When Covid-19 gets personal

Every evening we watch the 10pm news on the BBC, pinned to our armchairs by the latest tidal wave of torment. The rising death toll, the shattered lives, the financial crisis, the lost jobs, the missed targets, the missing PPE. It keeps on coming, misery piled upon misery. But it’s so horrible that it somehow seems unreal, resembling a dark soap opera with a scarcely believable plot and actors who appear to be making it up as they go along.

Of course we’re not totally immune to the impact of the pandemic. Mrs P – who is particularly vulnerable due to her asthma – hasn’t left our property for six weeks, while I venture out only on Wednesdays to shop for us and her parents. The queues at the supermarket are getting me down, the shortage of flour has been frustrating, and wearing a mask makes my glasses steam up and leaves me stumbling around blindly. I’m always pleased to get back to the safety and calm of Platypus Towers.

However, these are minor irritations. Life goes on, and so do we. We are healthy, comfortable and keeping busy with all-manner of in-house projects and activities. Covid-19 is undoubtedly a curse, but it felt like we were just playing bit parts, walk-on roles in a disaster movie that’s being acted out all around us.

But then Covid-19 got personal.

Pat, my second cousin, who – with her son, Mark – is my only living blood-relative, phoned from London on Sunday morning with shock news. She and her husband, and Mark and his wife, have all been sick with Covid-19. Worst still, her father Tommy – my “uncle” Tom – also caught the virus, but it got the better of him.

Dad passed away yesterday morning, Pat explains sadly.

Tommy had seemed indestructible. We all knew that he couldn’t go on forever, but it wasn’t meant to end like this. It feels like he, and we, have been cheated by that wretched virus.

He would have been 100 years old next month, and to celebrate the milestone Mark was in the process of arranging a family party. Covid-19 has turned that dream, and a million others across the world, to ashes.

Although we weren’t exceptionally close, I have many fond memories of Tommy. His was the first car I ever rode in – my parents didn’t drive – and when I was small it was a special treat to escape London for a while on a Sunday afternoon drive into the countryside with Tommy and his wife Ivy.

Years later, when I was at university, he used his position with the Post Office to get me on the list for a job at the local sorting office in the run up to Christmas, giving me a welcome opportunity to earn some much needed beer money! These, and countless other kindnesses, whirl around in my mind as I write this. He was a good man.

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Excellent although they are, the BBC news broadcasts can never get across the full horror of this virus. It seems to me that only when Covid-19 gets personal does it fully make the transition from disaster movie to a real-life, real-time tragedy.

Mrs P and I last saw Tommy in August, at Mark’s wedding. He was in good health, albeit a touch grumpy. But at his age a certain irascibility is inevitable and forgiveable, and also rather endearing. Sure as hell Pat, Mark and the rest of us would give anything to witness his grumpiness again.

Rest in Peace, Tommy.

An English tradition: the joy of Afternoon Tea

“Well,” demands Mrs P testily, “am I getting flowers on Valentines Day or not?” Discomfited, I hastily review my options. Do I try schmoozing her, something like my darling, there aren’t enough flowers in the world to convey the depth of my love for you? Or should I try appealing to her environmental conscience, pointing out the horrendous carbon footprint that inevitably results from the sale of masses of fresh cut flowers in England in the middle of February? Or do I simply tell it as it is, that while I love her more than anything and am quite fond of roses too, the grossly inflated prices around Valentine’s Day are an affront to common decency and my sense of fair play?

I’m weighing up which response will give me the best chance of still being alive at Easter when my wonderful wife lets me off the hook. “If you are,” she says, “then don’t bother. I suggest we go out for Afternoon Tea instead. I’ve spotted a patisserie on King Street that looks promising.”

So there we have it: I get to live another day and to fill my face with delicious cakes. I’d like to put it on record here that Mrs P is a very special person.

