– an informal term for Britain or England, used by soldiers of the First and Second World Wars.
first used by soldiers in the Indian army; Anglo-Indian alteration of Urdu bilāyatī, wilāyatī ‘foreign, European’, from Arabic wilāyat, wilāya ‘dominion, district’
(Oxford Dictionaries – online)
I will soon be re-entering British airspace and am now getting just a teensy bit excited. Me and The Mighty Blighty go way back. In fact it’s my point of origin. And that fact makes me all warm-fuzzy proud and happy. It’s part of what made me me and a key part at that.
We have the perfect relationship. One enjoyed in close proximity for only brief periods of time; while the honeymoon period lasts and we still have fun together. Before the mundane kicks in. When away, I feel I definitely got the better part of the deal. When there, I recall what Blighty gets back from me thanks to the Inland Revenue and my previous employment (that’s in addition, of course, to the blessing of my birth). I, and other insiders, can acknowledge all the socio-political shortcomings of our island in our true-blue-self-deprecatory way. However, I am impervious to external criticism of the land of my birth unless it chimes with my already voiced opinion. What do others know, after all, of my first – and most – special relationship?
Here, I’m trying to resist simply making a list of all that I’m looking forward to during the fortnight I’m in England. I may yet fail – let’s see…Very swiftly, I’ll catch up with my neighbours as they have the house keys. That done, I’ll be in Colchester (my hometown) to survey the landscape for any new disasters committed by the local council. Then, I’ll go to the local grocer and cook up a storm. I have episodes of Strictly and other TV gems to catch up on while enjoying a hot cup of English Breakfast tea and Marmite on toast – maybe with a blanket wrapped round me to keep out any chill.
Another must is the whisky run to Grandad – there’ll be one of those and then a chocolate run in the same direction. I keep my fingers crossed I’ll see as many of my family and friends as want to see me. The ideal meeting point is, of course, the pub and there are two good locals I really want to revisit, preferably in good company. Other outlying villages with great hostelries can expect a visit, too. And London has to be top of my places list – I cannot be in England and not spend time there.
There’s so much to do and so many people to see and there’s never enough time, but there’s always next time -and that’s the joy in the pangs of a long-distance relationship.
I love this time of year. Autumn is the best season by far. I have a personal interest, mine and my sister’s birthdays fall here. So, it is the start of my own new year (though I would also put in a vote for March 25, but that’s another post right there). I am a child of the northern hemisphere where this is the start of the academic year and a time I associate with new beginnings. Why celebrate on January 1, in the middle of winter when it’s still dark and cold and there’s nothing new except the number? It’s an abacus new year, is what that is.
So, when does autumn officially start? August 24 is when. That’s my new year’s day. In the following week fall the birthdays of three people I love dearly, a real cause for celebration. By September 1, I’m in full free Fall mode. This year, here on that date, the weather shifted to make way for the new season. The wind, blowing so strong that last week of August, dropped to a cool breeze. The sea came down off its high horse, the haze of humidity cleared and the sun pierced the view. Suddenly, colours are more intense, light is brighter and vistas are sharper. The sun and the sea are closer now; the one has warmed the other’s heart and we move effortlessly from land to water and back.
From my bedroom, I can now see the coast of Turkey in clear detail over a newly-ironed Aegean. Even at night, the lights twinkling in that village opposite, outside Europe, appear to be only one or two streets down from the windmills. In the evening, as the sun sets over the yard and darkness falls, it’s still a pleasure to sit outside in the yard with my glass of Akakies. But now I entertain the idea of a jacket when that cool breeze blows smoothly through the bougainvillea. Night time is a joy – no more need for the fan or the ritual cold shower before bed – it’s now the right temperature to sleep under a sheet with the windows wide open.
From long before, this season brings back memories of blackberrying, rambling through hedgerows and scrumping apples. It recalls the smell and taste of my grandmother’s bramble jelly and my mother’s apple pie (still, and always, the best-ever-in-the-history-of-the-world-no-debate-full-stop). It reminds me of Hallowe’en before it was hijacked by Hallmark and Bonfire Night before home fireworks were frowned on by Health and Safety Committees. The crispness of leaves as we kicked our way to school and home again, the crunching of home-made toffee apples, the starched-stiffness of new school uniforms; all this I remember with fondness. As autumn passed on, and my sister’s birthday came and went, there was the surreptitious countdown to Christmas, yet December 25 still seemed an age away…
Autumn, always a joy.
