No. 21 Tansy And The Holiday Romance

Steve had been over in England for three weeks when we got an email from our housesitter Ove. Tansy, our cow, had given birth early that morning to a little white calf. We were both surprised and shocked as we didn’t even know she was pregnant, and indeed thought she was still a virgin. I know, how many other parents have said that. I rang Ove for more details. He likes to sight Tansy and Blackberry at least once a day, but on the day before the email, he couldn’t find Tansy. The next morning, he was out for a walk with a friend and there she was, in the middle of the drive, with a little white calf. They both looked very well, so Tansy is obviously a very good mum, giving birth all by herself, and cleaning and feeding the little one. We assured Ove that we had no idea she was pregnant, and he had just thought she looked a healthy well fed cow. We would have been aware if there had been a rampaging bull loose around the property, and there were just steers next door. We googled the gestation period for cows which, for those quiz buffs amongst us, is 275 days, and realisation dawned.

Going back 275 days…..

We had four cows and not enough pasture. The oldest cow got sick and we had to have her put down. That left three cows and still not enough pasture. Rosie and the guest cow who had wandered in off the road (subsequently given to us by the owner) are extremely greedy and bolshy with it and trying to ensure that all four cows got something to eat during winter feeding, has been a nightmare. They both have horns, which made the whole exercise pretty scary at times. So Steve and I had decided to let the two with horns go onto a different home. So, we asked Michael, a helpful farmer nearby, for advice and he offered to sell on the two cows for us, buy a weaner to keep Tansy company, and to overwinter them all at his place, where he had lots of grazing. It would give our grass a chance to recover. So Tansy went off on holiday for a couple of months, and returned, with friend Blackberry, and it is now apparent, a much wider experience of the world, than we would have liked! We will have to have a word with Michael when we get back to NZ!

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No. 20 Bristol, Bath and Babies Mark II

After our triumph at Twickenham, Bristol beckoned but first we travelled back to High Wycombe with Antonio and Lino as they had very kindly offered us the use of their spare car for the duration of our visit.   We would have enjoyed a couple of very laidback days there, but we both had a tummy bug so, after giving it to Lynn, we loaded up the car and set off for Bristol.

Steve knows Bristol quite well from working there years ago, but it was lovely to tour the city with our two residents, and for Jon and Charlie to show Steve their flat and some of their favourite places.   We spent several days there before heading off to Bath to meet Alex, Craig, and Amelia, who had travelled across for the weekend.   We had booked a lovely little cottage just outside Bath, so after a wander round the city, we headed off to book into the cottage.  It was very pretty, in a very quiet rural area just outside Castle Coombe, a ridiculously picturesque village which is used as location for many films and TV programmes, including Dr Doolittle and, more recently, Warhorse.   This is beginning to sound like a travelogue.   It is often referred to as ‘the prettiest village in England’ – I’m going to stop now.

After a very relaxing weekend, we headed back to Bristol for a few more days, where I finally managed to have my tooth mended.   We were able to make ourselves useful driving Jon and Charlie around to look at a couple of houses to rent.   Their present landlady had already advised them that she was going to try to sell the flat during the period of their six months tenancy, and she has managed to do that.   Their present flat is lovely, and they were initially disappointed that they couldn’t stay longer, but with Charlie’s pregnancy, and that spiral staircase, it is probably a good time to move and get settled in before the baby comes in October.

We saw two houses.   One, a four bedroomed townhouse, was very nice, modern and easy care.   The other was inhabited by students and vacated by us very quickly.   Fortunately, the first ticked most of the boxes and they are now signed up and moving in July, so they will have time to get settled in before the baby arrives in October.    So more changes, upheavals, moving vans, babies and lots more happening this year; who knows what else is round the corner!   And speaking of babies……….

