Suit of d’Amour

Chapter 2

The Dress

 

“Oh my gawd,” said the Duchess of Sussex in her dressing room, “I’m so flaming fat, now I’m up the duff.”  Her Ladies in Waiting, looked at one another, pausing to see who was going to reply.  They deferred, to Chief Lady in Waiting, Lady Isabella Chessington-World, who nodded sympathetically, saying, “Perhaps, you’d like to try a different dress, ma’am?”  Darker colours are obviously most flattering on us all. 

 

“Do you think I look like a bloomin’ iceberg?”  The Duchess  continued, pulling at the white ankle-length dress she was wearing. 

“No, ma’am,’” came the muted assurances of the Ladies. 

“But I do think Isabella has a good point,’ piped up Lady Green Von Gables, “This one is very beautiful on you and it’s Harry’s favourite colour.”  There was a understated urgency in her voice, that was barely detectable, to one outside the intimate royal circle.  The fact that it was detectable at all, meant something was severely amiss, amongst the Ladies.  Surrounding the duchess, they eyed each other uneasily.

“Oh, would you Adam and Eve it?  Not more flaming khaki?” the Duchess sighed.  This time there was a noticeably enthusiastic response from the Ladies.  Gushing words in flattery of the mud-green dress (Primani Couture) and excited requests for the Duchess to try it on.  “Nah, you’re alright,” the Duchess continue, “I’m not getting changed, I’ll just wear this.”

The ladies didn’t respond.

Lady Isabella broke the silence, “I’ll get us all some juice, it’s awfully stuffy in here.”

“Luverly.” Replied the Duchess, not noticing the ice-like undertone, in Lady Isabella’s voice.  The other ladies suddenly found things-to-do, there was an unease in the room, that only the Duchess was oblivious to.

“I was thinking of carrying a small bunch of flowers” she continued musing out loud, and maybe wearing a little thingy on my head, a little “Markle-sparkle, as they used to say.” She laughed, alone.

Lady Isabella clapped her hands and Peggy, the Duchess’ maid, appeared.  “I’ve brought the blackcurrant juice, m’Lady Isabelle”, she said nervously. 

 

“Put it over there.” Directed Isabella, nodding towards a side table, on the opposite side of the room.  Peggy walked over and as she passed Isabella, something caught her ankle, for the life of her she could have sworn it was as if she was tripped, although obviously, that was not the case and she, the “clumsy fool of a girl” (as Lady Isabella had rightly shouted at her, many times in the past) lurched towards Meghan, the huge jug of blackcurrant juice tipped and the glasses fell.  They were only saved from breaking by the extra deep pile of the khaki polypropylene carpet, Prince Harry had insisted on, for Meghan’s dressing room.  To Peggy’s horror, the juice splashed across the front of Her Highness’ full-length white gown.  Peggy looked up from the floor, now prostrated at Princess Meghan’s feet.  “What da fuck?” Shouted Her Highness. 

 

To Peggy’s surprise, the Ladies were incredibly nice about it.  In hindsight, the nicest they’d ever been.  They rushed forward, helping her up and asking if she was alright, ever-so-sweetly laughing it off.  They even collected the glasses and ice onto the tray, before she had a chance to, still assuring her not to worry.  Even Lady Isabella told her not to blame herself, saying “accidents happen”, with a kindness she’d never seen before.  Peggy went slowly back down to the kitchen to tell Cook, what she’d done (knowing, Cook’s tongue would be more painful than the carpet burns she was enduring).  She was feeling terribly guilty, not just about the dress, but also about all the nasty things she’d thought about Lady Isabella in the past. She stayed out of the way until the ladies swept down the grand staircase and out in the big black cars, to attend Princess Eugine’s wedding in Windsor, later that day.  HH Meghan, had changed in a loose-fitting khaki dress (Georgio D”Asda – home delivery item).  “She looks lovely in everything.” thought Peggy, as she watched them go.

 

Later Peggy took the white dress to the Royal Dry Cleaner and arranged for it to be made as-good-as-new.  Mr Dyson, the Royal Commissioner for Cleaning, kindly agreed that Peggy could make weekly payments, until the balance was cleared.

 

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Suit of d’Amour

23 May, 2018

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Chapter I


HRH The Duchess of Sussex, as she was known to her close family, walked gracefully down the stairs, two small page-boys awkwardly tried to managed the long train of her dress, giggling as they tried to untangle it from the bannisters without actually falling onto her, resisting the temptation to sit on it and slide down behind her.  Harry look up from the cereal box he’d been studying and smiled as she came into the kitchen.  She’s so unique, he thought, not at all like the girls he’d dated before; he watched her serenely glide across the Amtico marble floor of Nottingham Cottage.  As a child, Meghan never imagined that all those hours practicing the moon-walk at the Widdecombe School of Dance, in Compton, would one day prove to be so valuable to her.  How wonderful it would be she thought, for portly, old Mrs Widdecombe to see her now, a Duchess.  Her mind wandered for a moment, and she daydreamed of a reunion, with her patiently waiting for old Mrs Widdecome to rise from a low curtsy and kiss her hand.   She joined Harry at the breakfast bar and perched, light as a feather, on one of the sophisticated high bar stools and leaned in next to him, almost head to head.   (The stools had been a wedding gift from the people of The Federal Republic of Germany; luxury hi-shine chrome and leather-look seats, by top German designer, Aldi von Lidl).   The page-boys arrived at the doorway, kicking the train, now a giant satiny football shaped thing, realising they had almost caught up with the Duchess, they stopped tussling, abruptly and sat down, cross legged on the floor and waited patiently; (for about three mili-seconds, then they picked pearls off the satin train and flicked them at each other).

“Hot wet?” Asked Harry.

