I am aware that England is a balm for me: The sound of the blackbirds and the wood pigeons, the budding branches of the beech tree, the pink cherry, the ancient bones underneath my feet. I allow myself to be absorbed in it its river, lulled along like a branch, meeting tributaries, detritus, but still surging forward with its soothing flow. It bathes me, this river. It takes all the self-doubt and the anxiety and washes me free of them; it’s my savior. I arrive unclean and I leave baptized anew.
There is time here. I am so aware of people rushing about in Los Angeles, filling their days in the most improbable ways, with scheduled meetings, scheduled exercise, scheduled dinners, leaping from one appointment to another, and getting somehow caught up in that rhythm, which is exhausting. Having to spend afternoons in bed to revive oneself. I watched my girlfriend in London cook and clean and take her children to school, and look after her son who needs special care, and attend to the needs of her husband, and make two different suppers, and look after an old lady who is lonely, and walk the dog, and still have time to sit with me in her kitchen and laugh, over mugs of tea, while her garden burst with green vibrancy – all apple trees and lavender and hellebores. She fits it all in but doesn’t overcomplicate anything – meals are simple, modest, delicious. Going out doesn’t become a competitive sport. Treats are treats and they don’t happen daily, preserving their special-ness.
At my mother’s house, I’m in gumboots almost the moment I arrive, walking down the drive and onto the common, finding the bluebells, the baby bracken beginning to unfurl, remembering the familiar beeches with their knobbled trunks, the chalk which lays on the ground, embedded next to the flint, which you pick up and use to draw love hearts on tree trunks. I still draw love hearts on tree trunks, even now, when I’m not sure whose name to write. I remember when my marriage first ended, and I still believed he’d come back, I wrote JF on the old wooden fence by Brightwood, scratching the chalk into the green moss. And JF once again, although it was a different man, a year ago. Note to self: find someone with different initials next time round. But the hearts are still drawn, and I suspect that it means I’m open. There are wooden stiles at the edge of fields where you can sit and view the village, the same old church, St. George’s flag waving, and faces you pass wondering if you’ve forgotten them, whether they were childhood friends. There are many conversations about the weather, and a couple with a dog named Barry (“bar-reh”) who insist that the forecasters are wrong and far better to watch the signs in the clouds. My mother’s dog is kind and obedient, and so very delighted that I am there that he traipses happily with me for miles over the countryside, through the heath to the Roman road, and back through the copses, delighted as I am to find ghosts and rabbits and startled deer.
Just as my phone ran out of battery on Friday, I saw a white stag, the white stag – and there always has been one in Ashridge – and while I know it’s a genetic mutation in the herd, here, it’s still magical. It’s still A Sign. I’m not sure of what. But just like the love hearts that are drawn without a name in mind, so the white hart can be a sign of Something Good.
An old friend spent his birthday in Norfolk in an old house by the sea, all his favorite people for a long weekend, the way big birthdays should be. His wife made a book to mark the occasion and had everyone send their favorite recipes. “We have a tradition” he says “after dinner, when we’ve had a little wine, to see who can walk the farthest with a pineapple balanced on his head.” Amusing pictures of men precariously balancing pineapples are packed into the book, flanked by bemused, patient, smiling wives and girlfriends. There are people in warm jackets and scarves walking hand in hand and arm in arm on windy, pebbly beaches, smiling. Men hugging men, women hugging women, women hugging men, just a lovely picture of middle-aged (for let’s be honest, it is middle age, this thing we don’t want to think about) camaraderie. Friends laughing together. These are the things we remember. These are the things we need to remember.
England is a balm. She soothes me. She strengthens my bones so I can take on the brave new world of Los Angeles once again. She injects fortitude and humor back into my veins. She broadens my perspective, allows for possibilities, reminds me of what I love.
One of my mother’s oldest friends came for lunch yesterday, with a friend of hers. They were on an excursion with Friends of the Norwegian National Theatre. Once a year they come to London for a few days of theatre and opera. They had walked around London, had lunch at Rules, taken in the second best performance of La Traviata they’d ever seen. My mother and her friend had worked at BellShips together at age 22, back in 1957, and they’ve been friends ever since. The other woman, a women is elegant and clearly had been a great beauty in her day. Both are dressed well, yet practically, and my mother discovers she has great friends in common with both of them. They arrive by train and my mother serves them champagne and canapés – tiny Norwegian open sandwiches on pumpernickel, smoked salmon with dill, and shrimps with mayonnaise. I hover in the kitchen preparing the vegetables for lunch while listening to them laugh, all 80 years old nearly, yet sounding about 25, three attractive, smiling, elegant octogenarians recalling their life’s adventures. My mother has made roast shoulder of lamb with red currant jelly and mint sauce (“fresh mint from the garden this morning” she says) and potatoes with dill, carrots, cauliflower with a little white sauce, mange tout. I make gravy with some red wine and the pan juices.
(Note: they’ve just brought round orange squash on the plane to LA. When’s the last time you had orange squash?)
For pudding, there is apple and blackberry crumble with double cream and Eton mess. The table is laid with pink tulips and daffodils, the old Norwegian silver, her crystal glasses, silver salt and pepper pots. It’s perfect. My mother can hardly walk and yet she does these things so beautifully, so effortlessly. “It is such a pity about your mother’s injury” says her friend, Bjørg. “You know she used to be one of those most athletic people I knew.” I know this. We go through old albums and she’s riding or skiing or dancing or sailing or swimming or water-skiing, all with that big smile on her face. There is a program about three-wheeled wheelchairs for using on country paths. John Craven interviews the people in them. “They wouldn’t be very good in the mud,” says my mother. “How about a golf cart?” I wonder out loud. I imagine her out on the common, whizzing about, wind whipping up her hair, Tiny, the terrier, running gamely behind.