No. 19 Rugby Sevens and Animal Heads

Jon and Charlie booked our Rugby Sevens tickets months ago and the day finally arrived a week after Steve. The tickets were for the Sunday, the second day of the tournament, but we had decided to make a weekend of it, and booked a hotel in Kensington for the two nights. We were the first to arrive, and then Jon and Charlie from Bristol and, eventually, Antonio and Lino from High Wycombe. They are always late, due to their poor navigational skills I suspect. But, who am I to talk. I suggested that the four of us take a short stroll to Harrods just along from nearby Kensington Station. Unfortunately, I had Kensington High Street station in mind when calculating the distance, as we discovered after walking for an hour in what I was convinced was the wrong direction because we didn’t arrive. It was in fact the right direction but about four miles further on that I thought, due to my getting South Kensington and Kensington High Street mixed up! I don’t know why I was so surprised – par for the course for me really.

We had afternoon tea in Harrods and then looked at all the things we would like, don’t need, and can’t afford to buy anyway. It somehow worked itself out. Antonio and Lino were busy enjoying a foot massage so we met up with them for dinner. Dinner proved of mixed benefit for me. The food was good but during the evening I split my tooth, resulting in a jagged edge and some concern as to possible increasing pain levels. But I have a stoic streak and mostly ignored it over the next few days, especially as we had the more important event of Rugby Sevens to come. I wasn’t actually sure what this was, having only heard of the all Blacks, but the name is pretty self explanatory – it was seven players a side, NZ wore black and they won, so it was pretty easy to follow. Not so appreciated by Charlie, being the only English supporter amongst us, but England won the women’s competition, so we were even. Charlie could hold her English lion head high, literally as well as figuratively.

The five of us (before Steve arrived) had visited Bath and, as well as a very nice lunch, we had bought at the market, six animal heads to celebrate the Safari theme of Rugby Sevens. After a convivial lunch, we thought this was hilarious – Jon chose a monkey, Charlie the lion, and then the animals got rather less safari. Antonio’s panda would have been more comfortable in China, my tabby just wanted to curl up in front of a fire, and we never worked out what Lino’s animal was! But we all agreed that Steve’s was the best. It was a wonderful shaggy grey elephant with beady eyes, red lined ears and a slightly wonky trunk. It was also considerably bigger than the other heads which, I suppose, makes sense. We were sure that Steve would love it, but to give him no opportunity to ‘lose’ it, we decided to surprise him on the day. Stashing my cat and the elephant away in our room, the others knocked on our door on the morning of the tournament and, when Steve opened it, he was confronted by four people wearing animal heads. His shocked face was a picture, and even more so when he turned round bemusedly to me, to find that I too was transformed. I then presented him with his very own elephant head and he became one of us – and we joined the rest of the rugby supporters on the way to Twickenham, and rugby glory.

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No. 18 Nostalgia Fest

 It has been very rewarding (and challenging) being a single traveller, able to please myself and arrange to meet up with my more disreputable friends when I like.   I have managed to cross off most of the things on my wishlist, indulged myself in lashings of sharing and unburdening conversations at all hours of the day and night,  get thrown out of a cafe, and lived to tell the tales (if I wanted to) of some odd and strange late night convivial sessions.   Disappointingly, I never got thrown out of a pub or a night club, probably because I didn’t spend a lot of time in either, but I’m sure I would have, if I had, if you know what I mean.

I am now part of a couple again and, while that means fewer female only jaunts,  it opens up many possibilities for festivity as we catch up with family and friends we haven’t been able to see yet, especially some of Steve’s relatives.   Couples apparently, entertain on a grander and more intensive scale, which seems to involve a lot of eating and drinking, for which, we discovered after eating out five nights in a row in just one week, considerable stamina is needed.   But we enjoyed a lot of delicious meals, both at friend’s and family’s homes, and in some of the best restaurants in Essex.   And we went to the odd pub or two, too.

We explored the local shops, and further afield to Chelmsford and Bluewater (a huge shopping complex just over the border into Kent), especially Debenhams and Marks and Spencer so that Steve could stock up with manly garb.   In fact, he went shopping more often that I did!   We drove slowly past our old house in Tennyson Road, past St Martin’s School, Jon and Alex’s old secondary school, and Steve had his turn at being a celebrity when we both attended to St Stephen’s Church, where everyone made a big fuss of him, and ignored me, but I was happy to take a back pew, having enjoyed my taste of celebrity previously.

