Thursday, 29 October 2009

My darling Henry

Today, I feel so terribly tired. They say, don’t they that seventy is the new forty? Today I feel as though the fifties are the new eighties. I look in the mirror, and this slightly cynical patient lizard with its watchful eyes and straw wig looks back at me. ‘Good morning,’ I say; and the lizard mouths the same words back at me.

My darling Henry came home yesterday evening. Things always feel more right in themselves when he is home. There is something uncannily comforting about Henry.

This last month or two he has been back and forth to New York and Washington and Berlin, sorting things out and making the world run properly. I have not the faintest idea, in truth, what this entails; apart from aeroplane flights and well-pressed suits, and a remarkable stamina for board meetings. Part of Henry’s ethical outlook is his belief that one should work for one’s living – actually for real money I mean, not only contributing usefully to the executive processes of charitable foundations and whatnot, though of course Henry does that too. So he spends a great deal of time attending things and making decisions; giving permission for people’s lives and commercial ventures to begin, or end, or change direction. I am not quite sure how many companies Henry owns or directs – a lot I think, but I suppose it might even be none at all; I have not even the most tenuous grasp of these matters. Simply being alive at all and remembering to be polite and figuring out how to get both legs of my stockings on without getting them twisted has always seemed challenge enough for me.

Anyway, dear Henry is home for the weekend, which is simply lovely. I always look forward to him coming back so very, very much; life slips into its socket again if you see what I mean. Even so, it can be a little alarming at seven o’clock in the morning, when I am sitting in bed sipping Earl Grey tea in a tranquil manner, watching a flight of birds through the window, and Henry enquires briskly: ‘So! What’s on the agenda today?’

‘Agenda?’ I quaver weakly. Henry takes in at a glance that there is no future in pursuing this line of enquiry; so he outlines for me the projects he has in mind for his own itinerary – usually enough to fully occupy a short month (February, I suppose).

After a little while his own enthusiasm sort of loops back and re-infects itself, and he goes bounding off to the shower: then bursts in upon Cook to check up on the progress of breakfast. After he has dressed, of course.

And then I don’t really see him any more. From time to time he comes blowing into the drawing room, or wherever I am, in search of important papers, or his spectacles, or needing me to jog his memory – the name of the man who bred our dogs or the disease that Aunt Fenella died of; that sort of thing. Sometimes we take lunch together, though I prefer to have a tray on the sofa; a little smoked salmon and cream cheese on an oatcake while I leaf through this week’s copy of The Lady, looking at the pictures mainly – words are so draining, don’t you think?. Henry usually lunches in the dining room surrounded by horseradish and chutney and Gentleman’s Relish and pickles, eating crunchy things very fast because his mind is already galloping wildly through the late afternoon and he has to catch up.

We often eat fish for dinner. Apart from Sybil, who prepares her own slightly unusual concoctions. I must say, Cook is very patient with us.

There comes a moment when after much wrestling effort, Henry and his day fall apart exhausted: at which point he turns on the television for the news, pours himself a whisky, and falls asleep.

I make my way back to my dear snuggly nest at about ten o’clock. I like to keep the curtains drawn back, so I can see the moon and the stars and the clouds. So beautiful. I lie and watch them, eventually drifting off to sleep. After an hour or so Henry tiptoes in and puts the light on, clatters around a little as quietly as he can, blows his nose and whatnot, finally leaning across to give me a goodnight kiss of great affection before settling down to one of these rather sophisticated political novels: ‘Goodnight my sweet darling,’ he says. I do love Henry.

After a while I usually drift slowly off to sleep again in the lamplight. Henry reads until he is sleepy and then turns off the light. He finds it hard to get comfortable nowadays – it’s middle age you see, it’s not the new twenty-one whatever they may say. So he grunts and rootles around a bit and grapples with his pillows, eventually getting them straight. He begins to drift off to sleep then, but I find one can only have so many goes at it before drifting off to sleep loses its edge. So I watch the moon. After a while (this happens every night, it’s extraordinary, I’m sure a homoeopath would have something to say) Henry suddenly begins to cough. He gropes about for his carafe and knocks his watch onto the floor, and has to put the light on to retrieve it and pour himself a glass of water. This usually does the trick, and he subsides again, re-organises his pillows and starts to drift off to sleep. At this juncture, leg cramps usually strike him, and poor Henry has to jump out of bed and pace around a little, pausing to stand on tiptoe or stretch out one leg from time to time. With a certain amount of determination he is usually able to defeat the cramp, and he snuggles down again and gives me another loving little kiss: ‘Goodnight my dearest,’ he says. Darling Henry. What would I do without him?

He tussles with his pillows for a while and finally gets them straight, turning over with a deep sigh and pulling the duvet around him. In that moment I have to be almost convulsively quick to grab the corner of the quilt before it is whisked away from my side of the bed. I hold onto it firmly then, as I lie watching the clouds drift across the face of the moon.

I listen as Henry’s breathing deepens from its normal tense wakefulness down to relaxation, then into snoring.

The snoring is interesting and varied. Some nights it’s that guttural, semi-gurgling snortle located in the region of the pharynx, or soft palate at least: I believe that must require an open mouth, but one can never absolutely confirm the veracity of this hunch in the dark. Some nights it’s more of a slow, deep, in-drawing snortle alternating with a coy little ‘ptui!’ on the outbreath. I listen, and I watch the moon moving across the sky, and eventually sleep draws me down into the dark blue velvet silence.

