No walks in the countryside around Guildford to report tonight, but memories do seem a recurrent theme in my life recently. Someone from my undergraduate days found me on the internet and contacted me. We have been enjoying an online correspondence now for several weeks. After our first year, I remember very little of him, and absolutely nothing from our final year, yet I have an address for him for after graduation so we must have had some contact. The prospect of us meeting is remote, but it is quite nice to have a connection with whom I have a shared past even if I recall little about it.
Meeting up with Russell always means some sharing of childhood, adolescent, and early adulthood memories. Then there’s Graham, who I am now absolutely sure I would have known by sight back in the day. Then yesterday evening I had a chance conversation with a neighbour I barely know. We were talking about how much the neighbourhood has changed. She hasn’t lived here as long as I have and was asking me about what the Walworth Road had been like. I found myself dredging up images of long gone shops, then suddenly remembered a second hand shop I had all but forgotten where there was a restaurant. It turned out she knew it, not only knew the shop and the restaurant but was friends with the people who owned and ran it. The conversation ran on.
It’s ages since I met up with my cousin Russell, so it was great to find we were both free and up for a walk on Sunday. Russell suggested a route which was for both of us a real trip down memory lane, places close to Guildford centre yet ones which I haven’t been to in literally decades.
We made our way up to Pewley Down by a route new to me but which took in the flat Russell lived in with his father, Frank in his mid and later teens. Pewley Down, like elsewhere on this walk, is a place I have walked so many times with my immediate family, and of course that included the dogs. In my mind I can see my black Labrador Tessa hobnobbing with the dogs being walked there, rushing off for a mad game for several minutes, then returning to us, her tongue lolling and her face a happy grin. Our wire haired dachshund was more reserved, and would watch, enviously I sometimes thought. Pewley Down has always been a special place to me, and that was confirmed on Sunday.
We continued along the narrow path of the Pilgrims’ Way. There were more people, more dogs than I remembered. Then the gradual climb to St Martha’s Chapel, a place my parents both loved. If we ever had visitors from Ireland or Canada they would always be taken to St Martha’s. The horse service, where there was always a donkey, was an annual fixture of family life.
We stopped there for a while. Russell was telling me about his mother-in-law, now in a care home, her body needing that care, and her mind alive and active. I ate some of my lunch. Russell, for reasons unexplained, had left his in his car.
Darling Boy was what my neighbour Carol used to call Freddy. I don’t know where he took his lessons, but boy did he know how to schmooze. My candle is lit and in the window. I am thinking fond thoughts of the Darling Boy, and smiling at some of his naughtiness. it’s a long way and twelve years from the heartbreak I felt twelve years ago. It’s true, time does heal. You don’t forget, but it ceases to hurt quite so much. Whereas in the early days I kept thinking about his last days, remembering the fit that preceded his death, my panic, shock, guilt that I hadn’t been able to do anything to save him, now I remember the years he lived with me, the way he could make me smile, laugh on even the bleakest day; the way he blinked his eyes at me, followed me about until I sat down so he could climb on me; how he accepted being taken to das Boot and coped with my initial and ongoing incompetence, then behaved as though he had been on boats all his life.
It seems we are in for a very cold snap. Not that it’s been exactly balmy recently, but you wouldn’t expect to be going about in shorts and sandals in London in February. Bit the coldest news came on the first of the month, when I learned that Kathy had died. She had contacted me in January to say she had terminal cancer. It could be days, weeks, maybe even years. I rang her. We spoke for around an hour. She sounded so Kathy, it was at times very hard to comprehend what she was saying. She had hoped to return to London (she lived in California) but wasn’t sure how to manage it, she definitely couldn’t cope with a transatlantic flight. We talked about her taking the QE2. ” Believe me I’m thinking about it,” she said. But as our conversation progressed, I began to understand how physically frail she had become. She talked of wheelchairs, carers. Yet her voice was so strong, her humour still so dry.
I wrote to her, as did Celia. Kathy and Donna had got to know many of the SE17 gang. Neither of us heard back, but the post, completely upturned by the pandemic, is not necessarily reliable. But when texts went unanswered, and ones sent by WhatsApp unread, I began to worry. I tried phoning again. It rang and rang, but no one picked up. Donna is not on WhatsApp, but fortunately Kathy had given me her email. I wrote, hoping for the best, fearing the worst. My fears were confirmed. I know there’s a tribute written by her sister, but so far I haven’t read it. It’s been a busy week, and I want to have time to read and think about it. I can hear her voice in my head, see her sitting here in my flat, Donna on the floor fussing MasterB.
I did my dusting to the soundtrack to South Pacific today. This was in honour of my neighbour Wendy, a lover of musical theatre, opera, and animals. It was Wendy who named Cat Fred after Fred Astaire, and his brother (yes that’s right) Ginger which I probably, other than the gender bending, don’t have to explain. The two young cats were adopted by her next door neighbour Lisa and she watched them dancing along the wall. She didn’t like the name I chose for MasterB, saying she supposed I could always call him something else. I held my tongue, refrained from pointing out I had chosen it because I liked it. She was appalled when two days into MasterB coming to live with me she visited, thought he was gorgeous and said to me, “Don’t you just love him?” “No,” I answered, “not yet, I’m sure I shall.” Of course I did and do, but I don’t think Wendy ever forgive me for what she saw as my hard heartedness.