But mostly, we spent a lot of time during the day with Alex and Amelia, and Steve made up for not being able to be with me during that initial time when I arrived.    Amelia has changed so much from that fragile new baby look into that bonny three month old, with a real personality, lots of smiles and just beginning to chuckle.  Steve loves to push the buggy.   It must be a man thing as when we go shopping together, he likes to push the trolley.   Unfortunately he’s not so organised and proficient as me, and not so aware of personal space.   In short, he often parks in the middle of the aisle obstructing the flow of traffic, or slows down and peruses the biscuits, whilst I need the trolley to be in the next aisle with me.   Perhaps his supermarket trolley technique has improved during my 10 weeks away, when he has had to do his own shopping, all alone.   He has mentioned that the bills are lower without me.   I said that my patience threshhold is a lot higher without him.   I think we’re even.

No. 17 Coincidence, Synchronicity and Oneness

Though Skype had been marvellous for keeping in touch, there’s nothing like catching up in person.   Steve tried to remember all the things he’s done in my absence and fill in the gaps.   One of his best stories was hosting Aimee and Matt at Totaranui.   These are the people whose house I was looking after during their absence – on holiday in New Zealand.   I think one of the reasons they chose me (from amongst 50 applicants) was the fact that they were coming to NZ, and I was going to the UK and the coincidence.   Of course, I did have to pass a stringent interview (by email) process to get the assignment, but I am very good at putting on a positive spin when writing (demonstrated by this blog – meaning that I could bore you with the dreadful, embarrassing or cringeworthy bits but I don’t).

Anyway, once Aimee and Matt had offered me the job, they asked if Totaranui was on the way down from Auckland.    I had to say no, but suggested that if they could spare a couple of days at the end of their holiday, they could come up here, and enjoy a quiet and relaxing time, before they flew home.   They thought that was a great idea and booked in.   Steve was happy and confident in his hostly role and so it came about.   They arrived late afternoon and were given tea and cake and settled in.   When Steve heard they were going to try Parua Bay Tavern for dinner, he asked if he could join them and the evening unfolded in a very entertaining way.   Steve saw Jane, whom he used to work with, it was Quiz Night and she invited them all to join her quiz team, and they all got swept up in a real Kiwi experience.  Now Aimee and Matt are very big in the entertainment industry – Aimee is a film producer (Harry Potter) and Matt is in film production and has worked at Weta Workshop in Wellington.   The quiz questions fell very nicely for them, with lots on film, TV, music and even a few UK and London ones.   There was a picture question on a sports stadium and Aimee leaped up and shouted that Barb (that’s me) was there.  It was Twickenham, just half a mile up the road from their house.   At least I got a mention, even if I didn’t have the fun!

Team Turtle (named after Jane’s boat) won, romped home in fact, and Jane was thrilled.   It was her first win in seven years of competing.   She asked Aimee and Matt to come back the following week.   Sadly, they couldn’t, but they had a winning team photo taken and posted on the Tavern’s Facebook page, and Aimee and Matt sent it on to all their friends and enjoyed all the fame and adulation that went with such a victory.

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Not content with such excitement, they went off the next evening to Topsail Restaurant to celebrate Matt’s 40th birthday.   Before they left the UK, they had asked us to recommend a good restaurant, we suggested Topsail and they booked for 8.30 pm.   After spending nearly three weeks in NZ, they realised that we dine a couple of hours earlier than they are used to, but they went a bit earlier and had a drink whilst enjoying the sea view and ambience, and they loved the food too.   They were full of it when they returned, so they all shared a bottle of wine as they told Steve all about it.   We were so pleased that they had such a good experience here, with lots of good memories to take back with them.

When they got back to their house, I was waiting to hand over to them and debrief.   I confessed to the broken light pull, and one or two other small, insubstantial, things.   They weren’t at all bothered and just wanted to tell me all about their holiday and especially, their time at Totaranui.   They said it felt really weird that the last person they really spoke to in NZ was Steve, and the first person in the UK was me.   I felt like a little wave or particle that resonated across the universe to its corresponding other.   I love physics.

No. 16 Space Invaders And The Importance Of Making Room

Ten long weeks into my trip and Steve is flying in today.   Alex, Craig and Amelia have gone to pick him up from the airport, whilst I have stayed at home suffering from a headache, brought on by too much anticipation and excitement I expect.   They are taking a long time because of delays on the M25, the ring road around London, but, after four long hours, they all arrive, with hair raising stories of the horrors of motorways, traffic and feeding and changing babies along the way.   At least, Steve had a ‘bells and all’ (better than warts) introduction to Amelia, and he still loves her to bits.