And before I know it, the morning has come; the indeterminate beauty of the dawn, and a cup of Earl Grey tea, and a tender little kiss from darling Henry, who wonders what my schedule (!) will be this new day.

My dear, dear Henry. I admire him so, and he is such a marvelous person; so accomplished and important and so devastatingly busy. I wish I could write with more insight and intelligence about the kind of person he is: but at least I have been able to describe the bits I see.

Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Such interesting views from the train

This morning I received a couple of messages from Eustacia on my mobile telephone. She had an idle moment while she sat waiting for the up train, which seemed to be inexplicably delayed. The first message came in the form of a photograph she had taken (with her telephone, apparently! Amazing!) of the café outside our little railway station here in the Sussex countryside. On the large white fascia-board of this emporium appears in uncompromising orange letters (Mistral) the legend:

& coffee shop

Eustacia’s second communication, a text message this time, referring presumably to the sign in the photograph, said simply: ‘Two for the price of one! What a bargain!’

Two for the price of one? Oh! I suppose she means because it is both a café and a coffee shop. But surely….

I wonder if she is being sarcastic?

Eustacia has been travelling everywhere by train since she lost her driving license after that unfortunate business last year, which really seemed most unfair to me. Well, Ponty or whoever is going that way takes her out to the station of course, but apart from that she is quite independent.

She tells me (Eustacia has such a sense of fun) that the two best ways of fare-hopping are either to pick up used tickets dropped carelessly by other travelers and stow them about one’s person in pockets, purse and handbag, searching frantically among them for today’s ticket if the inspector comes round (thus giving the impression of being an honest soul who regularly purchases tickets), meanwhile exhibiting mounting feminine distress: or travelling with a companion in two separate carriages having bought one ticket between you, in the possession of the traveler nearest where you have observed the guard to be on boarding the train. The first person offers the ticket for inspection when asked to do so, then moves down the train, passing the inspector, to give the ticket to her accomplice. She says in both cases it is important to conduct oneself in a demure, even prim, fashion, and wear neat, nondescript clothing and not too much make-up. And look vague. I have no idea how Eustacia came across these details of criminal behaviour: perhaps she read about it in a novel.

Oh! She has just sent me some more photographs of the trees so beautiful in shades of crimson, russet and gold – and one of a pheasant standing on top of a farm gate. Sussex is truly the most beautiful place on God’s Earth, and one of the best ways to see it is from the train. I wonder what those two people in the photograph are doing in that dell under the trees there. Goodness me, how extraordinary! Well, I never! Some people have no sense of propriety!

Friday, 23 October 2009

Cook - such a brick!

Here’s a quick snap that I took of dear Cook looming over her mixing bowl: such a wholesome-looking person, don’t you think? She has been with us since absolutely forever and is so wonderfully patient with our funny little ways. Let me tell you, we do have some foibles in this house, and Cook is always so accommodating!

Darling Gussy of course is not much of a problem as yet, being fed only Aurora’s actual own milk, but we are all braced for next month when it will be time for his gastronomical adventures to begin; because Aurora has been reading about Child-Led Weaning, and explained to us (this is important and very serious) that speech therapists have discovered we could impair his oral function for ever should we attempt to fed him with a spoon. Aurora has explained to us that the correct procedure is to lay down a large dust sheet at each meal, and serve him his food at his high chair – mashed banana, or yoghourt, or puréed fruit or creamed vegetables or porridge or whatever else is suitable for a baby, and respect Gussy’s ability to feed himself; initially using his hands, moving on to a spoon or knife and fork when he reaches the age of being able to manipulate them.

The text book from which Aurora took this interesting information did explain that in the course of weaning the baby’s high-chair would be materially compromised and possibly written off – turned into a kind of Tate Modern installation layered with the results of infant experimentation as the art of eating slowly establishes.

When I was in my twenties I had a very idealistic friend, an anthroposophist, who was determined to bring her children up to be natural, free, and unsullied by the terrible constraints of ignorant civilization. Henry and I were invited to dinner with this friend and her dear husband and two young children – Cinnamon Leaf aged 5 and Poseidon aged 2 – during the time that they lived in one of those darling little back-to-back houses in the north of England, still with an outdoor privy in those days. While Aphrodite and Derek were preparing our repast, Cinnamon Leaf took us proudly on a tour of their small home: all the usual features of a domestic interior were there to see – unmade beds, chaotic drifts of intermingling clean and dirty laundry, curtains half closed and clinging approximately by the last surviving hooks to their tracks, temple guardians standing watchfully at the head of the stairs, kelims forming mini mountain ranges on the floor, toys scattered randomly: and in the tiny bedroom dominated by the bunk beds festooned with organic wool blankets and occupied at night by Cinnamon Leaf and Poseidon: a rather replete potty. Naturally we made no comment, but Cinnamon Leaf paused to gaze meditatively at the potty and then announced with profound pride, ‘Those are my turds’. And no doubt they were.

Dinner did not go so awfully well. We sat down as a family to eat. In those days I was a passionate vegetarian, and had neglected to mention this to Aphrodite when she invited us. She had roasted a joint of meat. I tried to make light of this, saying the lovely vegetables looked simply splendid and would be just the ticket: but I can still see Aphrodite looking at me with eyes full of sorrow, saying, ‘Not even bio-dynamically grown meat?’ Even these thirty or so years later I feel quite peculiar to look back on the memory, and I shudder to think what proportion of their weekly income that joint must have cost her.

