an eye-level group of 5. A kind of homecoming – to a wall so hard it bent a masonry nail.
October 1st – 8th, 2018
A long-shot. Posted a letter – recorded delivery – to the last known address of someone I lost touch with in the ’90s. On this year’s electoral roll, so she’s still around. If not now, when…but, so far, silence….
‘Shadowed’ in the cathedral by a trainee guide – a new role with an awkward fit, because there was little about the place he didn’t already know. So it got a bit competitive. He waxed lyrical about the columns and Early English arcading, but I had the edge on statues, stained glass and Green Men.
A rich retro read. Tea and cake in comfort and talk about a tale of passion and madness on the moors. Our book club choice this month: Wuthering Heights, by a writer doomed herself to die at 30.
Diary, so cold outside. The heating on – but off at eleven, so one night I turned to a very familiar friend, with a furry cover. My old hot water bottle.
September 25th – October 1st, 2018
Another red rosette on the porch. Had I voted? “We’re going to win!’, he said – but they didn’t. The city and district council elections had a tiny turn-out. The polling station was empty when I put my crosses on the paper – with the usual stubby pencil on a string.
Got ready for another make-over: the stairs and landing this time. So many period cobwebs to dust down from the ceiling….then 3 days’ walking up and down on the decorator’s old sheets shrouding the carpet.
Coffee with a friend – but impossible to share the battle at the heart of the week – between my natural optimism and renewed fears for the future. Triggered by another friend’s prognosis, a loved one’s debt and the state of my knees….
An Art and Craft Fair, where I blew the budget on a landscape painting. A scene of shadows across a field in Staffordshire, with a broken, scratchy horizon.
September 18th – September 24th, 2018
A local landscape. An early-morning walk down roads more like country lanes – with high, overgrown banks or grassy verges, then through an empty park more like a wood. How green is my city.
Storm-borne winds tore into the garden, flinging fruit and leaves from the shrubs and the trees, trying to liberate the washing from the line…
Several loads of shopping – in the trusty rucksack or holdall on wheels – to feed and water the Portsmouth Pair, my elder son and his fiancee, who arrived for a return visit.
Heritage events at the weekend; we chose an open day at what was once the city gaol. Dark, cramped cells with straw and the odd stuffed rat for atmosphere. The condemned would be taken from the prison to the market square, including the very last man to be burned for heresy in England, in 1611.
The ‘no doorstep callers’ sign didn’t deter a man on the porch wearing a large red rosette. Could he count on my support in the by-election? My ‘ well’….was met with a patronising reminder that suffragettes suffered to get the vote.’ Which killed any chance of mine stone dead.
September 11th – September 17th, 2018
More holes in the ground, in a corner of my border. Dug 2 small square pits – one for a variegated holly, the other for a cutting a friend gave me weeks ago and just about alive. No label. She did tell me what the plant was, but I’ve forgotten – could be anything – and she’s coming round soon and bound to ask me how it is…
A restaurant near the British Museum, for a family celebration of the Traveller son’s birthday. The Bedford Hotel overnight, in a room with a roof-top view, the skyline broken by three colossal red cranes waiting to demolish something in the morning.
A shocking exhibition at the Wellcome, near Euston, called Teeth, about the history of dentistry and smile improvement. On display, Napoleon’s toothbrush. I didn’t know that after Waterloo, teeth were plucked from the mouths of the thousands of dead on the battlefield, to be transplanted elsewhere – into the gums or dentures of the rich…
A coach trip to Attingham Park in Shropshire, where the grounds stretch for miles,laid out to seem without boundary. Fallow deer and an old stone bridge in the distance. A Georgian mansion – magnificent but soul-less, as so often when a house is no longer a home. In a glass case, a battered copy of the courtesan Harriette Wilson’s ‘Scandalous Memoirs…written by herself’. Published in 1825 , but still in print and available on Amazon!
September 4th – September 10th, 2018
Several neat black squares appeared on the surface of my road – repairs to the deep, raggedy-edged pot-holes there since last winter. Left an unwanted lamp outside the house with a This Works! note attached. Minutes later, it had gone.
A 100 Years of Suffrage event – to ‘celebrate women who made a difference’ – included a look at a local marble monument to a Lady Mary W. Montagu. A free spirit of the early 19th century, who brought innoculation against smallpox from the Ottoman Empire into England.
A solitary weekend – like 3 in 5 – but with the usual companions, books, pens and paper and a new entertainment toy: Netflix. It’s addictive, so must be monitored – like the spending online, the wine intake and a resurgent cheese habit….
Chilly. Put the lightest summer-wear away, then took on thicker layers… Plus socks on the feet, fleecy throw on the sofa. Not ready to turn on the heating – would be an admission of the real cold to come.
Apple harvest in the mini-orchard. A lot of Bramleys, fallen or twisted from the tree. Cut out the bad bits, then stewed them. A sharper taste than last year’s crop. Bitter-sweet.
August 28th – September 3rd, 2018
Another train trip south to the hygienist in Primrose Hill, then the tube to Oxford Street and a familiar backstreet short cut to Tottenham Court Road. The London mindset – a heightened awareness of who and what’s around me – once came naturally; for a Midlander, many years later, it’s more of an effort.
Emptied the airing cupboard, where the boiler lives – towels, sheets, pillowcases – ready for his annual Service. (It’s definitely a him.) Then put it all back, finding something surprising in the process, as you do. A great-aunt’s tablecloth: lacy, slightly stained.
A brief, unlikely exchange online with a senior single somewhere in Scotland, who addressed me as ‘darling’! A bit forward, I thought…..haven’t signed up to the site yet and maybe never will.
The end of August brought its usual mood of melancholy – summer’s lease – then solace in the soft angled light of September, month of months.
August 21st – August 27th, 2018
A cream-coloured car parked on the shingle, belonging to a friend from Chester, a poet met in London years ago. A mooch around an antiques centre, lunch at a favourite place with a view of the cathedral, across a shining pool. More of one of life’s G.P.s – from the tinnitus we share to ceramics, Brexit, the writing imperative and the nature of roses…
An interesting hour or two trying to read my smart meters. Google said, press 9 on the keypad. Problem: no keypad. So the electricity meter required the use of a torch in the crouching position. The gas one outside – once I’d found the key – had a blank screen. A blue button didn’t look important enough to blow up the house, so pressed it and bingo! some numbers came up. Submitted the readings online to my new energy supplier, with a solved-it, modern feeling, which won’t last.
A black car, belonging to the elder son and his fiancee has just left the beach to return to Portsmouth. Several meals made together. I hulled and fancified strawberries, he rubbed and wrapped chicken thighs in foil – one of his specialities. We each did our own thing: they looked at their phones and laptops a lot, I scribbled a bit – but time enough too to talk and watch a wonderful film set in wartime (called Their Finest…) and for the son to give a very slow learner a few lessons on how to transfer photos from one device to another…
A gift catalogue arrived. A chilling message on the cover – ‘Christmas is coming’.
August 14th – 20th, 2018
Sifting through the old correspondence from the loft, came across a long-mislaid letter from my first husband, describing the loss of his son and latest book. A meant-to-be-found chill.
Got the tee-shirt. My reward for joining the t’ai-chi association. Grey, baggy, with a martial Mao-like figure on the front. How is one meant to accessorise such a thing?
A phone call from E-on, offering a special deal to keep me as a ‘valued customer’ – one the tariff team never mentioned before and not available on-line. The untransparency! Nervous about the switch, but glad to get away from the Big Six.
A few days in Surrey, at a cousin’s house with a riverside garden. Hours spent poring over family trees, documents and albums, unearthing more than one mystery. For the first time, saw a photograph of a striking woman I never knew, who lost four sons. Two to the war, one to Australia, another to an asylum. Ideal Rose, my grandmother.
