Friday, July 3, 2020


The smallest, and usually the most unlikely thing, can set me off.
Like everyone else, I am finding it tough under Covid-19 restrictions, but now with a US travel ban in place, I am finding it harder than ever. I live by myself, I have relatively few friends in New York, and, while I love my apartment, I’m finding it tough not to be able to go to the gym or enjoy my daily swim.
I look at properties online, fantasising about where I might buy a place. I buy things I never knew I didn’t need (yes, you read that right) from Amazon (but then isn’t that what it’s for?) and spend subsequent days sending them back when reality hits home. This week, I splashed out on cosmetics from Laura Mercier.
I’d been on Zoom, chatting with a friend, and commented on how lovely her skin looked. Having been a Clinique, Clarins, Estée Lauder and, more recently, a Maybelline girl (that’s what pay cuts do to you), I decided to try the Mercier foundation my friend swore by. Well, two foundations, to be precise – the matt and the luminous. And a concealer. And a powder to conceal the concealer. And a powder to hide the luminosity of my shiny nose when the blackheads decide to emerge from the camouflage of foundation. Oh, yes, and a face powder to cover it all up. And an eye shadow, because suddenly, the fifty I have in my make-up drawer suddenly all seemed the wrong colour. My friend thought I also needed a primer, but as I have three I have never used, I resisted. Still, $236 (with the 15% first time buyer discount – a bargain!) for 30 seconds’ work on the internet wasn’t bad going.
I went to call Mum to tell her about the new make-up I’d discovered. A beautician and hairdresser at 16 when she left school, Mum loved her cosmetics. She was always exquisitely turned out, in her clothing, hair and make-up, and she was always on the lookout for something new that might hide the increasing number of lines on her face. “Can you see any difference?” she’d ask me, having ordered the latest new miracle cream she’d seen advertised on TV (I swear she kept the shopping channels in business, and her Amazon cache was what made Jeff Bezos a billionaire. I worry for him since Mum died).
Of course, I cried at yet another moment realising she was not at the end of the phone; and I cried because she hated the hospital stays that put an end to her putting on the face of which she was always so proud. “Your father has never seen me without make-up,” she would say during my childhood, a sentence I chose not to explore too widely.
I remember the day I realised Mum was getting old. With Dad, it had been kissing him goodnight on his 60th birthday, which would turn out to be his last. The smallness of his bones beneath his pyjamas felt as if they would snap under my hug. With Mum, it was her rouge. When I returned home on one trip from the States, she was, as ever, in full make-up, but on each cheek were two large red circles, as if she had attempted an ill-fated and abandoned attempt to mimic Norma Desmond. Then, I noticed that one of her eyebrows was shorter than the other; that she had let the dark hair on her upper lip grow; that her mascara was smudged beneath both eyes. It felt like the shock of seeing the later work of a once great artist, flawed and without merit.
Mum always said that the best present Dad ever gave her was an Elizabeth Arden vanity case, packed with goodies. It was probably the only present he ever got right. The Christmas he bought her the amethyst necklace and earrings that would have been fine for someone of 90, not 40, stands out; but that was a veritable festive dream compared to the year he gave her a china bird.
