Everybody needs good neighbours

This is a short story of my neighbour, her dog, her dementia, and a few other things.

My neighbour has dementia, or it might be Alzheimer’s. 

I am not sure how old she is, but when we moved in to the house next door to her ten years ago, I thought she was already old. 

This is the story of my neighbour’s dementia, her dog, and me, their neighbour. 

First things first. Before I go any further, I should give my neighbour a fake name, to protect everybody who needs protecting, even though in this scenario I feel it might be mainly me. I have spent a disproportionate amount of time googling old-fashioned names, and got bogged down in fascinating etymologies. Did you know that Stacey is a shortened version of the Russian name Anastasia, but also of Eustace, which is Greek. 

After a lengthy deliberation, I have settled on Ethel. You cannot get much older than Ethel. 


I first realised that everything was not quite right with Ethel a few months ago. I was about to get into my car one spring morning when I noticed Ethel on her doorstep, in her nightie, dressing gown and slippers, visibly upset. When she spotted me, she walked unsteadily towards me. 

-Excuse me, do you live here? Are you my neighbour? 
– Yes, Ethel, how are you? 
– Oh, good, you know my name. I want to ask you if you have seen my partner, Eduardo, this morning, perhaps he is in your house? 
– No, I didn’t, why, what happened? 
– Eduardo is my partner, whom I love very much, and I think he has left me. Naturally, I am very upset about it. If you see him, do you know him, have you met Eduardo? 
– Yes, Ethel, I know Eduardo.  
– Oh, good. Well, if you see him, please tell him that I miss him and I would like him to come back home. 
– Ok, Ethel, I will. 

With that she went back to her house. I bumped into Eduardo a couple of days later and asked him if he had been away recently. He said he had not, and then I told him about my encounter with Ethel. Eduardo looked mortified and exasperated. He apologised for Ethel, and added that she had been acting strangely of late.  He said he had gone out shopping that day, and was not going away anywhere. 

Eduardo had been Ethel’s unlikely life partner for many years. He looked younger than her, but that might have just been due to the cruelty of fate, which made women age quicker after a certain cut-off point. His English never progressed beyond basic survival skills. Ethel did not speak Spanish. Still, their relationship persevered. Either the sex or the cooking must have been phenomenal. Despite being well past retirement age, Eduardo continued to work at a Colombian restaurant in North London, a true home from home.

As it happened, Eduardo did not remain true to his word, and went back to Colombia in the summer. I saw him briefly before he left. He looked emotional and said something about needing a knee surgery, or rather he pointed to his knee and contorted his face in an impressive imitation of agonising pain. 

A few months before Eduardo went away, I asked him if he needed help caring for Ethel. Proud man as he was, he admitted he was struggling, having to juggle looking after her with holding a job in the restaurant, and doing all the house chores all by himself. I suggested referring Ethel to adult social services and he agreed. Nothing happened for considerably longer than the statutory 28 days, but eventually Ethel was assessed and declared suitable for at home assistance. 

A carer would visit Ethel three times a day for a wellbeing check. The visits were confusing for Ethel. She invariably greeted them with her bewilderment, as she could not understand, for the life of her, why they were there and what exactly they were meant to help her with. Whenever I visited Ethel, she referred to the carers as ‘these women who come to do something, but what exactly they are meant to do is beyond me. I don’t think they do any cleaning’. I could vouch to that; they did not do any cleaning. Ethel was not too bothered either way. The only problem which seemed to preoccupy her was how to deal with a gaping hole in her life made by Eduardo’s sudden departure. With no family or friends to visit her, Ethel’s loneliness was complete. 

Her basic needs were being met by the carers and the cheerful Meals on Wheels man bringing her unappetising, beige looking lunch and dinner, and by the dog walkers taking Jasper for a daily run in the park. The council’s money did not stretch to emotional needs and wishes. There were no funds available to secure happiness, contentment, and companionship.  

Ethel had a dog, Jasper, a terrier looking type of Jack Russell, I was not very good with dog breeds, there was no point in asking Ethel what breed he was, as she would only get needlessly frustrated by not knowing the answer to the question. I was not sure how old he was, and, again, there was no point asking Ethel, and there was nobody else to ask, so I would never know but he looked and acted young and energetic. Despite not being properly looked after since Eduardo had left, Jasper remained a trusting and loving pup. I began taking him for walks in the park on Sundays, the dog walkers’ day off. Every time I returned with Jasper, we went through the same routine. 

I rang the doorbell, and after a minute, Ethel’s high-pitched, slightly irritated voice enquired, who is it please? 

– It’s Ania and Jasper.
– Ah, Ania, and Jasper. Wait a minute, please, I will unlock the door for you. 

A familiar key-searching ritual followed. 

– I cannot seem to find my key. 
– Ethel, it’s probably in your bra. 

The door opened. Ethel was holding her landline handset next to her ear. She pressed it to her chest and beamed me a big smile. 

– I am on the phone to my partner, Eduardo, the man whom I love dearly, and who loves me, and who is currently in Colombia visiting relatives. He just called me and I am very happy that he called me, we’ve been chatting for a very long time. 

I smiled back at her. 

– Goodnight Ethel, I will see you tomorrow. 

I walked back home thinking that on the balance of probabilities or simply because life is a bitch, Eduardo did not call her, they had not been chatting for a very long time, and he no longer loved her dearly, if he ever had done. 

With time, Ethel’s confusion deepened. Every day was a struggle, a lonely battle against time, and against all the events which kept crowding around her, and of which she was less and less able to make sense. Eduardo was never absent from her thoughts. She mentioned him every time I saw her, telling me the same story of where he was and why he went there. According to her, Eduardo needed to go back to his country to deal with an urgent family matter. She did not divulge any details about the nature of that matter.

