We have flown the nest for the summer. Our flight – the first without a pushchair/stroller in nine years – was punctuated by my being the only one to be disorderly with our supper trays. I pour wine over both myself and Eleanor “you’ve got it in my underpants”, drop sweet corn salad on my silk top and a raspberry cheesecake on both my silk top and my son. I then lose a buttered roll to BA’s carpeting and am forced to retrieve it with my toes as it is all Alexander will eat.
Heathrow 6am, blue skies and several hundred jet lagged passengers trying to board the transit train like bleary lemmings. “There’s a queuing system” points out a Heathrow ground staff member bleakly but firmly. We have arrived.
One and a half hours from Heathrow in a right-hand drive car, on left-hand drive roads, re-acquainted with a gearstick and the orderly style of English drivers – we find ourselves in Halford, a pretty little village in Warwickshire. Our hostess promises to leave the door ajar if she is off fetching my godson. “I have always loved squalor but this defines a new level” she has warned with charming gaiety. I am so heartily tired of people automatically apologizing for the state of their houses, enforcing a fake idea of how we should all be living– that I am already full of happy expectation. The problem is one can only really do good squalor if it is splendid and that requires a suitable backdrop. Splendid squalor is a quintessentially English thing and a hall mark of good blood. It is designed to confuse the foreigner as is the pronunciation of the name St John (singian) and of half the country place names of England. These are probably all rooted in an ancient desire to wrong foot and thereby expose under-cover island invaders.
We drive through the covered threshing floor and into the courtyard of the house, stables, outbuildings, abandoned pig sties and a trampoline. The door is indeed ajar and a mix of violent high-gloss yellow with someone’s later attempt to apply tasteful Farrow and Ball in a colour that is so muted and clever that it cannot be described. The lock holds a key that has never had to share quarters with an assembly of loyalty cards that only prove our total lack of loyalty to anyone. The kitchen is paved with gigantic old flagstones. Of course fresh from Bethesda, we cannot get over the antiquity of it all. The sandstone mullioned windows that frame a solitary goldfish in a well forgotten tank, the twisting stair cases, the corridors that sinew off in different directions with doorways stepping up and down into further rooms to be explored.
My godson returns, a shambolic head of white curls and English school uniform, collar just a little oversized, and moss green V neck Shetland. And so the reunion begins, scampering limbs, yells of lament, love, hate and indignation.
Drinks, peace reigns. Three jet lagged heads sunk upon their crisp cotton pillows under the eaves. Some glasses of wine, the smell of roast chicken and fennel drifting onto the terrace and beatific as this is, it is still England so we soon retire to the warmth of four walls. But our chicken is soon interrupted by indistinct noises from the garden. It turns out that the bat inspectors have arrived. The derelict barn that my hosts want to restore is suspected of housing bats. My hosts fear is that these may turn out to be brown long-eared bats. The inspectors have come to sit in the shrubbery for three nights to evaluate the risk of the renovation to English flora and fauna. If the bats do turn out to be brown long-eared bats they will require a home of equivalent volume to be constructed or as my host comments, drily ‘a nice apartment in London’. My old university friend, J, suspects the bat inspectors of actually using ‘bat evaluation’ as the pretext for conducting a bucolic extra-marital affair and fears it will end like an episode of the BBC series Midsomer Murders in which murders occur over clotted cream tea at the village fete.
Halford is the perfect setting for Midsummer Murders, a winding lane, hollyhocks, thatched roofs, an Elizabethan manor house, the Old Forge, The Vicarage and of course the church. From the church’s tower, the St George’s flag occasionally billows in the late afternoon sun and beneath its shadow lies the churchyard complete with an old stone angel straight out of The Church Mice. The children play hide and seek amongst the dimly legible tomb stones, Eleanor hides in a yew tree, an essential feature of every English churchyard, and Alexander discovers why one should not hide in a holly bush. “Are people buried here?” asks Cecilia, “Yes” says J and the fun continues. Alexander now sports a pistol and pulls some rather accomplished James Bond moves from amongst the grave stones.
Only last Saturday a Dutch friend living in Bethesda told me how her pediatrician had reprimanded her for confirming that people got buried. Her daughter had chosen her annual visit to put this question to her mother. “Don’t tell her that, she might get scared!” How did this fit with the blinking skulls and plastic tomb stones of Halloween? We can’t work out the logic but I feel sure that playing hide and seek in a pretty English graveyard will ward off all sorts of therapy and bereavement issues.
So our idyll here is near a close, so far no murder, just a little battiness and lot of happiness.
For more on how we do or don’t tackle death and are generally turning our children into ‘teacup kids’ as they are being dubbed by some of America’s universities – in other words fragile creatures incapable of dealing with reality, see The Atlantic Monthly’s wonderful article July/Aug 2011 “How the Cult of Self Esteem is Ruining our Kids”.