The onset of autumn

Saturday 17th September   

It is quite amazing really, we all know perfectly well that autumn follows summer, and yet we are so often caught napping, and the early onset of autumn takes us by surprise.  Perhaps it is because there is no clear delineation; no first daffodils of spring; no first cake-icing of frost dusting the ground; there is nothing specific to tell you that autumn is here again.  Perhaps we are all still clinging desperately on to the idea of it still being summer, thinking about the weekends that passed us by, when we should have been out in the sunshine and for some reason we were closeted indoors and missed the rare sighting of the sun. Even I, a few posts ago, was hoping against hope for a last hooray of summer this September.  Well it almost happened, but not quite, and inexorably the seasons are turning, the harvesting is almost over, the fruit is ripening on the trees, if it hasn’t already fallen, and the leaves are beginning to turn through their rainbow of colours once more.  Strange, really, that the act of dying has such a poignant beauty about it.

The long school holidays are over, children returning to their studies, the tubes and buses are even more crowded than usual and now we are on that long helter-skelter slope into Christmas again. But I still love autumn; maybe my favourite season after all.  I particularly love the early mornings when I often get up and take a constitutional in the park, it is still almost dark, and the mist lies in hazy bands in grassy dips until the sun, pale and watery, struggles through the grey layers of clouds and burns it gently away.  In the London parks you can often see squirrels, incredibly tame they are, and totally oblivious to mankind and road traffic, they are perfect adaptors and scamper here and there in the morning sunlight.  Many creatures now seem to survive perfectly well in the city, I often see a rather imposing heron flying onto the lily-pads in an ornamental pond, and there are foxes in most suburban and even inner city gardens these days.  This gives me enormous hope and never fails to lift my spirits, but I do wonder sometimes how they will fare in the winter, how many will survive.  Always enough, it seems, to carry on next year.  So we shouldn’t be sad at summer’s passing, we should look forward to this time of closing up shop, of husbanding our resources, of preparing for the winter to come, we should take comfort from these little signs, these warnings of the onset of autumn.

The Circus

Friday 16th September   

I have only once been to a circus, when I must only have been eight I suppose.  It was on Barnes Common if I recall, and though we only went the once, I used to see the posters every year; it may well have been a birthday treat for me.  I was astounded, I had never seen a circus before, or a zoo, and this was pre-television and I had never been to a cinema either.  Children nowadays are often visibly bored when they first see wild animals in a zoo or a circus; they have seen so many clips on the internet or television of cheetahs chasing down antelope, or rhino’s charging, that the reality of rather mangy, bored and docile-looking animals comes as a disappointment.  I had only seen hefalumps as I used to call them in picture books, Babar the elephant was a favourite of mine, but these were line drawings not even photographs.  The shock, can you imagine the shock at seeing real elephants.  My god, they were huge – I had no idea they would be so big. Frightened as I undoubtedly was, I was fascinated too.  And the horses with their plumes and girls turning somersaults on their backs, the ringmaster in his red coat and top hat, the acrobats on the flying trapeze just flying so effortlessly from swing to swing, and there were seals balancing balls on their snouts, and jugglers throwing Indian clubs high into the big top, and flame-throwers putting lighted rag-covered batons into their mouths, and a knife thrower who burst balloons in a circle around a pretty sequin covered woman, and scariest of all there were clowns, with huge flapping feet, baggy trousers, and red noses and big-big painted grins. For some reason, the clowns scared me the most; no matter how hard they fell over and were whacked with planks they always had these big grins on their faces.  They ran around the raised ring, hurtling towards me, coming from both directions towards me, and I hid my face in Grandma’s big woolly cardy.

The elephants had been huge and lumbered roiling round the ring and lifted their huge flat feet high into the air above my head, the horses galloped inches from my face, and the seals honked and clapped their flippers right near to me, but none of this really scared me.  It was the clowns I was frightened of, and I still don’t like them.  I never find them funny, and of course as I grew older and learnt of the sinister history of the eighteenth century Italian Pierrots, and the Commedia Dell Arte it only confirmed my suspicions that anyone who wants to be a clown must be concealing a rather nasty person underneath.