Despite her circumstances, whenever I visited her, Ethel sounded cheerful and upbeat, unnaturally so, laughing loudly at random moments in our conversations and finding unexpected things hilarious. 

I remember one exception, early on, on a mellow September Sunday. I had not seen the dog walkers pick up Jasper for a while, and so I went in that day with a mission to find out what was happening with that. Ethel and I sat down on the sofa in her living room and after the usual preliminaries when Ethel told me  that her partner Eduardo had gone back to Columbia to deal with an urgent family matter, I decided to discuss Jasper’s dog walkers. It did not go well.

-Ethel, I haven’t seen the dog walkers for a while, do you know why that is? Why they stopped coming? 

– The dog walkers stopped coming. Do I know why they stopped coming?  Is that what you are asking me?

– Yes, I am. Jasper needs to go out for walks and I don’t think…

– Who do you think you are? Who are you to come to my house to tell me what my dog needs?! 

– Ethel, I am only trying to help…

– Well, I don’t need your help! I never asked for your help. You keep coming into my house and you try to tell me what to do. I do not need your fucking help! 

The outburst came out of the blue, unprovoked and passionate.

– Ethel, I can see you are upset today, I think it will be better if I leave now, perhaps I’ll come back another…

I made a move to get up. 

— You are bloody right I am upset! You will fucking stay right where you are! Sit down! I will tell you when you can go! 

I sat down again. If Ethel aim was to sound menacing, she failed. I was bemused, but neither threatened, nor offended. I never felt more sorry for Ethel than at that moment. She was lashing out at the only person within earshot. I let her rant a bit longer, not entirely sure what to do or say next. 

The doorbell rang. ‘Saved by the bell’ flashed through my cliches-prone mind, and I tried to get up again,  but it was not to be. 

– Stay right where you are! It’s my house and I will decide when you go.  

The Meals on Wheels man brought Ethel a tray of semi-congealed brown goo, said a cheerful hello and goodbye and off he went. It did not occur to him to enquire whether this was a hostage situation. 

I learnt a valuable lesson that day, and never again had I attempted to discuss any problem with Ethel logically, or suggest a rational plan of action to solve it. 

I kept my distance for a few days, and when I went to see Ethel again, she was very happy to see me. 

Regular visits to Ethel’s house to take Jasper for his evening wee in the garden had started to take their toll. I remember one day, shortly before Halloween, I caught myself thinking that if I heard one more time about Eduardo, the man Ethel loved, and who loved her back, going to Columbia, where he was from, to deal with an urgent family matter, I might be pushed to commit a crime of violence punishable by a lengthy term of imprisonment. Perhaps it was time for me to step back, but it was not easy.

It had become apparent to everybody, that with Eduardo gone, Jasper was in urgent need of a rehoming. The social worker suggested, matter-of-factly, moving him to the Battersea Dogs’ Home.

The callousness of this proposition sent shivers down my spine, and shocked me into immediate action. I asked Ethel’s daughter – yes, Ethel had children – and the social worker to grant Jasper a short reprieve, so that I could secure him a happy ending.   

Luckily for Jasper, our street had a robust WhatsApp group chat , a legacy of lockdown community spirit, and it was through there that Jasper got his, fingers crossed, happy forever home.

I knew I was doing the right thing. Ethel was no longer in a fit state to look after a dog. Still, the day I picked him up from her house for the last time, I felt like a criminal mastermind dognaper. What bothered me about my underhand rescue mission was that nobody had consulted Ethel about it. Her daughter and the social worker decided to remove Jasper from Ethel’s care without preparing her for it. I rescued him from Battersea misery, and made his new owner tearfully joyful. Ethel was to remain in the dark, until the day her daughter was ready to explain all of this to her. 

The only question was, what the hell was I going to tell Ethel, in case she asked me if I knew where Jasper was, but that was a worry for another day. 

All the words

A satisfied client in a recent family case made my day when she said, ‘Miss Ania is great, she knows all the words!’ 

I wish that was true. I wish I knew all the words and how to use them, but some days, it feels like words desert me before I can use them, they drain from my brain in a manner not dissimilar from the way blood is described to drain from a face, leaving the owner of the face looking deathly colour. The word drain leaves me staring blankly at a sheet of unwritten words, struggling to string the few remaining ones together. Today might be one of these days. Then  again, so far so good. So far so not too shabby. I think I’ll quit when I am ahead. 

The world without

Warning: A staunch royalist’s pov. 

News reporters had used every possible mourning cliché available to them in the English language and every single one of them resonated with me deeply, and will continue to do so probably for the rest of my life, to use another cliché. 

Grandmother of the nation, a unifying force, a symbol of stability, a lifetime of an unwavering sense of duty and service, dedication and sacrifice, a beacon of dignity and poise, a constant source of reassurance and comforting continuity.  

Governments changed, wars started and ended, we won the World Cup, we lost penalty shoot-outs, we joined the EEC, we left the EU; the Queen was always there. 

Whoever said nobody was irreplaceable, could not have been talking about Queen Elizabeth II. 

One of my biggest regrets is that I had never met the Queen in person. That did not stop me, like millions others, to have adopted her as my longest surviving grandmother. As she got older, the Queen’s physical appearance reminded me more and more of my own grandmother, and my mother in their last years of life. The resemblance was uncanny. I was far from alone in that thinking, of course, as I have heard the same sentiment repeated word for word by friends, family and countless people in the media.

