I am a serial loser of handbags. I’ve left one in Italy (on a train), Norway (in a mountain cabin), Scotland (in a distillery). Then there was Canada.
We headed along Highway One, the Trans-Canada Highway, a straight line into the distance.
‘You’d think the Romans had been here,’ my husband said.
Not the Romans but the early pioneers, going west, not knowing what lay head. We knew. We were going to the Rocky Mountains. The land was flat as we left Calgary. Then we saw the ski jumps, challenging monsters for other brave men, a legacy from the 1988 Winter Olympic Games. We stopped to take photographs and have lunch in a café.
Then on again. We drove slowly, taking in the ever more spectacular view. At Canmore, a ski resort near Banff, we stopped to look around.
I reached for my handbag by my feet. Not there. Nor on the back seat. I froze as I re-lived the last hour of my life.
‘I left my handbag behind at lunchtime.’
My husband’s face was eloquent. There was much he could have said, but didn’t. Instead we simply headed back east.
He didn’t need to berate me; I was giving myself a bad enough time. We listed the bag’s contents: passports, credit cards, $500, glasses, mobile phone.
The return journey was unpleasant. The scenery irritated us with its slow passage. The 90 kph speed limit mocked us.
I ran into the café, to the table we’d used. No handbag. Jumping the queue, I told my story.
And there was my bag, handed in by a customer. Thank you, honest Canadians!
‘They do everything together. Lovely to see friendship like that.’
My parents were delighted when Graham bought a house next door to David.
‘How lucky they were it came up for sale!’
Mum had a close affinity to David, an avid traveller who loved the mountains, just like her. David planned all the trips while Graham took the photos. Not photos, slides. Much better reproduction, they agreed. They had slide shows and Mum and David recommended places in Switzerland and Austria to each other. David and Graham went on holiday together every summer. It was the highlight of their year. Their journeys were legendary.
I liked David. He was chatty and sociable whereas Graham retired into the background. But he was okay. We invited them both to our wedding and they came.
I was upset when Mum said David wasn’t talking to his parents any more. She didn’t know why. She’d tried asking his Mum, Auntie Beryl – not a real aunt, but every older lady was an aunt in those days – but had got nowhere. ‘Don’t like to pry,’ she said, ‘so I didn’t press the matter.’ None of us could understand why such an easy-going, likeable character like David would cause a family rift.
I was an innocent. We were then. I knew little about the world. I didn’t ever consider their friendship was more than just brotherly affection. Took decades before realisation hit me. Mum never knew. She wouldn’t have believed it if someone had spelled it out.
How sad they had to buy neighbouring houses! I never saw a single expression of intimacy, never a touch. A secret, fearful life. They were teachers; they couldn’t risk their jobs. It was illegal in the early sixties; they couldn’t endanger their freedom.
We thought it would be relatively easy after the Coast-to-Coast walk. Around fifty miles on five days, no day longer than twelve or thirteen miles. Easy to be seduced by numbers.
None of the hills is as high as in the Lake District; there is no rocky clambering. But we went up and down a lot. All four of us noticed that.
We decided to travel to and from the walk by train and bus – it solved the parking problem – and ate a picnic lunch on the way there. Tony managed to lose a crown while munching. Not totally lose it – we wrapped it in cling film only slightly smeared with mayonnaise from the sandwiches to keep it safe. There must be a dentist somewhere along the Cotswold Way who could glue it back in.
While enjoying the fruits (or rather the cakes) of a coffee shop in Chipping Camden, we investigated dentists. After some googling, Tony booked an appointment in Winchcombe for two days hence.
While sorting out our rucksacks ready for the start of the walk, we had a major triumph. Our spare car keys, missing since April, turned up in a deep, zipped pocket. As they would have cost around £400 to replace, I announced at dinner we were now £400 better off! We didn’t, however, buy a bottle of best Bordeaux.
The pattern of the days established itself. Was there anywhere we could stop for morning coffee, lunch or afternoon tea? Pam was on the case and found us somewhere every day. The walk started on June 8th – the election – and we saw folks going to the polls. The result gave us plenty to talk about the following day. When we had enough breath, that is. Martyn had been complaining about his balls. The balls of his feet, I should add. Changing to a different pair of boots did the trick and he was fine.