“Harry!  Your nephews are over there.” * Whispered Meghan, blushing.

“Um, it means, do you want a cup of tea, that’s how Marines say it”, replied Harry earnestly.  “Come on Megs, I taught you all the Marines lingo on our first ever date, when we took that wonderful drive from Toronto to Ottawa to see the Canadian National War Memorial.  That particular cenotaph, “The Response” as it’s known, is one of my most favourite war memorials in the world.  It was so special for me, that we both shared a love of war memorials.  That’s when I knew, we were soulmates.

“Oh, yes, of course, I totally remember, that’s the one your Great Grandfather unveiled in 1939?”*  She blushed even redder at the thought that she had let him down, by forgetting one of his fascinating military facts.  “Yes, a cuppa hot, wet tea would be delightful.” Replied Meghan, lying.  She had learned to refuse coffee at breakfast, she was British now – another one of huge sacrifices she had made to marry into Harry’s family.  She’d sacrificed most of her own family, when she got engaged; something she was surprised to find the inner Royal family completely understood, and if anything, looked upon as a very promising quality in her.


  • The “nephews” were in fact no longer “over there”.  They’d snuck away at the first opportunity, back through the maze of corridors and courtyards to a small apartment, hidden, somewhere inconsequential, in the outermost walls of Kensington Palace.  They were, at that precise moment, tucking into a proper boys breakfast of cheap sugary cereal with (lashings of) milk.  Whilst fighting one another for the collectible toy solider in the cereal box, they also levied a joint complaint at their mother*, for making them carry long bit of girls’ dresses around for days on end. 

    * Their mother, Lady Nerissa Chelmsworthy, had at one time been a lady-in-waiting to the Duchess of Cornwall.  Nerissa  sought companionship in the stables with one of the queen’s footmen, Mr Darren Graves, of Southend.  The happy marriage that ensued, had led to a downgrading of her ladyship’s title, as is the custom, dropping “Lady”, to become The Hon. Mrs Nerissa Graves;  and subsequently, a downgrading of her roles within the royal household – basically from top job, to dogsbody.  She was now called upon to help out, when there was no-one else; such as when the Duchess of Sussex required a couple of twin page-boys for her long dresses.  The Hon. Mrs Nerissa Graves, was perfectly happy with her choices in life, she and Darren lived happy simple lives, in the heart of Kensington.  Being overlooked by the Royal family brought freedoms she had never known, if she kept her head down, she kept her free home, hidden somewhere within the warren of Kensington Palace.

  • **

      She may at this time have been checking her phone for messages, or even for the weather updates for London (cloudy).  She was absolutely not, in any way, looking up facts on military memorials in Canada and relaying that information to her husband, through the guise of a casual conversation.


Right in the centre of Kensington Palace, in a sprawling apartment with huge windows, Prince William was sitting down to breakfast, with HRH Katherine-the-Great-Mother, and her Royal Children.  (William had been told the children’s names several times by Katherine – when he was pretending to listen to her.  Luckily, his super-spider-senses alerted him that he’d be in trouble, if he dared ask her again.  One time, he’d tried to catch onto what other people called them, but the courtiers had all laughed hard when he called his son, “Your Highness”.   His super-spider-senses immediately sensed something had gone wrong, and he joined in laughing with them, as if he’d deliberately made a joke, about something).

Katherine-The-Great-Mother, put the box of Duchy Organic buckwheat and rye cereal on the table; no one reached for it.  The butler, Stevens, stood beside her with an elaborate crystal punch bowl of chopped fruit.  “Wills, would you like fruit or cereal?”  Katherine asked.

“Neither.” He replied in his ‘unhappy voice’, deliberately putting on his ‘unhappy face’.

“Wills, we need to eat fruit as an example to the children and Duchy products because your Father checks.”  She reminded him with gentle firmness.

“I want the other box”, he said sulkily.  “Not this rubbish, I wouldn’t feed my worst polo pony this stuff, unless I wanted to put it down.”

“Yes, Daddy’s right, it even killed Grandpa’s fish.” Pipped up the small blond boy, sitting next to William.  (Unbeknownst to William, his name was Prince George) “Grandpa’s big golden carp hated it, we fed them some, just before they died, didn’t we Nanny?” ***

Katherine stared at innocent Prince George and then up at his nanny, Kitty Ashby-de-la-Zouch, standing behind him.  Kitty stared back, wide-eyed, wishing she’d drowned in the pool, alongside the carp.  For a fraction of a second, her hand twitched almost imperceptibly, as she mentally considered stuffing down some Duchy cereal, in place of a cyanid pill.


*** .

The four Golden Koi Carp had ranked amongst Prince Charles’ closest friends.  He confided in them on a daily basis, since they’d arrived in the palace pond in 1975.  The shock of finding them floating upside-down on a crisp January morning, still haunted him.  He missed them so much, there were so many things he’d wanted to tell them; they’d never know about Harry’s wedding, about the new eco plantation on the Duchy estate or how wonderful his 70th birthday party was.  The fish had been an honorary gift to the Queen, from her ceremonial trip to Japan in 1975.  The visit had been an attempt at thawing the icy relationship between the communist, People’s Republic of Japan, (who had relatively recently removed all of their own monarch’s powers with the Constitution for the People’s Republic.  This was actually extending the precedent set by the allies, at the end of the WWII, who required Prince Hirahito to admit on National Radio to the Japanese people that he was not ordained by god to lead them.  Obviously, every Japanese man, woman and infant could see through this piece of brilliant political manoeuvring and remained faithful to their Emporer in their hearts).