Listening to extracts from the Queen’s speeches has been a great comfort over the last couple of weeks. As I go over the soundbites, I celebrate her extraordinary life. 

I declare before you all that my whole life whether it be long or short shall be devoted to your service and the service of our great imperial family to which we all belong. 

I know of no single formula for success. But over the years I have observed that some attributes of leadership are universal and are often about finding ways of encouraging people to combine their efforts, their talents, their insights, their enthusiasm and their inspiration to work together.

I cannot lead you into battle. I do not give you laws or administer justice but I can do something else – I can give my heart and my devotion to these old islands and to all the peoples of our brotherhood of nations.

I have in sincerity pledged myself to your service, as so many of you are pledged to mine. Throughout all my life and with all my heart I shall strive to be worthy of your trust.

Let us not take ourselves too seriously. None of us has a monopoly on wisdom.

Perhaps we make too much of what is wrong and too little of what is right. The trouble with gloom is that it feeds upon itself and depression causes more depression. In times of doubt and anxiety the attitudes people show in their daily lives, in their homes, and in their work, are of supreme importance.

Over the years, those who have seemed to me to be the most happy, contented and fulfilled have always been the people who have lived the most outgoing and unselfish lives.

If I am asked what I think about family life after 25 years of marriage, I can answer with equal simplicity and conviction, I am for it.

No age group has a monopoly of wisdom, and indeed I think the young can sometimes be wiser than us. But the older I get, the more conscious I become of the difficulties young people have to face as they learn to live in the modern world.

Grief is the price we pay for love. 

I am going to miss her. I miss her already. With time, I will miss her more, the way we miss our nearest and dearest more, not less, the longer they have been gone. 

I will miss her dry sense of humour, and her famous twinkle, her grandmotherly smile, her old-fashioned yet outrageous outfits, and her attentive listening. 

In three months’ time, on the afternoon of the 25th of December, I will miss her calm reassuring voice wishing me and my family a very happy Christmas. 

But more than all that, I will miss the feeling that no matter what happened next in the world, what inept politicians, airheaded celebrities and anybody else threw at us, at least we had the Queen with her ability to make it all a little more dignified, and a little bit better.

The Queue

Earlier today, I was fortunate enough and fit enough to take part in the most exhilarating, uplifting experience available on the planet. It is nearly midnight and I am on my way home. 

By the time I finish writing and editing this, the event will have ended and we will have moved on to a new, post-Queue era. 

The Queue to see the Queen lying-in-state in Westminster Hall opened on Wednesday the 14th of September and will close on Monday the 19th at 6.30am. 

I went to Southwark Park on the last full day of The Queue to see what it looked like, and what it felt like. I did not plan to join it. The Queue had acquired a life of its own, earned its own Wikipedia page, and was rapidly achieving cult status. It became the latest, most dignified embodiment of the celebrated British institution of queuing. The Queue had a strictly limited lifespan, which added to its unique appeal. At one point in the early stages of its existence, The Queue reached its full capacity and was temporarily paused. The queue to join The Queue was formed, and it was promptly called QE2. 

When I arrived at the entrance to Southwark Park, several queue stewards in high viz were there, but The Queue itself was yet nowhere to be seen. I passed a sign saying that the queue from that point was minimum 14 hours, but still no queue in sight. I carried on walking, following the long zig-zag lines marked by metal barriers. The zig-zags gave me hope that I was on the right track to find The Queue sometime soon. 

Finally, the leisurely queue to join The Queue thickened, and a few moments later wristband waving stewards appeared on the sides.

Decision time.

Should I? Once in a lifetime opportunity. Now or never, the funeral is tomorrow. I got this far, I might as well. But 14 hours? What if it rains later? Also, 14 hours? How do I get home at 4am?  After this brief level-headed private discussion, I found myself holding a brown wristband a couple of seconds later.

The pull of The Queue had won. I joined. I was in.  
No food, no water, no phone charger, no comfortable shoes, no umbrella, but I was in The Queue, grinning and excited.  Kafka would have had a field day with this. 

The Queue zig-zagged out of the park and we entered the streets of, where were we exactly, was it Bermondsey? Within minutes, I had got myself a queue buddy, Adelaide. She was an Accidental Queuer too, who entered on the spur of the moment, unsure if she would be able to last the distance. Over the next nine hours I had learned everything there was to learn about Adelaide’s life, including her detailed medical history. We exchanged telephone numbers early on, in case we lost sight of each other at any point. We stuck together all the way, through toilet breaks and security checks. 

The Queue snaked around Butler’s Wharf, moved past Tower Bridge, and was making good progress along the Southbank, until we reached the London Eye. Just when I thought we were nearly there, another sign told us that the queue was likely to be another 4-5 hours from there. In any other circumstances, my heart would have sunk, but as it was, I accepted it with calm and composure I am not usually known for. It turned out we were not crossing Westminster Bridge, the one next to Big Ben, and a stone’s throw from Westminster Hall, the location of the Queen’s lying-in-state, but we were heading towards Lambeth Bridge instead, another 800 yards further down the river. From that moment onwards, our wristbands were checked frequently by stewards asking us to raise our hands high up in the air. It felt like we were on an exciting school trip. 

The spirit of friendly camaraderie set in from the start. By the time we got to Blackfriars Bridge, the Queue friendship groups had formed. Adelaide and I joined in with a couple of ladies from Coventry, a British man living in New York, a Turkish couple, a group from Los Angeles and an older gentleman from Weymouth, his chest heavily decorated with military medals. We tried asking him about the medals, but he was very dismissive of their provenance; all he said was ‘there might have been a few battles one might have fought in during one’s youth’. 