Lunch at Epsom race course, with friends made on a Danube cruise nine years ago. Lots of one of life’s Great Pleasures this week: free-ranging, affectionate conversation.
August 7th – August 13th, 2018
Deluged by messages and ‘winks’ from the senior singles site; deleted most of them – like anyone ‘fun-loving’ or ‘lonely’, under 60 or 5ft 7, living in Scotland or Cornwall or in a caravan.
An alarming pop and flash in the fridge and the light went out. Took ages to find the manual, decipher the diagrams, then locate, remove and replace the bulb…
Sad sight, old story. Watched the gutting of a 1930s cinema in the town, leaving only the facade intact behind piles of bricks. The interior left to decay for decades till beyond repair.
Tong, Shropshire. A group visit to one of ‘England’s best churches’ – with marvellous mediaeval monuments, knights and ladies lying side by side in stone, the alabaster surprisingly warm to the touch. Lunch in the Parish Hall served by rosy ladies in aprons, straight from the W.I. in wartime. Salad cream on the table, home-made trifle for ‘afters’.
July 31st – August 6th, 2018
Up on the roof. A private tour of the cathedral towers and highest walkable spaces above the nave and lady chapel. A flash of vertigo, then gone. At home, up a ladder into the loft – to begin an inventory of everything up there. Toys, baby clothes, old letters, Christmas decorations, a battered suitcase…
The Traveller son arrived – with global gifts – and made the house instantly more a home. Together, we changed my energy supplier from E-on to Bulb,so now a 100% green! His negotiating skills got me a better deal from Virgin Media too. A photo-shoot in the garden to update online photos.
Also with his support, explored a senior singles dating site. He was right, some of the men did ‘look like serial killers’ – if they provided a picture at all – but joined up for a free pilot period….
July 24th – July 30th, 2018
A new plumber came to play with the plunger in the downstairs loo, which mysteriously converted itself from a dual to a single flush…he’d ‘never seen a design like it’ and left the loo exactly as he found it.
Beverley, the East Riding of Yorkshire. A coach trip through the parched landscape and over the Humber bridge, to visit the Minster, larger than many cathedrals with a Norman font – fossils set in the stone. Lunch in an astro-turfed beer garden.
Attacked the weeds in the gravel, using the boiling water method – to loosen the roots – then a killer solution. Sitting in the garden when a butterfly settled on my big toe. Not a white one but a golden, spotted specimen, mistaking the purple polish for a flower…
One more muggy, sleep-shot night, then a wind arose and the rains came.
July 17th – July 23rd, 2018
A Simple Pleasure. Dusting a study shelf and wiping clean the covers, re-discovered some books I’d forgotten I had.
Found: a painted pebble on a wall – ‘friendship stone’, apparently, to be put somewhere else, to spread the surprise…; a wooden ornament in a skip – a toadstool, now washed and re-sited in the garden; a dead bird on the path – an infant pigeon, so no pity there. Lots of white butterflies around.
The new Sim story, cont. An exhausting ‘conversation’ with Virgin Mobile. The operator on the end of the landline called me Madam and spoke fluent Mongolian. Still – after an eternity of tappings on and off my Samsung screen – connections were ‘re-activated’ and ‘data settings refreshed’, all 4 G of them, so I can now access the internet again without wi-fi. Then she hoped I’d enjoy the rest of my day – or at least I think she did.
July 10th – July 16th, 2018
A day trip to the hygienist in Primrose Hill, London, for a deep tooth clean. He said I was in the 10% of the population especially vulnerable to ‘gum issues’. Depressed, I bought a French mascara, in purple.
A leaflet in the letterbox, inviting me to learn kick-boxing. ‘Enrolling now for beginners!’
Painted a few wooden clothes pegs blue, to use up the last of the paint. Watered the raised beds, yet again, just before the heavens opened. Harvested scores of little apples, fallen on the mini-orchard floor. No crumble this summer.
A call from Donegal and a chat with a friend with New York connections about the Donald’s trip to the UK. We begged to differ. I thought the orange baby balloon – juvenile and that there’s more to Melania that meets the eye.
July 3rd – July 9th, 2018
Watched the second half of an England match with a large glass of white – till the barbaric bit: the penalty shoot-outs.
Blood donation, after a long gap. Once at the football club, now at the Church of Latter Day Saints. The refreshments didn’t include tea or coffee; ‘no stimulants’ allowed in a Mormon building.
Drinks at a pub on a traffic island. An ex-colleague’s leaving do. At a table under an umbrella too small to shield from the sun, the conversation in competition with the cars on the road.
Saturday, the Festival Market. Helped man a stall called Klassy Kast Offs – actually 3 clothes rails. Strange to sell items once in my own wardrobe. Around 2pm, the crowds started to thin, then disappear altogether… Me too – to watch ‘the lads’ win, again!
June 24th – July 2nd, 2018
A neighbour popped in with the bottle of Baileys she meant to give me at Christmas. Just turning up – with no call or text beforehand – is a rare event these days…
Re-sent an email to a magazine – again – for pensionista’s sake.
London. A long walk from Trafalgar to Tavistock Square and the usual hotel for an overnight stay. Summer in the big city: people in groups on the dry grass. A well-dressed man alone on a bench asked me a question and smiled. Told him the time, then walked on by. There was something optimistic in the air, but it wasn’t romance.
St Albans, for an open afternoon at my convent school. Wanted to re-visit the copper beech tree in the grounds and the chapel. Was never a Catholic – but loved the statues, the blue and gold mosaics on the walls and the deep calm of the place, which haven’t changed. Tea with a few other ‘old girls’; our French teacher is still around, living in Wales, aged 102.
The heat goes on; put my feet in serial bowls of iced water…and dug out a sun-top or two unworn for years. The lawn now more yellow than green.
June 19th – June 23rd, 2018
Watched a transexual make-up tutorial online, in the interests of research.
All the books from Amazon arrived at once: two murder mysteries – it’s the weather for it – and a biography of Wallis Simpson by Diana Mosley, her friend.
Must have offended the God of Toilets, because it was the downstairs loo’s turn to fail and the plumber’s disappeared off the face of the earth.
A voodoo doll moment. My seamstress – a low-key status symbol – still perfecting the grey dress, stuck a lot of pins into it and some into me.
A call from 12,000 miles away. The newly weds now heading for Canada…..Here, the Solstice required some communion with nature, so watched light blue skies turn indigo.
Sunday. Perfect peace in the garden, except for the odd muffled shriek…everyone else inside. God bless the World Cup.
June 12th – June 18th, 2018
Put the bedside table into the bath, the cheval mirror into the airing cupboard, moving everything off the Blue Room floor – ready for the next Home Improvement.
Processed the mail, including a letter from HMRC about an underpayment of tax, which I didn’t understand. Added to the To Sort Out list…
A delivery in a plain brown paper package. The man who asked me to sign for it gave me a faintly knowing look, but it was only a linen cardigan, to go with the grey dress.
This morning, the flooring man returned, ripped out the old carpet and laid lengths of warm-toned Louisiana oak, to balance out all that turquoise duck egg on the walls…
Put everything back, then slumped in front of the telly. The Odessa File, Corrie, Beyond a Hundred Days…
Virgin in its goodness restored my messages and voicemail; sent a silly text to the Traveller – now in New Zealand – ‘Take care. No earthquakes, please!’