Prince Phillip had initially been banned from going on the trip to Japan, after he’d vowed to “finish that murdering bastard Prince Hirohito off with my own bare hands, so-help-me-god”, in one of the tour briefings.  The atrocities of the Japanese POW camps were still scarred into British collective memory; and the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, had left a gaping hole in Japanese esteem.  Unbeknownst to the British, the treasured carp gift had been the basis of an elaborate insult.  The number four being synonymous with “suffering” in Japanese culture and never normally used in a present.  The carp themselves, most often glorified for their properties of love and beauty, were also less well known, as a symbol of fighting.  “She’s carping-on”, was how the Japanese military translators succinctly summarised every one of the Queens speeches during her visit.  Instead of verbatim translations for their dignitries, they delivered running commentaries on the rise of the young sumo prodigy, Yokozuna Mienoumi, through the various bouts he fought, eventually winning his first successful makuuchi tournament.  The smiling faces and goodwill, the Queen’s party encountered throughout the tour, were due to the large amounts of Yen being collected by Japanese dignitaries, on black market gambling and the amount of celebratory Sake they discretely consumed in tea cups.  The British considered the trip an unprecedented success.


“Hmph.”  Someone made a discrete cough next to Katherine, Stevens said, “Would you Highness prefer Krispy Sugar Flakes for breakfast this morning?”  Katherine shot him a look that could kill, but Stevens was immune to outside influences, steady as a rock, he was able to preserve with the unshakeable hand of silver service, completely unfazed by events around him.   Stevens had served the Prince since being assigned to him as a small child.  Adept at completing tricky time consuming things for him, like tying his shoe laces, unpacking his clothes and passing his helicopter pilot’s licence.

Stephens’ unfazability was an innate skill, very much sought after in children of the lower classes, by the inhabitants of the “Great Houses”.  The “gift”, had come down the generations, it was in his DNA.  Notably, his great, great grandfather had been butler to General, Sir George Pomeroy Colley, throughout his illustrious career.  During the Battle of Ingogo (1881, KwaZulu-Natal) in the First Boer War, he had held an umbrella over Gen. Colley during the rainstorm that change the outcome in favour of the British.  The commemorative painting “British Victory over the Afrikaners at Ingogo.  Her Majesty’s soldiers advance in a retrograde direction from Boers, under cover of a violent rainstorm sent to save them from imminent slaughter, by the direct hand of intervention, of the Lord Christ”; was only completed by the General during the battle, because of the steady hand-on-brolly of his butler, Stevens, protecting the wet canvas from the beating rain.  The original picture still hangs in the National Gallery, celebrating the only victory during the entire war, attributed to the British.  A faded print of said oil on canvas, hangs in a wonky clip-frame, in the corridors beneath stairs, of every stately home in the country.  An important reminder staff that there are no limits to selfless service (or time off, should the Masters or Mistresses, need something).

“Yes please, I love Krispy Sugary Flakes” Will looked up at Stevens with new found enthusiasm,  “How did you know, they were my favourites?” Stevens didn’t reply with words, he was already holding a silver tray with a brand new box of Krispy Sugar Flakes on it.  “Would Your Highness like to find the embedded toy solider, or should I locate it?”

“I want to find it”, exclaimed the blond boy next to William, “Can I?  Can I please?”  William immediately dropped his head and went back to his unhappy face.  Stevens popped a little green figurine in the middle of a white bowl edged with silver, he moved his silver tray forward towards the table, the little boy reach to take the bowl with his short pudgy arms.  Bypassing the child’s outstretched arms, Stevens placed the bowl silently on the crisp, white tablecloth in front of William.  The blond boy’s face crumpled, William however brightened up immediately.  Picking up the toy solider, he marched him around the breakfast table, pretending it was trying to shoot little Prince George from the top of the spoon, then from behind the milk jug etc. The boy’s bottom lip started quivering and his eyes filled with tears.  Katherine waved her arm, indicating the rest of the staff should swoop in and serve fruit and cereal to the children.  Then she retired to her private dressing room, saying she could feel “one-of-her-heads-coming-on”.  She lay on the chaise lounge and called her sister, Pippa, and sobbed heavy tears on the phone about how exhausted she was doing-it-all alone, with no help from Wills.  Two of her ladies-in-waiting removed her shoes and massaged the reflexology points for headaches.

Harry dropped a hexane fuel block into the base of the Crusader cooker on the kitchen worktop.   Using his pocket fire-steel, he deftly lit the block, then fitted the cup of water to the base.

“I could just turn on the water-boiling-kettley-thing, if it’s easier, Harry?” said Meghan.

“No way, Megs,” he replied.  “You’ll never make a hoofing cup of char, using one of those gopping kettles.”

“Yes. You’re. So. Right” Replied Meghan, convincingly.  It was a line she’d been taught to use when she had no idea what was being said.  Her coach, through the complex minefield of royal decorum, etiquette and protocols befitting a Duchess, was the highly regarded Madame Cholet; founder of the famous Swiss Finishing School For Feminists, in San Morizt.  (Formerly known as, “L’Institut Attraper Un Gars Riche”).  Harry pottered about making the tea, still wearing the army fatigues and headband he loved to sleep in, Meghan unconsciously twiddled a small green plastic figure between her fingers, dropping it onto the worktop.  He turned to her, holding a Royal Wedding souvenir mug of tea with both their smiling faces emblazened on it; (there’d been a few left over),  she smiled lovingly up at him, he wasn’t smiling any more.  There was a darkness in his expression she’d never seen before, “Harry, is everything ok?” She asked.  He made no reply, his eyes fixed on the toy solider, lying on it’s back on the counter.  “Harry?  Harry can you hear me?” She asked again, concern now rising in her voice.  But Harry couldn’t hear her, the small toy solider had transported him to another place.  Suddenly, he sprung to life, throwing the mug violently at the wall, Meghan screamed as a fountain of hot tea rose up into the air, landing predominantly over the “Tejn”, faux sheepskin rug (a wedding gift from King Carl XVI Gustaf, of Sweden, chosen by the Trade Ambassador for Ikea).  Then Harry ran, he leapt over the back of the sofa, through the hall and  disappeared out, across the courtyard.  Meghan stared through the now open, front door; which slowly began to swing back towards the house, screaming with centuries of rust.