As usual, he’d bought her present just as the shops were shutting on Christmas Eve, following his office Christmas drinks. He showed me the bird when he got home and I told him she’d hate it. When the big unwrapping came around, I was praying I would be wrong. Mum’s face fell, but she looked at the monstrosity and mumbled something about the pretty colours, the shape of the bough upon which said hideous bird perched.
Before the turkey was in the oven, the house rang out with “WHAT MADE YOU THINK I’D WANT A BIRD? I HATE BIRDS . . . !” followed by every insult imaginable to our feathered friends. Her voice was even louder than the morning when Dad woke her at 6am to see the hot air balloons taking off for the Bristol Balloon Festival. “WHAT MADE YOU THINK I’D WANT TO BE WOKEN AT THE CRACK OF DAWN TO SEE A BUNCH OF BALLOONS?!”
But the Elizabeth Arden vanity case was something else. I used to love sitting on her bed as she got ready to go out dancing (my parents, brother and I were all ballroom dancers), watching the layers as they built – foundation, rouge, eye shadow, mascara and, finally, the lipstick: the seal of approval that marked a job well done.
I was less happy when Mum did my make-up for Old Tyme dancing competitions. When you are dragged out of bed at 6 a.m. to have your hairpiece welded on and are told off for blinking and smudging your mascara at 8 a.m., then smothered in bright red lipstick to make you look 30 years older than you actually are, little girls’ dressing-up fantasies begin to lose their appeal. Not for mothers, however. With the same enthusiasm with which Mum used to apply my lipstick, she decided to put her make-up skills to good use when her sister Audrey returned from India with a sari for me and Mum decided I should go as an Indian to the school fancy dress Christmas party.
Pouring water into a basin, she tipped in some powdered cocoa and mixed it with the sponge. “Chin up,” she said, lifting my face.
I saw the brown, dripping lump come towards me. “I don’t want it,” I protested.
“But you’ve got to look like an Indian.”
“I don’t want to.”
My pleas were ignored, and the cold, wet sponge continued to smother my face. I felt it trickle through my eyelashes and slip through my lips: a strong, dark taste of cocoa and the smell of chocolate. My experience with early morning mascara had taught me not to cry, but I hated the sensation of chocolate drying on my face.
There was not enough time for me to look in the mirror, and for that I was grateful. It would be a full 20 minutes before I got to see what a real Indian looked like, but from the moment I entered the school hall, I felt I already knew.
The chocolate was a mistake. If the entire Indian army had descended on the school, I could not have attracted more attention. There was an angel, face as white as a bleached rabbit; a doctor, who looked as though he had been dipped in emulsion; and three girls with white blonde hair who had chosen to come as the Beverly Sisters. I was the dirtiest girl in the class and I hated it.
I asked to go to the toilet and walked down the long corridor to the girls’ cloakroom, tripping on my sari as I went. Inside, I looked in the mirror at the painted face that met me there. My eyes were black holes, and my lips had disappeared into my face. Bits of my hair were stuck to the cocoa, and my teeth were too white for my head. It was not me. I felt as if someone had tilted me up, spilled me out and left me with nothing but this hideous, dark, orange shell.
I started to cry. Small tears at first, trickling down the side of my nose. Each drop of salt lightened the brown by one shade. Then more tears came. Quick, plopping drops that stripped the wall of cocoa in long, powerful strokes. Each one thickened and brightened the parallel lines of white made by the first tears, and I could taste the combination of cocoa and salt as it ran past my nose and into my mouth. I wiped my face with my sari, staining the apricot and unwrapping the headpiece in the process.

