As ever

For me, Christmas officially started last night. I can’t remember how many years I’ve been attending a seasonal performance of Handel’s Messiah; or how many years I’ve been inspired to write about it. Back in the day, when children were too old for the pantomimes that I never took them to, we went to Messiah. I think I might’ve been about four years old the last time I went to panto and, having been scarred for life, I never subjected my offspring to such puerile offerings. The poor deprived things had to wait for grandparents to take them. I think it was a long wait. Actually, they might still be waiting. Oh no they’re not.

I once had a thing for Oxford. In truth, I once had a thing for a man who lived in Oxford, but, like all the others, he faded into oblivion. But Oxford didn’t: happy days hunting the Snark in the Botanical Gardens; walking into random college chapels and listening to choirs; open-air Shakespeare above the Said Business School. Thus, for a while, Christmas wasn’t complete without a family trip to hear something culturally festive. The day comprised a visit to the Oxford indoor market to remark upon all the dead animals hanging from the exterior. Next, Debenhams of which the Oxford branch was always far superior to any other. Hot chocolate in the Turl and, finally, off to the cheap seats in the Sheldonian for the grand finale. Allelujah.

It was a bloody disaster. Barbara and I sat entranced and my children managed to get chewing gum stuck in someone’s coat collar and the whole row got involved in the removal of said gum. Everyone was too preoccupied to stand up for the chorus and the kids said they liked the Oxford trip thank you but could we please do something else in the evening. After that, we finished off our subsequent days out with attendance at Christchurch Chapel for the carol service, readings courtesy of Jean Marsh and Robert Hardy. Sadly, Robert Hardy is dead now and Jean Marsh, like the rest of us, is really old.

Latterly, via some ad hoc attempts at atmosphere, I’ve moved on to the Lighthouse in Poole where, each year, the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and Chorus do a turn. The venue isn’t pretty but the acoustics are wonderful. Generally, I go alone but, once again, Barbara was present. The chorus comprises 125 this year and there are no words to describe them. However, we were greatly distracted by the conductor, Laurence Cummings, who managed to play the harpsichord whilst simultaneously organising the orchestra and chorus.

Laurence is a flamboyant type. He’s also rather small. From the front, we both recognised him as Pierre, who once, in another life, ran a bed and breakfast joint in Provence. From the rear, jumping at the harpsichord, legs and arms waving, he was Elton John. Never has there been such an interpretation of Messiah. The normally staid crowd loved it, as did we.

And after, being old but happy, we avoided the throngs by taking a circuitous route and went smugly home for a cup of tea. Happy days.

 

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A new routine

It’s hard to grasp just how bitterly cold it was this morning. It was 2C. The temperature’s been lower on other days but not as cold if you know what I mean. There was something evil in today’s air. Something nasty and spiky that pierced the very bones and all but froze the blood. When I awoke at 6.15 to go swimming, the wind was howling and the rain was beating down. I thought about that pool for at least a nanosecond and snuggled back under the duvet. Swim on you masochists; I’m staying where I am.

There’s always a downside though: as it’s Monday, and as I didn’t swim, there was no escaping that shivering but insistent part of my wide-awake conscience with its mantra – you must exercise. And if you’ve missed your swimming window on a Monday, then you must return to the over-sixties fitness group.

I didn’t go last week. I don’t think I even bothered with an excuse. It was so excruciatingly awful the week before, I’d simply lost the will and stayed home to watch a jelly set. Speaking of which, I rather resemble a jelly myself. There seems to have been a surfeit of feasting lately and I missed out on swimming last week due to travelling east. So, I girded my loins which, according to Wikipedia, means ‘preparing for a dangerous situation’. That’s the one.

There weren’t many of us present today. Something to do with the arctic conditions I suppose. Wimps. If you want to be a die-hard, you might as well go somewhere that you know is odds on for dying hard. Janice and Ginny, who are the only two other normal ladies in the group, were present, faces set in stony resignation. ‘Feeling any better’, we ask Janice? ‘Not really’, she replies bitterly: ‘stiff as a board and aching all over’. ‘Doing anything nice for Christmas’, I venture kindly. ‘Not really. My son’s coming on Boxing Day if he can remember where I live’.