Perhaps little Poseidon sensed a certain tension in the atmosphere, or perhaps he was merely employing his regular table manners, but the meal progressed with difficulty, as he had a large dish of chopped-up spaghetti bolognaise (biodynamically grown beef and tomatoes, home-grown herbs and wholewheat pasta) which he picked up in handfuls, squidged in a sensual kind of way, and then flung at us. His dear mama remonstrated weakly from time to time, but that only caused him to roar – persistently and impressively. We were glad to go home.

When Aurora mentioned child-led weaning, the memory of that night flashed through my mind, and I mentioned the possibility that though Gussy seems to be a gentle and co-operative infant, he might feel the urge to toss his stewed apple around a bit. Aurora became defensive. She is never as icy as my sister, but I know when I have been warned off. She explained to me that she was aware of that, and that the surfaces splattered with baby-food could be wiped down after each meal: this was the price one paid for responding appropriately to infant development.

Later, Mrs Swann had a little word with me (she had been dusting in the hallway at the time and overheard snatches of our conversation, enough to become very alarmed). I could see she was starting to tic. I did what I could to soothe her, and said that Gussy would just have to take all his meals in Cook’s pantry until he has become master of his knife and fork and open to reason. This seemed to reassure Mrs Swann, but I have yet to gather the courage to lay the situation, on us in a month now, before Cook.

My own children were all spoon-fed by their nanny (or at least I assume they were and the nursery always seemed very clean and tidy even directly after tea), and I must say they have grown up to be incomparably articulate, but who knows what they might have been without such impairment to combat? Ventriloquists or News Presenters or something, who can say?

So I am girding up my loins to broach the matter with Cook, and I can see I shall have to be jolly careful to select a highchair designed with aerodynamic lines and absolutely no fabric and not too many twiddly ‘adjust this and that’ projecting knobs and surfaces resistant to absorbing the spectacular stains that organic vegetable juices are capable of inflicting (as I discovered when I dropped a small dollop of creamed carrot on my ivory silk blouse last Wednesday). Perhaps we could have a highchair carved out of one piece of wood, sanded and varnished to a smooth finish, and fitted with vinyl covered cushions. Hmm. I will ask Ellis to do some research on the internet. It should be possible. Sussex is simply heaving with people who do clever things with wood.

Anyway, I am sure Cook will rise to the occasion. She always does if she can. She helped Sybil make those special herby rock-cakes for the chapel tea where we all had such a happy time, and she always lets her come into the pantry to do her sloe gin ready for Christmas – she has known them all since they were born, and I believe they have a special place in her heart.

Aurora herself, who was born during my vegan phase and so ate mainly raw fruit and vegetables and lentil stews, was given much freedom to feed herself at Gussy’s age. She would sit up in her beech-wood highchair with an array of raisins and pieces of apple (later, pieces of cheese too, when we returned to vegetarianism) and torn-up scraps of bread, and put them slowly one after the other into her mouth, until her face bulged with food much like a hamster. ‘Aurora darling, you must chew and swallow!’ Nanny would cry in alarm, and make her spit it all out and start afresh. Nobody ever promised us bringing up children would be easy.

There. I have entered it in my desk diary: discuss Child-Led Weaning with Cook. I expect Mrs Swann will have prepared her for the conversation.

Tuesday, 20 October 2009

Welcome home my poor darling - welcome home!

Of course the really super thing about this particular week is Sybil coming home tomorrow. I cannot pretend that it has not been an anxious time while she has been away, and a sorrow to me – so beastly unfair.

After the dreadful business of her divorce from the odious Arkwright, she was so marvelously positive and brave. She went through a time of being just a teeny bit unhinged naturally enough; how would you feel if your own husband dragged you through the courts and had you branded as an unfit mother? Henry took her himself out to The Priory for a little rest – they have such lovely gardens there, don’t they; just the thing for someone who has come unstuck for a moment. Sybil saw such a nice person there who thought she could benefit from a more structured approach, and suggested she might like to stay for a while – so she did, and it was simply marvelous I must say. Sybil seemed so calm and rational when she came home, and I think she enjoyed her regular trips out there on a Thursday afternoon.

One always feels so proud of one’s children when they are not content simply to exist as mere barnacles freeloading their way through an indolent life: and I thought Sybil’s herb project was just the thing for her – I mean, everyone one knows of the therapeutic power of herbs.

The fabulous face creams and bath oil preparations she made were too heavenly; and I just loved having those rows and rows of lavender bushes, as well as the field of roses she planted just beyond the lake. Things were going so well and Henry was delighted to have a few greenhouses built for her beyond the rose field there, and more than happy to have electricity laid on so that she could germinate her seedlings and regulate the growth of some of her exotic plants. Naturally we didn’t interfere – it was Sybil’s own special project and she was so happy and excited about it all.

She had special blinds fitted in her greenhouses, because her plants needed periods of light and periods of complete darkness, and whenever I went wandering down there to smell the glorious fragrance of her roses I was amazed to see the wonderful leafy growth in the greenhouses – her plants were almost as tall as me, tremendous frondy things!

And poor Sybil did work so very hard. Every evening she would be looking things up on the internet, and she used to come home laden with bottles of plant feed, and her friends were forever coming round with bags of horse manure – they all took such an interest in what she was doing.