I have never been to a real circus since, although I have seen the French-Canadian Cirque de Soleil; a nice modern take on an old tradition.

Throwing things away

Thursday 15th September   

If I have one fault, (or one I am prepared to admit to) it is that I hate throwing things away.  Not just those old photographs from long ago holidays, where you struggle to even recognise yourself in the photo, let alone the other people, but all my old things, my diaries, notebooks, old theatre programmes, postcards from exhibitions which I saw thirty years ago or more.  Consequently I have trouble with storage, and now have two large and deep plastic containers with clip-tight lids in which I keep “my treasures” as Edward used to laughingly call them.  I would have thought that writing the book would have helped to exorcise some of the ghosts from the past, but I find I am just as bound up in memories and reflections as I have ever been.  Occasionally I decide to have a clear out, and with the best intentions in the world even sort things into two piles (the throw-out pile admittedly much smaller than the keep-it one), but at the end of the exercise the thought always comes to me, ‘Oh, I don’t know, what harm does it do, to retrace some of these old memories for a while longer.’ And so I just repack them and leave it for another day.

And in a way I am right; I am on my own now, I am not leaving this for anyone at all.  It is just for me, and who knows when I am eighty, provided I live that long, I can still rifle through, and remember the holidays and the outings, the plays and exhibitions I went to.  Because by then I will have precious little else I expect.  Oh, I am not being maudlin’, as Grandma would call it, just realistic.  I have had some good times, some very good times, but I expect them to be fewer and fewer as the years progress, and I don’t ever want to forget, so my little boxes of treasure will be my aide memoire, in years to come.

The other things I cannot bear to part with are my clothes and shoes.  I see them all, neatly arranged in my wardrobe, the shoes all in pairs and lined up by colour, and though I know I probably won’t wear many of them again, I can’t quite bring myself to throw them away either.  I have a friend Monica, who loves nothing better than de-cluttering, and is always encouraging me, and has even offered to come round and help.  I daren’t let her in the house, I am sure I would have a nervous breakdown if she started to throw all my lovely things away. And would I have the strength to stop her.

Old Coins

Wednesday 14th September   

Sorting through one of my boxes of possessions I seem to have dragged around with me for years, I have come across a sheet of white cardboard with all the pre-decimalisation coins sellotaped on to it.  I must have done this way back in 1971, or possibly slightly earlier when the idea of getting rid of them was first mooted.  I think I must have been keeping my own personal record of the passing of a certain way of life, a slower, a more intricate and idiosyncratic way of life too.  The currency was the first to go, and then imperial weights and measures, and now volumes and distances are fast disappearing too.  I wonder how long it will be before we start to see kilometres on our motorway signs, just in brackets to begin with I imagine, but I am fairly certain it will happen.

I don’t really mind, after all decimals are so much easier to understand, heaven knows how we all remembered how many furlongs in a mile, how many hundred-weight in a ton, and how may farthings in a pound (nine hundred and sixty, if you are interested).  It was such a quaint system really, and difficult to fathom (don’t get me started on sea distances and speeds) for anyone under forty nowadays I suppose.  But I still know how small an inch is and how long a yard of material, or how heavy four ounces of sugar are, or how much a half pint of milk is without thinking, whereas I struggle with millimetres and centimetres, and when on packaging it states that it contains thirteen grams of salt you have no idea if that is good or bad.

I am thinking whether to throw the sheet away, with the old twelve sided thruppeny bit and the silver sixpence, the rather grand looking half-crown and my favourite, the little robin on the farthing itself, but no, I think I will keep it, even if it is only a collection of old coins.

Addicted to Starbucks

Tuesday 13th September   

I realise that I have become addicted to Starbucks; by addicted of course, I do not mean that I cannot live without it, but rather, I find myself ending up in a Starbucks most days.  I love those tall silky-milky lattes they do; it’s as simple as that.

