A dear old friend died today. Prue was 88, she had lung cancer, and lived in the middle of a wood, in the middle of a common, in the greenest part of England.
Her father rented the house in the 1930s as a weekend get-a-way for the family. During the week, they lived in swish St John’s Wood, near the cricket ground and Regents Park; a neighbourhood I was coincidentally to live in seventy years later. Once the London Blitz started in 1940 the family moved out to the country. A delight of my child hood was taking a peek inside the handmade corrugated air raid shelter, turned garden shed.
By the time I knew Prue, she was mostly retired, and looking after her mother who was still living, although confined to the downstairs sitting room with her two cats, unable to get up the stairs anymore.
Prue lived just outside the village my father had been born in, and became friends with my grandparents when she shared the commuter train from Dorking to London each day with my grandfather. Although I don’t know the last time it was thought of, she was my father’s godmother. In her stacks of photo albums, some labelled, some not, there’s a photo of the two of them at an air-show in the early 1950s. Both of them looking delighted at their day out.
Visits to Prue were a highlight school holidays. When I was little we’d have lunch with her each time we went to Surrey to visit my grandparents. I was always surprised that Prue knew we were coming, the logistics of adult plans being something of a muddle to a child of six. If visiting during the Easter holidays she would cheerfully greet my brother and I with a chocolate rabbit each.
The summer I was 12 I went to stay with Prue for a week on my own. I felt so very grown up as we rambled over the common with her dog Jacko, saying hello to the other dog walkers, picking vegetables from the garden for dinner, going to a matinee at the cinema, and listening to her stories.
Prue took the first western tourists along the Trans-Siberian Express all the way from London to China. I’d say “straight from London to China” but the way she told it, the journey was anything but “straight.” Earlier in her career, for reasons I never fully understood, she was once charged with chasing after wealthy Brits in New York with the sole intention of keeping them in the country until lawyers’ papers could be signed or money sent. She’s also the only person I know to have met the Queen.
I last saw Prue about three weeks ago. My dad, step-mum, and I went out to lunch. Having reluctantly given up her car a few months earlier, we caught a taxi from the train station, my dad remembering from childhood the way to go (google maps wouldn’t have had a clue). We were there for five hours, and could easily have stayed for many more. We knew she was ill, but not how little time was left. She told us how her friends and neighbours were rallying around, there was always someone to bring her an evening meal, to take her shopping, (or introduce her to home delivery on the ipad), and to help her up the stairs to bed in the evening and down them again in the morning.
I am forever grateful that I knew her, that her sense of wonder and adventure in the world rubbed of on me, and that although I wasn’t there, she was surrounded by people who thought the world of her. Tonight, I’m sitting in the garden and raising a glass of wine (two things she loved the most) to her friendship and to her. (She’d be ever so embarrassed, in the most British of ways, if she knew I’d written such a sentimental thing.)
I was going to do so much today. There was to be lunch at Smorgasburg, walks along the water front, showing off Brooklyn to British friends, early evening drinks, and dinner out: ideally one involving New York pizza that I’ve been craving for about a week. Instead, I have a cold. One that is not so bad as to make me feel justified in staying in bed, but one that the combination of sore throat, runny nose, headache, and a fuzzy attitude towards doing anything in particular, has kept me tied to home, reluctant to go more than a few feet from the kettle in case another cup of lemon and ginger tea is needed (three so far today, and counting).
Stuck inside, I’ve found myself doing long put off but necessary chores. Opening the stack of mail that’s been neglected for a week or more on the assumption that it’s mostly junk (it was apart from the unpaid cable bill), finally putting away the last of my travel bits and pieces from London, running not one but two loads of the dishwasher and the washing machine: it’s probable that our apartment hasn’t been this organized in months.
When every day was dark, and frozen, and miserable, this past winter, the hours for doing chores were plenty, and summer days like today seemed like they’d never arrive. So, consider this a letter of complaint to my immune system: colds are for winter, not summer, runny noses belong in November and hacking coughs in January, and the only real reason for a headache in June is that you accidentally drank one too many glasses of rose last night. This being ill in summer is unacceptable.
Now, time for another cup of lemon and ginger tea and a nice sit down.
1. Albuquerque, 2000. Bus station to youth hostel. Middle of the day.
Gave me his number (unasked for) and told me to call him as he and his friends could show me a good time.
2. Chicago, 2012. Office to home. Late at night.
Claimed his credit card machine didn’t work and insisted I pay cash. Refused the $6 I had on me and kept the doors locked for 10 minutes demanding payment until his machine mysteriously started working again.
3. Chicago, 2012. Office to home. Late night.
Missed my drop off point and didn’t pull over for five more blocks despite my repeated, and increasingly urgent, requests that he do so.
4. San Francisco, 2014. One side of town to the other. Middle of the day.
An over familiarity I couldn’t quite put my finger on. He went the wrong way. He asked me my name, for the first time in years I instinctively gave a fake one. He wanted eye contact, I wanted to look out the window silently regretting giving him the actual address rather than the cross streets I was headed to. When he dropped me off, I waited until he’d driven away before unlocking the door.
- Rose is being drunk.
- Shoes are being worn without socks.
- Iced coffee is being bought.
- Spring jackets have been brought out of the cupboard.
- Sunglasses are being worn and lost.
- Scarfs are left at home.
- Winter coats have been put away.
Yet, despite our collective willing the temperature stubbornly refuses to rise.
- Our toes are cold.
- Our gulps of coffee make our insides cold.
- Our arms are cold.
- We loose our sunglasses because there’s not quite enough sun to wear them.
- Our necks are cold.
- Our shoulders are cold.
We continue to drink rose regardless, and wonder why we haven’t been doing so all winter to bring a bit of spring time cheer.
That’s my Uncle Lee. He was in World War One when I was born. I was going to be named after him, but then I was a girl.
These days, it wouldn’t matter of course, I could have just been called Lee. But back then, they added Janie in front.
In the South I’m still Janie-Lee. That was dropped as soon as we moved North. No one up here has time for two names."
— Grams, looking at old family photos.