Now, between the patches of brown, the colour of my own skin was beginning to show through, and I could see my freckles. Slowly, I was being given back to myself. As my own whiteness returned, I stopped crying and splashed my face under the tap. The water turned brown as I watched my second face disappear in the flow. Finally, it was clear. I looked in the mirror and smiled. Apart from a patch of brown in the corner of my mouth, Cocoa the Clown had completely disappeared.
Today, I am thinking about Mum, make-up and cocoa. And I cry for the face that is gone.


Friday, May 29, 2020


This has not been a good week. 

I know that so many have it far worse, especially the sick and those who have not been able to be with loved ones at the end of their lives. And yes, I have work, my health and a roof over my head. But I live alone and there are days when the isolation feels unbearable.
It’s not just to do with being alone, though. I spend most of my life by myself and work from home; the major difficulty is the onslaught of news – or, rather, no news other than Covid-related news, or the rants of a president who cares more about self-promotion and fighting Twitter instead of the virus.
It’s at times like this I have to remind myself why I decided to come to the USA in 2008. It was November 4th, the eve of my 50th birthday and I stood in a bar, crying in front of a TV screen as I watched the news: Barack Obama, a black man, had been voted President of the United States. Tears of joy. I wanted to be part of history; to be in what seemed like a progressive country that appeared to have made steps forward in fighting its history of devastating racism.
Fast forward to November 8th 2016. I am standing in Mr Biggs Bar and Grill in Hell’s Kitchen in NYC. I am watching a TV screen as the votes of each state come through. And when Hillary Clinton concedes defeat to Donald Trump, I cry again. Tears of disbelief. Of despair. I wake the next morning and my first thought is that I have awoken from a bad dream. My heart is so heavy, it has to be coaxed out of bed. I finally drag it into submission, acknowledging that whatever my personal opinions, Trump got the gig. Maybe it won’t be that bad. Maybe he will be surrounded by experts and advisers who truly will, in the words of the campaign slogan, Make America Great Again.
Today, my body feels barely able to withhold the weight of my heart.
In isolation, I have to keep reminding myself of the greatness I have discovered here in spite of the president, not because of. There is a range of talent - in music, theatre, all the arts, that is truly breath-taking on a daily basis. In New York City, and in particular my area, Hell’s Kitchen, there is a sense of community that I have rarely found in one of the many countries in which I’ve lived. My seven years in Paris probably comes closest; elsewhere, loneliness has invariably been my doubles partner.
The beauty all around me is still apparent: the sunsets I see over the Hudson from my apartment window every night continue to fill me with wonder and remind me that the sun will rise again; the Midas touch that alights upon the glory of Central Park in the fall will soon be there.
And the people will come back, too. Released from incarceration, NY will come back stronger because, as the Governor of NY state Andrew Cuomo says, we are #NYTough, #NYStrong, #NYSmart; nowhere is this more true than in New York City, a place that has entered my soul; its presence there, and my feeling a part of it in the shadow of something much bigger than anything of us, is what helps me get by.
There is currently a level of toxicity in our lives at a time that should be uniting us; where leadership should be strong, it has been petulant and weak, ignorant and arrogant.
I have been reminded of King Lear and, while some believe the president does not deserve the accolade of being a Shakespearean tragic hero, to me there are many comparisons that bear examination.
Why do bad things happen to Lear? Because he is easily flattered and doesn’t recognise true, honest love and loyalty when he sees it. He descends into madness because of the bad things that subsequently happen to him; and then, because of his madness, he puts into action even worse things that are eventually his downfall. Lear has many flaws – arrogance, ignorance, lack of judgment, and each contributes to the other; he has narcissistic personality disorder. To me, it all sounds very familiar – although the president would probably be flattered at being compared to a king. That’s ego for you.
King Lear was apparently written when Shakespeare was in lockdown during the plague of 1606, when all the theatres were closed. It would be nice to think, at this time, with Broadway dark and looking unlikely to reopen anytime soon, that playwrights are busy scribbling away the next generation’s masterpieces.
Every time I read or hear an Obama pronouncement, it still fills me with hope. His presidency was not without its problems, but his humanity and ability to lead in times of crisis shines through - still. I miss him. Especially in a week like this one when I feel the shutters of hope in so many areas of life have come down.
There is an election coming up in November; I am not optimistic about the result, and the thought of another administration under this president is truly distressing. Just four words come to mind, the final ones from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness: “The horror! The horror!”
CNN’s Don Lemon said this week that there are two viruses in America – Covid-19 and racism, and the street riots have been labelled not protests, but an uprising.
This is a time of disturbing unrest and it’s not being helped by a man purporting to be a leader throwing his toys out of the pram when Twitter picks him up on peddling misinformation. His response? A threat to close them down for threatening his free speech. Does he really not see the irony?
And then they picked him up on his glorifying violence by threatening to send in the guns to shoot the raiders and looters protesting the tragic, unnecessary and despicable murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis. 

How does this calm an already incendiary situation? Small wonder the black population of America is angry. Enough is enough.
I can only repeat: The horror! The horror!

Tuesday, April 28, 2020


Who loses an oven glove in a pandemic? 

Is there anyone who gives two figs about losing an oven glove in a pandemic? But there is something very lonely about a single hand; I’ve never even like one-armed bandit machines, because they seem like amputees.
My oven glove’s sister is 16 x 6 inches, black, and, until today, I would have said as unlikely to be lost as a haystack in a hayloft.
And yet, five minutes ago, when I opened the kitchen drawer where both gloves have lived for a year, the identical twin sat silently, slightly flour-stained, bemoaning the loss of its sibling. How can this have happened?
One of the good things to have transpired from self-isolation (and there have been, surprisingly, a lot of positives) is that I can no longer lose my iPhone. I can mislay it, certainly, and have done, many times, but it always turns up – under the duvet, on the toilet floor, in the fridge – because I haven’t been anywhere that I have to phone at 2am, begging the few staff left to track down the dodgy guy I am convinced has it and who was sitting at the end of the bar (this actually happened and I successfully retrieved it, Poirot style, by the way).
My keys, phone and jacket are now always in my apartment, and the absence of thieving venues has made my life considerably less stressful. Ovenglovegate has changed all that.
Last year, when I packed up my belongings from Los Angeles, after a brief attempt at being bi-coastal, I moved back to New York and had to make major decisions about what to take. I remember the oven gloves very specifically. Packing up my kitchen stuff, I thought: what person, in their right mind, keeps two pairs of oven gloves, one of which they have never used? I gave one pair away. 