As a child I was never given coffee, I cannot be sure if Grandma or my mother ever secretly drank coffee when I wasn’t around, but I doubt it – tea was the chosen beverage in our house.  When, on the rare occasion, we ate out, tea was always ordered for me, and, like all children of my generation, I hardly understood the concept of choice, or if there were a choice that I had the power to exercise it. You ate or drank what was prepared or ordered for you; the only choice you understood was that if you refused it, you would go without.  Not such a bad lesson actually, and one today’s generation of spoilt infants with their petty likes and dislikes, and tantrums when they don’t get what they want, might benefit from learning.  It was only when I started working, and the innocuous question “tea or coffee?” that I realised that I had never tasted coffee.  I found it quite bitter at first and could only drink it with the addition of at least two spoonfuls of sugar, but I fairly quickly got used to it, and would then naturally reply “Oh coffee, black, no sugar, please.”  I always liked my coffee black, and as I got older, the stronger the better.  In Tuscany we used to percolate our coffee on the hob, in an aluminium two cylinder percolator, and then later I got a real espresso machine which I became quite adept at manipulating, and Edward and I would drink quite a few espresso’s a day.

But now I drink smooth milky lattes, with just a sprinkling of vanilla and cinnamon, I seem to have developed a taste for them.  Almost every day if I am out I end up in a Starbucks and have one.  The only thing that rankles is their infuriating habit of calling a medium size, a “grande”.  Even more ridiculous is that they insist on calling the smallest size they do a “tall”. Come on now, that is plain daft.  So I always ask for a medium, and when they reply “a grande latte?”, I say sweetly “no, a medium latte, as I requested, thank-you.”

I know I will never win, but then again, neither will they.

The smell of a bon-fire

Monday 12th September

I have always loved the smell of a bonfire, that rich and irresistible aroma of leaves and wood burning in the open air.  My present garden is really too small, and I do not have bonfires, but we often had them in the house in Tuscany, and of course in the garden at Putney the gardener used to burn all the garden refuse in an incinerator, which was like a galvanised dustbin with a little funnel in the lid.  What is it about the smell of burning twigs that excites me so?  Maybe the memory of bonfire-nights as a girl when there was a huge bonfire over the allotments, not so far from our house, every year.  It wasn’t one of these officially sanctioned affairs one hears of nowadays, run by the council; this was a much more organic affair, with all the local children and their parents attending.  I suppose the adults had helped to build the bonfire; it was huge, and must have been built up over several days.  I can remember the anticipation and my worrying that we would get there too late, and the fire would have already burned the guy, and me nagging Grandma into allowing us just one small box of fireworks, which would be lit by the gardener in our own garden long before it got really dark.  And making great big loops in the air with sparklers, always held in a glove – Grandma was most insistent.  And then over we trekked to the allotment, and the crowd already gathered and the huge fire roaring away – and all the faces lit up by the flames.  I never knew the other children’s names, they went to a different school than me, but I had nodded to them sometimes on Saturdays when shopping.  I realise now that I never played with other children, out of school that is.  I was always expected home prompt at four, and I wouldn’t have dreamed of dallying or even talking to children I didn’t know.  Sad?  No, not at all really; I was quite happy in my own little world, and I had my few friends at St. Mary’s, so I never lacked for company.  But I always looked forward to bonfire-night – it was one of the highlights of my year.

And so now, as the evenings start to draw in, I look forward to Autumn again, when you suddenly catch that unmistakable smell of a bonfire in someone’s back garden. It always brings a smile to my face.