A couple of hours into The Queue I realised I’d better let my unsuspecting family know what I was doing. I posted a photo of my wristband on our family WhatsApp, and asked if there was any chance any of them could bring me a pair of trainers and a phone charger. My husband dismissed my message as a joke, and continued to think that until about 10pm, when I still did not return home from my trip to London. My daughter came to my rescue near London Bridge, and brought with her a few very welcome queuing essentials. She even made me a ham and cheese bagel. My son, who was already somewhere in Central London, joined us shortly past the Oxo Tower. They both stayed with me all the way to the London Eye, and were surprised how much they found themselves enjoying The Queue experience.

Somewhere between the National Theatre and the London Eye, a chatty young woman began walking along the Queue, handing out ginger biscuits to us. She confessed she was suffering from a bad case of The Queue envy, and wanted to make up for not joining in herself by supporting it in any way she could think of. She stayed on with us until the earnest wristband checking stopped her from keeping us company any further. Although she walked with us for a relatively short time, we got chatting in keeping with the true spirit of The Queue. She told us her name was Kate, her surname was ‘like Noah without the ark’, which was Arkless. Obviously. She was also known as Space Kate. I have just looked her up. Fascinating person. Lovely biscuits.

Once we crossed Lambeth Bridge, and entered the final zig-zag around the Buxton Memorial Fountain, better known as the slavery emancipation monument, in the parliamentary gardens, the feeling of being on the last stretch descended. The Queue was nearly done, although it was to be another hour or so before we reached the longed-for security tent. Once our bags were thoroughly checked, twice, the mood in The Queue changed. Everything went very quiet, and a moment later we were on the stairs to Westminster Hall at last. Silent solemnity replaced hours of impromptu socialising. 

Walking past the coffin was everything I could have wished for, dignified and profound. 

There was nothing else to do after that. As decisively as it had pulled me in hours earlier in Southwark Park, The Queue now pushed me firmly out, into the balmy night air around Parliament Square, just before midnight. As Adelaide and I hugged goodnight, awkwardness creeping back in, we knew we had left The Queue.

The Seagull at the Harold Pinter Theatre

What a feast.

When my daughter suggested that we absolutely must see Emilia Clarke in The Seagull, I managed to get only moderately excited about the idea. Having not seen a single episode of The Game of Thrones, I could not get fully star-struck.

I envisaged the play being Emilia Clarke’s one woman show with the rest of the actors reduced to lurking in her shadow. I could not have been more wrong.

On entering the auditorium, the first thing we noticed was a person lying lifeless on stage. The second thing we noticed was the absence of any decorations to speak of. The set was a plywood-framed box, with a stack of green plastic chairs in the corner. Over the next 20 minutes, the actors came in, one by one, climbing onto the stage, taking one chair each and sitting down, their backs to the audience. Emilia Clarke was one of the last ones to come, took her chair and sat down.

The first thing that is likely to strike you about Emilia Clarke is how physically tiny she is. We checked since she is 5’1″.

The second thing that is likely to strike you about her is how young she looks. In the good lighting, she could pass for a schoolgirl. She is 35.

When the other actors were scrambling onto the stage, barefoot, dressed in plain modern clothes, I noticed several vaguely familiar faces, but I was not sure.

It was only after the stage lights came on that I knew for sure. I gasped, and gasped again.

Sara Powell?? Really? The always calm and collected Death in Paradise and Silent Witness actress?

Indira Varma? What? I only watched her in The Capture a few days ago.

Robert Glenister? The guy from Hustle and Sherwood? Just like that? Can’t be!

It stopped being Emilia Clarke show before it even properly began and became a BBC iPlayer best bits revisited show. Christmas never came so early for me before.

The next two and and a half hours felt like I was in a dream. The play was superbly acted, every character was brilliant, the bare stage and lack of decorations did not matter, all that mattered was the dialogue and each actor giving their best. Chekhov was all there too, even if the text had been slightly updated for modern day settings, with people complaining about poor mobile phone signal.

To be fair to Emilia Clarke, she was great in it too, but it was definitely not the Emilia Clarke show.

After it ended, we walked to the stage door and waited. Emilia Clarke apparently had already left, but we couldn’t care less. We got our program signed by two actors, and got our photos taken with two others.

Thank you Emilia Clarke for making my daughter want to see you in The Seagull, it meant that I got to see a few of my favourite actors too.

The Heasley Family Guide to Normandy

I thought I’d try something different this summer. A tentative venture into holiday diary writing.

Contents
Pourqoui Normandie
The Ferry
Jullouville 
Granville
A day trip to Brittany
Carolles cliffs walk
Accidental day of abbeys
Mont St Michel
D-Day beaches
The Finale

Porquoi Normandie?

We are spending our statutory Two Weeks In August in Jullouville in Normandy. 
We are here because I succumbed to the months of relentless ‘airport chaos’ media frenzy, despite having sailed through security in record time whilst flying with EasyJet to Portugal, during, allegedly, the worst week of Easter instalment of airport chaos, and EasyJet was, allegedly, the worst affected airline.

However much our own experience differed from apocalyptic scenes depicted in the papers, I was not prepared to face weeks of stress and uncertainty whether our August flights would be cancelled, delayed or on time, so I came up with a fool-proof plan B, and booked tickets for overnight crossing from Portsmouth to St. Malo with Brittany Ferries. 

Feeling smug and clever, I congratulated myself on my shrewdness and proceeded to book dreadfully overpriced self-catering accommodation in Jullouville on booking.com.  