I don’t know whether it’s because there are so few of us, or because the instructor thinks we need our ancient body temperatures raised quickly, but the routine has changed. And not for the better. The so-called warming-up session lasts forever and is of little help to the terminally confused. We’re straight into one jump right and two jumps left; arms in front, arms behind, one arm up, two to the side. ‘Single’, shouts the instructor. ‘Double’, she shouts before any of us have mastered the first movement. ‘Treble’, shouts someone at the back hoping for a little continuity. To make matters worse, this week we are exercising to Christmas music of which there is only a limited repertoire. I hate Wham’s Last Christmas. When we finally slow down in order to deal with what were once the pelvic floor muscles, she plays Bing Crosby’s White Christmas. Everyone begins to enjoy a festive singalong but before we’ve even started a collective wave she decides the music is too slow. Wham make the first of several comebacks. The pelvic floor muscles can’t cope and there’s general rush towards the loos.

Next, we have to join hands and make a circle which is not de rigueur and causes much consternation. The giggly women on the left want nothing to do with the foul-faced women on the right. Holding hands is a step too far from their comfort zones but we manage it. The purpose of the circle is, of course, so that we don’t fall over during the balancing exercises that are forthcoming. The people to our right and left will support us. Well, that’s the theory but it requires more than a tentative touching of fingers ladies.

Actually, I quite like the circle. When we’re in our normal positions, we can only see the instructor because this is the only person we look at. In a circle, it’s possible to see how absolutely bloody useless everyone else is. There’s a woman opposite me who not only has no apparent clue of what’s required, or whether there’s any useful difference between left and right, it’s clearly obvious that she also has no idea of where she is or who any of these other people are. The lady next to her, who’s always immaculately made-up and wears designer-type exercise clothes, looks appalled. Ginny tells me this person didn’t come last week although she did spot her having a fag at the bus stop. Apparently, she looked very smart

The instructor instructs us to fetch something. Unfortunately, bloody George Michael is still moaning on about last Christmas so her words are drowned and no-one knows what it is we’re supposed to fetch. I look around in the hope of copying someone who has their hearing aids turned up. Sadly, all the other ladies are wandering about vaguely in slow motion. It’s like the senior version of Dawn of the Dead with no notion of who’s still alive. ‘MATS’, shouts the instructor. Oh, mats. Why didn’t you say? Time for a nice lay down after which she says, ‘roll over and get up smoothly’. Of all the instructions she gives, this is the most ridiculously ambitious. There isn’t a single person in the room who can either roll over or get up smoothly. We are like a school of beached whales, huffing and puffing, creaking and moaning, incapable of controlling our noisy bodily functions.

And just when you think it can’t get any worse, we are told to get in threes for the Gay Gordons. Janice suddenly remembers an urgent appointment with the dentist. ‘If I don’t see you next week, have a lovely Christmas’, she says. I think I know what Janice’s new year’s resolution is. I am with Ginny and a rather stony-faced woman in a shocking pink top. ‘I’m not sure what to do’, I mention. ‘Follow those three in front’, says Ginny. I look at those three in front who remind me of that old programme, Lost in Space.

‘I don’t want to be in the middle’, says Ginny. ‘You have to move on and dance with other people’. This seems to me to be a bit unsociable so I offer to go in the middle. I remember the Gay Gordons from school days so I’m happy to give it a whirl. Of course, not only do the lycra ladies cling together, so do the midgets (and if, in these politically correct times, we can still say ‘Gay Gordons’, then we can jolly well say midgets), or porgs (persons of restricted growth). Anyway, when I become the middle turn between two elderly porgs, I can see her rationale. It’s really difficult to go under-arm and round-the-houses with people who are two feet smaller than oneself.

And it’s the end. ‘I don’t like that pink woman’, says Ginny. And I don’t like Wham.