I love Frinton-on-Sea

Sunday 11th September

I really quite love Frinton-on-Sea.  We visited once when I was a child, my twelfth-birthday as I seem to remember, and we set off for a day trip by train from Liverpool Street.  I was expecting to spend the day on the beach, and was at that awkward age when the last thing you want is to be seen in a bathing costume, and the idea of buckets and spades and deckchairs appalled me, so I really wasn’t looking forward to it all, but, of course, this was Grandma’s idea so I said nothing.  As it transpired we hardly spent any time by the sea, the tide was in if I remember and there wasn’t much of a beach.  But I fell in love with the High Street, and have carried on visiting every couple of years or so.  As I do not drive I usually obtain a lift, by slyly suggesting it as a perfect destination, whenever my friends are talking about a day-trip to the coast.  The town is so quaint, and old-fashioned, it is almost set in a time-capsule.  There is still a real butchers and a fishmongers, and a couple of bakers on the high street, and best of all there are no chain stores, except a Boots.  It still has quite a few independent little shops selling elegant clothes or quirky home-ware.  There are some quite creditable restaurants too, and only one public house, quite smart too, so one doesn’t get those awful spilling-onto-the–streets louts one finds at so many seaside resorts.

My favourite shop is the Art-Deco emporium; it is simply crammed with genuine nineteen thirties pottery, light fittings, paintings, and even telephones.  I particularly love the Moorcroft jugs and vases and usually end up purchasing one, even though I am rapidly running out of space for anything new.

I suppose my love of Frinton is a sign of my hankering for a more genteel era, when shop assistants had time for you, when people were still polite to each other and when there was no rush and bustle. They say that as you grow older you become your parents; well I fear I am in danger of becoming Grandma.

My Puddy-Tat

Saturday 10th September   

I mentioned in the book that I have a cat, little Puddy-Tat, as I call her.   My mother, as you know, seemed to collect cats like some people collect acquaintances.  During the few years I lived alone with her, the house was almost overrun with them.  At the time I almost hated them, with their ingratiating habit of rubbing themselves up against your leg whenever they wanted feeding, added to the fact that most were waifs and strays and their toilet training left a lot to be desired.  It never appeared to bother my mother, who, forgetful as ever, would leave their litter tray un-emptied for days on end.  I resented the fact that the cats were the only thing my mother had any love for, she would pick them up and stroke and cuddle them all the time.  I cannot honestly ever remember her showing the slightest interest, or anything approaching love, towards me.  Not as a child anyway, I must admit that she quite surprised me when everything went wrong between Grandma and I, and she was quite sympathetic.  But it almost felt as if it was all too late by then; where had she been during my childhood, where was she when we left Cyprus and I was suddenly without a father, why didn’t she start to love me then?

So why on earth did I become the owner of a cat at all, do I hear you saying?  Well it was an accident, as most things in my life seem to have been.  I never wanted a cat, or any sort of a pet really; we used to be abroad for weeks at a time every summer, so to have owned a pet would have been either incredibly difficult or quite cruel, as it would have had to have been left behind.  About three years ago; Edward was quite ill by then, and we both knew it was only a matter of time, it was late at night, and one of my neighbours knocked on the door and asked us to help in an emergency.  She was leaving for a holiday in the morning and her cat-sitter had let her down, could we possibly look after her cat for two weeks, she had tried everyone else.  Without thinking we said yes, no problem.  Edward really took to the cat, and seemed to derive great comfort from stroking her as she purred on his lap, and though I knew it would be for a short time only,  as soon as our neighbour retrieved her cat, I went out and bought little Puddy-Tat for him. And now she is mine, and we are really quite good friends.  We seem to understand each other, each respecting the other, and not impinging too much on one another’s territory.

So in the evening I too derive great comfort when little Puddy-tat rubs herself against my leg, and as I open my arms she jumps up on my lap to be stroked.