June 3rd – June 11th, 2018
A cruise from Liverpool to Norway: islands, mountains, waterfalls, fjords and glaciers – scenes to fall in love with. One of the tour guides was the Viking type, still mine….who took us to a very long, deep lake framed by rocky slopes rising sheer from the water – a still, icy and emerald blue. A terrible beauty. In the 1930s, a massive piece of the mountain fell into the lake, causing a tidal wave which wiped out all the local farms…
Shared a cabin with a friend – a novelty to have company at bed-time. Her jewellery and pills took up more space than mine. When she bought a diamond ring at the boutique shop on board, then a pendant to go with it, we became very popular.
A ballroom dancing class went rather well – partner provided for me – two steps back, side-close, two more forward – until the teacher added a few twirls and ‘foot-taps’…Made an excuse and fled.
The ship was very dated, with dirty windows, but there were other views to compensate. A cruise is a people-watching paradise. The British summer uniform was out in force. Have never seen so many, some also mountainous, in a single place – in stripes.
No rain, only sunshine and short nights – but nothing could stop the ‘fully-stabilised’ ship from rocking and rolling in the North Sea… A mechanical problem meant a return to Rosyth, not Liverpool, so no Fingal’s Cave. A disappointment, but the surprise visit to Edinburgh added another place and another country, to which I must return.
May 29th – June 2nd
Bits and bobs. The plumber put a state-of-the-art syphon ‘gubbins’ in the upstairs loo. See that gizmo there? he said. Dave does love his g-words.
Changed the Sim in my phone, assisted by a paperclip and a patient son in Portsmouth. Voicemail just doesn’t sound the same…
Body maintenance. A pedicure at home, the toenails now an appropriate Nordic blue. At the hairdressers, deafened by dryers, country pop and low-grade gossip.
Packed for the trip, using the roll-up-Russian doll method. Talked to myself and to the Departed quite a lot. ‘Make sure you’…..Please keep an eye on’….
A pause in the Notes till June 12th.
May 22nd – 28th, 2018
Domestics, mostly. Like a visit to one of my spiritual homes – Waitrose – where I did a huge shop, then got a cab home. Enough loo rolls to last till Brexit.
Put a lot of pencils into the freezer to harden the lead, then sharpened the tips to knife-like points…
Planted some marigolds, for the colour, then sprinkled salt around – which should stop a few slugs in their tracks. Nailed a Green Man to a fence post – a perfect position for a small wooden effigy of a medieval head sprouting shoots and leaves. Started tidying the outhouse and found a tea towel with a map of Australia and a calendar for 1983….then caught a few rays…
A happy hour: making a ‘wardrobe map’ for the cruise – based on layers and a limited palette – a plan of what to wear when and how, with arrows, boxes and sketches.
May 15th – 21st, 2018
The upstairs loo stopped working. The press-down ‘plunger’ on the top wouldn’t come back up. If it’s not one thing, it’s another…
St Albans, for a reunion lunch at the Golf Club. 8 ex-convent schoolgirls in their 70s recalling escapades and nuns in black. An uneventful night in a historic hotel on Holywell Hill, said to be haunted.
In next door’s garden, the children screamed in the pop up pool, but no sign of last year’s massive marquee, so nothing came between me and the view of spires on the skyline.
Enjoyed the Wedding, except for the arrogant, overlong address that used the word ‘love’ like a battering ram. The mother of the bride, all pastel dignity. The dress: superb, simple silhouette, but a bit boring. (Princess Grace still holds the prize). Happy for Harry, the little boy behind the coffin.
May 8th – 14th, 2018
Finally posted a very well-travelled letter written in February. Forgotten then found in my bag.
A Club meeting at the house. Our choice, Why be Happy when you could be Normal? led us down our own dark memory lanes of the North and South in the 1950s and 60s… A lot of kind questions about – wedding, island, flight.
Threw 5 balls back over the fence, on different days.
A man came and crawled around on the carpet, measuring for new flooring in the blue room and said he spent most of his life ‘on the floor’.
Winterbourne: an Arts and Crafts house, full of Morris prints…with a Botanical garden. Lunch under a handkerchief tree; brushed against a huge hairy carnivorous plant from Borneo, with deep sacs like purses – for luring and trapping its prey.
May 1st – 7th, 2018
My handyman/life-coach finished painting the back bedroom – more duck egg – while I thumped a few mats, cleaned pigeon poo off the patio, watered the raised beds, pulled up a few weeds, then sprayed canvas shoes and a woven bag with waterproofing fabric protector…
No Spring to speak of, but suddenly – Summer, the apple trees ablaze with pink. Dug out a camp chair, then sat in the yard, then the garden, following the path of the sun. Wished I could share the beauty of the sunset. But, as ever, writing, reading and the radio kept me company.
April 24th – 30th, 2018
So a new story began for the Traveller – and perhaps for the rest of us.
In and out of the bright blue waters and hours at the ocean’s edge or from the veranda, watching the waves and the sudden fall of the night.
A visit to Victoria, the capital city of the Islands, once British – more like a new town with a shanty feel and a clock tower in the centre, painted silver, like a mini Big Ben….
The flight back re-routed over Madagascar – 10 hours became 12 – a new Aviation Authority regulation requiring the plane to stay close to key airports.
Bite-free on the tropical trip – my citronella secrets – but five minutes in a Midlands garden and a red bump appears on my arm, then another…Now in slow motion, unpacking over time. A large shell survived the journey and washed up on the bathroom shelf – still with the scent of the Ocean.
April 16th – April 23rd 2018
From the Seychelles, in the Indian Ocean, East of Africa. On Silhouette Island, the misty forested mountain behind the resort more Jurassic Park than Paradise.
Where my younger son got married on a beach below the equator. The bride wore a lace gown and fit-flops.
Two very different – but not opposing -families shook hands and were pleasant together. I shared my villa, on stilts, with a lizard. Tropical storms, hot rain.
April 10th – April 16th 2018
The pyramid vanished; the removal of the rubbish brought the Flood Experience to a close. Eyebrows threaded, hair cut, toes tidied. Lists made spawned many more….
Overall, overcast – but suddenly, the sun and an ice-cream van came round the corner, with a jingle: off to work we go,da da dadadadada…Children ran across the grass.
Euston, a day-trip – to give the bridegroom son his birth certificate and to accompany his brother to an appointment at UCH – where both of them were born.
Preparation, preparation, preparation: multi-tasking gone mad. Tropical toiletries assembled; essential liquids decanted into small bottles; socks and necklaces stuffed into shoes….The mail stopped for the next ten days – the peaceful part.
April 3rd – April 9th 2018
Watched a tree on the green being cut down from the top, branch by branch, till reduced to a sad, seat-like stump.
Book Club: Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, 1925. ‘Diamonds’ still ‘a girl’s best friend.’
Springtime in Birmingham, hunter-gathering. The spaghetti-style shopping malls disorientating – and Primark proof that Hell is Other People – but a trophy. A long linen dress good enough for the island occasion… A brave stall in the centre, Islam Against Extremism. Picked up a few leaflets, but didn’t keep them.
Made like a tourist in my own city, walking round the remnants of the old walls and visiting an 18th century cellar with uneven floors of medieval brick and a slab where the master of the house, a surgeon, was said to dissect bodies fresh from the gallows.
After the purchase of a single plug, Amazon bombarded me with pictures of bathroom accessories, based on my ‘browsing history’, including umpteen more plugs…
March 27th – April 2nd 2018
A pyramid of rubbish still outside, but the repair Work came to an end and the Great Tidy-up began. The kitchen took on a minimalist look, which won’t last.
Made Travel List: extend insurance to world-wide cover,order Seychellois rupees..
The carpenter came to talk about more shelving and share wedding stories. His niece, now nephew, got married last year on a far-flung island. Georgina, now George. No one went.