When I said above that I booked the crossing with Brittany Ferries, I was not being accurate. Brittany Ferries are the company who puts the ferry on the water, but I booked our tickets with Direct Ferries, as they offered not only a more straightforward online experience, but also, bizarrely, a better price. It was only after my payment had gone through and I had received the booking confirmation that I decided to check Direct Ferries reviews online. Oh boy, did I panic! Direct Ferries came across as the worst company to deal with, impossible to communicate with, prone to cancelling bookings at short notice, and, according to some disgruntled reviewers, it was clearly a business on the verge of bankruptcy. 

And so it came to pass that I replaced stressing about flight cancellations with stressing about ferry company going bust for the next two months. 

Somebody once said that anxiety is a fundamental disposition of our existence. I cannot remember who that was, possibly a philosopher with some double a’s and a lot of d’s and g’s  in their name. I am inclined to believe that I embrace this premise more thoroughly than a lot of people I know.

The panic, like the majority of my routine panics, turned out to be unfounded, Direct Ferries delivered the goods and we arrived at St. Malo at 8.30 in the morning.   

The Ferry
17th August 2022

The boat was called Bretagne, or perhaps it was just a fancy name of our destination, which was Brittany. The Portsmouth – St. Malo overnight crossing takes 11 hours. At the point of booking an overnight trip, you need to book either a reclining armchair or a berth.  On arrival on board, we rushed to the bar, as one does, and studied the evening entertainment schedule. We proceeded to sit through a mini disco with Pierre le Bear, and an interactive quiz. Experienced school quizzers as we were, we came 10th out of 15 teams. Who knew Hereford was a breed of cow, and not a type of horse? Or that Panama not only took part in the last World Cup but that we beat them 6:1? Not us, clearly. 

Our egos deflated by failing to win a portable charger set, we called it a night at 10pm, just as Lucy Beasley was welcoming everybody to the cabaret programme.  

At 6.30am the next morning, we were woken up by an instrumental piece, which, in other circumstances, I would consider soothing. As it was, it felt stubbornly insistent and vaguely Big Brother-esque. 

Jullouville
18th August 2022 

It took me a couple of days to spell the name correctly, the pronunciation remains approximate. 

Jullouville is a large village rather than a small town. The centre has a supermarket, an obligatory boulangerie with queues of baguette-hungry locals  forming outside from early hours, a tourist trinkets shop, and several restaurants, all of which serve moules frites, one is a pizza place, and one offers the best food in the world in the form of the most exquisite piece de boucher, which we ordered as we were curious what it was, and it turned out to be a heavenly kind of steak. 

In addition to a reasonable range of catering options, Jullouville boasts a seasonal mini fun fair which comes alive every summer night, a Notre Dame des Dunes church, and a Tourist Information office. 

Jullouville beach is several kilometres long, and about a 100 metres wide at ordinary low tide. During the second week of our stay the low tides became extremely low and the sea receded about 500 metres each afternoon, uncovering a maze of man-made stone fish trap enclosures, which suddenly appeared, the way I imagine Atlantis would, only to be swallowed up by the sea again a couple of hours later. 

The beach is perfectly positioned for dreamy sunsets, which take place directly in front of us around 9pm in August. 

One fascinating place in Jullouville is an imposing mansion on Avenue de Kairon, which happens to also be the street our house is on. When we first drove past it, my family hoped I might have booked us the mansion. 

At first glance it evoked images of witches, broomsticks, bats and hooting owls. On closer inspection, and on reading a plaque next to it, the grey-stoned haunted house turned out to be the previous Supreme Headquarters of the Allied Expeditionary Force ( SHAEF), where General Dwight Eisenhower was stationed in August and September 1944.   

78 years turns out to be a very long time. Sic transit gloria mundi. 

Granville
19th August 2022

The day after we arrived, it rained. We did some quick thinking on our phones, and decided to spend the day in nearby Granville, and to visit the Christian Dior museum and gardens.  

The Christian Dior museum is located in the designer’s childhood home, which his parents had bought at the end of the 19th century.  

When we went to see it, it was showing a temporary exhibition Chapeaux Dior! which included over 200 models of hats and some classic Dior outfits too. The exhibition seemed extremely popular with, mostly French, visitors. We queued for about half an hour to get in and the queue had built up quickly behind us. The French either hold Dior in incredibly high esteem, or they simply all had the same idea how to spend a rainy Friday at the seaside. 

A day trip to Brittany
22nd August 2022

Dinan
As soon as somebody says medieval city and cobbled streets, we are sold, so we knew a trip to Dinan was on the cards since the lady at the Tourist Information uttered those words to us. 

Dinan is about one hour 40 minutes’ drive from Jullouville. It is definitely worth a visit, and it deserves half a day at least. Dinan’s main attraction is a long walk down the cobbled Rue du Jerzual lined with wonky medieval buildings, some of them turned into mini art galleries, others empty and neglected. 
The picturesque clock tower, the castle fort and old city walls complete the list of reasons to visit Dinan. 

Dinard is a somewhat old-fashioned seaside resort with a scenic path around the rocky bay area and a small beach. Nice to pop in if you have time, but looking back on the day, I would have stayed longer in Dinan and skipped Dinard. Sorry, Dinard. 

St. Malo
Much more than a ferry terminal. A walk on top of city walls with pretty views into the sea and the port, and a further stroll among imposing grey stone buildings of the town’s Intra-Muros area are recommended. We left it a bit late in the day to visit, so the walk felt rushed and incomplete. It would have made more sense to explore St. Malo for a few hours on the day we first arrived there, but we were all tired from the night on the ferry, and decided unanimously that St. Malo town was depressingly grim and grey. It certainly improved on second impression. 