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Afternoon Tea is also very special. We Brits have invented all kinds of brilliant stuff over the years: the steam locomotive, television, stiff upper lips, penicillin and orderly queuing in line to name just a few. To this list I’m proud to add the quintessentially English tradition of Afternoon Tea, a plate stand of dainty sandwiches, pastries, scones with lashings of jam (preserves) and clotted cream, and assorted cakes, all served in the mid to late afternoon with a steaming pot of Indian or Sri Lankan tea.

All traditions have to begin at some point, and Afternoon Tea can be dated to around 1840. Wealthy English folk had been drinking tea since the 1660s when the habit was popularised by King Charles II, who probably needed regular caffeine hits to help him keep up with his numerous comely mistresses. However it wasn’t until early in Queen Victoria’s reign that the idea of Afternoon Tea reared its head.

Unsurprisingly the practice can be traced back to members of the aristocracy, who had plenty of time on their hands, money to burn and servants to do all the hard graft.

Anna, the seventh Duchess of Bedford, lived in a household where the evening meal was traditionally served at 8pm. Finding herself feeling inconveniently peckish during the late afternoon our Anna instructed her staff to prepare a tray of tea, bread and butter, and cake, at around 4pm every day. The good Duchess was well pleased with her initiative, and invited her friends round so she could show off her new domestic routine.

Pretty soon Afternoon Tea was all the rage amongst the upper classes. Amazingly, in the days before Facebook, people networked by physically spending time in one another’s company (strange but true!), and what could be better than to combine meeting with eating?

Ordinary people, in other words the very men and women whose hard graft made, heated and maintained the scented bubble baths in which the likes of the Duchess and her cronies wallowed, were untouched by the new fad. In Victorian England everyone knew their place, and the common folk knew that Afternoon Tea wasn’t for the likes of them.

Fortunately times have changed, and the once sturdy walls of the British class system have begun to crumble. It therefore feels like poetic justice that while the Duke of Bedford finds it necessary to open up his stately mansion to tours by the Great Unwashed, anyone in England can now enjoy a fabulous Afternoon Tea regardless of their ancestry or social standing.

Indeed in recent years there’s been a noticeable revival in this quaint tradition. All manner of catering establishments and hostelries now offer Afternoon Tea to anyone with a few pounds and an hour or two to spare.

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Of course the content of Afternoon Tea has evolved over time, but a reincarnated Duchess Anna would doubtless recognise and hopefully approve of most modern re-workings of her early Victorian innovation. Beaurepaire Patisserie has certainly taken the concept to the next level, and we opted for the full works, starting with a plate stand of savouries which comprised a tiny glass of delicious soup, a filled baby Yorkshire pud and some quiche as well as the inevitable sandwiches.

When the savouries had been demolished it was on to the sweetmeats, a plate stand groaning under the weight of cakes, scones and pastries. There was also a glass of Eton Mess, a glorious confection of strawberries, meringue, and whipped Chantilly cream. We were in heaven, but also in danger of exploding. So, stuffed to the gunnels and awash with countless cups of tea, we called for a box to take home the remainder of our fare, to be consumed later in the day once space became available.

Afternoon Tea proved to be a terrific way to celebrate Valentines Day. It may not last as long as flowers, but who needs daffodils and dahlias when you can instead spend a couple of hours being divinely decadent?

So, wherever you are now, step forward and take a bow Anna, seventh Duchess of Bedford. We, and other lovers of Afternoon Tea from up and down this sceptered isle, are forever in your debt.

Getting thrashed at Scrabble again

Nearly two years have passed since I retired from work. People still ask me how I’m coping, and the truthful answer is that it’s going rather well. Actually, you can’t beat it: I have a good pension and a fairly modest lifestyle, so fortunately money’s not an issue. Yes, I do miss the company of some of the people I used to work with, and also the sense of purpose that comes with a responsible job. You know what I mean, those feel-good moments that result from being needed. But life moves on, and so have I.

No, the main problem with retiring is that I no longer have a bloody clue what day of the week it is.