The son in Portsmouth ran a check on the computer by remote control and taught me how to create a hyperlink and other marvels…
My 10-day mini Lent also ended. No wine, no cheese – much easier than the cutting down of the coffee…Summoned by bells, but no church service this Easter. A thick mist over the city obscured the view of the sky-line.
March 20th – 26th 2018
The front room still a retreat, while the decorators made themselves at home in the kitchen. Alerted to a fire hazard, all the halogens in the house replaced with LEDs. The Flood has become a Blessing in Disguise…
In the cathedral. When I mentioned Henry VIII’s greed for church riches, an American visitor looked puzzled. Was he the one found under the car park?
London. Up and down a city road, in and out of the dress shops. Looking for the One. An outfit ordered on line a disappointment- with frayed edges for hems. A family dinner in Kilburn, to mark recent birthdays and talk about the wedding which is going to be on the beach. Oh dear.
Back in the house, the kitchen turned from magnolia to pewter…Outside, a new warmth in the air.
March 13th -19th 2018
Grounded. The Work went on, the noise of tools on hard surfaces like a dentist’s drill.
A once-in-a-lifetime opportunity: to clean behind the oven and units. The grease of ages and two antique packets of Quavers. The bathroom basin yielded its secrets. All houses have them. In the bottle cap beneath the plughole, a disgusting,semi-solid mass of gunk and hair – not mine. ‘The worst I’ve seen’, the man said. No wonder the overflow didn’t work….The downstairs loo came in from the cold and was re-enthroned, but the bathroom door moved to the door of the stairs. It’s a surreal world. The kitchen ceiling was stripped back to the original blue – those duck eggs again. Meanwhile, the upstairs lights blew and the fuse box switch kept tripping. Rang the electrician…
Took the Great British Creativity Test online. Another mistake, because I don’t bake or make films or throw pots…
Covered the new floors with mats, just in case – and waited for spring.
March 6th – 12th 2018
Cleared the surfaces and floors of the kitchen and ‘rear hall’ – of bar stools, vases, pots and pans and plants and much more besides, ready for the Repair Work.
The hairdresser’s, to put some colour into the white. Brown ‘slices’ and a few streaks of turquoise more like dirty denim.
Before going away, a new addition to the usual routines of locking up and switching off – a plug and tap check. Off with my former husband to meet future in-laws in Enfield, who served us a banquet with no alcohol, but sweet hospitality.
In Paris, once my home, repairs began on Notre Dame. Here, a man with a white van – and a plan – arrived and removed the downstairs loo, which is now in the yard outside. Then he took out the oven, the washing machine and fridge and stripped the floor down to the original 1940s tiles and concrete.
February 27th – March 5th 2018
Snow-heavy clouds over the garden, but hung the washing out for a while, Canute-like. A polar expedition to Tesco, but the Siberian landscape also brought a sense of awe and freedom. To walk in the middle of a road with no traffic and no one else left in the world.
An extreme event, part of a Literature Festival: an uncancelled ‘poetry walk’. The cold too bitter to make notes as we went along – but in the cafe we got creative. So, ‘a single seagull on a silver pond, white on white’…
For contrast, researched ‘occasion dresses’ for ‘the tropics’ – but don’t do frilly or floaty, so the Mother of the Groom could be in jeans, which Would Not Do.
Paid my last television licence.
February 20th – 26th 2018
Over a month since the basin flowed over and a new fear – of plugs – took hold. I’ve got used to the cavern where the ceiling downstairs should be – almost. The insurance types told me my claim had only just been approved, so I played a very rare card – the pensioner-on-her-own one – and my file was marked ‘urgent’.
Finished the blackcurrant jam, well past its best-before date – bought for my late partner’s last visit three years ago. Concerns about my family rose up in earnest. Past, present, unshareable. Didn’t vote in the local elections. Icy outside; bleak heart. No excuse.
Ordered a pendant light online but got the bulbs wrong: BC, not ES. (Bayonet cap, not Eddison screw – had to look it up.) So I rang John Lewis to alter the order, but it wasn’t as simple as that, because they billed me twice, telling me to ‘reject the delivery’, then to accept it… In the end, umpteen efforts later, got £30 for ‘poor service.’
A mystery knock on the front door, locked for the night. Glad there’s no bell.
A letter from an unknown company, offering advice on ‘how to help your loved ones plan your funeral’….Snow fell.
February 13th – 19th 2018
Poetry Group. Theme: Life. We sat around a round table and shared our creations. Book Club: a thriller, a tale of many deaths. A car crash, a fall from a cliff, a walk into the sea.
Painted several shades of grey on the kitchen wall – to replace the existing Magnolia, peeling post-flood. Chic Shadow, too dark. Goose Down, too chilly. Pebble Shore – a pale, perfect pewter.
Ages in another town, at the nearest B&Q, where an assistant did his best to explain the available varieties of kitchen/bathroom flooring. Laminate, luxury vinyl click, engineered wood, not to mention the underlay ranges….No cafe, no loos, no chairs.
Road blocks made the trip back a long one, trapped in a cab with a driver who couldn’t speak English, but sneezed expansively at regular intervals.
Another email from an old friend, post major operation, pre-chemotherapy, put everything into perspective, again.
February 6th – 12th 2018
The contractor cometh, again, and agreed a new bathroom floor was required. The neighbours probably wondered about the stream of men coming into the house and up the stairs….
On the London train, a young man opposite glared at my plastic bottle of water; next to his laptop, a fashionable fibreglass, re-usable tumbler affair, with a leather strap and black (plastic) lid.
An exhibition at the V&A, with my cousin. ‘Ocean Liners: Speed and Style’. Some of the ‘floating palaces’ had synagogues on board. In 1907, our grandfather sailed to America on the Cunard line…
The Traveller outlined his wedding plans, which involve a 10 hour flight to the Seychelles and – possibly — a ceremony on the beach, giant turtles in attendance. What to wear?
January 30th – February 5th 2018
A complicated conversation with the loss adjuster dealing with my claim, post-flood.
Lincoln, mid-week, based in an apartment on Steep Hill. Icy cold, but bright. A walk on the medieval castle walls, following in the footsteps of Henry V111, then a museum with the very first tank, called Daphne. A tour of the cathedral: massive, magnificent but low on atmosphere. Fossils in the limestone flags.
A building contractor came round to inspect the damage, then sent two men who proceeded to pull down the kitchen ceiling – in case ‘it falls on your head’ – followed by a Floor person who said he only did ‘coverings’ and that the bathroom tiles above were ‘moving’…..but not to worry, he’d fill in a Report….
January 23rd -29th 2018
Given a tour of a Retirement Village by a resident. Corridors called Wisteria Avenue and Palm Springs. A pub, restaurant, gym, hairdressers, courtyard garden. Not for me- but a nice place if you can afford it.
Went to Specsavers; should have gone before.
Birdsong: a melodious tune, in ‘verses’, from a tree in the street – sweeter than a blackbird’s – performed by a small bird hard to identify.
Holes drilled into the study wall – one of those no-going-back sounds – for a shelf-unit and a home at last for my photograph albums.
Planned a trip cross-country to the East, to another cathedral city on a hill. Polished my best boots for the journey.
January 15th -22nd 2018
A semi-self-inflicted flood; a plug left in the bathroom basin overnight, a tap not quite turned off and an overflow that didn’t do its job…which led to a peeling kitchen ceiling, a steady drip and a sodden carpet and uplifted vinyl tiles…
Cancelled the week. Mopped up and asked a friend round to share the horror, then the insurance people came to take details, photographs and a video of it all.
Watched a disaster movie – Captain Phillips – for a bit of perspective.
A dank smell has persisted, as if January itself has taken possession of the house.