It was all just lovely: so positive and natural and productive. I really do think the police interfere with things far more than ever they need to in this country. I mean haven’t they got terrible murders to be solving? What about all these people who attack completely innocent individuals in the supermarket queue, and stick knives in their friends on the way home from school? But no – apparently things like that are beyond prevention and the Force is better occupied lurking in a side road to spot motorists going through an amber light or, as in this case, harmless women who like to garden a little bit on the wild side.

The worst thing of all – I mean we had absolutely no idea, I was just thrilled to see poor Sybil so purposeful and happy once again – was that it turns out it was somebody from the chapel who put through an anonymous telephone call to the police station! And my dear, before we knew it the whole place was alive with dogs and uniformed officers carrying flashlights – it was awfully late at night, so inconsiderate! And the drive looked like a gravel pit in the making by the time they’d all gone away.

All of them were so grim, taking notes and firing questions at us – none of them would take a cup of tea or a biscuit. There was a man walking up and down our terrace muttering ‘rubber duckie rubber duckie’ terribly earnestly into his walkie-talkie thing – and I don’t know if Ponty didn’t make matters rather worse by laughing. Just nerves, I expect.

My poor mother thought the worst thing was having DRUGS BUST AT BROCKHYRST PLACE – POLICE SEIZE 100 CANNABIS PLANTS on the publicity hoardings at the newsagent, with a photograph of Sybil being driven away in a Black Maria on the front page of the Daily Mail. Henry and I didn’t see it – we always take the Telegraph.

Then came all the waiting and the terrible ordeal at Lewes and even now I shudder to recall the day. I thank God it is all behind us now, and eight months after that awful day Sybil is coming home again. I am just so, so happy that she will be back with us tomorrow.

We were not sure what to do about the greenhouses. Henry thought she might like to have another go with tomatoes in the spring.

Sunday, 18 October 2009

The Incomparable Mrs Swann

Mrs Swann is a wonder, she really is. She had been employed at an awfully big house in Windsor before she came to us, and I can tell you they were devastated when she left them. She needed the country air you see, and to live somewhere where she could walk by the sea and her eyes could rest upon distant hills, and she could hear the breeze in great trees; because poor Mrs Swann has very delicate nerves. She simply had to get out of Town, and Sussex has been just the place for her. Her little flat is at the very top of the house, so she can see the sunrise and live in a room full of light: Mrs Swann’s soul could not abide a basement. Even now of course she has those times when she disappears into her little apartment with a bottle of gin and we hear snatches of Leonard Cohen songs from behind her closed door, but see nothing of Mrs Swann for a fortnight. Then, bravely and quietly she is once more amongst us, with a sad, resigned expression on her face and a duster in her hand.

She makes this glorious furniture polish. There is usually an old jam jar with some in it, standing in her cupboard, and as soon as you open the door this absolutely celestial aroma wafts over you. Each batch is a little different: she mixes a third white spirit with two-thirds virgin olive oil, then adds lots of essential oils – whatever Eustacia feels inclined to make spare from her little stash. The most recent batch had half a bottle of patchouli oil and a hefty sprinkling of rose absolute. Every now and then she wanders about rubbing it into the furniture; and when Mrs Swann has been feeding (as she describes it) the doors and the bookcases, and Eustacia has been burning the Dalai Llama’s Blessing Incense, one feels Nirvana has taken two steps nearer.

One really hardly likes to confess to looking at daytime television, but if I am to be totally frank I must admit to curling up with a cup of cocoa on a dreary day to enjoy Kim and Agatha (or is it Agnes?) in How Clean Is Your House. The programme is marvelous and I do my level best not to become tyrannical with Mrs Swann under its rigorous influence.

Naturally the advertisement breaks that spasmodically appear in the course of the broadcast are heavily dominated by odes to cleaning products: and there is one that puzzles me no matter how often I see it – the one extolling the marvels of Cillit Bang. Let me be the first to make clear that I have not tried this product myself. It appears to dissolve virtually anything. I once had a rather beautiful woolen scarf with a cheery eastern design in reds and spice yellows and whatnot. I glued it to a potting tray to make a lid for the Desert Box when we were experimenting with Godly Play: later on when I wanted it back to wear I ripped it free with no trouble but it was plentifully marked with ugly and unyielding splodges of dried glue. I had a look in Mrs Swann’s special cupboard and found an uncompromisingly pink container labeled ‘Vanish’ – just the thing, so it said, for removing stains.

The basic information is all I ever feel inclined to discover, and I didn’t have my spectacles with me at the time, so I simply cannot pass on the possible content of the small print. I just squeezed a generous dollop or three into one of Cook’s mixing bowls, splashed in enough hot water to immerse the scarf, and left it there – for three weeks as it turned out, because I went on holiday forgetting all about it the next morning. I did think Cook or Mrs Swann or somebody might have had the gumption to rescue my poor scarf: but Cook was simply grumpy because I’d occupied (as it were) a mixing bowl for three weeks, and Mrs Swann pretended she had thought I was conducting an experiment.

The effect of the Vanish was remarkable. The glue stood firm: but when I started to rinse the scarf it began before my astonished eyes to dissolve! I have felt a deeper respect, bordering on wariness, for household cleaning products from that day.

We don’t have Cillit Bang anyway. Mrs Swann is more of a Borax and Bicarb bunny herself – I think she secretly watches How Clean Is Your House? In the privacy of her sitting room. I hope it doesn’t do anything to exacerbate her anxiety disorder.