The black ones I kept (I cannot tell you how difficult it was to decide; it was the culinary equivalent of Sophie’s Choice) and they have served me well ever since; given how much cooking I am doing during the current crisis, I really need them. Only if I lost an arm would one glove be of any use and I am now at a loss as to how to solve the mystery.
I’ve cleaned out and reorganised my fridge/freezer (not there), tidied my china cupboards (not there), double checked the washing machine and dryer (not there). My apartment is under 650sq ft, so there really are very few places it can have gone. I know I won’t have thrown it out because the bin I keep under the sink is barely bigger than the glove and I would definitely have noticed it amongst the potato peelings (okay, wine bottles, but you get my drift).
In the large scale of things at present, it’s not important, I know. I mean, it’s not like I’ve had a ransom note asking for money, or an ear sent in the post. I’ve even become quite adept at lifting dishes with one hand, a bit like last year when I broke my humerus and adapted quickly to opening wine bottles with my knees and one hand (and we’re talking corks, not screw-tops; yes, I’m that good). 

But I’m someone who knows, and who likes to know, where everything is in my kitchen, and I thought that my newly acquired butcher’s block unit that makes my pots and pans more accessible, had changed my life. It has, and I love it; but now the glove has gone. The Lord giveth and the Lord taketh away.
Was God angry because I had shown so much pleasure in the acquisition of a material object? Quite frankly, he could have cut me some slack. I’ve been banging on long enough about His great sunrises and sunsets and how much joy we should take in nature; was it really too much to ask that He spare me an oven glove for my troubles?
As I write this, I am looking over the Hudson at a glorious sunset and, out of spite, I’m not going to give it any publicity; I can be mean like that, God. If you return my oven glove, I might reconsider.
LIVE UPDATE: As I am writing (honestly!), I suddenly think that maybe I inadvertently put the second glove in one of the lower cupboards when I was reorganising my plastic and glass sections (come on, people; these are stressful times). 

Lo and behold! There’s glove number two! 

I am happy beyond belief. I’m like Joseph opening his technicolour dream coat (before his brothers threw him into the pit, obviously).
You’re still not forgiven though, God. 

The gloves are off. 

Both of them.