 

 

Travelling East (and back again )

At a time of year when we think of men with crowns from the east travelling westwards with gifts, I go in the opposite direction to a place not ventured to for a year. Lewes to be precise: a centre of anarchy where kings, and anyone else deeming themselves to be ‘in charge’, generally get burned. All those fiery crosses and blacked-up faces are a step too far for the uninitiated. I went there once on 5th November. I might as well have been in outer space for all I understood. Be very afraid.

I’ve been to stay with Bev. I haven’t seen her for ever and a day. Almost to the day. It’s taken us that long to get over the storm-spoiled, chicken-sitting trouble in Provence. I don’t take breakfast which is dangerous. Whether or not one gets any food at Bev’s is a lottery. After all, there was that business with lobster tails in the distant past. I might pass away from malnutrition. However, these days, things have improved greatly. Bev now has a selection of grandsons whom she looks after and there is food in the house; albeit, chopped and mashed. Bev has also changed beyond recognition: she is revitalised by the presence of all these charming small people. How very, very.

The plan, in as much as we two can ever make a plan, is a spot of culture. We are to travel some distance to see some rare frescoes in a Sussex church. This is England in December and the plan is instantly thwarted by the freezing elements. Thus, we must embark a shopathon. Splendid. Firstly, we visit somewhere or other below the Sussex downs. ‘Look for the elephant’, she says amongst the sparsely dressed trees. As ever, I have no idea what she’s talking about but, surprisingly, we find The Trading Post and it’s glorious. I make some purchases and secure a discount on the basis that I will mention them in my blog. They think I’m famous. Possibly not, but here I am keeping my word.

Bev pretends she can’t cook. Then she presents a roast beef dinner to die for. Actually, as I sink into my cosy bed, full of cow, I could die happily. But there’s shopping in Lewes to undertake the next day. To be honest, Lewes has let itself down with its Christmas decorations – there aren’t any. However, there is late night shopping. In Lewes, they only have one night of this and the whole town is out and about. My very favourite bit was the horses. Harvey’s Brewery still deliver their beer by drays and the enormous, beautiful, shiny black Shires were out in the street, amenable to petting by the masses. I’ll forgive Lewes the lack of decorations for where else can we be both spoiled by such animals and an archaeologist explaining all the wonderful local finds with such enthusiasm. And we bought all the gifts we didn’t even know we were searching for. I once wrote a Weasel entitled ‘Lewes is Lovely’ and it is. Odd, but lovely.

The next morning, the house is over-run with tiny folk. On my way in search of coffee, I inadvertently succeed in overloading the smallest with a Weetabix. Job done, I look around this Sussex war zone. It’s 9am and Bev is fighting to dress an 8 month old person. It’s time for me to leave. Returning westwards, I am, worryingly, stuck behind a Daish Holidays’ bus. Caliphate Coaches, have superseded camels. Who knows what gifts are on board? I am too afraid to comment further.

 

How to become dispirited

 Eldest daughter and I planned to have a stall each at a car boot in November. We are boot sale/charity shop/junk garage aficionados, thus we have a lot of suitable stuff to shift. Don’t get me wrong – we utilise a lot of our purchases but we have small houses and gardens so we have to get rid of some in order to make space for more. Our lives would be otherwise meaningless if we couldn’t seek a bargain. This ethos doesn’t run in the family: youngest daughter (a metropolitan type) claims ‘your houses are full of ‘stuff’. True. Father once mentioned that the garden looked like Steptoe’s yard. Not true. Mother is a closet bargain-seeker. She only chose her hairdresser because it’s two shops down from Julia’s House (which is an up-market charity shop).

So, we have all this ‘stuff’ but our aim was to add more interesting things to our junk: which is to say, all our craftwork, including mother’s patchwork goods, that we haven’t managed to palm off on unsuspecting friends. Anyway, November came and went without any action due to a combination of wet weather and competing commitments. The first Saturday in December seemed a good idea as folk would be in the Christmas spending mood. However, daughter number one had to go to work so the first piece of bad news was that I had to venture forward alone.