January 8th – 14th 2018
Appointments in town, one at a dental practice in Primrose Hill, where the hygienist, 17, treated my teeth to a Deep Clean. Stayed at an overheated hotel in Bloomsbury, with pre-war shower fittings and tin-lidded dishes on the breakfast buffet.
Tate Britain: an exhibition of Rachel Whiteread’s ‘solid spaces’ – airless, tomb-like structures – with blocked up windows and doors, cast in white concrete and resin.
Doubled the vitamin C and washed my hands a lot. A foreign flu’s invading the Midlands.
A friend showed me round her new home near the cathedral – all beams, nooks and crannies – built in the 1400s…
A heavy package arrived from the MOD – war records. Opened the envelope, but not ready to read the contents.
January 1st – 7th 2018
A voice from Suffolk and the deep past. A former flatmate’s name in an ancient address book inspired an email into the ether. A very longshot, which bounced around for a bit, then found its target and – amazingly – to a phone call and a plan to meet.
Completed the slide samples, then put the bowel cancer screening test kit in the post. The first catalogues arrived, spring-like.
The main radiator in the front room refused to respond. Added a few extra layers, Eskimo style, then got the plumbing-heating-and-boiler man in. A new valve is required and my ‘system needs to be drained’. If it’s not one thing, it’s another…
December 27th – 31st
Enough cheese left over after Christmas to last till Easter. Dumped a box of liqueur chocolates into Tesco’s food bank; felt a bit Marie Antoinette.
Decided on a divorce. All my eco-efforts (turning off lights and things on standby, not to mention the new meter,) didn’t stop E-on sending me a letter raising the monthly debit – so over-time to change fuel supplier.
‘No signal’ on the TV, ( more switching on and off) then Outlook wouldn’t let me send any e-mails, until I accepted an invitation to change the format to ‘beta’….
In bed with a book before the Bongs, then woke up to a new year. Exchanged a few ‘Happies’, then put up a clean calendar, one with no pictures. A blank canvas.
December 18th -26th
The holly-patterned bunting slipped down the kitchen window, the bronze and silver decorations kept falling off the pictures and mirrors – so multiple re-attachments until I lost the end of the sellotape…one of those seasonal inevitabilities.
The Cathedral Illuminated light show on the West Front was a disappointment – too commercial and indifferent to features of the ancient architecture. A drone – red spot against the black sky – kept watch on the crowds below. The Christmas morning service, though, was magic: full of candles and music and people, there to hark the herald angels sing.
In the end, a very quiet and vegetarian few days, in the Traveller’s company. No nut roasts left on the shelf in Aldi – and didn’t fancy the spinach vol au vents – so the fake sausages in the freezer had their festive moment. Watched the Queen in her pearls as always and at her best. The present from a cousin in Devon, which is always toffee, turned out to be fudge….
December 11th -December 17th
Couldn’t open the lid of the black wheelie bin, because it was frozen, with a topping of solid snow. They still haven’t been round to empty it. Pavements glassy with ice. No one gritted the local roads – so slithered my way into town and back again…Another festive lunch with useless crackers.
Managed to get some strands of hair caught in the motor of the dryer. The smell of burning. Had to liberate self with scissors and now have an odd tuft on the side of my head.
My handyman-neighbour (local hero 1) painted the chimney breast wall – a more definite duck egg than expected. Carpenter no 3 wasn’t the One; no 4 said he didn’t like shelves, so we talked instead of units and metrical measurements. Tricky, because I think in inches.
My elder son drove up from Portsmouth, his beard much tidier than before. He blocked the ads on the computer and we talked about housing, debt and daughters-in-law to be. Made a few trays of my signature dish, using goose fat: roast potatoes.
December 5th – December 10th
At home with the Tile Doctor, who gave my bathroom a make-over and sang along to his radio all day. We agreed that Dusty was the best.
London, Hampstead, for a reunion dinner with ex-colleagues, several glowingly new grandparents. The stunning street decorations – Christmas trees aloft and alit – were paid for by George Michael, we’re told. The British Museum, for an exhibition about the Scythians, a nomadic tribe who roamed the Siberian steppes before Christ.
Booked a cruise – the Norwegian Fjords. My travel companion showed me her new NHS hearing aid, in elastoplast pink. I will get one sometime for sure.
Wrote a few cards with a heavy heart – too many names crossed out in the address book – but a surprise call from a new friend… Up the ladder to the loft in search of wrapping paper etc
Sunday: woke up to a winter wonderland. Everything covered with clean snow, that kept on falling…
November 28th – December 4th
A parcel thrown over the gate; the tin inside survived the fall. I threw an old suitcase into the black bin, its handle broken beyond repair.
Carpenter no.3 looked with with interest – or incredulity – at my shelf sketches. Irish, with several studs in his ears, think he’s the One.
Cleaned under the oven in crawling-on-the-floor style, with a Heath Robinson device: a coat-hanger wrapped in a damp sock. Found lots of crumbs and a rock -hard piece of pasta.
An e-mail from an old friend, about her cancer diagnosis. Picked up the phone – a direct conversation, the first for a long time – to hear her voice. We met at 18.
Sunday. Saw the super moon rise behind the houses, then the trees. So close, bright and beautiful. Monday morning. Moon-set.
November 22nd – November 27th
Carpenter no.2 came about the shelves, but boasted, grim-faced, about his ‘top-end staircases’….A ‘Tile Doctor’, all smiles, came to discuss my grouting and sealant issues.
With the trees now free of leaves – and the marquee a memory – the view to the west of the cathedral is now restored to me.
A text from the Traveller in an opposite of Iceland – Oman.
Began to read a book belonging to him, called Critical Mass, about ‘ how one thing leads to another’….
November 14th – November 21st
A ‘well-rated/reviewed’ carpenter came round to talk about my study shelf requirements and took multiple measurements, but hasn’t come back with a quote… A stern how-to-back-stuff-up lesson from George, who installed the new storage drive.
A new poetry group in a distant part of town, fatally next to Waitrose. Another group, at a weekend workshop in a Leicestershire village, in an old house full of cushions and biscuits. About the cycles and stages of life and archetypal energies…which involved drawing a lot of pictures and lying on the floor.
A long, zig-zag return. Industrial action cancelled a lot of cross-country trains and put hundreds of us on replacement buses.
Pensioners aren’t meant to be pestered – except by charities and purse thieves – but several unwelcome personal messages this week…
November 6th – November 13th
A chat with a friend who lives in Sri Lanka six months of the year, near the ocean, not far from the equator.
First shift as a new-style (non-tour-taking) guide at the cathedral. Hid my coat and bits and bobs behind a pillar; met two members of The Sealed Knot, who told me secrets of the Civil War…
A bit fragile: cancelled 2 appointments in town. Couldn’t face London Midland or Euston. Began the Lemsip diet; heating on all day.
Remembrance. Planted a small wooden cross in the front garden – the kind with a paper poppy in the middle – and wrote two names on it. A double Silence, one at home on Saturday, one in a crowd on Sunday.
October 31st – November 5th
Wednesday. All Saints Day. My elder son turned 33. Orwell’s 1984 – but a miracle year for me.
The G.P. surgery – a rare visit – to pick up dry eye drops. A warning notice about Australian flu, a change from Asian/Swine/Spanish or Bird flu – but didn’t attend the walk-in winter jab clinic. Instead, stocked up on Vitamin C…
Took some skinny black trousers to the hospice shop – creating a vacancy – so bought another, more forgiving pair…
Google sent me a stream of incomprehensible messages about their privacy policies. So kind.
Saturday, after dark. The sound of gunfire in the distance. Fireworks in the rain.
October 24th – 30th
Re-connected to the internet for an hour or two, then the screen died again. George, the computer man, took the tower away for further investigation. Bereft.