This is about a day that dawned somber in May and an event seven months earlier and it concerns someone people nearly knew, but not quite (for some, certainly not as well as they believed).
In November last year I learned that a man I nearly knew had died suddenly and unexpectedly (to those of us left, that is – he may have realised it was time to go). It saddened me, of course, as this type of news does – this time around even more so as I wasn’t able to be there for the funeral. That, in itself, was odd as I’m normally relieved to have an excuse not to go to such events, finding them strained and unrepresentative of the person I remember.
In any case, when I was eventually able to do so in May, I visited people who also nearly knew this man and we talked of his death and his funeral until I felt I’d found out all I could. There then came a Thursday which dawned somber, humid and overcast and which found me in reflective mood. I decided ‘Today’s the day’ and set off, on foot, for the cemetery. I’d been offered lifts but wanted to go alone. I’d been given specific instructions on how to find the grave, how hard could it be?
I cut my summer-soft feet up as I walked there in flip-flops but lost my irritation when I arrived at the cemetery. I’d forgotten the sense of community and amount of everyday activity there. I wandered around and marvelled at the personal, yet uniform, touches to the graves and tombs. There were names I recognised and tombs which stood out in design and sheer size. One such was prominent for all the wrong reasons – it was hideous and also huge in its hideousness. When I saw and recognised the name on it, I was saddened. I remember her living vividly as a glossy, glamorous survivor.
After trying (and failing miserably) to locate the grave I was looking for (one of the few times in my life I’ve really wanted to see a dead person but couldn’t), I spoke to a priest who directed me to ‘the man who knew’ in the front office. Both men were kind, helpful and efficient. ‘The man who knew’ did indeed know, and instantly, who I was looking for and where he could be found. He marched me at a cracking pace through the cemetery to ‘Zone 26’. Once there, it took a few minutes of searching before I happened across the exact ‘In Loving Memory’ on a headstone. A marker notable for the information it didn’t give – an exact date of death. I think he’d have enjoyed that subtle difference. A very private man to the last, even right up to his last week in October.
I then felt I should ‘look busy’ like all the other visitors, so did some plastic flower tidying and left my lucky bracelet hanging on one of the synthetic twigs at the head of the grave. I liked that there was the sound of children in the playground just over one wall of the cemetery, the noise of speeding cars over another and, in the background, the sound of the sea on the nearby beach. I liked, too, that the cemetery was quite the hive of activity for the living – tending, tidying, visiting, shouting, driving and riding around. Layers of life and death surrounding that someone I nearly knew.
You wake up smiling, a really broad grin on your face. Why? You have no recollection of any dreams. You have no recollection of last night from about the time you turned down another drink and said you really had to be going home. Yup, right there. For a while, you lie on your back; grinning, glowing and relaxed. You tentatively allow daylight between your eyelids. You focus with increasing clarity on the ceiling. You’re still smiling. The rationed daylight starts your mind working. The CSI: About Last Night checklist kicks in.
Where are you? Check. Calmly, you move your eyes from the ceiling and, with your head perfectly still, look left to right. Yes, you made it home. You made it into your own bed. You’re even covered with one of your own sheets. Whether or not you did that all on your own leads us to the second point.
Are you alone? Check. For this, you need to wake up a little bit more. You don’t feel touched by the presence of another. Now you have to move. Just a little. Ready? Good. You shift slightly to your side and glance at the floor next to the bed. Nobody. No bodies. Relief, maybe regret. You return to the warm patch you just left and listen up. No, not a sound. Not even from the bathroom. You sniff the air, detect no unfamiliar odours but do notice you smell different. And so, to point number three.
Are you hurt? Check. You’re still grinning inanely, so we’re talking superficial-physical-ok. You move your toes, then your feet and finally stretch your legs. You flex your fingers, hands and arms. So far, so good. You make the decision to sit up…one, two, three, up. That’s it. Head swims slightly: speed of sit up; residual booze; excess (psych) baggage. Who knows? You don’t. Nothing hurts. Good. Though sitting does feel a bit, well, uncomfortable. Not bad, just odd. You stand up. You’re a bit unsteady, but it’s time for point four. Let’s look in the mirror.