The alarm goes off at 5.15am. Having previously telephoned Wimborne Market, I learned that traders start queuing for a stall at 6.45 so I have to allow time to acclimatise to the still pitch blackness of a December morning. As I’m driving through the silent streets, willing myself to be positive, and spending all that lovely forthcoming cash in my mind, I wonder whether I’ll be first in the queue. Arriving at 6.40am I am directed to the back of a line of folk who surely must have been there all night. And here I sit for 45 minutes. What seemed to have been a relatively mild start i.e. not necessary to scrape the windscreen, the car becomes icy in a short space of time. The die-hard regulars further down the line have left their cars and vans to walk their bored dogs around the block and converse with a huge amount of jollity.

Suddenly, we’re allowed in and I am jostled into a space between two vehicles, next to a line of cones that are strapped together. No quick exit from here then. And it’s pandemonium as drivers leave their cars and frozen canines in a bid to see who can set up stall first. I’m not about to be rushed which is just as well as I can’t even open my brand new trestle table. The dealers are circling like anxious and irritated sharks. One of them is so desperate that she tries to prise open my table with a key. ‘Got any jewellery?’ NO. ‘Got any cameras?’ NO. I am already deflated as it’s only 7.30am and I can see money changing hands on nearby stalls. And it’s so cold.

Eventually, it calms down and we wait for the general public to arrive. The general public are a sensible bunch: they’re still in bed. We wait and we wait and we wait. Folk drift in and out and everyone else seems to be doing a roaring trade. But in what? Everyone around me seems to be selling nothing short of rubbish. My stall looks lovely. I know my stall looks lovely because other traders keep coming over and saying ‘you’ve got some lovely things’. Some of them even purchase some of my lovely things, but not much. Mother’s patchwork comes in for many accolades: ‘you tell your mum her quilts are lovely’, they say. But they don’t buy one. ‘They’re very cheap’, I encourage them. ‘Yes, it’s a shame after all that hard work’, they mumble as they walk away.

And just when you think life can’t get any worse, here’s some cheerful bastard who wants ten quid from you for the pleasure of using a freezing cold and empty market space. ‘What time does it all finish’ I ask him? I mean the market but the end of life could also be a hopeful interpretation. 12.30 apparently. I look at those cones and the nucleus of a plan is born. After considering the doubtless subsequent need to locate a toilet, I go to a near at hand stall for a cup of sweet black coffee. It’s very cheap, as indeed scalding black water should be. Sally arrives from her Dorset Homebrew emporium and asks whether I’d like to use their loo. I take my bird-framed mirror for Tony’s inspection. ‘Nah’, says Tony but lets me empty my frozen bladder in their icy loo. Sally, meanwhile, is left in charge. A new face, not so desolate, might be just what’s needed. And here’s Sally chatting away to a prospective punter. Has she sold anything? No, it’s just Sally chatting away.

I notice that the freezing dogs have been laid out on mats and covered with blankets. The woman from the next stall comes over for the second time. On the first occasion, she told me they were having a really good morning. This time, she gaily informs me that John’s just sold three books for forty-five quid. I hate John. A lady comes past pushing an empty wheelchair. ‘What you need’, I suggest, ‘is a nice lap quilt’. ‘No I don’t’, she angrily replies, ‘I’ve only got this thing because my son made me get it. I have no intention of sitting in it’.

By 11.30, I’ve had enough and pack up my stall. I don’t  normally feel the cold but today it’s all pervasive. Out of the corner of my icy eye, I can see the others, who mistakenly believe they’re my new friends, wondering how I’m to attempt an escape. Well, quite easily actually. I unwrap the strapping, remove one of the irritant cones to the other side of the roadway, drive over the detritus of prisoner–inducing restriction and, with heater blasting, I’m off back to my bed.

At some earlier point in time, I’d imagined myself eating a quick instant dinner after the morning’s tiresome exertions. It took some effort but there’s nothing like a home-cooked meal to restore the balance. As I write, a lovely bottle of Wolf Blas has reached the halfway mark. In the oven are roast parsnips and a liver & bacon casserole. There might be plums braised in sloe gin for pudding. On the bed is a pile of patchwork quilts which I’ll worry about another day.