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Steve hasn’t changed much, despite the pining for me and the weight loss, and it is good to catch up in person, rather than via Skype and emails.   We are all soon happily bonded again over a very nice NZ Sauvignon Blanc, the best fish and chips in Essex, and baby Amelia, until Steve begins to flag, and it is time for us to go on to our digs at Sandra and Ray’s.    After my initial three weeks with Alex and Craig, I went off for several weeks of travels, after which I decided to change my base to Sandra and Ray’s house and leave Alex, Craig and Amelia to finally set up the nursery in the hope that Amelia might settle into a more adult friendly feeding and sleeping regime.    I also sensed that Amelia might take after me in my requirement for personal space.   So, on my return from various travels, I stayed with Sandra and Ray, who very generously gave up their spare room and much of their peace of mind trying to keep up with, and stay polite about, my various comings and goings, early rising and insistence on homemade muesli and in depth discussion.

Unpacking the biggest suitcase in the Western world is a challenge.   For a stay of two or three days, I have learnt not to, unpack that is;   instead, I just very carefully, so as not to disturb unneeded items,  fish out the things I need for the moment.   But longer term, for a crease free and more homely existence, total unpacking is necessary, and this needs to be done – equally carefully – for the best results.   After many weeks, I feel myself organised – hanging rails, boxes for underwear, socks, books, toiletries, beads – I am happily in control.

Now, Steve has arrived into this carefully organised and personal space, my cherished home from home.   It is great to be together again, or is it?   The first chink came as I showed Steve his very own hanging rail for his clothes, but as he started unpacking and filling up the rail, and then my space with his stuff, I realised that my stuff was in danger of being covered up or crowded out.   I felt my defensive hackles raise as my carefully managed space became ours, and then his space.   The hanging rail wasn’t enough – he needed somewhere for his socks, his knickers, his too much stuff……

In the interests of personal growth, I have taken this opportunity to observe that 10 weeks of living apart throws up interesting dynamics.    I have forgotten to factor in the changes in living (and survival) arrangements I have found necessary to make my little home from home, and it seems that my territorial instincts have been honed to a lethal edge.   I think I have more in common with cats that I thought.

In other words, Did I say you could share my sock box.   It took a day or two, a shopping trip to buy Steve his very own knicker and sock boxes and, on my part, sustained deep breathing and relaxation techniques, and a little more therapy, to learn again how to share.

No. 15 Fun At The Seaside

It took some time for my jangled nerves to settle, helped by finding Dot in the car park ready for our adventure and finding that I had the biggest room.   I had shared a room with Dot some years before and the memories have stayed with me.  So, I insisted on a room all to myself, and obviously the other two have grown in wisdom too, also opting for a single room each.   We inspected Dot’s room first and this was very nice, small but functional;  Pauline’s room was exactly the same but on the floor below, but my room was the best – right at the end of the corridor, and tucked away in a corner, and it had the biggest bed.

To avoid any shenanigans, I put a spell of forgetfulness on my friends so that they wouldn’t remember where I was.  I thought this wise, remembering one parish weekend we all attended, led by our minister and his wife.   Following on from the conventional content of the days, there were the more socially inclined evenings, during which the constraints of polite behaviour and the consumption of alcohol became somewhat confused.   Next morning, the minister opened his door to find a large box of empty wine bottles deposited on his doorstep, blatantly advertising his (apparent) activities of the night before.   We had suspicions of the culprit’s identity but nothing was ever proven.   But in the case of the apple pie bed bestowed on the minister and his wife, there were reportedly witnesses to a certain someone being seen climbing out of their window.   I think I remember that certain disciplinary measures were taken that day.