It was a shorter day and we felt good. Luckily we got to the B & B in Winchcombe just before the torrential rain arrived. Our son, Tim, who lives near, picked us up and we had a lovely evening and dinner with him and Jessi. Idris, their one-year-old, had been sick that day but we said we’d risk it.
We were now a further £90 better off. The dentist’s receptionist had phoned to say the cost of replacing the crown would be £90. Tony was not in pain so he cancelled. His own dentist, who fixed the crown in the first place, would do the job for nothing. The money was mounting up!
We needed to order the following morning’s breakfast. I asked for a bacon sandwich.
‘What’s that?’ The landlady replied. ‘I’ve never made one.’
Not sure if this makes her posh or deprived. She made an attempt for me but I suggest she doesn’t try again.
It was Cleeve Hill the next day. Windy but what views over Cheltenham! There was a double marathon coming towards us – some runners doing it in one day, some in two. Had a coffee and chips at the Cleeve Hill Golf Club – very naughty! Felt we shouldn’t complain about tiredness after seeing marathon runners. Puts distances into perspective. Lovely stop overnight at Detmore House in Charlton Kings. It wins our award for the best B & B of the walk.
Day four and a lot of ups and downs. A group of Charity walkers came towards us, totally shattered, having started at midnight and still with miles to go. Such admiration! The final climb up to Birdlip seemed to go on forever and I wasn’t feeling great. No details, but Idris’s bug got me. However, missing a meal always has its positive side if I lose a pound or two.
Final walking day – and I felt well enough to do it. It was the day of the mud. Rain, which we’d mostly missed, and the pounding of marathon runners’ feet had churned up the path making it hard going. We plodded on, the end in sight. We passed both the bottom and the top of Cooper’s Hill where the famous cheese rolling takes place. It’s steep!
Finally, pretty Painswick with its churchyard with ninety-nine yew trees. Legend says the hundredth will never grow.
We thanked Martyn for carrying the unused trowel the whole way (if you’re caught short, you have to bury it…) Celebrated our achievement with a bottle of bubbles – only Prosecco, in spite of the financial gains of the last few days!
The school trip – a fairground. So exciting! Mum had a chat with me about what rides I could go on.
‘Roundabouts are fine. Even the grand ones with the horses that go up and down. But not the big wheel, the bumper cars or anything dangerous. If you do, I’ll find out.’
‘But all the others will go on them.’
‘I don’t care what the others do.’
She gave me one of her looks.
‘Those rides are dangerous. We didn’t have you by accident and don’t want to lose you by accident.’
I didn’t dare go on the big wheel; I was the only one who didn’t. Even Mr Green, our teacher, went on it. I didn’t go on the bumper cars either. Fortunately my friend, Christine, watched with me. I bought her a candy floss. For my mother, I bought an embroidered handkerchief in a box with a cellophane lid. It cost one and sixpence; it was beautiful.
Mum questioned me when I got home, looking intently to detect signs of lying.
‘Are you sure you didn’t go on the bomber or anything that spins you round? And no big wheel?’
‘No, really I didn’t.’
I gave her the present and she beamed.
‘You’re a good girl. I’m proud of you.’
The righteous feeling was a poor substitute for the fun of the fair. I didn’t mention they’d all called me a baby. Mr Green told them not to but I could tell he thought it silly to go to the fair and just watch. I got this sick feeling inside whenever the memory came back to me.
Years later, as a teenager, I made up for lost time and resolutely rode on everything. All of the exciting rides made me feel sick. Funny how things turn out.
Don’t get in my way. Don’t fight with your brother. Don’t jump in puddles. Don’t leave anything on your plate. Don’t make a mess. Don’t play in the street. Don’t get dirty. Don’t leave your toys everywhere. Don’t answer back.
Don’t fence me in.
Don’t read under the bedclothes. Don’t bounce on the bed. Don’t chew bubble-gum. Don’t say naughty words. Don’t pick your nose. Don’t scratch your bottom. Don’t run in the woods. Don’t climb trees. Don’t do anything dangerous. Don’t talk to strange men. Don’t give me that look.
Don’t eat the daisies.