50 Shades Darker

19 June, 2017

I found myself sobbing, heavy, quiet tears, through deep, rasping breaths.  Crying that doesn’t want the comfort of strangers, in a very public place.

It had all begun with a routine appointment; a nil-by-mouth, we-lost-you in-the-system, sorry you’ve been here for a few extra hours scenario.  When the doctor finally arrived, he was one of those doctor demigods, who has gone into medicine purely to save the hopes, dreams of ordinary women, like me.  We chatted, well he chatted, while I silently worried about the procedure, and he gently talked me into it.  It was sort of our first date.

A few minutes later I was on the bed, deep throating a hosepipe, he was pushing down my oesophagus.   Choking and gagging in a very un-Linda Lovelace way, I thought, why-oh-why do I always go for the wrong men.  We’d neglected to establish a “safe” word, to halt the rough play, I tried to introduce one – a little too late.  As I had a strap round my head holding a mouth guard in place and a tube down my throat, I wasn’t able to communicate using words like, “stop” or “psychopath”, instead I used sort of continuous retching, choking noise.  Dr Christian Grey, intuitive as he was, got the message.  He paused his delivery to try and soft-talk me into playing-on.

“The worst is over.” he said.  I glanced at the long length of hose in his hands, I wasn’t entirely sure I could trust him.  The pause was shattered by a mutiny.  My head said breathe, follow his instructions, try to be a good girl about this;  but my body decided otherwise.  Gripped by an innate desire to continue both living and breathing, my hands reached up completely independently and ripped the hose out of my body.  Suddenly it was over, I sat hyperventilating on the bed.  Dr Christian Grey was ever-so-nice about it, and of course, I apologised profusely. He stood in front of me, with his gentle strength, pondering our situation.  Then in his soft Australian lilt, he said,
“I guess we’ll have to sedate you next time, so we may as well do a colonoscopy at the same time.”  My body was electric with shock, he was already escalating, planning his next perverted scheme; to drug me and shove that hose up my arse as well as down my throat.  Horrified, I mustered all the fake enthusiasm I had and replied,  “Yes, of course.”  I’d realised I had to act compliant, f I was going to get out of this date alive.  If I could only convince him I’d return, then he might just set me free.  It was a long shot, but my only chance of surviving.

Luckily, I’d had private drama classes at prep school and my mind flashed back to the time I won a joint silver medal, at the Cheltenham Literature Festival, for my interpretation of “Shop keeper conversing with Paddington Bear”.  It was a duologue, where Paddington was played, I remember, by the utterly un-bear-able Samantha Asti-Spumanti.  She was given the most extraordinarily positive review in the school newsletter that week. While my part of a “working man in a shop”, was barely mentioned; despite the many gruelling hours I spent teaching myself a convincing northern accent – “Hay up! By gum.”  Even Nanny said it was utterly unfair and that I was far the best on stage, and had my parents come along, they would have absolutely agreed and not even recognised me at all, until they had looked in the programme to double-check the names.

All the memories of those days on stage came flooding back, they would be tested to the full in my escape plan.  Acting as convincingly as I could, I said, “Hay up!  I reckon I’ll be back next week for reel of hose pipe up me jacksee”.  I held my breath as he stared at me, his beautiful brow creased slightly; I could see I had thrown him into a state of confusion. He was obviously trying to decide if he could trust me to return.  Then he smiled  gently and motioned to the door.  I walked towards it, wishing I could run.  He pressed the green release button and freedom opened in front of me.  Still acting as normally as possible, I said,  “Hay up! I’ve had a right fantastic time with thou hose pipe.” and with a polite, “Thanking thee.” I left.   Only when I heard the door close behind me, did I start rushing through a labyrinth of endless passageways, until finally I found myself on the main corridor of the hospital and in the safety of a busy public place.  I slumped onto a chair,  panic and relief simultaneously rushing through my body.  I took rasping breaths –  part panic, part checking there was no residual bits of hosepipe in my oesophagus, and I sobbed uncontrollably.  No one stopped.  I didn’t want them to, I didn’t want to explain that nothing much had happened, that I was just over-reacting to an everyday procedure.  Instead, I took comfort from the fact that crying so soulfully in a hospital corridor, made it look like my grandpa had just died.  “Routine medical negligence”,  passers-by thought, as they walked to their appointments, “Fifty shades darker.”  I replied in my head.

 

So our cat, Bugsy, got traumatised and ran away in late June.  It was my fault, I’d taken him down the road-to-hell-paved-with-good-intentions, to the local vets, he never recovered.  Once he got out of there (alive), he legged it and was only ever heard of behind distant neighbourhood fences, from that time on.   Fact of the matter is, I was as traumatised as him.  First of all, watching him held down having his fur shaved off for a blood test, then paying for the bloody, blood test.  Bad so far, but not a patch on what was to come, I was given an estimated price for his ongoing treatment; a thyroid  operation at roughly £20,000 ( in used dollar bills).  Then a price for his rotting teeth to be replaced with a gleaming Hollywood smile (£1m in uncut Angolan diamonds).  I left the building trying to evaluate exactly how much that cat meant to me and to the kids.  I called my Mother, the animal lover,  about it hoping she’d transfer her £2 a month donation from the PDSA into my own “save the cat” fund.  Unfortunately, last time she’d petted him she’d got bitten by fleas, so her kindly suggestion was that I have him put down – for his own good.

