Monday, May 04: Of being Mutton and Jeff, Trusty Muckers and Manicheanism

Anna and I both have terrible nights. Her concerns and stresses have been troubling her and she’s exhausted again, poor thing, even before the day’s begun. I’ve had intermittent ache in the right testicle, which woke me up several times and worries me. Is it referred pain from the kidney? A signal that another of the attacks I’ve been dreading’s on the way? Just as I’m about to foreswear all pain-killers except paracetemol, in accordance with instructions given at my pre-op. And I can feel the effects of yesterday’s walk across the Common. We’ve been due for breakfast at the Bennetts, and Elena’s promised my favourites. But neither of us is in good enough shape and we don’t want to impose our downness. We very reluctantly cancel – Elena’s gracious as could be despite the fact that we’ve probably put her to a lot of wasted effort.

 

In due course, once we’ve managed to pull ourselves out of our lethargy, we head to Cafe Nero with Tara and Maddy. They tuck into breakfast treats, Anna picks at a yoghurt – but I have no appetite. In fact I feel sh**, both physically and emotionally. But the show has to go on, especially for our little girl, so I make the effort. Besides, the place has good associations for me. When Maddy was very little, we’d often come here and she’s marvel at the number of red buses coming every which way over the cross-roads. One of the very first songs I learned at Baby Rhymes, where we were regulars all through my three months of paternity leave, was

 

‘Big red bus! Big red bus! Mini, mini, mini and a big red bus!

Ferrari! Ferrari!

Mini, mini, mini and a big red bus!’

 

Those were the days. Now Maddy’s more interested in telling the numbers of the buses than their colour – when I can prise her away from her ‘people.’

 

Soon, Anna takes her off for a play-date with Rosa. Imogen’s driving them both to Kew Gardens, where they’re going to have a picnic with other relatives. This is a rare chance of a few uninterrupted hours for Anna to push on with her book, so I head home to prepare for the visit of my friends Caroline and Jim. I’d seen Jim only intermittently since we left Durham and Caroline just the once. But both got in touch after reading the review of my memoir in the Saturday Guardian. We met a couple of times at the tail-end of last year and seamlessly re-established the old rapport of forty years ago.

 

Exhausted, uncertain whether the latter’s actually coming (he later tells me he never looks at his phone!) I decide against adding to the spinach soup I made yesterday. It’s Bank Holiday – let’s go to Social Pantry, which will provide much tastier things than I can. Besides I want a break from being in the flat. Sometimes, of late, it’s been claustrophobic, the metronomic movement between Anna’s and ‘mine.’ I need to get out more. But even walking on the Common, it seems, is doing me in…

 

First to arrive is Jim Lander, with a bottle of Rosé. It’s really good to see him for the first time since December, though of late he’s been sending plenty of supportive, and sometimes hilarious, emails. He was on his year abroad when I first met him in Durham, where he tried to sell me a bike he didn’t own (Jim claims it was the other way round!) Anyway, whoever it belonged to, the incident  cemented our friendship.  He went back to California to do his PhD in Roman archaeology at UCLA but always felt more at home over here, so he took a job at an international school in Surrey, where he worked for thirty years.

 

Recently, demonstrating his versatility, he’s joined the staff of the Fleming Garden, associated with his school, to stave off the moment when he has to fully retire. His real passion remains history. In 2010, he published Lincoln and Darwin: Shared Visions of Race, Science and Religion, a bold and unexpected conjunction which demonstrates the originality of his thinking. Now he’s working on a book about the Château de Bosmelet in Normandy, the adventures during WWII of the Anglo-French couple who owned it, and the effects of the German occupation and their construction of a V-1 launch site on the château’s grounds. He also knows a hell of a lot about Israel / Palestine (we have very similar views) and British politics.

 

Jim - historian, wit and gardner
Jim – historian, wit and gardener

Aside from all that, I’ve always hugely admired Jim for the way he’s dealt with his haemophilia. As he puts it, he’s been ‘in denial’ for forty years and more and has steadfastly refused to let it interfere with his life. He’s a real example to me of courage and endurance – an embodiment of the idea of being ‘of the right kidney.’

 

I’m not drinking but I crack open Jim’s wine as the bell goes again. It’s Caroline Pick, come to catch up and to take the photos for my ‘head.’ Caroline was an extremely talented exponent of the ‘plastic arts’ when I knew her at Durham, as well as being one of the university’s pre-eminent beauties. After Durham, she returned to Leicestershire, raised a family, ran the local Arts Centre, continued her own practice, and – like Jim – really got into gardening.

 

Both Caroline and Jim have of late become a little hard of hearing. As she puts it in an email, I’ll be having lunch with two ‘deaf gardeners.’ As my voice grows weaker and weaker, this promises to be fun. Two people with hearing difficulties and one who can’t make himself heard!

 

But we have a lovely lunch at Social Pantry. There’s a lot of talk about Thursday’s election and what’s wrong with British politics (sorry!). Both are very perceptive about the predicament we’re facing – we’re agreed it’s the most important election for a generation. Not just British politics. We discuss the Mediterranean migrants, another boat-load of whom have just drowned. If you think this is getting bad, I observe, just wait until Climate Change really kicks in. They’ll be coming not in their thousands every week, but tens of thousands, even more. But we also chat openly and easily about our lives and what’s going on, my illness, Jim’s anticipated move down to Somerset, Caroline’s kids – and gardening!

 

Later, when Jim’s headed for the station, Caroline comes back to ‘mine’ and starts photographing me. Every angle – top and bottom of the head, a range of expressions. I plead with her to keep the wrinkles, but iron out the signs of illness. Can’t wait to see what she makes of me, forty years on from her last ‘head,’ when I was in my pomp. I ask her to send me some of the pictures she took – my friend Janice has demanded to see the ‘wedding haircut.’

 

Caroline - sculptor gardener - and guardian of the elixir of youth
Caroline – sculptor, gardener – and guardian of the elixir of youth

After the appalling night, and the excitement of a long lunch, I’m pretty wiped out and loll around the flat, listening to some of the music that Richard and Jonathon have burned for me. In the early evening, Caroline sends some pictures. I’m truly appalled. Do I really look like that? I guess I do. I’ve never seen myself so ill and worn. Caroline has a lot of ironing out to do if she’s to hide all that. But, as usual in this topsy-turvy Manichean world I now inhabit, bad’s followed immediately by good. A message comes from my lovely Mexican friend, Gabriela, with whom Anna, Maddy and I stayed in Mexico City in December 2013, on our way home from our three-month stint in New Orleans. They were due to fly straight to Barcelona, where Gabriel’s husband Santiago has a residency (he’s a very talented artist) in early July. Now because of my illness, they’ve changed their arrangements, diverting through London for four days, so they can come visit. Caramba! With Ames here, this place may have to be renamed the Madhouse Hotel (boutique, of course!)

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