 

Fit to drop

You know it’s Monday when you awake with a sense of dread. Why so, I hear you ask? You don’t go to work any longer, they say. No, these days, Monday mornings mean the over-sixties’ keep-fit class. It’s advertised as the over-fifties but, apart from the instructor, we comprise a decrepit bunch of relics whose combined ages probably exceeds a millennium.

It’s therapy: we go to remind ourselves that another week has started. We can’t remember where to go next, let alone the names of any of the other forty or so masochists present. Most of us have forgotten to have breakfast and by Wednesday we’ll have lost track of the days. And if we failed to notice that it’s pouring with rain, a strategically placed bowl has been positioned to catch the leakage in the community hall roof. Those to the right must (pretend to) march and grapevine and box-walk carefully to avoid said obstacle. Yes, it’s another day in paradise.

Obviously, greetings don’t involve the time honoured question ‘how are you?’ We’d be there all week describing various symptoms. Which isn’t to say we don’t make enquiries: ‘feeling any better?’ And, of course, everyone is thrilled to have made it through another week – ‘I really didn’t feel like coming this morning’; ‘it was hard work getting up today’. We queue up to pay our £4 subs and the room is filled with an air of bitterness. To be fair, the instructor remembers all of last week’s excuses: ‘how are your hips?;‘did the antibiotics work?’ how’s your father?’ ‘how’s your mother?’;‘how are your ankles?’ The questions are a bit tricky for those who’ve had to learn how to update ‘the dog ate my homework’ excuse. That was last week. Last week has gone, never to return. You have to possess some semblance of memory to be a good liar.

Eyes on the clock, we complete the warming-up exercises after which the woman next to me says she’s had enough and is going home. We’re allowed to pause for a sip of water and replenish our drips. Who’d have thought a plastic bottle of tap water could be of such importance.

It’s time for the pelvic floor muscle exercise. Having obtained the correct position, which involves holding in a tummy that generally precludes sight of one’s feet and would be better achieved with a winch, there are four parts to this activity most of which, from a distance, are difficult to recall. I think the first involves standing up straight and tightening the ‘abs’. I don’t know what the ‘abs’ are, let alone where they might be located. After this, we must relax. I’m good at this bit because I think it means letting it all back out again. Next, comes stage three. I’ve never really understood stage three so always speed on to the final part which seems to involve standing up straight again. Anyway, today, I finally discovered what stage three means. I think. Basically, you won’t understand this unless you’re female. And aged or pregnant. You know that squeeze you do to stop yourself peeing, well that’s stage three. That one that you can’t see other folk doing. Of course, it doesn’t work in a practical sense when you’re old otherwise Tenna Ladies’ wouldn’t have been invented: we’d all be standing in the Co-op squeezing bits that have lost their raison d’être happy as Larry.

After this, we fetch our mats and lay on the floor and I start yawning. It doesn’t matter what time of day it is, every time I lay down I want to go to sleep. Some folk are scattered around the water collecting bucket and there’s a hiatus whilst they discuss the weather and how wet they are. I spot some previously unseen liquid by the door but, apparently, someone has spilt their water bottle; or misplaced their umbrella; or forgotten their Tenna Ladies’. We stretch out and draw our legs up to our who knows what. If we feel like it, we can pull our chins up to meet our knees. Snores and farts join the drip, drip of the leaking roof.

And we always finish with a dance. Thankfully, that business with the scarves has been abandoned as has all that Indian nonsense. Today, we’re doing something that involves a hop, skip and a waving of arms. The instructor has her back to us so we can follow her steps more clearly. She is hopping and skipping and jumping like a demented banshee. Behind her, forty pensioners are standing still and waving their arms half-heartedly. And afterwards, we give ourselves a well-earned clap and rush to the loo

 

Remembering Derek

Time goes so quickly they all say. One of my more esoteric friends recently claimed the ‘energies have been rushing past’ since January. I don’t even know what this means. For some, time stands still. ‘Twas ever thus for the dead and often, sadly, for the bereaved. Especially those who left without warning.