Wendy lived in the street parallel to mine. She was shocked the first time she came to my flat, “You can see straight into my living room!” she exclaimed. I agreed I could. One of the things I used to see was Wendy doing her housework. I would know she had one of her favourite musicals playing at full blast as she whirled about with her duster. It used to make me smile. I introduced her to the Dulwich Cattery Christmas Fair and we would go together. The whole cat-ness of it was a delight to her. The bolder resident cats would recognise her as a soft touch, and if she sat there would soon be a cat on her lap. We would browse and buy, but none of our raffle tickets ever yielded the big prize.
There are good and bad things about staying at the same address for a long time. One of the good things is that friends with whom you have lost touch for one reason or another can, should they wish, still find you.
Several years ago my friend Sue who had disappeared from my life sent me a long letter explaining the ups and downs she had gone through, and hoping I was still where she could reach me. We have been in touch ever since. Yesterday evening the ‘phone rang and a voice announced itself as Sophie, daughter of Krystyna and Lutz. I was/am an honorary aunt to Sophie and her younger sister Nadine. When both Krystyna’s parents died and the girls had grown up, Lutz and Krystyna left London and moved to Poland which Krystyna’s parents had left in the Second World War, one as a refugee, the other as a member of the Polish Air Force. I received cards from them saying they would love to hear from me. The problem was they didn’t give their address and I didn’t have either Sophie or Nadine’s contact details. So the years passed, and I always thought they must have felt I had abandoned them. I did not know they had returned to the UK at the start of the pandemic.
Then the ‘phone call. I’d love to say it was a happy reunion, but Sophie, presumably trawling through old address books, had found my number and called to say Lutz died last week. It was sudden after an illness which had caused him a lot of pain. He had been hospitalised, survived, against the odds, an operation, and was to be discharged from hospital. He was looking forward to Christmas. His first free from pain for several years. So on the morning of his discharge, he was in good spirits and cleaning his teeth when he collapsed. He did not get home.
A chance encounter with a memorial tablet while we waited for Ray’s coiffeuse to complete her magic led us to learn about a more than local hero. Ray is Octavia’s 99 year-old mother, and I am visiting her at her house in Bridlington for the first time. Octavia met me at the station yesterday. I have seen so many pictures of Ray in her kitchen, or sitting outside enjoying the sunshine and the view across the fields, that some parts of the house feel very familiar. Not so others.
Her five children, all adult, left home decades ago. It’s a big house, and a big garden. The garden was always Ray’s love, and it shows. It is gorgeous. Allegra, Octavia’s sister, has undertaken the herculean task of restoring it to glory. A restorative project in every sense. She is doing an excellent job.
The other day I was having a conversation about how changing technology affects the verbal expressions we use. I observed I hadn’t pulled a chain in decades. For years now I have flushed the loo. Within hours of arriving at the house I had pulled a chain. In the back kitchen are not one but two meat safes. There are people alive today in their late middle age who have never heard of, let alone seen, a meat safe, never mind two. This is a house where technology of the past is preserved and used alongside the technology of today.
Celia’s birthday today and the countdown to our trip to Bellaghy and Belfast via the glamour that is Luton Airport begins. Celia is out tonight with her husband and daughter but we met up this afternoon. Not perhaps the most obvious birthday celebratory gig, but we enjoyed it nonetheless.
I have two small stools with seagrass woven seats. They were gifts from my godparents to my sister and myself back when the world and we were young. I presume my sister didn’t want hers and so it was left with my parents who handed it, along with the one that was mine, to me when I moved to this flat. The years have left their mark. The seagrass is broken in parts, the legs are looking scruffy. I thought I should like to get them repaired and spruced up, maybe to pass to the great nieces. The first price I was quoted was exorbitant, but the second was more reasonable.
A deal was agreed, and today it was time to hand over the first of the stools to John at his allotment which just happens to be at a site both Celia and I have peered at through the wire fence. We walked the short route in April sunshine and began a half hour of magic.
With the situation in India worsening by the hour, the title of these posts is not changing yet awhile. I watched the news tonight and Matt Hancock’s response seemed repulsive. He showed no evidence of empathy or understanding that while Covid is actively killing people anywhere in the world we are all at risk. He didn’t sound interested or concerned.
I don’t mean to suggest that Hancock is a colder fish than other members of this government. Boris Johnson’s dismissal of concerns about who paid for the redecoration of the Downing Street flat with an airy comment that the public isn’t interested illustrates how out of touch he is. The cost of the redecoration has also raised eyebrows and dropped jaws. Yet another example of how the poor are expected to exist on very little but someone who is already very entitled feels he should have more.
I happened to be Westminster at lunchtime today and saw these banners. They pack quite a punch. There were more police officers about than usual.
Seeing me looking and taking photos, one of them spoke to me, and smiled. Is there a demo? I asked. No, he replied, PMQs, these are here every week. Now I live not far from Parliament Square but I am not generally there on a Wednesday lunchtime, so I had never seen these before. But isn’t it the role of the press to show us things like this? Or is this just another example of how these events are excluded so that we don’t get to see the peaceful protests about the state of our democracy?