But the advertisement on the television shows a buxom blonde person with extraordinarily white teeth flashing in an almost demented smile as she demonstrates the wonders of its strength. She insists that it dissolves limescale – and so it may do, but as here in lovely Sussex we have some of the softest water in the country this information didn’t have me convulsively reaching for my purse. The other things the ad bimbo revealed was the power of Cillit Bang to completely clear all the toothpaste from her washbasin. In fact she showed us. With one sweep of the cloth, all the toothpaste thickly daubed around the entire interior of her basin was eliminated.

The question that lingered in my mind, which intrigues me far more than the alchemical properties of Cillit Bang, is why the dickens any normal woman should devote time to smearing a thick layer of toothpaste around the sink? And a secondary question: is toothpaste normally thought to be difficult to remove?

Personally, I am always very careful not to be wasteful with the toothpaste. My mother brought me up to believe that, even if a person has been blessed with a fortunate position in this world, what we have is ours to steward wisely. This is how we show to God our appreciation: to celebrate the good things in life is our ‘Thank you!’ – to use them wantonly and inadvisedly is thoughtless ingratitude. As Christ said in the Bible: ‘From those to whom much is given, much will be expected’. This applies even to toothpaste – I don’t mean that if you have been given a lot of toothpaste somebody will want a lot of toothpaste back from you, like a terrible pharmaceutical Inland Revenue, I mean that good management extends down from the larger view to the smallest detail of our lives. The Lord sees.

Even so, we must be understanding and gentle in our judgement of others. Mrs Swann’s use of bleach, for example, is on occasion startlingly lavish, but only when her OCD has got the better of her. Then she stocks up with disposable wipes and mould and mildew spray, the entire building acquires the bracing air of a public swimming pool, and for a while all the lavatories flush blue. But when she is well, we go back to the Ecover multi-surface spray and everything begins to calm down.

In writing this I am reminded that it is far too long since poor Mrs Swann had a holiday. I see that The Lady has a competition at the present time to win a housekeeper for the Christmas period. I wonder if I might enter? Oh – while on the subject of The Lady: there has been a mighty pendulum swing. The editor announces herself ‘stung’ to have received correspondence accusing her of being a mouthpiece of the Tory party, and waxes passionate upon the subject of the universalist and non-partisan broad thinking of The Lady in every possible respect. An article on the menopause, a rather bohemian lesbian artist brandishing a cigarette, and a rash of female writers have been included this week to reassure us! I wonder what next week will bring? The Lady has become an altogether more exciting publication than the staid respectability of its former incarnation!

Saturday, 17 October 2009

Imagine! Ponty infiltrating the poor House of Commons!

Breaking news! I am still a little bewildered actually – I had to check with Henry to make sure they weren’t pulling my leg: Ponty, yes Ponty, is apparently to be an MP.

I adore Ponty. I suppose one always has a soft spot for one’s youngest child. But even seen in the rosy glow of maternal affection, Ponty does not appear adequately serious-minded to govern the country. In the privacy of these pages I confess to wondering if the electorate of Loose Chippings has lost its mind.

I can only assume that, since our ward has always been staunchly Conservative, and Ponty was the only local Tory prepared to stand, loyalty proved victorious over sober judgement.

Perhaps I am being a little harsh. Maybe in due course he will grow into the rôle, and prove himself worthy of the responsibilities that will rest upon his remarkably juvenile shoulders. And then again…. At this time of all times surely we are striving to present a credible and convincing front to the nation? A nanny state is a tiresome infliction whichever way you look at it, and the contemplation of Gordon Brown as one’s nanny is enough to precipitate nightmares – even so a believable opposition must surely be a necessity. Just now, when George Osborn is drawing his mouth into a little thin line, gazing white-faced but unflinching at our economic future, is Ponty really going to offer the teamwork he had in mind?

Ponty is an economic crisis by himself. Unless he took the whole of Jesus College on a world cruise, I cannot imagine how even with determination he managed to devastate his father’s resources to the extent he did. He seems to labour (though this is not a word I would often use in reference to Ponty) under the illusion that speed cameras have been set up to create an admiring record of just what Vorsprung durch Teknik can do in a Sussex lane. And sleaze – ha! One surely respects one’s children’s privacy, and naturally they are free to exercise the right to choose their friends: but I was very, very cross when he brought that awful young woman Debris Bonbon (who styles herself a ‘sweetie rapper’ of all things – such nonsense!) to the church garden party.

Ponty! An MP! Can you imagine!? I shall vote for him, of course.

Friday, 16 October 2009

Eustacia. Such a sweetie.

I do think Eustacia’s mind is rather absolutely marvellous. She writes these superb stories for her writing group that come out of nowhere and go in unexpected directions, full of ideas that suddenly turn round and look at you and make you laugh. Like her spy thriller about the man who was pursued by men with guns in BMWs because they wanted his cream bun. Or the recent one about the reluctant father confronted by a tree in his own house.

Eustacia’s thinking has always had this kind of lateral drift taking it apart from the herd. She likes Earth, I think, but it would not be quite accurate to describe her as living there.

I remember her aged about seven, drifting down the stairs as she does, saying in that voice like an indeterminate breeze from somewhere else: ‘Daddy… I’ve knitted you a tulip’ (and so she had).