Monday, April 27, 2020


“We’re going to get through this because we are New York.”
It’s the message that New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has been stressing from the start. Despite the state being at the epicentre of the Coronavirus crisis, despite the strict self-distancing and almost complete lockdown, there is a resilience and strength at the heart of this place, and in particular the city, that is its spiritual vaccine.
New York suffered the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001, Hurricane Sandy (which hit 24 states in all) in 2012, and both events continue to be referenced in relation to today’s pandemic. They remind us of New York’s ability to fight back: to look defeat in the eyes and come back more glorious than before. Yes, I know it sounds melodramatic, but if there is one thing getting me through, above everything else, in this ongoing crisis, it’s a strange feeling that I am going through it with New York holding my hand. I am in New York City (the borough of Manhattan), the epicentre of the epicentre – and at the moment, there is nowhere else I would rather be.
The Governor has constantly reminded those wishing to flout the rules and ignore guidelines that “It’s not about you”. In my neighbourhood, Hell’s Kitchen, I am stunned on a daily basis by the many acts of kindness and offers of support, both to individuals and businesses struggling to stay afloat. I am awestruck by the performers, out of work overnight, continuing to share their phenomenal talents with the online audience, for no reward whatsoever; the restaurants and bars stepping up to the mark with delivery services and coming up with ever more ingenious ways to serve an increasingly desperate populace.
In a press briefing last week, Cuomo was visibly moved when talking about people who surprised him on a daily basis – in particular, an elderly man (with a sick wife) who had sent him a spare mask for a doctor or nurse who might need it. Here, there really is a feeling that we are all in this together and we will get through it. Yes, because we are New York; but also, there is just something about this place that brings out the best in people.
I’ve been living here for six years now and, while, obviously not a born and bred New Yorker, I have an affinity with it in my heart that in the past I felt only for Paris (I still have that affinity, too; my soul is a tale of two cities). I have never felt lonely here in the way I did when I lived in London or Cardiff in the UK; I was never lonely in Paris, either (well, apart from when I was with someone, but that’s a whole other story).
There are a lot of people really struggling, I know; I, too, have my off days – strangely, when I am most in contact with people and then we say goodbye online; it feels like the sun going down and a sudden chill in the air after a glorious day at the beach. But then I think how lucky I am to have such friends with whom I share so much laughter on FaceTime or Zoom; the many things I am learning from galleries opening up their wares; the opera, concerts and theatre productions I am so enjoying that, in real time, I would have to take out a bank loan to attend.
Even with all this, I know that many are desperately missing the physicality of going out and experiencing everything for real, and it’s set me pondering what makes one person able to cope more than another in these circumstances. I stress I can speak only for myself in this regard, but today I’ve been thinking that the single, most influential and incredible thing in my entire life that is getting me through this is: my parents.
My dad died over 30 years ago, my mum last year. I have one brother, Nigel, and we have always been very close. He is smart, incredibly funny, as competitive as I am (I’ve never won a chess game with him; but then I beat him on the rifle range. Just saying), and a really kind, sensitive person who married an equally wonderful woman in my dear sister-in-law, Kim.
Nigel and I had a happy, secure childhood and, while we have both endured difficulties in adult life (as everyone does), we have come through them stronger the other end.
My mother did not go to university until the age of 50, when she became a social worker and, subsequently, a play therapist. When she died, it was heartrending to receive correspondence from many whose lives she had touched, greatly improved and, in some cases, I was told, saved.
Dad gained many qualifications as a mechanical engineer but lost his business during the UK’s economic crisis and Three-Day Week of 1973-4. Both Mum and Dad worked so hard to be able to hang on to the house for which they had worked so hard. I remember tensions at home while I was trying to study, and at times I thought I would not be able to stand anymore and even thought about leaving school, getting a job and moving into a bedsit. I was 16.
But they got through it. Mum did so many things to make extra money including, at one point, selling wigs. I remember her heartache when the operation went bust and the owner did a runner because he turned out to have a history as the Kray Brothers’ “collector”, whatever that was. Mum lost £84, a small fortune in those days, but the leftover wigs kept us winning top prizes in fancy dress fêtes for years.
Both my parents had a strong work ethic, which both Nigel and I inherited; but I think we also inherited – partly through blood, partly through observation – a stoicism that is proving invaluable at present.
Nigel is a teacher and loves his job, but has got on with the business at hand, continuing to do his lessons online, and doing more cooking (he happens to be very good at it. Better than he is on the rifle range, anyway. Did I mention that?). I am lucky in that I am used to working from home, but, being a sociable creature, of course miss human contact and events. It may be a cliché to say: “It is what it is” - but is no less true for being so. I just keep hanging on to Rilke: “No feeling is final” (Hmmm. Maybe the deathbed one is, but I'll come back to that in a couple of decades).
I think what I learned from Mum and Dad is that when something is out of your control, as this pandemic clearly is, the thing to do is focus on what you can control: one step at a time. I am looking after my health, my emotional well-being, and giving my soul some much needed cultural nourishment. 

Truly, my cup runneth over.
And so, today, I give thanks for the strength that is my inheritance; and the strength of a city that, even when it is sleeping, still shines.

Sunday, April 26, 2020


My morning routine has settled into a bizarre new normal. 

The first thing I do when I wake is try to ascertain what time it is without looking at my iPhone (I know, I know: what’s an alarm clock?); whether it be 5am, 8am, or 10 minutes after I have fallen asleep, I am always strangely accurate. From that, I try to work out what day it is. Or week. Or year. Am I even alive or am I in a dream? Or, where I was in last night’s dream, actually in Star Wars? On these matters, I don’t have a clue.
Propping up my pillows, I first read my e-mails, then Facebook messages, then messages on Twitter and other people’s Tweets (the President’s first; I need to start the day with a laugh). By now, my bladder is bursting, but I have to check Daily Mail Online first to see what gibberish celebrities are spouting. Then, it’s time to empty my bladder, weigh myself (a gloriously steady 114lbs/8st 2lbs, still) and have my two cups of PG Tips. 

I drink these sitting at my computer, where I stay for the whole day, sandwiched between it and the television, and do very little other than read about the virus, and watch as many channels discussing it, as I can. The highlight of my day is New York Governor Andrew Cuomo’s update, shortly before which I have to go to the bathroom again for fear of wetting myself with excitement.
Coronavirus is my new work avoidance. 