Carolles circular cliffs walk
24th August 2022

2.5 hours circular walk on the cliff tops around Carolles, passing a Bourbon stone look-out hut on the way, which serves as badly needed air-conditioning on a hot summer day. Pretty views over the Carolles plage, stretching all the way up to Granville. From the viewpoint near the hut, Mont Saint Michel comes to view in all its misty dreaminess. 

Accidental day of abbeys
25th August 2022

If only my daughter’s tonsil hadn’t been playing up so badly that we needed to book her a doctor’s appointment, and if only the only appointment available this week had not been at 4pm, we would not have had to revise our previous plan of spending the whole day at D-Day landing beaches today. Further on, if the weather had been beach-worthy, like it was yesterday, we would not have visited the two local 12th century abbeys, L’abbaye Lucerne and L’abbaye Hambye. Which would have been our true loss. Both abbeys are within about 30-40 minutes’ drive from Jullouville. 

L’abbaye Hambye makes a dramatic statement in its sleepy countryside surroundings with a soaring sky-scraper ruin of the abbey proper and several dwellings and utility buildings scattered around it.  

The ruin of the abbey is a place of solemn grey-stoned beauty. After we had stood in every corner of it, with our necks bent backwards as far as they went, and snapped it from every angle with our cameras, we sat down on a nearby bench and admired its silent majesty. 

L’abbaye Lucerne is much better preserved, the abbey has a roof, walls and windows, and it looks pretty much like hundreds and thousands of other Medieval abbeys. It is surrounded by a number of stone buildings among which a circular tower called Dovecote stands out. It was designed for breeding up to 1500 pairs of pigeons. The description does not do it justice, it has to be seen to be believed. 

Mont Saint Michel
27th August 2022

Today we headed to the Manche region’s star attraction. 

Mont Saint Michel is on every Normandy visitor’s must-see list, which means that  crowds cover every inch of this tiny tidal island at all times, or at least until 6pm, when the island begins to lock up for the day. 

Planning the trip required a fair bit of logistical acrobatics. Nothing too challenging for weathered explorers like us, but beginners might falter. 

Caroline from Jullouville’s Tourist Information office deserves a medal for her dedication to making sure our day worked out perfectly. 

There is more than one way to play the Mont Saint Michel game. This is what we did. 
We booked tickets to see the abbey in advance, at our local Tourist Office. 

We then booked a guided walk from Saint Michel to Tombelaine island, which sits halfway on the 7 km full crossing route from the Abbey to Genets on mainland. 

We parked at the main car park, about half an hour walk from MStM, with a frequent shuttle bus also available. We took the shuttle in the morning and walked the causeway in the evening, turning back frequently to take yet another photo of the Abbey. 

We arrived at the entrance to the main event at 10am and meandered up to the Abbey along city walls and many lots of stone steps.

The Abbey is huge. It took us over 1.5 hours to visit, any less time and you will feel you are rushing it. We walked through one imposing room, crypt, refectory, cloister and chapel after another. Whoever built it, pulled all the stops for greater glory of God.  

The history of how the abbey came to be is a bit hazy to me, as it starts with Archangel Michael appearing to St Aubert in 708 and requesting that the saint, who was not yet a saint at the time, build him a sanctuary there. Angels giving instructions to people is not something I can personally relate to very well, but apparently that is what happened. The first church was built on the site in 966, by Benedictine monks. Why did it take 258 years to fulfil Archangel’s wishes? I have no idea, the plaque did not say, but I am sure whatever the reasons for the tardiness, God had forgiven and forgotten, because the end result is magnificent.

The building really is quite something. Religion-driven architectural greatness and posturing at its best. So much so, that it managed to evoke some vaguely spiritual stirrings in an irreverent non-believer like myself. 

After the abbey, it was time for a break and a crispy baguette sandwich. We had an hour to rest before meeting our guide for the walk to Tombelaine and back.

The place was teeming with people by then, and it took us a while to find a stone ledge in the shade to sit on, and when we did, we had to share it with a family of pigeons. 

Tombelaine is a small island 3km away from the Mont. 

It took us 3 hours to complete the walk there and back, with frequent stops when the guide told us about salt marshes, salt-saturated local vegetation, and how it affected local sheep’s gut bacteria, and how, in turn, it gave local lamb meat a unique taste. Fascinating stuff! My husband was truly blown away by the salt and silt stories and kept asking Bernard, our guide, numerous additional questions on the subject. I could almost hear Bernard making a mental note to himself never to take the bloody British on tour again, but he indulged my husband’s curiosity with admirable patience. In fact, Bernard and his company deserve a proper plug from us.
Chemins de la Baie, www.cheminsdelabaie.com

The highlight of the tour was making us all huddle in one spot and jump up and down as a group, until we all started sinking deeper and deeper into the quicksand. One woman took this further than the rest of us, and lost her nerve only when the muddy sand reached the top of her thighs. 

After the tour, all that was left for us to do was to have a crepe, buy a fridge magnet and walk back to the car. Mont Saint Michel – done.

D-Day landing beaches
29th August 2022

Marriage means readiness for compromise, so today we all got up early and headed North to explore 2 out of 5 D-Day landing beaches,  Utah beach and Omaha beach.  