Now that person was present in Bournemouth with us and, understandably,  a slight nervousness was felt, hence the spell.   I have to say that this person’s behaviour has not noticeably improved with age.   However, we all signed a pact agreeing that all drinking, talking, laughing and any excesses resulting therefrom, should be carried out within clear sight of each other, and enjoyed by all, and any consequences faced up to in a mature fashion.   So that’s what happened.   Of course, there could well be some fallout later from this reticence on the part of the potential troublemaker.   I seem to remember that the minister did subsequently receive a letter regarding the bats in the church belfry, their protected species status, and a demand for him to follow, to the letter, stringent requirements for their complicated care regime, but that’s another story.

No 14 Sat Nav, Mobile Phones And The Meaning Of Life

Dot had booked our hotel before I left New Zealand, so we just had to get there and start partying.  I switched to the much more manageable baby version of my suitcase, and Pauline was driving us down, so I reckoned that I could just sit back and enjoy some good conversation on the trip.   Wrong – any promising conversation was drowned out by an overpowering and totally incorrect monologue from the voice of the Sat Nav, which in turn prompted loud and heated responses from Pauline, and eventually from myself, warning about the dangers of putting one’s trust in inanimate objects.   After an hour or so of this, and feeling the need for sustenance and a strong cup of tea, we stopped at a service station.

olkiday mood restored,Holiday mood restored, we got back into the car, plugged in the Sat Nav and were instantly subjected to a totally insane tirade from Hal (now renamed) Nav which insisted that we go back the way we had come.   There ensued another bout of irate responses from Pauline and much encouragement from me to repent of this folly, throw the thing overboard and use a map.   Due to an oversight, and blind trust in inanimate objects, we didn’t have a map (another subject of debate) but we could both read signposts, and eventually arrived at Bournemouth.    We parked and reset alHalHal Nav for the final, intricate directions to the hotel, which turned out to be half a block away, and, as we turned the next corner, in plain sight.

 I feel a tirade coming on.   Now I have in the past called myself a technophobe, to explain to people why the pervasive presence and reliance on electronic gadgets irritates me so much and is a danger to the evolutionary process .  However, I have decided that I am not technically, a technophobe.    I have a mobile phone and find it useful for urgent or exciting news, last minute changes to arrangements, and for when I get lost.    I have a netbook with me on my travels which I have found to be very useful and a marvellous way to keep in touch, through Skype and receiving emails (sending them has been another matter!)  And, of course, I have this blog.   So I do enjoy some technology, the kind that works for me and aids me through my day and comes when I call.   I get niggly with the kind that encroaches with uninvited spam, scam and sham and assumes instant response or action from me.   I want to be able to choose to use.

For me, it is difficult to escape from the constant barrage of noise and activity that is modern life, but I know that it can and must be done at regular times to restore and celebrate that sense of self, and to just be.   Without that quiet space and time to reflect, how will we get to know ourselves and find our real place in the world, and develop that inner strength to live well.   It occurs to me that all the great wisdom traditions have an ancient form of Sat Nav that depends on regular times of quiet and reflection, an open heart and a listening ear, and that’s proved to be a most wonderful direction finder through life.   I think I will stick with that.   Tirade over.

No 13 The Joy Of Food, Family And Cupcakes

My home from home during most of my trip has been with Sandra and Ray, my sister and her husband.   They have enabled me to have a base in Brentwood, the town where we lived and brought up our family for 18 years, between our times in New Zealand.   Alex (and Craig), still live in Brentwood, as do a surprising number of my old friends.   I revisited  to my old church, St Stephen’s, one Sunday with Ray, and felt like the homecoming queen.   I was amazed by how many people were there that I knew from the old days, and with the welcome they gave me.  Or it could just have something to do with the cup cakes I helped carry in, and bread pudding that Ray makes once a month, as a fundraiser for the church.   Either way, I had a lovely time catching up with everybody.

Ray makes the most wonderful cakes.   He has been cooking and baking for a long time, but now he is based full time at home, (Sandra still, heroically, continues full time working; she is five years younger than me, she would have you know).   Ray has made his baking into an art form.   He, and Sandra, who is the decoration diva, are in much demand for family events.   They created the centrepiece of both their daughters’ weddings – a beautiful cupcake tower, and have been booked for Amelia’s baptism on 9th June.   We are choosing the mix of flavours and decoration, and of course, that includes the carrot cake variety – Ray has adapted my old recipe into smaller cupcake versions, and they look and taste wonderful.    I have a legacy!