I examine maps from all over the world, assessing the likelihood of anyone returning to normality (whatever that was) anytime soon. It’s like New Year’s Eve, tuning in to each country in their time zone, seeing the different countdowns to the New Year (how are all your resolutions going, by the way? No, mine neither).
I know how many people have contracted the virus, who is likely to get it, how many have died from it, what you should eat to boost your immune system, how many toys the President has thrown out of his pram today. Oh, yes. The President’s tantrums. When he is not dispensing his “I’m not a doctor” medical advice, he is shouting at the press, and has now thrown all of his toys out of the pram by announcing that he will no longer give daily press briefings. For that, we can all be grateful. Many lives will be saved as a result of his exiting stage right.
If I go out for a walk or run, I count the number of people who think that the order to wear a mask in NY (if likely to be in proximity to others) does not apply to them. I obsessively take my temperature, looking for signs of a fever. Last night, talking to friends on Face Time, I reached out my glass for a refill when they were pouring wine. I dreamed that a smiley emoji was talking to me, claiming to know I’ve been missing human company. How did I become this person? I’ve realised I need help, so here goes.  
Hi, my name is Jaci and I am a Coronaholic (all together, in the group now, please: “Hi, Jaci”). Having consulted AA’s 12 step programme, I feel I might well be on to the way to recovery and share my thoughts here, for anyone else fearful of their sanity being taken over by this insidious virus.

1.     We admitted we were powerless over Coronavirus coverage – that our lives had become unmanageable without 24/7 CNN and re-runs of NY Governor Andrew Cuomo’s daily briefings.

2.     Came to believe that a Power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity – that Power not being the President of the United States.

3.     Made a decision to turn our will and lives over to the care of God as we understood Him – God not being the President, despite what he might say to the contrary.

4.     Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves by acknowledging that buying enough toilet tissue to build a small igloo village in Iceland is very mean.

5.     Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs – you voted a lunatic to be your President.

6.     Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character – you have until the November election to have those defects removed. Do not drink or ingest bleach in the process.

7.     Humbly asked Him to remove our shortcomings – invoking Amendment 25 would do it.

8.     Made a list of all the persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all. This list need not include Amazon or Netflix, to whom you have caused no harm whatsoever in bolstering their coffers.

9.     Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others. You need to take out a lot more subscriptions to frivolous TV channels and order in your food from all the restaurants you always moaned about being overpriced way back in the real world.

10.  Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it. Feel free to allow “inventory” to mean counting the number of wine bottles in your cupboard and admit you were wrong in not ordering nearly enough to get you through the stress of the President’s advice.

11.  Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. Yes, it is all right to turn off the news and watch back to back episodes of Murder She Wrote. Only the God within you has the strength to pick up that remote. You know you can do it.

12.  Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to Coronaholics, and to practice these principles in all our affairs. When you have broken the cycle, chat to other Coronaholics on Face Time, sharing your joy at having beaten your addiction to Coronavirus coverage, while sharing your own tedious experience and talking non-stop about what everyone else thinks about the crisis. Recognise that you have merely switched cabins on the Titanic.

Now, what time does Cuomo come back on? Fancy a bottle of Rioja, anyone?

Friday, April 17, 2020


My mum died a year ago today. 

She died at night around 11pm and I find myself thinking, because I am writing this in the morning, that I have a few hours left of her.
April 17th already. It’s hard to believe. It seems like only yesterday I was in the hospital at her bedside in Bristol Royal Infirmary on what was to be the last day of her life; at other times, it feels like years ago, because I have never known the start to any year drag as much as this one has. I thought March would never end. January and February long ago seemed consigned to a Jurassic part of my brain. Christmas is nine months away and feels as if it should be tomorrow.
As if grief had not already distorted time enough, along comes Coronavirus, the Tardis of infections that has thrown minutes, weeks and hours into a universe none of us could have imagined. 