Image result for evil vet black cat

By the time we returned from our summer holiday, in September, there had been only one sighting of him in 9 weeks,  I told the kids he must have found another family and totally dumped us.  Asha was particularly sad, as Bugsy used to sleep with him most nights.  My Mother asked if we’d seen him since we got back, and kindly advised me that cats often disappear when they’re going to die, apparently, they prefer to die alone, she said. I tried to remind her that he had a thyroid problem, not pancreatic cancer, but she wasn’t having any of it.  Then she helpfully reminisced on all of the pets she’d had since childhood (she’s 90), and told me how each one had died.

Uncharacteristically, I was hanging laundry on the line on a sunny mid-September day, when I looked over to the long grass at the side of the garden.  Technically this long grass was once the lawn, but Sami can skim valuable seconds off his grass cutting chore by letting the edges encroach.  I could see a black thing curled up in the sun in the long grass.  I left the laundry and went over to it, a skinny, visibly ill cat woke up and tried to stand on very shaky legs.   I almost didn’t recognise it as Bugsy it was so weak, not the killer beast I’d been so used to.  I hadn’t realised rotting teeth mean death to a cat that can’t eat the lickle creatures it catches.  But he had the tell-tale shaved fur patch that the vet had inflicted on him.  So the kids and I began to feed him small amounts, round the clock. Friends helped out when I was at work.  My mother advised me if he didn’t gain weight, then I should have him put down, for his own sake.  But he fought for life and each day I saw an improvement in him.  My son Asha, was upset that the cat didn’t know him anymore, wouldn’t come in the house or let him play with him.  I tried to explain that starvation affects the brain and he would need to rebuild his trust with us, after all, how could Bugsy understand why we’d abandoned him.  I felt like taking him to an animal shelter, he was one of those typical abused animals, who will come for food, but is totally wary of humans.  Except, this abused animal was mine and I’d abused him.  I found myself at the back door in the middle of the night, worrying about him and calling him in, but he never came to me.  After a couple of weeks, he’d made good progress physically and he was coming right up to the back door to be fed, although he still wouldn’t come in.

One morning, I opened the door to feed him and found another cat, sitting on the step next to him.  They were exactly the same in colouring, equally black, but the new one was a huge, confident, regal cat.  I looked from one to the other, again and again.  Then, to that enormous Prince of Cats, with the shiny fur, staring up at me as if he owned the house, I said,  “Where the fucking hell have you been, Bugsy?”

Bugsy meowed a simple, “Fuck you” in response and wandered past me to Asha’s loving arms.

 

Radha Kund

13 May, 2016

“Hey Hari, a really great thing happened.” it’s my boss, Shaunaka, in my office.   When he says, a-really-great-thing-happened, it could mean absolutely anything.  Perhaps there has been an EU turnabout on some policy that he has orchestrated (and I have organised) across fifteen member states, a lottery grant for a few million pounds (which I will manage), perhaps lunch with the Dalai Lama (which I won’t be invited to); or he might have found a new second-hand rug in the antiques market.  He likes rugs.  He used to design carpets and custom-made silk rugs, in his own individual celtic designs, beautiful knots, emblems and crosses of old family trees.  I often wondered what those carpets looked like in real life, not through Shaunaka’s colour blindness, the pinks he saw as beige, the blues he mis-read for green.  I bet his customers showed them off to their expensive friends as one of those technicoloured “designer” items, while he believed he was delivering something subtle and muted.

This day, and this was many years ago when I was young and enthusiastic, someone had sourced some Sanskrit volumes for the library, a really great thing has happened.

“So, someone reliable needs to go and collect them.”  He says smiling.  “From India.”

“Great, we know lots of people in India who could do that.” I reply with casual disinterest.  Shaunaka is the Director of a graduate centre for Hinduism at Oxford, he knows a lot of people in India.

“Aren’t you going on holiday to India, this week?” He replies.

“Nope.” My comeback is emphatic, “I lied about that, I’m really spending three weeks at home decorating my house.”

“Ok,” he pauses, “Just that you don’t have a house.”

“Yeah, well, I might get one.”

Ignoring any idea that I might not want to do this, he continues, “So, there’s a sadhu who wouldn’t part with the books for years and now we’ve had a message, he has agreed to talk to us.”
“Okay, a sadhu.”   I repeat slowly.  A sadhu is a holy man, a renunciate.  Any genuine sadhu will not mix with a young western women.  This is not the world of Maharishis with money, cars and that ilk.  This is the world of deliberate material rejection and spiritual attainment.

“He lives in a hut. Next to a Tulasi grove behind Radha Kunda”

“Are you serious?”   I am serious now.  I am not questioning his vague directions on how I find an old man,  three thousand miles away, who probably hasn’t ever seen a landline, let alone a mobile phone.  I know exactly where Radha Kunda is and what that means.   In India, there are a billion significant places of worship, from palatial temples to a tree stump on a filthy path, the place is alive with belief and superstition.   Of these billions of places, there are a few universally recognised holy places.  And a small place called Vrindavana is one of the most sacred.  Only 40 miles west from the Taj Mahal, but well off the tourist map, or off the western tourist’s map at least.  A place of pilgrimage for hundreds of thousands of visitors, the birthplace of the Hindu god Krishna.  Within the district of Vrindavana, is Goverdhan Hill, a place so holy that pilgrims may even travel through it by what is called “dandavats parikrama”.  This means that they will lie down fully with arms outstretched forwards and pray (dandavats), moving along the pilgrim path in these single body length motions of prayer, instead of walking.  These are the lightweights; the serious devotees have a pile of stones next to them and will lie down 108 times in body lengths of prayer, dropping a stone from their finger tips each time to mark how many they’ve done before moving forward one body length and repeating.  It takes them months to finish the 21km path, they must sleep wherever they are on the road and continue each day.  When they are done, many of them simply start it again.  That is how seriously this place is regarded.  And along the pilgrim path, there are a number of holy water ghats and tanks (kunds).  Of them all, there is only one called “Radha Kund”, or Radha’s pond.  A sunken square water tank, a Kunda, about 30m square with wide stone steps on two of its sides, it’s deep green water hiding giant turtles who surface soundlessly from time to time.  Built up around it are hundreds of ancient temples and shrines.  It is the bathing place of the goddess Radha, created for her by the god, Krishna, entirely to please her.  A place utterly revered, considered the holy of the holy in India – not a place for me to stroll up and buy a few books. Well, not without turning more than a few heads.