Ray is also determined to keep that old favourite, bread pudding, alive, helped by the stalwarts of St Stephen’s, who love to arrive on cake days to the delicious aroma of warm bread pudding.   I think we may have stumbled upon the reason for declining congregations – lack of bread pudding.   Perhaps there should be a ministry of bread puddings and formal recognition of the gifting of cooks.  Whimsicality aside, there has always been a truth and tradition of care and community nourished through the ages through the enjoyment of eating and talking together, and Ray is one of a long line of those caring for and nurturing the community through good food cooked and shared with love.

Then, there are Ray’s dinners.   He has built up an impressive repertoire of dishes and I think I tasted, and appreciated, a fair few – fish pie, salmon cutlets, lamb shanks – and there has been a full and frank exchange of recipes, as well as tastings.   We have great fun planning our menus and I, having practised during my three weeks with Alex and Craig, pulled out all those traditional winter warmers – beef stew with dumplings, spicy lamp chops, goulash, braised pork, mmm.

I think Sandra got carried away with the whole retro thing when she started reminiscing about one of her old favourites, Beef Wellington.   She remembered, and so did I, if I thought back far enough, my cooking this for them in time BC (before children).    Sandra had bridged the gap seamlessly between then and now, as you do when you don’t see people for a while.   We somehow expect them to carry on doing what we have seen them do before.   Sometimes we still do it.   In this case, we don’t.   I could vaguely recall the recipe, but the details were hazy so we turned to that less retro gadget – google.  There were pages of recipes for Beef Wellington; every chef and cook in existence has their own take on Beef Wellington.  Obviously, this would require much thought, so we decided to postpone any decision, save up for the beef fillet, and wait for Steve to arrive.   After all, it would be a shame for him to miss out on such a treat.

No. 12 Amazing Grace And An Encounter With Candelabra With Heads

It is a universal truth that one of the great difficulties of our time is trying to organise a number of people to gather in the same place at the same time.   Determination, organisation and, especially, ruthlessness are key to allowing everything else to fall by the wayside in favour of the greater good – a day out with two of my best and long standing (and certainly at times long-suffering) friends, Dot and Pauline.   We settled on Good Friday, venue Waterloo Station at 11 o’clock under the clock at Platform 9¾ or, failing the magic of Harry Potter, Platform 10.   I arrived on time and soon became immersed in the atmosphere of a busy railway station whilst I awaited the arrival of Dot and Pauline.     Suddenly, a crowd materialised out of nowhere, a drum started beating, and the beautiful words of Amazing Grace began to fill the station.   It acted like a magnet to all of us standing around and, trains and appointments forgotten, and song sheets provided, we warbled forth and the noise and bustle of the ‘real’ world was transformed by the touch of an angel’s wing.    At the end of the song, those in the know melted away and we, the uninitiated, were left standing bemused, but feeling as though something special had happened, and with the dawning realisation that we had been part of that mysterious event known as a flash mob.   Google Youtube Good Friday Waterloo.   It was a most uplifting and moving experience.

Another unexpected treat awaited us when we, having fought the bitter cold and wind of London’s South Bank, arrived at our goal, Tate Modern.   Walking round, we managed to glance at some art now and then, between the talking and catching up which, after all, was the main point of our meeting, when we found ourselves standing before one of the ugliest pieces of art we had ever seen.  Arranged on a wooden frame were eight strange shapes wound round with duck tape, each with a mannequin’s head, seemingly struggling to break free from…..

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Thomas Hirschhorn Candelabra with Heads

I’m not sure who was struck first by this work but it quickly became something we all identified with, and we each stood transfixed and overwhelmed by the thoughts and impressions called out from each of us.   We shared later something of our experience and they were all so different, but very meaningful to each of us.   My thoughts of people emerging from a chrysalis, an evolving, transformative process, has stayed with me and continues to itself evolve.

So, a very eventful and thought provoking day and one that gracefully enabled us to quickly resume that deeper level of communication that is so satisfying amongst old friends.   The endless cups of tea and a some delicious nibbles were also a factor, as we fine tuned arrangements for our next outing, to Bournemouth, in just a couple of weeks time.