Lingering in the space between two worlds though she sometimes appears to be, Eustacia is not without passion – at times she can be quite fiery, and she swears dreadfully – make your hair stand on end! Especially in the car. Especially when Ponty is driving. Tearing insanely round the country lanes tootling his horn with the windows down and music like rending metal with a terrible itch blaring from his (rather good) sound system, sooner or later something gets in the way (a nice man with a Labrador, perhaps, or a godly matron out with her spaniels in an Aquascutum mac) and it is Eustacia sitting in the back, not Ponty (who is really awfully goodnatured), cross-eyed with rage screaming ‘Moron! Get out of the f****** way!’ So unexpected.

And Eustacia is terribly loyal. She cannot bear to see her dear mama upset, and if she thinks anybody has been cruel or even mildly inconsiderate towards the people she loves, Eustacia will launch into a blistering, excoriating attack annihilating their position completely – but almost invariably off the point because she has got the wrong end of the stick about the original problem.
So, for example, I may be sitting waiting for a telephone call from somebody simply frightful – let’s say Coleshaw Grimm, I can’t think of anybody worse – steeling myself to take the call and fruitlessly racking my brain for excuses to get me out of talking to him. Enter Eustacia, who immediately senses Something Is Wrong:

Eustacia: Are you OK?
Me: Yes, darling. I’m waiting for a phonecall from Coleshaw Grimm.
Eustacia (rightly perceiving this to be a source of distress): Coleshaw Grimm? Odious g*t! What an insufferable tw*t! How stinking rotten to say he’d call and then not bother! How filthy mean to keep you waiting like this and not even bother to ring! What an execrable intolerable mean b*st*rd!! [etc]
Me (feeling adequated supported but faintly nonplussed): But darling, I don’t want him to ring. I shall be glad if he doesn’t.
Eustacia (arrested in surprise): Oh.

Locked in a special chamber of delight in my heart is a memory of a summer day when Eustacia, then perhaps seven years old (it must have been the same summer she knitted the tulip) came wafting approximately into the room where I was embroiled in some intricate household task. Pleased to see a potential factotum, I cried: ‘Ah Eustacia! Could you run and get me the sellotape, darling? I think I’ve left it on the mantel-piece’.

Alerted to the possibility of a way to make somebody she loved happier, Eustacia vanished purposefully through the door. Time elapsed. She returned after some minutes, looking crestfallen (Eustacia loves to save the day wherever possible) and asking, uncertainly: 'Mummy – where is the mantelpiece?’

She is enchanting.

Wednesday, 14 October 2009

The Lady

That vieille grand dame, The Lady, 'England's first and finest weekly', seems to have undergone a sex change. Last week’s editorial boasted a list of writers, both resident and guest, entirely male! Even an article on Lady Thatcher was the perspective of her son – and I wonder if that lady herself was pleased to see reference to supposed rivalry between that young man and his sister? In the Borealis family it is not unknown to hear voices raised and tears shed, but I should be mortified to find that relayed to the voracious public via a women’s weekly.

Other than that, the new editor Rachel Johnson has an engaging personality; combining a certain apparent ingenuousness, with a breezy insouciance: one has come to recognize this blend as a family style. I was intrigued and delighted by her appointment to the post, but do not especially welcome the heightened political ambiance – though journalists of newspaper and television alike are everywhere chanting for change - never mind if the prime minister (poor man) is halfway through steering us out of recession as best he might, the journalists are bored now, and want somebody new. Every newspaper on the stand seems to have metamorphosed into a party political brochure for the opposition. The Lady has no doubt always leaned in that direction (I think Aurora has never even tried to filch my copy), but its flavour now is distinctly right-wing.

With a certain sadness I noted a week or two ago the editor’s resolve no longer to answer queries of a general household nature – how to get sweat stains out of men’s trousers and information as to reliable sources of directoire knickers (the editor said ‘drawers’, but knickers would be correct in this case). Surely it would be easy for one of the staff on The Lady to provide such simple information? I imagine the office can run to a computer? Some of the readership of The Lady would not know one end of Google from the other (do any of us? Google seems to have become nearly as far-reaching as the hand of God), and a quick search under ‘sweat stains +mens trouser’ or ‘directoire’ would produce a result with almost no labour at all.

For what it’s worth, Henry’s trousers are never sweat-stained: he wears long silk underwear which takes care of the problem in all weathers – beyond that, dry-cleaning would seem to present itself as an option. And directoire knickers? My dear – ebay! Where else? But these are infinitely more comfortable. If The Lady is too busy (and the editor says they no longer have time) you can always ask me. Time, that age-old alternative to money, is something I collect from the water under every bridge and from the hedgerows of Memory Lane, for time is precious; the resource of the wise and the best gift of all. To tell your readers you have no time for their queries strikes a jarring note. It was a slight, albeit unintentional: those for whom one has no time quite quickly find themselves otherwise engaged in their turn. Rachel has all the tact of her amusing brother.

I threw last week’s copy of The Lady in the waste-paper basket quite quickly: but I will give it another try today.

Standing like a rock: Ellis, the best butler in the world

Ellis (our butler) is such a treasure. He stands between one and the rest of the world like a rock.

It generates within my bosom such a sense of smug tranquility when, the drawing room door being ajar, I hear him speaking to unwanted callers: ‘I regret to say that Lady Borealis is not at home’. It makes me feel all warm and exulting inside – they simply have to go away! A little while elapses and in he comes with their stupid card on his silver tray: or saying impassively: ‘The Jehovah’s Witnesses my lady. I declined their pamphlet’. Not even a twinkle in his eye. Ellis is impartial, impassive, immoveable. From our drawing room window you can see anyone approaching along the drive, and there is time before they are even out of their carriage to whirl along and shriek ‘Ellis! Oh, God – Ellis! Don’t let them in!’