“Ok, then,” says Shaunaka, as if it’s all settled, he goes to leave. “Oh yeah” he turns back before he goes, “The sadhu took Mona Vrata 30 years ago.  He is very highly respected, so make sure you do it properly.” He finishes with a customary flourish, pulling the rug out from under my feet, after the deal is done.  I purse my lips and stare silently at him until he edges out of my office, smirking. “Mona Vrata” is a vow of silence.  He wants me, a white, western, unmarried woman to go to Radha Kund, find a sadhu who lives in a dirt hut behind a kund, and buy his prized rare books, in silence.  And, I am to do it “properly”, whatever that means.  But I do know what that means; that’s why he’s asked me to go.

A week or so later I arrive at Goverdhan Hill, just before dawn with an aquaintence as a walking partner.  I don’t remember who, but it is a long walk if I do it “properly”, and totally unsafe to think of going it alone.  We get out of our taxi, remove our shoes and kneel in the dirty road side, touching our head to the ground in reverence – of a hill.  We set off down the main road.  By dawn we are at the palatial old buildings of Kusam Sarovar.  A series of beautiful, three storey sandstone tombs, ornately carved for long

kusam sarovar.jpg

Kusam Sarovar

forgotten kings and queens, it has huge bathing ghats in front.  I have swum in the murky holy water here many times.  We stop to say gayatri, the silent morning prayer to the Surya, the god, as that perfect ball of orange heat appears in the sky.  The once damp, cold path will be burning our feet in just a couple of hours.

It takes about six hours of brisk walking to get to Radha Kund, if you do it properly.  Added to this are detours to bow in temples, visiting the many other kunds, paying respects at shrines, and pausing to acknowledge significant places from ancient stories (sthalis) we pass – God’s footprint in a stone, a special tree, many must be respected if I am to do this properly.  Priests offer blessings with dabs of sandlewood paste on our foreheads and we drop rupees into empty donation boxes in return.  We pass through lively villages, serene countryside, see wild monkeys and abandoned palaces.  There are no food stops, this journey is done fasting, or a partially fasting, depending on the lunar calendar and the month of the year; I know, because I’m doing it properly.  I wear a cheap cotton sari, I carry my shoes in my left hand, my meditation beads in my right and a bottle of water under my arm.  I have a small change purse hidden in the 6 metres of folded sari, rupee coins to offer to widows and sadhus along the way.  On this journey the poor must be properly acknowledge and respected with donations.

In the afternoon, we reach Radha Kund and take time to make the journey around it’s many pilgrimage places.  When we have finished, we rest watching the green water for turtles, I look around for the path behind the Kund, for a hut or derelict building where the sadhu lives.  I can’t find it and I don’t have an address, merely his name.  I approach a local woman and say his name, moving my arm to show I am trying to find him.  She stares at me, in my sari, with my sandlewood paste on my forehead, the grubby feet of one who has walked the 21km of Goverdhan pilgrimage barefoot.  I ask her again and she bows her head, mumbles and vaguely nods in a direction.  I realise she doesn’t want to tell me where he lives.  In her eyes, I can see I am the equivalent of Julia Roberts in that weird stretchy dress in Pretty Woman, thigh high black boots, a prostitute visiting their local holy man.  I go in the direction she has said and ask a man, he smiles bemused, like the hotel manager in the film; not entirely against prostitutes, but surprised to find one here.  He points to a low hut, with wild Tulasi bushes growing in front.  “Tulasi”, or “Holy Basil” as we know it in the West, is considered a natural marker of a sacred place in India.  I walk over but I know I cannot cross the threshold into his “garden”, a dry dirt area in front of his hut; to knock on the door is a sign of familiarity and utter disrespect.  I am being watched, the equivalent of net curtains are twitching all around the Kund.  So I stand outside the makeshift gate to his dusty garden and wait, looking at his house.  I have no idea if he’s in or not.  I must simply wait patiently, till someone comes.  I am prepared to wait and hour or two, out of respect, then, if no one comes I can ask after him locally and return the next day, to wait again.  I must never cross that threshold without invitation.  After some time, he appears beside his hut, he looks confused and rocks his head side-to-side, the customary Indian signal for what do you want?  I say the names of the books, the Vedantas and Sutras I have been sent to buy, I say the word “Oxford” and he signals for me to wait inside the garden.  Radha Kund waits, watching too, I can feel it.  I must do this properly.  After about half an hour, he comes back, he lays a cloth down on the bare ground and he offers me a metal cup of water (which I must accept and drink).  This is no rom-com picnic, the cloth is for the books, to protect and respect them, not for me.  We crouch either side in the dirt, examining his prized possessions.  He shows me the titles and publication dates, they are in good condition, but even if they weren’t, these are years out of print, I will not see them again, they will not appear on any open market.  They probably didn’t ever have a print run, just a few copies produced at great cost, a very long time ago, now all but destroyed by the climate.  They are in Sanskrit, I can’t read them, I guess the titles and he nods when I have the right one.  We silently negotiate the value, he draws numbers, in Hindi, with a stick in the dirt.  He returns to the hut and comes back with other tomes, some of them I am interested in, some of them not.  Eventually, after hours or deliberation, we come to an agreement, it is done.  He excitedly wraps the books in layers and layers of different cloth and ties them up with home-made string.  This is not a seller of tat in some bazaar, where I knock down the price.  These books are probably both priceless and worthless, in India and in the West.  They are lost in a dying culture, but they will be well preserved and much valued one day, where I am taking them.  I do the deal with proper respect and give the holy man what he asks for each volume.  Then, because holy men must be respected with donations, I donate to him generously, on top of the payment.  He smiles and I leave, offering respectful pranamas – folded palms.  As I walked away, I looked back and saw him watching me and noticed how happy he looked, really happy.  I was surprised.  His face, smiling in the sun, slightly looking up is my strongest memory of the whole thing.   In my youthful naiivity, I had no understanding of the demands of older age, the necessities of life that may have forced him to part with his most precious items, to a stranger from the West.  But I remember him smiling, so genuinely that I think it meant a lot more than that to him, like he’d been praying for a solution that was somehow resolved by preserving that legacy of knowledge, in Oxford’s archive-quality care.    I pass the man who gave me directions, he has watched the whole lengthy transaction from a distance, he nods toward me.  I pass the woman, she smiles and nods with respect at me this time.  I have done it properly.