The results are in

Friday 9th September   

I mentioned a couple of weeks ago that I had some tests done, because I was fearful about some disturbing symptoms of late. I was recalled to the medical centre for the results of the tests yesterday.  I really don’t like the medical centre, not that I in any way doubt the medical prowess of the doctors there; it is the impersonality of the whole place I dislike. It is spotlessly clean, I cannot fault them there, but it is so, well, modern I suppose; you even have to register via a computer terminal at the reception, there are staff there, and it would surely only take them a moment to politely confirm your appointment, but no – you have to “log in”, and go through several screens, simply to tick a box to say that you are here – well who else would be ticking the box but yourself.  Then you wait in rows of beech-wood chairs and stare at the interactive tv screen, which as well as showing some daytime chat show, (with the volume off – so it is even more inane than it undoubtedly must be) you daren’t let your attention wander, as along the bottom of the screen are constant messages; five a day, reduce your salt, and patients being called to see different doctors in different rooms. And I suppose this is the nub of my gripe with this wonderful modern system; you never know which doctor or which room you will be going to. Not that it make much difference, the rooms are completely interchangeable, as I suspect the doctors are too.

At last my name appears, and rushing so as not to be late, and have the name flashing in red letters so that everyone knows you are not paying attention, off you trot, trying desperately to remember which room you are supposed to be going to.

Well, the doctor was very nice, a young (Iranian I would guess, from her name) woman, who seemed very efficient and competent; well she certainly knew how to use her computer, and had my test results and medical history up on the screen in no time.  As I suspected, the tests showed nothing positive – no cancerous or pre-cancerous cells, but somehow this failed to reassure me.  My blood sugar was fine, though she pointed out that my cholesterol levels were slightly higher than she would have liked. Oh, I am sorry, I didn’t realise they were for your pleasure, popped into my mind, but of course I said nothing, and smiling politely, folded the diet sheet she had printed for me into my handbag

Leaving the surgery, two contrary thoughts occurred; one, that I had been stupid in even worrying and having the tests in the first place, and secondly – what if they are wrong.  Why is it, that even when things are going remarkably well in our lives, we have to find something to worry about?

Forgetting things

Thursday 8th September   

I keep forgetting things; where I put my keys, where I left my oyster card, if I had double locked the front door.  And so I have to now invent little routines for myself; I have a little china bowl which stands on a slim table just inside the front door, and here, whenever I come in, first thing I do is to religiously go through the pockets of whichever coat or jacket I am wearing, and my handbag, and remove keys, credit cards, travel card, mobile phone, and (a particular favourite, especially for when I am in the walking in the park) my mp3 player.  They all go into the bowl, so when I next leave the house I have them all to hand, rather than try to remember which coat I was wearing with which bag yesterday. And I have a little shutting-the-house routine, almost a mantra now, of closing the windows, turning the tap in the kitchen off, dimming any lights and with the key in my hand double-locking.  The point I am making is that I am getting older, and rather than rely on remembering these petty details, I now don’t have to think about them, they have become automatic. I do keep forgetting to buy milk though. In London it is quite rare to actually see a milk float nowadays, as almost everyone buys milk from the supermarket, or as I do from the little corner-shop, which never seems to close.  But I keep forgetting, and then go to make myself a nice cup of tea, and realising I have no milk.  Disaster – I cannot abide black tea, so it means going through the whole routine again, china bowl, double-locking and all, and out to return with my single purchase of a litre (whatever happened to pints) of semi-skimmed.  At last I can sit and relax with a nice pot of tea, a milk jug, maybe a fig roll or two, my trusty volume of Trollope under my arm, radio 3 quietly in the background and look forward to a pleasant evening all to myself again.  Yet even with all my creature comforts about me, I find more and more lately that I cannot settle, I keep reading and re-reading the same paragraph, and bored and listless, close the book. Then with nothing to distract me my thoughts keep returning to the memories of Grandma, and my father, and all of that Adrian nonsense.  And I had really thought that writing the wretched book would have buried all of that for good, some sort of exorcism, but I find that it has simply opened up another box of that tiresome girl Pandora’s.  Or like those wooden Russian dolls, when-ever you have successfully opened one up for inspection; there is always another lurking inside. And so I find that I wasn’t that successful at all, and I keep remembering things I hoped I had forgotten long ago.