On a dank November day, I visit Derek in deepest Dorset. It’s almost a year since he left. Someone has trimmed the grass so the original offerings are displayed more clearly: two model tractors and a solitary can of Guinness which, I suppose, are meant to define a lifetime. One or two forlorn messages that have withstood the worst the sea-blown weather can throw at them. My own contributions are a nod to the English seasons – one day I clear away the detritus of Spring-promising crocus; another time, I remove the summer roses. Last time, I took daffodil bulbs in readiness for another year. It all looked a bit desolate so, having washed out a redundant vase, I trudged along the perimeter, picking berries and teasels for an autumnal display that might withstand the elements.

Sometimes, I’m the only person in the grave-yard; on other occasions, older ladies, tending the graves of their loved ones, stop to speak. No-one cares who I am but, without exception, everyone has something to say about Derek. It’s important and gratifying. And after this, I always learn so much of the social history of Studland.

This little graveyard that overlooks a tiny sea, jammed with wrecks that link us to the rest of the world, is an unknown entity in the vastness of the Jurassic Coast. It’s a miniscule moment in the eclipsed time of protohistory and beyond. All sorts of stories linger here. Mine is a dot in the memories of those that passed a few tiny moments in Studland. It’s a very important dot because we were lucky enough to pass through history at the same time as Derek.

 

Out with the Hanwell ladies

The 4.40 to Brentford is rammed as I attempt embarkation at Clapham Junction. From the relative safety of Platform 5, I spot an empty seat which no-one is interested in claiming due, I assume, to the fear that they’ll never escape its confines and will be trapped upon the Waterloo loop at least until 10pm. Hundreds of us are crushed in the doorway: an amoebic mess of humanity gasping for air that defies the intrepid explorer, with only a small suitcase,  to venture further into the jungle of the condemned.

With not inconsiderable force, I gain a seat next to a small child whose pushy father is supervising her extra-curricula activities. This train carries the privately educated offspring of the wealthy classes into the leafy suburbs west of the city: Barnes, Chiswick, Kew and so forth. My tiny travelling companion is busy on her phone on which she has an app comprising the nearest thing she’s going to get to a game before her thirties. In her digital laboratory, she has to choose appropriate colours and activities that will change one element to another – pour the blue contents of a test-tube into the correct receptacle and voila, a liquid will become a gas. The reward will be gaining another informative square to her growing set. For tiny traveller is constructing the periodic table. Having discovered plutonium, she turns and smiles engagingly at me.

‘How old are you’, I demand?

‘Five’.

‘You are scarily clever’, I inform her.

‘Say thank-you to the nice pleb’, says papa.

At Barnes Bridge, most of the train’s cargo, including Marie Curie, fall out through the doors, and possibly into the river for all I know. Jane emerges from the adjacent carriage wherein she’s been entombed since a week last Tuesday.

Saturday sees the predominant reason for my visit and the highlight of the weekend. As a belated birthday gift, I am to be wined and dined aboard a narrow boat which will take us from Paddington Basin to Camden Town and back in three gastronomic hours. With due serendipity, this morning’s Daily Torygraph informs us that the trip, courtesy of the London Shell Company, currently ranks among the top ten eating experiences in our capital. Our set menu for today’s extravaganza comprises Lindisfarne Oyster & Mackeral Tartare with Angel Hair Fries, Crab with Watermelon Radish, Braised Cuttlefish with Mussels and Saffron Aioli, Blonde Ray Wing with Turnips, Black Cabbage and Caper Butter and Apple Streudel with Raspberry and Yoghurt Gelatto. No wonder it’s going to take us three hours and I haven’t even mentioned alcohol.

Naturally, given that the galley is the size of a wardrobe, there are long pauses between each delicious course whilst the crew regroup. However, during these times, we can venture forth to watch the passing scenery. I’ve written about this part of the canal elsewhere but today I learn that we’re passing the Sultan of Oman’s house, the garden of which is the second largest in London after Buckingham Palace. We’re also lucky enough to see some of the animals that live in Regents Park Zoo who were hiding the last time we ventured this way.

 

Obviously, we need to keep diving back in for more refreshment. As you can see, and as you might have deduced, the accommodation is cosy. No matter. We share our table with three Japanese tourists, two of whom speak no English. We thought you liked speaking with strangers, say my companions.