Friday. Milton Keynes Central, to find the trains cancelled or delayed, because of an incident on the line. Arrived in Bushey after dark, to stay with an old friend. A sabbath dinner, with candles. Next day, a walk through the village – complete with a church and a duck pond, then a park with a medieval moat. Her beautiful cat Sheba left the corpse of a bird on the patio. Slept on red sheets in the study, with another computer for company.
George brought back the tower, with a new hard drive inside. The old one looks like the Enigma Code. A few sites have disappeared – but it could have been much worse.
The trees on the green opposite the house have lost most of their leaves now. Most of them are on the drive.
October 17th -October 23rd
Fog – and a funeral – in Essex. The curtains closed round the casket in the chapel, to the songs of Jim Reeves and Monty Python. Was handed a box of papers and photos belonging to the deceased’s wife, my late half-sister – that she wouldn’t have wanted me to have. ..
A talk by A.C.Grayling about democracy. An excellent speaker, overblessed in the belief of being absolutely right, but lacked the confidence to challenge him.
The remains of Storm Brian tore the washing from the line.
Saturday: the desktop stopped working. A local hero has changed plugs, checked cables, exorcised cookies, run scans in search of bugs and trojans, but no joy….He’s still upstairs.
10th – October 16th
A warm walk in the park, in a tee-shirt. In the distance, a bison or a lion – turned out to be a giant dog with a super-shaggy tail and webbed feet. A German water-rescue dog, a Leonberger. A Folk Festival in the town – Morris-style dancing in the streets, bells on their clogs and a lot of sticks banged together…
Bit another domestic bullet. The E.On website ‘unavailable’ so rang them instead about changing my tariff; Julie told me all about the cap and track tariff, the clean energy one and the ‘cinema bundle’…Decided not to bother.
Wednesday: Accreditation Day. Studied well into the night before. A Senior Guide asked me and another trainee a series of Questions, Frequently Asked by visitors to the cathedral. We got most of the answers right, so after only half an hour, he shook our hands. Congratulations! You’re now fully accredited Attendant Guides. Thrilled.
Remembered Russell Square, near my old flat, and the majestic old trees felled by the Great Storm of ’87, the year the Traveller was born. He was here at the weekend with his fiancee. Hugs, flowers, gifts and effort all round, so that went well.
October 2nd – October 9th
My £1 coin, round-edged but still currency, rejected in a cafe. Occasional chores at home: descaled the kettle, sterilised the inside of the coffee mugs to remove the brown rings, dusted a lampshade, then the television.
Sunday, the Skylon restaurant, South Bank, London. A brave event to remember, a lunch – more a banquet – to celebrate the Golden Wedding Anniversary of a dear ex-colleague whose husband has dementia and didn’t recognise the guests.
Reading Group: Memento Mori, by Muriel Spark, published in the 1950s, about old age at its grimmest – where the only recreation in the geriatric ward is the ‘making of your will’. Not to be read if depressed – would tip you over the edge.
September 26th – October 1st
Handled my first new £10 note, the portrait of a lady on the back so fresh and crisp. Dear Jane, is it really you?
Hosted a U3A group in my unnaturally tidy front room and fed them fondant fancies. An art quiz: cut out quarters of paintings, to identify.
Nantwich, Cheshire. A Sicilian-style lunch served by real Italians. Shared a car with a large dog of an enthusiastic nature, belonging to one of two friends from convent school days. Shared memories of a near-death experience in Greece in the 1960s, when a car we were hitching in rolled over and over a steep bank and the three of us walked away, unscathed…
London, the Duke of York’s theatre. A play called Ink about the birth of The Sun newspaper. One character warns the editor that ‘if you create an appetite’ – for the sensational, etc – ‘you have to feed it’.
September 19th – 25th
Something’s eating at the leaves on my laurel bushes at the front; a large tabby cat has adopted the back garden, joining the grey squirrel, but the pigeons are in retreat.
Tai Ch’i. Disheartened. Still so often on the wrong foot, that is the right – when it should be the left. As for ‘repulse the monkey’…
My elder son ‘repaired’ my computer by remote control, running lots of scans and updates. Without him, I’d still be in the 20th century.
An unusually late-night call, two hours long, from a distraught woman in Norfolk, whose uncle died last week. He was the visitor was never arrived in August – the brother-in-law, who, she said, had a ‘secret life.’
September 12th -18th
The marquee next door was blown down overnight and hasn’t been re-erected, yet.
In town again, stayed at the Quaker Club near Russell Square, with its warm and leather-armchair atmosphere. A Sunday Service nearby was more like a musical playgroup; impossible to be still or know anything, but an email later from an estranged friend did lift my heart.
A family get-together at a posh pizza place, the Traveller with tales and photos of the Northern Lights, a tunnel under a glacier and the proposal to his girlfriend.
Returned to a cold house, so the heating went on. The new smart meter got excited.
Re-potted a money tree plant. Threw away a pile of Which magazines from the turn of the century. Lawnmowers, toasters, energy bills…
Training tour of the cathedral, led by a Senior Guide. Properly daunting. 1300 years of history!
Music in the afternoon. A U3A group in a hall – one asleep – appreciating two concertos, a sonata, a caprice and an aria – but the only piece that really connected was new to me: Mors et Vitae, by Gounod.
My younger son, the Traveller, turned 30, then went to Iceland – the country. Hope he took a warm coat. After this birthday, autumn began.
August 28th – September 4th
A red and white van brought a philosopher from E-on, who fitted a smart electricity meter in the hall and a gas one outside. He told me his life story – ‘ nothing is a hundred per cent in life’ -then explained what the icons/buttons/green lights meant…
Down to Portsmouth to visit elder son. From the Spinnaker Tower, a view of a thousand ships: sailing craft and speed boats, ferries and tankers, a catamaran and an aircraft carrier. My hotel was dry, due to an alcohol restriction notice. Only ‘mocktails’ at the bar. A recent sting, underage drinking offences…
London, Tate Britain. The Queer Art exhibition. Among the mainly forgettable pictures, a prison door affixed to the wall, with hinges, bolts and a peep-hole. The door of Oscar Wilde’s cell, where he wrote The Ballad of Reading Gaol. Near the Members’ Room, another door, with a notice on it. The ‘all-gender’ toilet was ‘out of order’.
Next door’s marquee now up for 5 months.
August 21st -27th
Washed the soap. Some of the bars in the bathroom had acquired a dusty film. Pulled a few feathers out of an over-plump sofa cushion while watching the telly…so strangely satisfying I pulled out a lot more.
An exciting arrival. Not the brother-in-law long expected, but something else alive, in a tall box marked ‘handle with care’: an aspidistra!
Bit one of the bullets lying around from a list of Things to be Sorted out. Went to an office about next door’s marquee, up for months….The man there took it all very seriously and wrote everything down, so I told him about the smoke…
A Food Festival this weekend. Stalls all promising natural, hand-made, fresh, local produce, including ostrich burgers and ‘medieval pies’. The usually quiet streets full of thousands of peckish people. Where did they all come from?
August 7th -20th
Re-visited another old diary, 2002. Very hard to read in places, like all the others. Want to go back and make it all right.
The bits in the box became a trolley – black metal: industrial chic. Thanks to the handyman friend who can fix almost everything.
A beauty salon, for a ‘fat freeze’ treatment on the middle-age spread which arrived late in my case, then packed half the wardrobe for the next trip, to Derbyshire…
A writers’ week at a centre once the site of a POW camp, the entrance to an escape tunnel still visible. Lots of talks, courses, workshops, conversations on lawns by flowerbeds, buffet meals, queues at the bar… A little light flirtation, forgotten feeling. Midges made a walk around the lake less mindful than it was meant to be. Wrote a poem – the first for 10 years – about an egg grown round, then read it out to a bemused audience……
Came back to the house – empty but uncold – and to a card from a woman met in a maternity ward about 30 years ago. She got the address – bar the house number – online – but no idea why.