This happened only last Thursday. I was arranging some flowers when I espied the awful Coleshaw Grimm trudging along the gravel (I heard him before I saw him, I know his tread), and was able to intercept Ellis and beseech his protection. He listened without moving: ‘Very good, my lady,’ he said, and I rushed away upstairs before Grimm had lifted the knocker.

‘Lady Borealis is not at home at present,’ I heard him say – then those ghastly fretful tones, arguing! Arguing with Ellis! Why bother?

‘Not at home? Why, her car’s in the drive. She can’t have gone far. I need to see her about her grandson’s baptism. Can’t I come in and wait?’
‘I regret, your reverence, that will not be possible,’ I could hear Ellis saying: ‘Lady Borealis expects to be out for some time’.
‘Well, when is she coming back?’ Grimm persisted, all petulant and querulous.
‘Lady Borealis did not mention her expected time of return.’ I could visualize Ellis’ fishy stare. You know, I’m sure Ellis could have run a concentration camp very successfully. There is nothing touchy-feely about Ellis. That irritating little woman Amelia Bulstrode tried to worm her way in once – I was peeking through the space at the hinge end of the drawing room door and I saw her lay her hand appealingly on Ellis’ arm and gaze up at him through her false eyelashes in that revolting coquettish manner of hers, saying ‘Oh, do tell, Ellis – isn’t she really at home?’ Now here is Ellis’s genius. A lesser butler would have glanced down at her hand resting on his arm in disgust, or even brushed her away like a fly. But Ellis is like the sentries at Buckingham Palace; he unnerves people with his immaculate impassivity. He betrays nothing.

‘I regret that Lady Borealis is not at home at present,’ he repeated – and she whipped her hand away and tossed her head and went stalking off in a rage; clack clack clack in her odious stilettos down the steps, and then crashing her gears and tearing up the gravel in her vulgar little sports car. Gone! Oh, Ellis.

Coleshaw Grimm was not so easy to shake off. He went on and on: ‘Well I can’t make anyone at the Tinsellbaums' answer the phone,’ (they have a liquid crystal display – what do you expect?) ‘or the door.’ No, Aurora can see people coming down the drive too. She won’t have a butler, or a nanny because she’s a Socialist and a Continuum Concept mother – all she has is Bertha in twice a week to clean and do the laundry (I think Aurora even does her own laundry sometimes) and a man she found in the Yellow Pages to clean the windows. I lend her Boulder on occasion for the really heavy work in the garden, but Woolsey’s parents are horticulturalists so he entertains illusions that green fingers are somewhere in his blood (if you see what I mean). Aurora always stands up for him – she says their garden is an eco-haven, and yes, it certainly is. Where was I? Oh, Grimm. When she spots him approaching, Aurora grabs Gus and claps her hand over his mouth and hides behind the sofa until she hears him trudging off.

Anyway, he went driveling on to Ellis: ‘Well, when will she be home? What about tomorrow? I have to see somebody you know. When I phone all I can get is her secretary. Isn’t she ever in? What am I supposed to do?’

They say the true art of assertiveness is repetition: Ellis has this art. He simply doesn’t engage with another point of view.

‘I regret that Lady Borealis is not at home today,’ he said again with not the slightest alteration in inflection – and the obnoxious Grimm went trailing away muttering to himself like an out-of-sorts slug. It is quite true of course, he must seek an interview: but I’m afraid Aurora will have to face up to it like a man. She can write to him and specify a time when Woolsey will be at home, then at least she won’t have to see him by herself. I do wish they’d attend worship at the Church of England – the rector is much more pleasant, positively human.

When Eustacia is at home, she sometimes answers the door herself. Aurora will too, of course, when she’s visiting (depending on who it is calling; she would draw the line at Coleshaw Grimm, socialism notwithstanding), because of her feelings about equality and politics and whatnot. Eustacia doesn’t exactly have political views, she just obeys her inner voices, and I suppose some of them say ‘Open the door, Eustacia,’ so she does.

Both of them have answered the door to the Jehovah’s Witnesses (don’t give up easily, do they?). After a brief, and on both sides incomprehensible, chat about speaking in tongues, Eustacia came floating through to find me, looking slightly amazed.

‘It’s Brenda and Marjorie, Mother,’ she breathed: ‘they want to save the world’. I do wish she’d leave them to Ellis.

When Aurora got them, she plunged into intense theological discussion. They wanted to talk about who would be in charge after the world has ended (really!) but Aurora was rather focused on liberation spirituality and God’s option for the poor, here, now, in this world, today (as she put it). They seemed to me to be holding two separate conversations running concurrently: wasn’t there a crooner who used to sing some maudlin pop-song, That’s What Happens When Two Worlds Collide? They did go eventually. I heard Brenda or Marjorie saying in rather over-awed tones, ‘We’ve never had anybody like you’; and I can imagine that may be true.

I wish Aurora would let Ellis manage these things. It’s his job.