Utah beach is the most famous of the Normandy landing beaches, or at least the one where the French had decided to make the biggest commemorative effort. The result feels like a shrine to American contribution to winning WWII, with the rest of the Allied Forces hardly getting a look in. The Museum of D-Day Landing, signposted as Le Musee du Debarquement de Utah Beach, holds a large collection of artefacts, personal effects of GIs who died during the June 1944 operation, a couple of amphibian vehicles, a B26 bomber, an American army Jeep which was parachuted onto the beach in a box, several German and American uniforms, helmets, machine guns, binoculars, numerous military maps,  documents, and diagrams, and a lot of photographs. The exhibition includes a 20 minutes film on D-Day preparation and execution. My husband looked as if he’d died and gone to heaven. 

To be fair to him, he tried his best to enthuse the rest of us about the place too. With me, he succeeded the most when drawing my attention to a homing pigeon’s parachute and cage set. Homing pigeons from England used to be parachuted down in Northern France with a note asking local people to send them back with any information on German positions in the area. I find this truly amazing. 

The beach itself was very windy, the sea choppy and fittingly uninviting. We went for a short walk along the mostly deserted sandy shore, and stopped for a coffee at Le Roosevelt Brasserie, stylishly decorated in the 1940s mode. 

After Utah, we drove on to Omaha beach, some 45km down the coast. The wind was even stronger there, with sharp sand lashing our faces painfully. We took photos of the imposing D-Day monument on the beach and called it a day, abandoning original plan which was to visit all the five main landing beaches in the area. 

The Finale
1st September 2022

We spent the last two days of the holiday on our local beach, topping up the tan, picking up shells and  making several trips to the souvenir shop to make sure we chose just the right style of beads and string bracelets. However much we tried to stretch each of the final days, they ended fast and we were back on the return ferry quicker than you could say ‘where did the two weeks go?’  

Daytime crossing from St. Malo to Portsmouth took just under 9 hours, which we spent luxuriating in our pre-booked reclining armchairs, foot rests and all. Whilst on board, we consumed the last couple of the copious number of croissants and baguettes we lived on in France. 

We knew the holiday was over as soon as we saw petrol prices on the Portsmouth side of the Channel. 
How soon after one holiday ends is it too soon to start planning the next one?
Asking for a friend. 

56. Now what?

So, fifty-six.

How? When? One moment I am on a boat, enjoying my fortieth birthday party, floating slowly down the Thames, black lace, high heels and champagne, and then, somewhere between Embankment Pier and the Thames Barrier, I blink, and when I open my eyes again, in a proper time travelling style, I find myself with full head of post-lockdown grey hair, firmly past middle age. 

Not old, mind you, old age has been pushed back, again, and is currently estimated to arrive in mid- to late sixties, but no longer middle-aged either, because if I were still middle-aged at 56, I would need to live to 112, and I am pretty sure this is not going to happen, as only war veteran and senior Royals seem to manage to live that long. 

Not young, not middle-aged, not old. 
What am I? A half centenarian in denial sounds most accurate.   

Fifty-six. I hate it when people my age say that age is just a number, because by the time we reach fifty-six, we know full well that age is very much not just a number.  It is a message, a warning that each time this just-a-number increases, things are likely to start going wrong when you least expect them to. Sadly, nothing can be taken for granted any more. Our bodies and minds begin to betray us, often in the most unpredictable ways. Do not worry, I am not going to write about my post-middle-age-but-not-yet-old state of health; I am just saying that it is what it is, and what will be will be, and it will come sooner rather than later.  

I do not feel fifty-six. I look at it, stare at it, but no matter which angle I squint at it, I feel no affinity with the number.  The number might as well be 86, the disconnect is the same. I am not sure how fifty-six should feel, but I have a nagging suspicion I do not meet popular expectations. Despite outward appearances, I feel incongruously young a lot of the time, childishly mischievous on occasion, and I am no stranger to acting in an immature, irresponsible manner.  The meaning of age-appropriate behaviour keeps evading me. Is crouching behind my car in the driveway for a couple of minutes until my next door neighbour goes into his house in order to avoid meeting him compatible with being a fifty-six year old mother of three and an experienced public service professional? 

I am not remotely ready for the things that fifty-plus advertising expects me to be ready for.  I am not ready for grandchildren. It still feels that it was only a brief moment ago, before I blinked on that boat, that my own children were cute little squishy things, and it sounds absurd that they could in theory become parents themselves in not massively distant future.  

I am not ready to slow down, or to accept that if something had not happened by now, it probably never will. I am still expecting a lot to happen; I have places to be, shows to see, hair colours and cocktails to try, books to read and write, kitchens to replace, and newly-hatched turtles to rescue by carrying them to the ocean before seagulls eat them, somewhere in South America. 

I am not ready to buy a funeral plan, even if the internet reminds me on most days that I should be thinking about it. 

I was recently surprised to realise that I am not even ready yet to embark on the holiday aboard a six-storey cruise ship, which was the one thing I really thought I would be ready for by the time I am the age I am now. Sorry, Saga.  

What else? Wisdom. I was supposed to have accumulated large quantities of wisdom by now, enough to luxuriate in it myself, and to dish it out to others, mainly to younger generations, who were, in turn, supposed to be interested in receiving it. To date this has not been worked out too well.  Last time I looked I was still not in possession of a lot of wisdom to dish out, and the younger generations were showing little interest in me bestowing any of it on them. 

It is true that I have acquired a few skills simply through living long enough. Living long enough has also led me to develop a certain age-related intuitions, a sort of sixth sense, which sometimes manages to impress younger friends and family members. ‘But how, how did you know this would happen?’, my daughters ask me whenever my intuition delivers the goods. 

Other than that, I have not got much to show for my five and a half decades on Earth. Perhaps now is a good time to start believing that it really is just a number and see how this turns out.