Those Hanwell ladies are the epitome of generosity. They also have high expectations in the ‘joining in’ department. Later that evening, when the day’s excitement might have proven sufficient for the Dorset contingent, we yomp on down to the allotments at The Fox for a bonfire and BBQ. You probably think we’d eaten enough for one day but, let me tell you, those hot dogs went down a treat.

Sunday, and it’s all aboard the Kew Gardens road train which, forthwith, will ever be known as the Unicorn Express. Or whatever the opposite of an express train is. From the start, driver Christine tells us that the ride will be bumpy. She also informs us of the certainty of being attacked by passing trees. After such cautionary warnings, both of which prove justifiable, Christine’s voice turns strangely soporific.

 

It’s as though, having dealt with the prosaic nastiness of life, she has fallen back into the world of the …………… unicorn. For Christine soothes the listener whilst simultaneously keeping us awake in anticipation of the last word in the sentence: ‘and through the bushes to your right, you will see the …………..unicorn’. ‘Said mythological creature adorns the gate which royal princesses used to access the gardens. ‘Nowadays, they mostly arrive through the main entrance by car but, in the once-upon-a-time days ……’ Christine trails off into her own world. ‘By what’, we shout. Tube? Bus? Unicorn?’

I duck to avoid a rampaging holly bush that’s attacking us via the glassless window. ‘We’re going to turn …………right’, says Christine. ‘When I come to this part’, she continues, ‘I always feel I’ve arrived in …….’ ‘Where, where’, we demand looking through the trees. ‘………… Narnia’, sighs Christine. Helplessly, we look around for wardrobes and lamp posts. An evil shrub attempts access to our carriage. ‘To your left’, intones the stoned engine driver, ‘is our largest …………’ tree? bush? flower? ………..’picnic table’. claims lunch-denied Christine.

Speaking of which – we have brought a small picnic with us. When this possibility was initially raised, sub-zero temperatures weren’t mentioned. We leave the train, not by the enormous picnic table upon which Aslan was slain, but to perch on a bench by the river overlooking Syon Park, the home of Ralph Percy, 12th Duke of Northumberland.

The sun was out when we arrived but it’s since disappeared behind a large black cloud. To take my mind off the all pervasive frostbite, I quietly study the amount of pickle in my friends’ sandwiches. I was allowed to add my own pickle to my sandwich this morning. Reader, this probably doesn’t seem such a big deal. However, I am staying in a house of kindness in which I’m allowed to do nothing. On being presented with the Branston jar, it was to garnish bread that had been sliced for me with geometric precision on which identical slices of cheese had been lovingly displayed. Thus, spooning out the pickle was a big deal; but not literally, as, obviously, I only took a polite scraping. I can’t help thinking I’ve missed a trick as I notice the abundance of pickle oozing out between their slices of bread.

Anyway, I’m spared the opportunity of commenting on the unequal distribution of pickle by the arrival of Edith and her husband. Edith wants to know whether that’s Syon Park across the river. Apparently the husband, who has now disappeared, told her it was. B & J, mouths crammed with Branston politely inform Edith that it is indeed Ralph Percy’s gaff. And that should be an end to it but Edith is like a bloody terrier and won’t clear off.

It should be blindingly obvious, even to the thickest of dimwits, even with the pickle disparity, that we are three friends on a bench having a private picnic. She’s asked the question, received an answer, described the overhanging cloud, obtained directions on how to get to Syon Park, now knows about opening times, told us where she lives, discovered the precise address of Jane’s sister and for all I know expanded on her views of globalisation and world poverty. I’ve stopped listening. I’m sat on the far end of the haemorrhide inducing bench and have devoured my sandwiches, a pork pie and a bottle of water before she finally toddles off into oblivion. Those two turn round and are surprised to see me without any lunch. ‘We thought you liked talking to strange people’, they say.

And later, there’s a delicious home-cooked roast chicken dinner, silly board games a tearful viewing of Tim and Pru, and early to bed. Thank-you dear ladies of Hanwell for a glorious weekend.