There is a Zen-like quality to Ellis. You know those Japanese gravel gardens that the monks have to rake every morning and make sure they are all perfect? They have rocks in them, don’t they – the gardens. Apparently one doesn’t just plonk the rocks down, even nicely arranged, they have to be buried somewhat. I believe they are one-third buried, and two-thirds sticking up above the surface (or is it the other way round?). It’s this business of partly burying them that gives them their famous air of stillness and eternity. Well, that’s like Ellis: he has the same quality. In his butler’s pantry I believe he has a mug out of which he takes his cocoa at night: it is decorated with a replica of the red wartime poster bearing the image of a crown and the words KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON.

I do believe we have the very best butler in all the world.

Tuesday, 13 October 2009

Family snaps

Here are two photographs from our family album, of our darling Aurora looking so classical and Anais Anais, and little baby Gus. In my opinion, they are both quite beautiful: but I expect your own daughter and grandchild are just a smidgeon more beautiful - just as it should be.

Darling Aurora

Our darling Aurora led our family heritage into a radical departure from tradition when she married Woolsey Herman Augustus Tinsellbaum III. This raised the aged eyebrows of her grandparents a fraction, but the whole clan proved equal to the occasion, and Woolsey, though he probably would be classed as unusual in every cultural setting, has settled in to our very English domestic circle rather well. Aurora taught him early in their marriage to respond to most enquiries with the words: ‘Yes; that would be lovely’ – and this has stood him in good stead.

In due course, they have become the proud parents of Woolsey Herman Augustus Tinsellbaum IV – known of course as Augustus (or simply Gus to his doting mama), as one Woolsey is quite enough for any family. We did query the wisdom of perpetuating the tradition of all his father’s family names: I wonder if in the fullness of time he will meet and be irresistibly drawn to union with a maiden called something like Wilhemina Henrietta Orbach. Or Wendy Hermione Imelda Caroline Hinkelstein. Who can say? Only time will tell.

Sunday fortnight dear baby Gus is to be received into the Church by baptism at the hands of the Reverend Coleshaw Grimm (yes, Coleshaw is his Christian name. Don’t ask me why). We expect a magnificent congregation drawn from various European connections as well as both sides of the Atlantic (Woolsey’s successful career in international banking has developed a wide sphere of acquaintance as well as a current account twice the dimensions of a medium-sized planet).

Delicacy has prevented us from warning the congregation what they may expect from the preaching ministry of Coleshaw Grimm; it may be that they will be better briefed on hell than on happiness when he has finished with them – but we shall immediately apply sandwiches and hope their memories may be short and forgiving.

Aurora is a conscientious and devoted mother and though Woolsey, being a man, has a little less tenacity, Gus is blessed with the kindest parents a child could desire. He is wonderfully advanced for his age (nearly five months), and is already showing great promise in reading, and playing the piano. When Aurora sends me some snaps of Gus toiling over his books, I will put them here for you to see. In the meantime you must content yourself with this photograph (in the blog post below) of him sitting on his mother’s knee for his daily piano practice. What big hands he has.

Little Gus at his piano practice

Sunday, 11 October 2009

Concerns Over Artichoke Mash

There. Now, I just had to show you these! Cook let me into her pantry to take a quick snap of our very own European Artichoke Mountain! Boulder planted them at around the same time as the last of the potatoes, and they grew to a most fantastic size! I always think Boulder is a slightly unfortunate name for a gardener, but it sort of suits him: he has a massive and inscrutable quality vaguely resonant with the nature of an actual boulder: Mordecai Boulder – I have not ventured into the garden with the camera, because it has been raining and I fear the results would have been a little too Wuthering Heights to present; but by and by when the weather is more clement I will take a photograph of Boulder rootling in the mould and you can see for yourself.

All the potatoes were in when Lady Bonchley found she had some artichokes to spare, and a certain amount of wheedling persuaded Boulder to dig a little extra bed between the potato patch and the path. He was annoyed with me of course, because the raised beds looked splendid up until then, but the clump of artichokes (which must be first cousins of sunflowers I should think) grew to be about eight feet tall and gave the impression of a verdant double-decker bus driving determinedly through the middle of the vegetable garden. Anyway this last week he pronounced them ready and dug them all up, so I took this photograph for you to see.

Artichokes are not without their challenges to social occasions, because of their extraordinary – and irresistible – propensity for generating wind (gastric I mean, not atmospheric conditions). Mrs Swann (our housekeeper – I do know her Christian name, because I read it on her references when she came; but I think she prefers to be known as Mrs Swann) prepared the most delectable artichoke mash with oodles of cream and parsley butter – I cannot tell you how delicious: but the after-effects were severe. Such niceties of decorum affect Lord Bonchley not in the slightest, and I assure you he was not discombobulated one whit by the intermittent clouds and gales of vegetable aroma that accompanied his progress as we walked under the beeches when luncheon was over. Lady Bonchley was naturally less indifferent to the matter, and I was piqued to observe that Ponty failed entirely to disguise his hilarity (did he even try?) at the spectacle of Lady Bonchley and Eustacia adroitly contriving a separating distance at regular intervals as they strolled in the autumn sunshine. Sunshine! Bother! I could have taken a snap of Boulder after all! Anyway, it must have caused considerable discomfiture, and I felt proud of Eustacia’s rising to the occasion and handling this embarrassment with such delicacy.

No matter – those artichokes were delicious, and we have quite a mountain still to eat. We shall persist regardless; but I shall have a little word with Mrs Swann, and ask her please to mention to Cook that they should not be served when guests are dining with us – unless they expect to be leaving directly after the conclusion of the meal.