Yesterday, when New York Governor Cuomo announced that we are to be in lockdown until May 15th (and that, too, will be up for review), I went into panic mode again. I know 100% it is the right thing to do and, being someone who was brought up to do what she is told by people in authority, I will religiously be adhering to the rules. It is not just that the Governor is in authority; he really knows what he is talking about. At this time, I bow with gratitude to people who know far more than I do.  
I am glad that Mum is not around to see this. Of course, I am desperately sad that she is gone, but her fear and anxiety would have added another dimension to a life already so stressed over every atom of her routine that wasn’t met. Unable to walk, following an accident 18 months before she died, she became dependent on others for everything. There was only so much I or friends could do; it required two people to lift her onto her commode. I don’t want to humiliate her by describing what other indignities she endured in her helplessness. She was angry if the carers arrived to give her meals too early; woe betide any of them who arrived when Emmerdale was on. It was desperately irritating, but in retrospect, understandable; she wanted to cling on to the small vestige of power she had left – even if it was just the TV remote.
This hasn’t been the easiest of years and I have several friends who have lost a parent in that time – I know three people who have lost their mothers in the past month. Grieving is exhausting. For the past few years, flying back and for to the UK from the US to see Mum, I seemed to live in a permanent state of jetlag. In isolation, I continue to feel wiped out, partly as a result of having been ill (most likely the flu virus rather than Covid-19), and only now is my arm starting to feel like normal after breaking my humerus last year.
A year ago, I did not think there would come a time when I would be able to focus on the happy memories. No matter how much anyone tells you that this time will come, the exhaustion of illness and grief is so overwhelming, there are days when just putting one foot in front of the other is an ordeal. It was heart-breaking to see Mum’s life reduced to sitting in a chair in the corner of the living room, having only the trip to the single hospital bed in the dining room to look forward to.
From a young child, Mum had always been a voracious reader, and in addition to TV she consumed novels, biographies (she adored Anne de Courcy), autobiographies, and the world’s news on her iPad. How she loved her iPad. The second a headline broke, she would e-mail me to see if I had heard the news; so quick was she off the mark when a celebrity died, I swear she knew they had gone even before they did. She was still working until she was 83 (though would never disclose her age to anyone) and I am grateful her mind remained alert and active, even while her body reached its last chapter.
When her eyesight started to deteriorate, not being able to read was devastating to her. With her hearing already in serious decline (although mysteriously, she was always able to hear us if we whispered something on the other side of the room), she was reliant on subtitles on the TV, and barely able to see those either, she was denied her another of her greatest pleasures. I used to feel irritated that having flown across the Atlantic to see her she would put me on pause while she watched Tipping Point, The Chase, Home and Away, Neighbours, Emmerdale, Coronation Street, et al; by the time she’d finished her shows, it was usually time for me to catch my flight back.
I was angry when she checked herself out of a perfectly good nursing home, against medical advice. That was the beginning of the end, but her stubbornness won out and she said she would rather die alone at home than stay there a day longer. It’s very hard to hear your parent sobbing and sobbing, begging for something you know is the wrong decision, and giving in because the heart is invariably mightier than the head.
The irritation, frustration and anger occasionally surface, but yes, as predicted, they have subsided. I smile when I think of a recent report when I visited hospital, describing me as ‘well-nourished’, knowing that this is down to Mum. Every day, we had a cooked meal: protein, two veg, dessert, and strictly no snacking between meals. To this day, eating between meals is complete anathema to me; drinking between meals, well, that’s another matter.
She did her best, often in trying times, and I think my brother Nigel and I have turned out okay. More than okay. We are hard-working, kind and generous people who owe so much to both parents, and despite difficulties dealing with Mum along the way (and there were many; I’m not going to sugar-coat it), I know how much she loved us and would have done anything for us.
We had very happy childhoods that, looking back, all too quickly came to an end. Today, I am grateful for the light, love and goodness she brought not only to our family but to many others’ lives through friendship and her work, where her capacity for helping those less fortunate than herself was formidable.
It was a long life, and if there is one thing the current situation has shown us is that any life is to be valued; forget not knowing what’s around the next corner – the threat of not even making it to the corner is our biggest worry.
I have no religious beliefs and find the idea of Mum ‘looking down’ on me laughable and based on infantile conceptions rooted in fear of mortality. Mum was a believer and it gave her strength; each to their own. I prefer to think of her still among us; everlasting life is exactly that – it’s what we pass on. 

And on this first anniversary, I commemorate not the loss of her, but her ongoing presence.

Wednesday, April 15, 2020


There are many things I fear living in the USA (apart from Trump, that is). 