Don’t stay out late. Don’t argue with me. Don’t bring that boy home. Don’t grow your hair long. Don’t paint your nails. Don’t wear tight skirts. Don’t wear short skirts. Don’t embarrass me.
Don’t go breaking my heart.
Don’t diet. Don’t go to coffee-bars. Don’t go to pubs. Don’t plaster your face with make-up. Don’t waste your money. Don’t lie. Don’t keep secrets from me. Don’t believe everything your friends say.
Don’t let me be misunderstood.
Don’t read ‘Lady Chatterley’s Lover’. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink too much. Don’t behave like that in my house. Don’t disappoint me. Don’t give me that look.
Don’t cry for me, Argentina.
What happened to ‘Do’?
Do have a good time. Do bring all your friends home. Do be independent. Do take a few risks. Do discuss things with me. Do read widely. Do be positive. Do remember contraception. Do enjoy life. Do make your own mind up. Do be happy.
Six of us, travellers in France, thrown together at a guesthouse. It turned out Alice and Alec lived ten miles from Brenda and Bob. The ‘A’ and the ‘B’ team; we two were alphabetical and geographical misfits.
‘My God! We’re practically neighbours! You don’t sail, do you?’ Alex bellowed.
‘Actually, yes. Have a 38 footer.’
‘Mmm, our boat is smaller. But we do have a second one, a clinker-built job.’
Bob changed tack. ‘Damned good food at the boathouse.’
‘We prefer our local gastro-pub. The one with a Michelin star.’
Brenda jumped in. ‘I dislike sailing. I renovate our lovely old house with its half-acre of land.’
‘Land? Into gardening?’ Alice’s eyes sparkled. ‘I grow all our veg now I’ve retired from Harley Street. Must use our acre.’
The ‘B’ team preferred to buy local organic produce.
‘We’re joining our son in Provence.’ Brenda continued. ‘He needs a break – such a stressful job. He’s a partner in a large law firm.’
‘Really?’ Alice grew two inches. ‘Our son is a hedge fund manager in the City. Earns millions – but I shouldn’t mention that!’
‘Being a Harley Street doctor entitles you to boast.’
Alice had a fit of coughing. Her husband explained she had been secretary to a consultant oncologist.
In the fidgeting break in conversation, I mentioned our next stop was the ancestral home of Josephine de Beauharnais.
‘Before she married Napoleon.’ Nobody seemed interested. ‘So it’s an early night. Maybe we’ll bump into each other again.’
‘Who knows? Perhaps at that Beauharnais place, eh?’ Loud, dismissive guffaws.
‘Well, it’s possible. The place is for sale and we’re putting in a bid.’
Four pairs of eyes fixed on me; smiles vanished.
We left the room and waited. Silence. Then four clamouring voices.
I met my first, an elderly lady, when we were stranded by snow at Chicago airport. My business ticket gained me a hotel room. She tagged along and although her economy ticket (not cheap, she protested, she’d saved a year for it) won her nothing, she ended up as my companion. I took her to dinner, then breakfast and escorted her back to England. I thought I’d have to take her home as no-one met her but a steward took pity on us both.
The next was in New Zealand. She drowned me in information at a Bed and Breakfast. ‘Call me Aggie,’ she said but as I barely uttered a word, I had no occasion to call her anything. ‘So lovely to chat. So interesting.’ My husband had quietly disappeared, insisting I was better than he with overwhelming women.
The Agatha syndrome struck again in Madeira. We were having a pre-dinner drink when a dowdy couple came into the hotel lounge. Being Brits, we’d spread out to avoid the invisible barriers we’d all erected around ourselves. I nodded towards the newcomers and she shuffled delightedly towards me. I heard about her purchases, her favourite designers and saw her new shoes. When I said I was dreadful at buying clothes, she offered to take me in hand; and, by the way, her name was Agatha. I never found time to shop with her.
The following evening we went to a concert. The loud enthusiast beside me told me it was her eighth visit to the island and she always attended this event. I could have left immediately, I learned so much about it. Afterwards, her husband said, ‘Good as ever, Jean.’
Jean? Had I misheard? She had to be called Agatha.
This was published in the Mar/Apr/May issue of Mslexia