I walk for two minutes through Radha Kund, the ground feels damp again, it is cooling quickly at the end of the day; charcoal fires are lit, burning smoky warmth into the cool evening.  Sunset is coming and silent evening prayers will pay a respectful good-bye to the sun god, Surya as he travels, full circle towards morning again.  We have come full circle too, we have travelled the right way, around the sacred sites, around Goverdhan Hill, respecting its divinity and its inhabitants.  According to the ancient scripts in my arms, we are also changed in divine ways from the experience.  We reach the main road and walk along, looking for our taxi from this morning.  Sure enough, he has stayed all day waiting patiently, properly, where we left him, just like he said he would,.  We kneel in the dirty road side, touching our head to the ground in reverence – of the hill.  We set off down the main road leaving Goverdhan Hill behind us.  Properly.

Radha kund (1)

Radha Kund

Heartbreak Hotel

30 March, 2016

 

He left me in Heartbreak Hotel.  It was on a Thursday around 8.25am, there were words.  His were insolent, mine shouted, he threw something and left.  A thumbs-up, mocking me as he walked down the road.

After what felt like eternity (about 4 days), things did begin to change, as I reflected on the past, the good times and all that I missed about him.

I noticed a lightness in the air, I think it’s actually called “fresh air”.  It eased away the memorable odour of my teenage son, happily riding his bike-machine, hard, two hours of sweaty training in my house each afternoon.  Oh, happy days.  I fondly remember how we shared my kitchen, him speaking loudly, almost shouting above the noise-cancelling headphones he’d taken from my bag.  “Get me a drink bottle”, he used to say, as I tidied up, cooked dinner and got ready to go back to work.

“Not that one, I want the blue one” he’d shout urgently across the room.

“This one is blue”, I’d foolishly reply.

“The other blue one”, he’d say, understandably irritated with the delay.  He’d often do another 60km on his machiney-thing, before I’d found the right bottle, in his used sports bag, in the back my car, under his bike; then 15km while I washed the rancid liquid out and freshly filled it for him.

 

I remembered our happy evenings going to the Redbridge race track on a Tuesday night.  The anxious hour I’d spend waiting at the school gates, terrified he’d been abducted by a pedophile, when he didn’t appear with the other children.  As usual, his phone would have been unfairly confiscated during a lesson, rendering him unable to call, or text, to say he’d be out after detention.

And even though we set off a bit late each week, we’d chat for hours and hours in the car, as we queued round the M25 at rush hour.  His inspirational mind would find new routes to try and get us there on time.

“Turn right. Now.”  He’d say unexpectedly.

“Where?”  I’d reply

“Back there?”  Him, incredulous that I’d screwed-up again.  He was right, he could have probably driven so much better than me; 13, so young and so gifted.

 

I still find it difficult to walk past bike shops, without spending excessive amounts of money.   I remember the anxiety he’d be in when he found an expensive gadget he desperately needed.  He would worry (me) day and night for it and sometimes secretly buy it with my bank card.   The bike shop staff were always so friendly,  I’d often pop in early on a Saturday morning, before a race, to replace a part he’d lost.

“Replacement heart rate strap?  That’ll be £56”.  They said in January

“Replacement heart rate strap?  That’ll be £56”.  They said in February

“Replacement heart rate strap?  That’ll be £56”.  They said in March

“Replacement heart rate strap?  That’ll be £56”.   They won’t say in April.  I hope the shop stays open without me.

 

Another interesting thing I’ve noticed since he went is the TV changes channels.  I had no idea our TV did this; I just assumed it was stuck on one channel, broken, waiting to be replaced.  The kids tell me that there are hundreds of other things you can watch on a TV, apart from reruns of the Tour de France.  (Who knew?).  You’ll need a remote control device to change it over, you find it moulded to your teenage son’s hand.

I’ve been wandering through Heartbreak Hotel and I discovered it’s actually ok.  A three star, seaside type B&B (without the sea), happily providing an Easter holiday experience for my two remaining guests.  They check in and out with me, telling me they’re here or when they’re leaving; they recommend it to their friends and persuade me to fit a few more in, even though the rooms are all full.  My guests show up at the agreed times for meals and pick from a limited choice, of bored daily offerings, what they’ll have each mealtime.  (They say please and thank you when they do this).  If they need something, they come to reception and ask for it, there’s no facility to charge it to an unknown account.  We limited room service (for guests 6 months old or younger) and full laundry facilities are provided solely for the guests’ use (management takes no responsibility…..).