You see, work imposed a structure on my life, mapping out my week in a meaningful way. And when it was gone it felt like I was at sea without a compass.

Before I retired my week was shaped by routines. To start with there was the framework of five days on – Monday to Friday – followed by two days off. The regular milestones of the working week added depth to the pattern: my boss Teflon Sal’s management team meetings on Tuesdays, my own team meetings every Wednesday, the Friday afternoon all-user email in which the great and the good desperately tried to convince the poor bloody infantry how well things were going while simultaneously demanding that we cut the crap and do better.

All of these things, and many more besides, were anchor points during the week. Routines keep me grounded, helping me make sense of the world around me. And when I retired these anchor points were ripped away overnight, leaving me drifting aimlessly.

But nature abhors a vacuum, and so it’s no surprise that new patterns have emerged. One of these is that on Sunday afternoons Mrs P and I play Scrabble, while keeping a close eye on the garden for a visit from Milky Bar and listening to a Newfoundland folk music radio show on the Internet.

Scrabble helps keep the brain active, which is a good thing now that I no longer have reports to write, managers to please or politicians to persuade. I should be good at it too: words have always been my currency of choice, my friends in adversity. I love them for their power and their beauty, which, I suppose, is one of the reasons for writing this blog.

All that counts for naught, however, in our weekly Scrabble games. We always get through four games over a period of around two and a half hours, and Mrs P always beats me by three games to one. Unless I’m having a really bad day, in which case I get thrashed four games to nil. Mrs P is very good at Scrabble, ruthless in fact!

And I love it, this weekly drubbing. It brings some welcome certainty to my confused post-working world, giving me a much needed anchor point in my otherwise shapeless existence.

If I’m getting thrashed again at Scrabble, at least I can be absolutely certain that it’s Sunday afternoon. Even more important, it reminds me that, the following morning, I won’t have go into the office to sort out the latest crisis and negotiate with a bunch of impossible politicians.

Retirement? You can’t beat it!

Mr President, tear down this wall

Every few months I meet up with Ray and Sylvia for a coffee.  The three of us have a shared history, the agony and the ecstasy of local government in a city just a few miles from here.  To be fair, there was precious little ecstasy, but the surfeit of agony made sure our lives were never dull.  Ours is a relationship forged in adversity, on the basis that the only alternative to standing together is falling apart.

Coffee

PHOTO CREDIT: “Coffee” by AussieRalph is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

I worked with Ray, on and off, over a period of around 35 years.  He was the best boss I ever had, and it’s still a pleasure to chew the fat with him and with his former PA, Sylvia. 

We’ve all retired now, but back in the day we used to laugh a lot, just to keep ourselves sane. The habit continues, and when he’s ordering his cappuccino Ray makes a point of apologising to the guy behind the counter for the disruption we’re likely to bring to his little coffee shop over the next couple of hours.  Can you get an ASBO for excessively raucous laughter?

Inevitably, whenever we meet, the first topics of conversation are the developments and disasters at our former place of work, which often features in the media for all the wrong reasons.  We observe with pleasure that some of our former colleagues have managed to get out, and shake our heads sadly at the fate of those who have no choice but to remain. 

Police Dog Van

PHOTO CREDIT: “Police Dog Van” by macneillievehicles is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The conversation segues seamlessly into a rant about politics and religion, but it’s very amicable as all three of us agree that we’re opposed to both of them.  And then it’s on to crime. Sylvia’s recently witnessed some bad stuff going down round her way, and like old fogeys the world over we reminisce fancifully about the good old days when everyone behaved themselves.

On the other hand, some things have definitely improved, and we note with satisfaction that our little town held its first Gay Pride celebration a few weeks ago.  I was away that weekend, but Sylvia explains that everyone seemed to embrace the spirit of Pride, and the town was awash with colour and jollity.