My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum

My Fair Lady is one of my all time top 5 films. Audrey Hepburn is one of my all time top five actresses.
English language is one of the top five passions of my life.

The current production of My Fair Lady at the London Coliseum was always going to be second best at the very best.

It is a perfectly ‘loverly’ and heart-warming, if not ground-breaking show.
Amara Okereke soars in her rendition of I Could Have Danced All Night, and delivers beautiful dulcet tones in all her other songs. For a devoted Downton Abbey fan, Lady Edith’s husband as Professor Higgins is a special treat.
The racing day costumes are divine.
Colonel Pickering is a darling old dear.
The orchestra is powerful and exhilarating.

But.

The demands of the largest London theatre auditorium might be a tad too much for Eliza’s dad’s vocal abilities. He also mumbles his lines, never a good thing to do on stage, but especially ironic in a play about language and the art of enunciation.

The Higgins house decor could have been made to look a little bit fresher.

The 2022 production could have made a bit more of an effort to update the content for present day audiences, to wink at them a little, but instead it is a faithful replica of the 1964 film, bar the very slight, not entirely convincing, deviation from the final scene.

Three stars from me.

Midsummer Robin

In the era of relentless 24/7 social media feeds, an ancient tradition of writing Christmas round robin letters to friends and family has become all but extinct.  

My own children, a mix of the Millennials and Gen Z, listened in disbelief when I told them about this once ubiquitous custom. 

Christmas round robin letters served one and one purpose only. Under a thin disguise of catching-up with long-time-no-see friends and relatives, it provided the author with a platform for unbridled brag fest. 

A typical round robin letter started with a catalogue of one’s offspring’s achievements, including exam results, musical grades, always passed with distinction, Ivy League university offers, and record-breaking sporting triumphs. The letter then moved on to one’s own career successes, only just falling short of providing the reader with salary details, and finished off with a list of long-haul holiday destinations. 

Once complete, the letter was inserted into a Christmas card, and posted off. 

Christmas cards, another item on the list of endangered inanimate objects, served mostly as seasonal heart emojis, unless, on opening, the neatly folded round robin fell out, in which case you knew you were minutes from finding out what a pathetic failure your own life was in comparison. 

In the pre-WhatsApp times, there was no easy way of muting round robin messages, except doing something so bad as to be taken off their authors’ Christmas card list. Literally. 

In the time of round robins’ peak popularity, I never got to write one, which felt a bit like always a bridesmaid, never a bride at the time. The simple reason was that I had nothing to boast about in the 1980s and early 1990s. My career was an eclectic mess of hits and misses without a clue or direction, and I did not have an offspring yet, so I was not able not live my life vicariously through them like I am doing now. 

Which brings me conveniently to today’s day. 

Today, I am going to take advantage of a long summer day to treat you all to a Midsummer Robin. I apologise if you feel ambushed right now, but since you’ve stayed with me all the way up this point, you might as well carry on reading. 

My first born got himself a paid job. Despite asking several times, I am still not entirely sure what the job entails, but it’s something to do with adapting a previous pauper and prostitutes’ burial place in Central London to modern urban community needs. 
We are all immensely proud of him. 

My second born completed her first year of university and was invited back in September to continue her studies. She had initially planned to work during her long summer holiday, but in the end opted for horse-riding in Spain instead.
We are all immensely proud of her.

My youngest child took part in an essay competition organised by the New College of Humanities and won first prize in the English Literature category, leaving thousands of other Year 12 essay writers behind. Such is the beauty of the internet, that you can all read her award-winning essay on the NCH website (https://www.nchlondon.ac.uk/pre-university-programmes/essay/essay-winners-2022/). 

Did I mention that we are all immensely proud of her? We are. 

All that is left for me to say now is, have a lovely summer break, Everybody. 

Theatre Goer of the Year!

As we age, we learn to live for rare and unexpected moments of joy and delight, and today I am delighted and overjoyed. 

Today, I woke up to the news that a good friend of mine was awarded a Theatre Goer of the Year trophy by a theatre foundation in her home town, Łódź, which happens to be where I come from too, but that is utterly incidental. 

Ilona has indisputably earned her award. She is fanatical about the theatre in question, she has seen all their shows many times over, she makes sure that all her friends, relatives, friends of relatives and relatives of friends go and see their each new production, she supported them in lockdown and continues to sing their praises repeatedly on social media. 

Larger than life and passionate by nature, she single-handedly does more for the theatre group than any PR company could hope to achieve.  

In her impromptu acceptance speech, Ilona said that the more accurate term for her level of devotion to the theatre would be Worshipper, rather than mere Theatre Goer. I agree with her.

The theatre is run by Kamil Maćkowiak, a man who had arrived in Łódź from Gdańsk many years ago and stayed. This was the first thing that endeared him to Ilona, who loves Łódź like very few people I know love Łódź 

Maćkowiak had proved to be the force of nature, and after initially working on the stages of other theatres in Łódź, he opened his own. With Ilona’s support, the sky is the limit for Maćkowiak and his team. 

Theatre Goer of the Year. Just imagine  theatres over here acknowledging their biggest fans with a mantelpiece ornament and a goody bag. Andrew Lloyd Webber shaking hands with Jonathan from Orpington for seeing Phantom 23 times, with an honourable  mention going to Ania Heasley from London for seeing Les Mis 9 times and counting, in regular intervals over the last 30 years. 

Those who know me might have noticed that I tend to judge my country of origin rather harshly, but on this occasion, well done Ilona, well done Poland, well done Łódź, and really well done Kamil Maćkowiak Foundation for giving credit where it is due.