And if you don’t like it, or the facilities it offers aren’t good enough, you can just check out, with your bag, without a good-bye.  Like you did.

elvis on bike

I spent a lot of money on special cycling clothes.

 

Mid life crisis

16 March, 2016

I’m slightly annoyed with myself about this having-to-get-another-job business.  I’ve spent the past several years working part time, for myself, apparently as a therapist.  My clients seem happy and I have many certificates which prove how qualified I am – I file these important qualifications in the recycling bin, partly so I can’t recount exactly how many weekends I’ve spent listening to someone teach me their version of  “Shite Made-up Therapy”,  or add up exactly how much it’s cost me.

I partially wish I’d made a better go of being self-employed and didn’t have to resort to a second freakin’ job, but to be honest , there’s a part of me which just wants to go to work and come home and forget-about-it-all.  My “Ambition” is the one having the mid-life crisis here;  it has veered way off course, it’s supposed to be driving me forward, but it’s gone to lie on a beach, drink tequila and when I try to call it to action, it simply doesn’t answer the phone.  Or something like that.  So, I’ve got a mid-life crisis plan.  I’m going to sit on the sofa in the evenings and forget about everyone – ok, everyone apart from the three individuals squabbling over who’s turn it is to sit next to me, that is.  We’ll see how it goes.  The only problem I foresee right now is that I never sit on the sofa in the evenings, yes, life is going to be full of new challenges.  The reasons, for my disinterest in the sofa, I’m sure you dying to know,  are;

  1. I don’t watch TV, ever.
  2. If I sit on the sofa, my three kids immediately fight over who’s going to sit next to me because it’s such a novelty to have me there. Finding this really annoying,  I get up and go do something less boring instead.  They used to fight over who’d lie next to me in bed,  when I eventually noticed (I tend to block out a lot of what goes on when they’re right next to me), I was naturally, incredibly flattered by their love.   One of them went on to explain in no uncertain terms, that my fatness emitted the most body warmth, I was a veritable live hot water bottle that never went cold, hence they fought so vigorously to lie next me.  Cheers.

So, I looked up jobs and found two.  One I can work half a week and earn what I make by myself in three hours.  The other was as a prison officer.  I fancied being a prison officer (for three and a half minutes), I thought I could be firm but fair, understanding and empowering (obviously within clear boundaries – such as the iron bars of their incarceration between us).  Then I got to the bit where it said there was a gym onsite and I imagined it was one of those sweaty, small, blokey gyms full of weights and machines and one tiny window; not a gym with brightly coloured mats, a view of golf course and a Costa Coffee franchise outside.  So I gave up my passion for criminal reform and went for the other job.   I have an interview, a chance to check if they’ve got a cafetiere.

The thing about mid-life crises is they get an incredibly bad rap, likened to a form of embarrassing madness which takes over a person and explains away alien behaviour that people can’t understand.  It puts blame and belittlement on that person without making any attempt to understand what’s really going on, deep within them.  And what is going on tends to be that they’ve simply realised they are really going to die one day and done a gradual reassessment of their life, culminating in a sudden change in their external behaviour which matches their more progressive, internal change of heart.  It is generally connected to ageing, there is a turning point in our lives when we realise we don’t have time to waste, that we really don’t have time to waste and our values can shift considerably.  I can’t say which way they shift, it’s an individual thing, but the beliefs and values, which were once so solid and so dependable in the make-up of that person, become liquid, they flow to new places and consequently, they do “change” as people.  It’s a response to the way we routinely attach ourselves to value systems, inherent beliefs if you like, almost unquestioningly.  It’s how we reproduce society; with each generation there are changes, but the basic core structure remains fairly unchanging.   So we as youthful, rugged-individualists “decide” what the “right” thing to do is, and do it.  Except we choose from a very narrow set of options, like say, which job, who to marry/live with, when to have kids etc.  These could even be seen as blind-options, the sort of thing you use when dealing with small kids – “chips or beans?”  You limit the choice, it makes life simpler.  And we commit to those “choices”, fully supported by generations of societal evidence and organisation.  I’m not saying this is wrong or anything, I’m just saying that most us don‘t understand what it really means, when we aspire for the trappings of maturity, the rites of passage – marriage, kids, mortgages etc.;  Only when we actually do them for a while do we realise what they entail.  I often compare having children to getting married, in the way that you spend so much time preparing for the “birth” or the “big day” and give almost no thought to the reality-of-the-reality, which lies beyond that initial gateway experience; you know, the one which lasts a potential lifetime.

 

Anyway, my mid-life crisis is relatively mild.  I’ve always thought a lot about dying and consequently, I’ve always thought about how I’m going to maximise my living.  Things which have shifted for me?  I genuinely grade my crises by the fact that other people have kids dying of leukaemia.  I find that sorts out a lot of my so-called problems in one, perspective-changing thought and it’s a relief to not have to give a shite about crashing the car, the bank account, or whatever this month’s trial-by-fire is.  I have abandoned some of my core values;  I just don’t rate them anymore,  I’m not going to get into what they are, nor justify why I’ve dropped them, if you value them then I really don’t want to mess with that.  Right now, I’m all for independence of thought and mind.  Work it out for yourselves, because I’m off to Costa to top-up my compulsion.

ladybird_3469914b

Books are a valuable source of selfy-helpy information about a mid-life crisis, especially if none of your friends and family speak to you any more.