July 31st – August 6th
Met a friend in a restaurant once a Corn Exchange. We were meant to try out a new light lunch menu but she ‘didn’t feel like grazing’ and ordered an all-day breakfast…
Went to IKEA, to look at the beds and the rugs, but came back with a trolley – still in a box in bits till someone else puts it together.
The Tai Ch’i class; our leader demonstrated a subtle sequence called Fair Lady Weaves Shuttle. His followers did their best, but our shapes were only approximate…
Remembered my brother-in-law’s birthday too late to send a card – Hiroshima day – so made a call instead. My late half-sister is never part of the conversation.
July 24th – 30th
In a garden centre, amid the pots and plants, let out a scream. A few feet away, something large, brown and sleek scuttled under a barrow – a rat.
Found an army of ants busy on my outside porch. Dusted them liberally with talcum powder and they vanished to a fragrant death.
The boiler turned one – and had its first service. The man came and ‘refreshed the filters.’
The story of the baby at Great Ormond Street came to a close. Felt most for the staff at the hospital, where they tried and failed to save my first son, thirty-four years ago.
July 17th -23rd
Wet, wet, wet. A coach trip to the south-west and Jane Austen’s Bath. Relentless rain. A ruin of a Folly that inspired Northanger Abbey, then to Brunel’s Bristol. Into the bowels of SS Great Britain and the smells of cabins in steerage. In the engine room, the wheels – storeys high – ground slowly…On the deck above, a white line that only the first-class passengers could cross.
A country house, landscaped by Capability Brown, who drowned a village to create a lake and improve the view.
Put on a swimsuit of a certain age and swam a few lengths in the hotel pool after seven years out of the water.
My dining companions and I shared slightly competitive travellers’ tales. One of them said she went on at least three cruises a year. The rest of us exchanged the kind of looks only middle-class women can. The vulgarity! What would Jane have said?
July 11th – 16th
Across France in a flash, by TGV train.
Strasbourg: a night at a hotel in the Avenue de la Liberte, then by Uber into Germany and my first Ryanair flight – much nicer than expected – to Stansted. Three countries in one day. Left behind: a travel plug that didn’t adapt and a yellow cashmere scarf, an unintended gift for the student letting her flat in Amiens.
London: stuck at Euston, the ugliest station concourse in Europe? Trains cancelled. Signal failure.
Back on base, the weeds have bred like wildfire. The old machine struggled with loads of washing. The son, meanwhile, flew to Burundi and a capital I’d never heard of – but a reunion too – between my mail and me.
A touch ‘my hols’ this one, but… very hot in France.
Amiens: climbed hundreds of steps to the top of the cathedral tower. A light show on the facade bathed the ancient portals in medieval colours. Fed the ducks from a bridge over the Somme.
Laon: thunder and lightning in the walled and cobbled city on a hill. Cool in the chapel of the Knights Templar, their black cross set into the floor. Walked for French miles – the pensionista feet will never be the same again.
Soissons: turned into a quiet side street, and nearly missed a sign above a door, which said – former Gestapo headquarters. Bullet and shell holes on the old buildings, from two world wars.
Reims: a tour of the ‘caves’ of the house Taittinger, which contain 3 million bottles of the best bubbly in the world, made only by hand – by law. Sat on a balcony overlooking the cathedral square with the son who made the trip possible, drinking champagne in the capital of Champagne.
June 26th -July 2nd
In the garden one evening – till BBQ smoke billowed over the fence, making of me a Sitting Cloud, soon forced to retreat inside.
A pen bought in Wales years ago finally dried up. My art appreciation group went to Derbyshire, to visit an artist in his studio – both spattered with paint. Good to take a line, he said, and see where it led…
Stopped the mail for a while. An empty letter box. So restful. Must do it more often.
A familiar face in the paper- of a boy once in my class in Camden, who murdered a headmaster. Still undeported.
Something in the air in a London square. A chill, like the scent of autumn.
June 19th – June 25th
A trip by train to Kent. Canterbury Cathedral, walking on steps worn down by pilgrims past, with the patina only old stones can have. A shallow boat on the Stour, under very low bridges. A glimpse of an eel in the bright water and a ducking stool hanging above the banks of the river.
The Solstice: the longest day – and the hottest in June since 1976. Leeds Castle – a birds of prey display in the vast grounds, a ferry across the lake…In and out of the Maze. A Spitfire crossed the sky.
Back home, found lots of euros I’d forgotten all about…..A man came to the door, waving a machine – but otherwise normal – so let him in to read the meter.
June 12th – June 18th
Book Club at the house. The Gustav Sonata, set in Switzerland, with depressed/depressing characters…lots of fruit and drizzle cake left over. The birds got lucky.
The water from one of the bathroom taps came out brown; the lawn got its summer feed treatment. Re-arranged the airing cupboard, where the spare bedding and towels are kept – pillows kept falling on my head.
Another week, another atrocity. Once lived in a tower block. Great views. 9 floors, two staircases, no sprinklers. One of my family still does.
June 5th- June 11th
A swivel chair was delivered, in pieces – and stayed that way till a fixer-friend put them together.
Tuesday: another Silence.
Thursday: the unsnap Election. Cast a green vote, which made no difference. A very safe seat. Up all night.
Violet and turquoise streaks put in my hair by a girl who didn’t vote.
Tea with a friend at a hotel, soon full of wedding guests in fascinators and fancy waistcoats. Later, found some confetti stuck under my shoe.
May 29th- June 4th
An exhibition at the RA:pictures from 1930s America, then walked the streets of London, through Soho Square, past the Huguenot church and last penny chute in England.
Burt shaped and pruned my hedge to perfection – cosmetic surgery for conifers. He also got on his ladder to fix my guttering…
Another special treatment – at a salon, which involved a liberal sprinkling of aromatic salt and a stiff brush – an exfoliating ‘facial’ for a flaky back.
Sunday: heard the news today, oh no…A second attack on a bridge – armed and other angels – then the predictable platitudes, to keep calm and stand together and not to let them win…Till the next time.
May 22nd -28th
Scattered slug pellets around my hostas, a bit late…
Watched my companion’s insect-like drone rise from a field, soar high above the town and take a big picture. Lay on the grass and felt the years fall away.
The decorator let me down once too often and had to go – so the walls remain magnolia.
Thursday, 11am. Joined in the national Silence, for Manchester and our beloved country.
In Surrey, at a country house hotel, for a cousin’s big-birthday celebration. Sunshine and Pimms in a rose garden.
May 15th – 21st
Another slow train to Euston; sat in Russell Square for a while near the fountain, under trees too full for May. On the train back, one of the cast of Coronation Street sat across the aisle, his hat pulled down over his face.
The font on my email account suddenly shrank, all by itself. My favourites bar unaccountably disappeared. The list of computer-related ‘issues’ got a bit longer…waiting for my offspring to sort out.
A garden festival. A man carved wood with a saw, making a sculpture in the shape of an owl until the heavy rain re-fell and everyone went home. My lawn is now all long grass, moss-free.
May 8th -14th
Went along to the Community Fire Station for a talk advertised by the Embroiders’ Guild – but got the date wrong, so never learnt about the History of Buttons.
One night at a London hotel near where I used to live. An appointment at Moorfields, then across the Wobbly Bridge to Tate Modern, to see the photographs Elton hangs in his home.