Gay Pride

PHOTO CREDIT: “Gay Pride” by Dave Pitt is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

And finally, inevitably, the talk turns to holidays.  Places we’ve visited, places we’re planning to visit, places we’d love to visit if only our Lottery numbers come up.  And this is when Ray drops his bombshell: he’s been elected President!

Ray and his missus have a holiday home on Minorca.  It’s part of a housing complex that’s run as a co-operative, where decisions are made democratically at an AGM by the owners of the individual properties that make up the development. 

However, World War 3 has been threatening to erupt for several months over the thorny issue of boundaries.  The rules of the development forbid the erection of walls and fences in shared areas, but this hasn’t prevented two individuals enclosing “their” gardens, in one case with a fence and the other with a brick wall of which Hadrian himself would have been proud. 

The sides have taken entrenched positions, and acrimony rules.  Two elected Presidents of the co-operative have quit over the last few months, everyone’s talking but no-one’s listening.  Passions are running high, and the presence of lawyers does little to help. 

IMGP9194

PHOTO CREDIT: “IMGP9194” by Ale_l7 is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A peacemaker is desperately needed, so Ray magnanimously decides to fly out to Minorca to do his bit at the AGM.  After all, he’s come up through the school of hard knocks – English local government – so he knows a thing or two about gently banging heads together and tactfully reconciling the irreconcilable.

The AGM is every bit a gruesome as he’d feared.  Insults fly and there is no meeting of minds. The builder of the brick wall maintains that he had special permission to build it.  And, he argues, it isn’t really a wall anyway! 

That’s it, Ray’s heard enough.  He stands and starts to speak, explaining in faltering Spanish that in England we have a saying: if something walks like a duck and quacks like a duck it’s almost certainly a duck.  Against all reason and probability he gets a round of applause from the assembled AGM, most of whom are Spaniards who have never heard anything like this before.

If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck … it’s almost certainly a duck

The meeting drags on, and Ray intervenes several times more.  The AGM is mesmerised: the Brits may have pinched Gibraltar from under their noses and screwed up over Brexit, but they still know a thing or two about diplomacy.  So, when the time comes, they elect him as the new President of the co-operative, despite his best endeavours to kick the idea into touch.

And there we have it: my former boss is a President.  But the Minorcan re-imagining of Hadrian’s Wall is still standing, and it’s Ray’s job over the next year to have it removed without any of the parties getting killed or maimed. 

I take great pleasure in the fact that my pal President Ray, in stark contrast to a President on the other side of the pond, is to dedicate his life to taking a wall down rather than putting one up.  It’s a rotten job, but someone’s got to do it. 

The Berlin Wall

PHOTO CREDIT: “The Berlin Wall” by Dave Hamster is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Quoting the immortal words of a speech made in Berlin more than 30 years ago, a speech addressed to Mikhail Gorbachev by none other than Ronald Reagan – another American President who talked a lot of walls – I say only this to my good friend Ray: “Mr President, tear down this wall.”

Invitation to a wedding

Sadly, I’ve reached the time of life when I get to go to many more funerals than weddings.  Until the invitation to Mark and Kate’s nuptials arrived it had been nearly two years since I’d last witnessed a couple tying the matrimonial knot, so I was delighted to be asked.  And as an added bonus, their wedding was to take place at one of the colleges of Cambridge University, so picturesque surroundings, excellent food and plenty of fine wine were all pretty much guaranteed.

A Cambridge college makes a pictureseque wedding venue

Mark is my godson.  Also, he and his mum are pretty much the only blood relatives I have left, or at least the only ones I’m aware of.  However, I’m sad to say that I hardly know him. 

Mark lives in London, while Mrs P and I are holed up in the north Midlands.  Our paths have crossed only rarely over the years, and although he once stayed with us for a couple of days and his mum updates us from time to time on his exploits, he’s something of a mystery.

The invitation to Mark’s wedding was therefore a pleasant surprise, though not one I probably deserved given my inept performance as a godfather.  Even better, it quickly became apparent that Mark is a lovely, caring man. 