Are you marked? Check. No (new) tattoos? What about bruises or cuts? You look, you turn slowly in front of the mirror, alarmed by smudged make up in unexpected places (yours?). Everything seems to be where and how it was 24 hours before. Good. No need to wear unseasonal clothing to cover embarrassing and inexplicable markings. Now, talking of clothing, on to point five.
Where are your clothes from last night? Check. A cursory glance reveals they are folded neatly by your bed/ dropped shabbily on the floor (delete as applicable) as they always are. Relief. You scoop them up and perch on the edge of the bed, instantly reminded of that odd feeling when you sit down. Item by item you examine, hoping at least one will provide a (pleasant) clue as to what happened the night before. You discover where your different smell is coming from and that a motorbike was involved at some point (oil and tyre tread marks). And that’s it.
So, what next? Well, life goes on and so do we. You have to face the world at some point. The sooner the better. You resolve to be low-key for a couple of days. There may be phone calls or awkward encounters with those who were (fully) there. You play it cool. Days pass; there is no comeback, you don’t need the GUM clinic, and you are still none the wiser. From time to time, you reflect wistfully that that might have been the last time you had ‘Good Sex’ and you can’t even remember it. It’s a cold case. You’re still smiling. Move along now, nothing more to see.
My name is Jane. I was born in Lexden Road Maternity Home on the tenth day of the tenth month at five in the morning. I cherish the hope that the bottle of Guinness my mother received that day on the NHS went some way to giving her feelings of joy at my arrival. In any case, my parents had been told to expect a boy. Blue it was. A name was chosen. Then a girl arrived. Me. Blue suited me. The name didn’t. A cool, calm chat was had. My father knew a good Jane. I was named for her.
They wanted a name beginning with J, the tenth letter of the alphabet. They wanted ten letters to my name. Choice was, as you can imagine, quite limited. (Remember, these were the happy days before makey-uppy names and the celebrity cult). Middle names were out of the question (deemed unnecessary in, what would become, an increasingly rare consensus of parental opinion). My father went down to the Registrar’s Office on 11 October and I officially came into existence and came home.
Subsequently, my baptism was a straightforward affair – decisions were taken with ease. My mother had fallen out with the vicar of St Peter’s Church at the top of North Hill. He’d refused to marry my parents there four years earlier as my mother was not of that parish. For her, that church and that vicar simply ceased to exist. We went back to my mother’s parish, where Gran and Grandad still lived and ran the grocery store. We went to West Bergholt on the fifteenth day of the first month of the following year where I was baptised by the Rev Colin Douglas, assisted by my three godparents (two women and one man, as tradition then dictated).
My father, 42 at the time of my birth, declared that one child was enough. I spent the first three years of my life thinking so, too. I was the first girl born into the family and the first blonde and was the centre of attention. Where my older, male, cousins would be told off; I could do no wrong. We had all, foolishly, reckoned without my mother; 25 at the time of my birth. She decided that a second child was a good thing and, after a decent interval, promptly fell pregnant.
On the tenth day of the eleventh month, three years and one month after my arrival, the midwife came to Number 47 and set out her stall in the front bedroom overlooking North Hill. My mother had taken herself in there when the labour pains started, while my father called the doctor. Once the midwife was there, my father and I were sent off to do our thing, while my mother did hers. We returned in time for my sister’s delivery. When Alys came into the world my father and I were perched side-by-side, holding hands, on the edge of the bed in the adjoining room.
From that day to this, I have believed that midwives are special. This is where it started. The midwife checked all was well with mother and baby, wiped my sister off, wrapped her up, came into the bedroom next door and put my baby sister into my arms. My father reported that, for one of the only times in my life, I was speechless – until I came out with the word ‘wonderful’. The midwife then involved me, as far as was safe, in preparing my sister for this world. She thought she could encourage me to become a nurse. I thought for a while that I might do this if I had to grow up (Peter Pan and the Lost Boys were my earliest role models), but I was already sold on being a cowboy.
This time, my parents knew they were having a girl and my mother had chosen her name based on a medieval French history book she was reading whilst pregnant. By then, my father knew better than to have his own opinions on the matter. In any case, the name suited us all very well and my sister most of all. It begins with the first letter of the alphabet and gives ten letters to the full name. What’s not to like?
Many years have passed since then, and we’ve come through a great deal, but much remains the same. My sister is still wonderful and now has two wonderful daughters of her own. I still have a cowboy thing, I still have a Peter Pan thing and I still believe there’s something special about The Number 10.