A tree surgeon arrived in a green van – to study my too-high hedge of conifers and unidentified others. He understood: yes, they could be shaped, not pruned. He also looked like a young Burt Lancaster, so accepted the quote on the spot…
May 1st -7th
Voted in the local election for a party I’d never heard of, for a change. Joined a Guild of Guides and Greeters, which felt pleasantly mediaeval.
I had a dream – about Donald, who was worried about one of his wives…
Texit: said goodbye to my voluntary post at the school, the end of a long history of working with children, North and South.
Depressed – but a friend balanced things up a bit by telling me jokes about a penguin and a gorilla going into a pub…
April 24th – 30th
Finished the short story and set it free.
Used the chain on the door more than once. The most persistent caller was clutching a pile of blue leaflets. “Can we count on your vote?”
My neighbours put up a marquee in the garden, earlier and larger than last year’s, which blocks my best view.
Joined a tai-chi class in a church hall. A lot of bare feet and plimsolls. Shangri-la music, but hard not to think of my shopping list.
A friend told me she was going to be a grandmother, again.
April 17th -23rd
Off to the garden centre to buy a tree or an aspidistra. Came back by cab with some compost.
Made another Mistake.Took one of my boys’ books about sport to the charity shop, then regretted it. Went back, but they’d sold it.
Began to re-write an old story. An hour on one paragraph!
The shades of grey man didn’t call back with a quote.
April 10th – 16th
Birmingham. A man handed out free copies of the Koran to passers-by. Across the road, another stood on a box, shouting about salvation and the Son of God. Gave them both a wide berth.
The back garden. Shouted a bit myself – at the resident birds pecking away at the new seeds of grass…
Attended the Easter Sunday Service, for the hymns and human contact. The counter-terrorism advice was to ‘be alert, but not alarmed,’ so looked around the congregation. A lot of alarming hats, but no suspicious bags.
April 3rd -April 9th
Was invited to a counter-terrorism course for volunteers, ‘with tea and biscuits’.
A decorator came to look at my walls. We talked about yellow and shades of grey.
The lawn was scarified, then overseeded, suffering to be beautiful. Next door, the first barbecue was lit, sending smoke over the fence. Tried not to hate my neighbours.
The basket of flowers delivered on Mother’s day finally faded.
March 27th -April 2nd
Finished the book about Thomas Cromwell that’s been on my bed for 6 months.
Someone rang me to say my computer had problems. Put the phone on the sofa and let him talk to himself…
The usual engineer came to bleed a main radiator. When he’d gone, a waterfall splashed against the kitchen windows from a pipe above and the boiler got over-excited. So he had to come back. It was the ‘filling loop’ – waving a shapeless bit of black plastic – that the other engineers must have broken –
Stood in the bath to clean the shower screen for the first time since 2014, than changed the beds, shook the rugs and hid some untidy bits and bobs in the washing machine.
The Traveller and his girlfriend came to stay.
March 20th – 26th
Celebrated three birthdays in London, including mine.
Met a man in the street in Holborn – an old flame from the 1970s. Email promises exchanged.
Wednesday: a tour of Westminster Abbey, with all its tombs, memorials and monuments, then my son and I ambled past Whitehall and had lunch nearby. An hour later, the attack on the Bridge and on Parliament.
The train back was quiet, except for an unfragrant woman eating a burger from a box.
March 13th – 19th
Put the winter coats away, with a few cubes of cedar wood to keep the moths at bay.
Had my hair cut and coloured; violet streaks among the white and brown.
A strange long cloud stood still beyond the garden – cigar-shaped, with a dark centre and silver lining.
Retrieved my blue recycling bin ‘borrowed’ by next door and washed out the chips at the bottom of it…
March 6th – March 12th
An acquaintance enquired about the health of my boiler; a friendship may have been born.
Back from the rainforest, my son downloaded some fabulous pictures onto my desktop -of a very hairy sloth and baby, Tamarin and Capucin monkeys…My smartphone screen went dark and the wi-fi icon disappeared.
Discussed dermal fillers with my eye surgeon in London.
Pruned a hydrangea for the first time. A lot of dead wood, but tiny buds beneath.
February 27th – March 5th
At a local hotel, once a coaching inn, for a talk by an Agony Aunt, about her long career addressing other people’s problems…
The funeral of a friend I once worked with. A Catholic service, then champagne and sandwiches in Hampstead, with a few other survivors of the one of the toughest schools in London.
Tried to fast and failed – the sky was just too grey. Posted the first of several cards. So many March birthdays; so few postboxes.
February 20th – 26th
The house has developed a humming habit – an indoor tinnitus.
Escaped to York, to visit the cathedral. The storm named after my front door blew me across the bridges. The train back took not two but five hours – all down to Doris.
At the art appreciation group, we talked about pictures of place: studio, canal, prairie….
A man came to study my lawn, produced a ‘personalised treatment plan’, then sprayed the moss with ‘liquid rust.’
February 13th -19th
A phone call from Panama City, half-way round the world.
The opera was Valve Murmur. The boiler was innocent; it was the radiators’ fault. so the system was drained and three valves replaced and I bought some very good wine, to celebrate.
On the 14th, an act of love – let a spider live.
My Book Club re-visited Brideshead. At the local theatre, a shoestring staging of an Austen novel failed to sparkle.
Someone put their rubbish in my black bin.
February 6th- 12th
The senior engineer was ‘unable to attend’ my boiler this week, but a happy discovery. If I play with the knob on the bathroom radiator, the noise stops…
In Hereford, to visit the Mappa Mundi, the largest medieval map in the world. From the hotel window, saw the sunrise over Sainsbury’s.
A sunny text from Cuba, sent by my son.
Bitter weather over the weekend. Opened the front door only twice. Caught up on Coronation Street and Inspector George Gently.
January 30th – February 5th
A family photo fell behind a filing cabinet yesterday, too heavy to move. It took an hour and a torch and a clothes hanger to retrieve it.
The second engineer came and went, but the song of the boiler hasn’t stopped. Dishcloth grey skies, blue bin day. Sneezed all week.
Lunch with a friend who doesn’t believe in boilers. She’s a storage heater person. Two starters instead of a main course.
The eleventh Tai Chi lesson, in the front room. The instructor and I stretched out our arms and raised them above our heads, to ‘part the clouds’.
January 23rd -29th
The fly that came into the kitchen 10 days ago finally accepted an invitation to leave, through the back door.
The boiler continued to sing to me. The engineer who came to fix it, didn’t. Wasted time in Tesco choosing a light bulb, trying to make sense of LEDs and lumens, halogens and dear old watts.
A salon appointment, for semi-permanent make-up, to restore the eyebrows plucked to oblivion in the ’80s and refresh the beauty spot. A scratchy experience, but worth it.
January 17th -22nd
Broke a favourite mug – Vincent’s Sunflowers – just let it fall. Usual Thursday at a local secondary school (voluntary teaching) but it could be one of the last. They want me to go on yet another ‘safeguarding’ course, fill in a few more forms. A bit late to prove I’m not a sex offender….
The new boiler still tuning up too often and too loudly, making it hard to hibernate in peace.
A talk about the private life of the Tudors. Watched the Trump become President. He and Henry VIII would get along.
January 9th -16th, 2017
Went to Aldi, twice. No-one in pyjamas. Usual Tuesday afternoon at the cathedral, talking to visitors about the Hoard found in a local field. One asked, ‘What kind of field?’
Train south. Check up at the dentist in Primrose Hill, London – must floss harder- then an exhibition in Euston, called Bedlam, about the history of mental asylums and inmates. Pictures of chains, straightjackets and electric shock equipment. Virgin return.
Cold and grey. Made like a penguin on the icy pavement.