In Manhattan, you can become a fatality of falling scaffolding or even a manhole explosion (strangely common). Like anywhere else, you can be mugged on the street or have your belongings stolen when you go to the rest room (that bastard in Mr Biggs still has my lovely cream duffel coat; every winter, I scour the streets looking for it. Woe betide you if you’re wearing it. And I’ll know it by the wine stain down the front).
The day to day anxieties, however, are as nothing compared to my phobias, the main ones being a fear of balloons (globophobia), clowns (coulrophobia) and masks (maskaphobia). It’s believed that the last two are related; they might also be related to a fear of humanoid figures (automatonophobia). In my case, they certainly are; anything with its face hidden or disguised in any form produces genuine panic symptoms – raised heartbeat, sweating, intense anxiety. I can barely speak to bearded men (let alone women, and there are some of them out there, too) and the idea of a masked ball fills me with terror. A masked ball with balloons would be enough to bring the paramedics running.
Imagine my distress, therefore, when New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced this morning that as from Saturday, masks will be compulsory in New York. That’s it. I am doomed never to leave my apartment again; forget Coronavirus putting me in hospital, the Admissions form when I am in a coma will read “maskaphobia”.
The problem is that it’s impossible to get a mask. My order doesn’t arrive for another week, so until now I’ve been wearing an eye mask that came with a spa beauty kit – the only problem being, given its design, that I have to choose whether I cover my nose or mouth; never both. Apparently, scarves or any other covering will suffice, and if you disobey, the Mask Police will be at hand to tell you what’s what. I’m trying to ease my distress by watching TV, but inadvertently caught The Masked Singer last night, which set me back somewhat (just for the record though, Governor: happy to model masks for you privately).
For the most part, I keep panic at bay, but at times it’s not easy. I have become very accident-prone in my own home, dropping and spilling things as if my body is slowly losing touch with gravity. I also had a bad fall, which brought back memories of breaking my humerus last year in similar circumstances. This time, I was luckier; it was only my neck I nearly broke.
These new difficulties are doubtless to do with having to spend so much time indoors. In the UK, I lived in an enormous six-bedroom house with a huge garden and never bumped into anything; now, I am confined to a little over 600 square feet (a veritable mansion by most Manhattan standards) and every day the walls seem a little closer.
Two nights ago, trying to rearrange my fridge at 2am (don’t ask), I mishandled a pint of giblet stock I’d been saving for a rainy day (as you do) and it rained all over me and the kitchen floor. Last night, I spilt a very large glass of red wine, while trying to rearrange my pillow while watching Murder, She Wrote in bed (don’t judge; these are trying times).
This morning, two packs of six toilet rolls fell on my head. Yes, I know I should be grateful to be in such a position, given the shortage, and I hereby apologise to said rolls for my outburst. I’m probably the only person in the world cursing toilet paper at the moment.
Even before the pandemic, I was struggling, and the day a 3lb bag of loose rice that fell out of a cupboard, continues to cause issues. Like Christmas tree pine needles you are still discovering in July, I am finding tiny grains in kitchen orifices I previously never knew existed.
In the current climate and in this confined space, every inanimate object poses a threat, and my food cupboards are a domino effect of dangers. Today, carefully trying to manoeuvre a can of beansprouts next to the black bean section (I am organised, if nothing else), it slipped onto the baked beans (an orchestra unto themselves), which in turn fell onto the giant containers of cumin and basil, all of which came hurtling towards me like the Charge of the Light Brigade. Who knew there was so much danger in domesticity?
I’ve also started to dwell on ailments I hadn’t previously noticed. I have a bruise on my stomach that today I became convinced was the plague; every head pain is a tumour; my lady bits look like killer triffids when viewed in a 20x magnifying mirror (small wonder a lot of guys don’t want to go there).
Irrational fears are, I suspect, upon us all in these unsettling times. On any one day, Coronavirus is Frankenstein’s monster, the ten plagues of Egypt, the Apocalypse, all rolled into one; what’s not to be scared about?
But like all animals, we are survivors; we do what we have to do to ensure the continuation of the species. That will be different for everyone, just as this whole experience is. So, is there anything we can do, collectively, to conquer the fact that, at some level, we are all s**t scared?
The writer George R. R. Martin said: “Laughter is poison to fear”. He’s right. To me, laughter is the answer to pretty much everything in life, but more so now than ever. I’ve been laughing with friends and family on the phone and on social networking; today, I walked with a friend, six feet apart, both of us masked (I was okay, having taken a Valium beforehand), and we laughed just the same as if we had met in a pub.
Fear cannot change who we are. 

At the moment, the devil sits on both shoulders, seemingly unshakeable, and in my good moments I try to laugh both it and the fear away. Old episodes of The Big Bang Theory, Frasier, Gavin and Stacey. 

Yes. Laughter is the poison to drive away fear. 

And until something else comes along, it is our vaccine.