The college chapel was an intimate setting for the ceremony

Although this was his – and Kate’s – big day, Mark went out of his way to greet and make welcome all the guests, to spend loads of time chatting with them, and to find ways of ensuring those guests got to know one another.  And he also found plenty of time to be attentive to his 99 years-old wheelchair-bound maternal grandad, whom he clearly adores.

One of Mark’s cunning plans to bring the wedding guests closer together was to lay on an evening barn dance.  Such were his powers of gentle persuasion that even I took to the dance floor, for the first time in a couple of decades.  Mrs P likes barn dancing, so thanks to my godson I won myself a rare brownie point. Yes, result!

Moreover, I’m proud to report that I held my own in the Gay Gordons, before plumbing hitherto unimagined depths of incompetence while Stripping the Willow. 

Mrs P says the latter failure was down to her, but I think she’s just being nice: I really should learn the difference between left and right. But, despite the exhaustion and the humiliation I will confess I thoroughly enjoyed myself, though I don’t imagine I’ll be putting on a repeat performance any time soon.

Cake, cake, glorious cake!

All too soon the evening was over.  Mark and Kate left to begin their new life together.  I left, supported by my long-suffering missus, for a quiet lie down in a darkened room.  Too much wine and barn dancing can do that to a man.

I’m really pleased we made the trip to Cambridge for Mark’s big day.  Partly because families – particularly tiny ones like mine – should stick together, but mainly because he’s a thoroughly decent human being and it was good to spend a few hours in his company. 

With luck we’ll meet up with him and Kate again before too long … though probably not on the dance floor!

The best man I ever knew

Flock of Birds Flying over Bare Tree Overlooking Sunset

PHOTO CREDIT: Flock of Birds Flying over Bare Tree Overlooking Sunset. From Pixabay via Pexels

The news came in a short, handwritten letter from his mother: Pete and his family had been involved in a terrible accident.  Their car had caught fire following a crash in London; his wife and baby son had died at the scene.  He could have got clear with only minor injuries, but went back into the inferno in a desperate but ultimately futile attempt to save Livy and Simon. 

In a critical condition, Pete was admitted to a hospital burns unit where he clung to life for a few weeks.  But in the end the fight was just too much for him, or maybe he knew somehow that Livy and Simon were gone, and that life without them would be pointless? 

When I learned that he was dead I felt that part of me had also died.  Pete was more alive than any person I’d ever met, and it seemed impossible that he’d passed over.

We’d met in our first week at secondary school, and we were like chalk and cheese.  Our backgrounds were so different, his parents comfortably middle class, mine ordinary working class.  He was a confident, outgoing Christian, I an awkward, reserved atheist.  His politics were naturally Tory, mine instinctively socialist.  His brain was wired for maths and science, while I favoured the arts and humanities.  He burned the candle at both ends, I saved my candles in case the lights went out one day.

It seemed inconceivable that two boys who were so different could become friends, and yet within days we were inseparable.  Was it because of our differences that we became so close?  Did each of us offer the other a new perspective on life, a chance to broaden our horizons and to gently challenge our own values and beliefs, but without undermining our own self-esteem and sense of self-worth?

Thomas J Watson Jr, an American businessman, is famously quoted as saying this about friendship:

‘Don’t make friends who are comfortable to be with. Make friends who will force you to lever yourself up.’

I can relate to this.  I know I am a more complete person for having known Pete, despite disagreeing with him on lots of things.  I like to think that he, were he still alive, would say the same about me. 

But I didn’t become his friend to ‘lever myself up,’ which suggests a degree of calculation that is totally alien to me.  I became his friend because despite – or perhaps because of – our many differences, he intrigued me, and the more I got to know him the more I realised that what separated us was less important than what we shared: kindness, generosity, good humour, thoughtfulness, loyalty and mutual support. 

The accident happened thirty years ago this summer, when Pete was just 33 years old.  His full name was Charles Peter Johnston Morris, and he was the best man I ever knew.