Monday, 26 December 2011

Black Puffles, blanket clips and a closet hunter


Can’t seem to get my eyes open this morning. Stagger to bathroom. Oh God! My eyes look like two puffball mushrooms with black dots in the middle. Splash with cold water. Pat dry. Argh. Still puffballs. Must lie down with legs in air. Oh no, that’s for swollen legs. Must stand up with eyes in the air. Yes, keep standing. Don’t bend over.

Argh. It’s the hunt meet at 11. Need to show my face, puffballs and all.  

Lily bursts into my room. She’s wearing her jodhpurs and is jiggling up and down with excitement.

‘Mummy! They’re all going hunting. It’s really unfair!’ She stops mid-jiggle and stares at me.

‘Mummy, you look like a Black Puffle from Club Penguin.’

‘Oh God. What’s a Black Puffle?’

‘It’s got massive white eyes with titchy little black dots in the middle. And it’s technically a black fluff ball but it comes in different colours, like red and blue and purple and pink. I don’t think they come in green, unfortunately, or yellow.’ 

I feel like going back to bed.

‘So can I go hunting then?’

‘Hang on a second. Who’s going?’

‘Harriet, Charlie, Alexander, Iona, Ailsa – basically everyone.’

‘What about Jamie and Flora?’

‘Technically they don’t ride so basically they’re not going hunting.’

‘But you do ride…’ I say it for her.

‘Oh pleeease!’ she whines, hanging off my arm like she used to when she was about six.

‘Well you’d better ask Duncan what he thinks,’ I say.

‘He says I can, if you say yes! He says basically it’s not a problem because they’ve got enough ponies and Iona and Ailsa can ride with me.’

Oh God. ‘OK,’ I say resignedly.

‘Yay!’ she says, already half out of the door.


Montmarch House is still sitting under rainclouds. The drive is lined with 4x4s. In front of the house is a sea of Thelwellian girls in yellow breeches and tweed jackets (plus Lily in navy jodhpurs and an old jacket of Iona’s), swathes of immaculately groomed women, and men in black or red coats on scarily huge horses with topiaried hairdos.

‘Why are the horses shaven with these punk hairdos?’ I ask Duncan, taking a step back from a chunky black charger straight into the path of Harriet, who is on a handsome, clean-shaven bay, its mane and tail plaited and bound to match its rider’s hairnetted coiffure.

Clipped,’ she corrects me. ‘And it might help you see where you’re going if you took your sunglasses off.’

Duncan steers me out of the mêlée. ‘What is with the flat cap and sunglasses look, by the way?’ he asks.

‘The flat cap is because it’s raining,’ I say haughtily. ‘It’s meant to be ironic in a Kate Moss kind of way. And this is why I’m wearing the sunglasses.’ I lift the glasses for a moment so that he can see the puffballs.

‘What?’ he says.

‘The puffball mushrooms,’ I whinge. ‘Which Lily says look like Black Puffles from Club Penguin.’

He’s smiling and shaking his head. ‘You look fine to me. What’s wrong with them?’

‘It’s Lily’s cream and vibrator she gave me for Christmas,’ I say. ‘I used them last night and I think you’re only meant to use them in the mornings.’

He’s giving me his amused/bemused look.

‘So, do you want to know about the horses and their punk hairdos?’ he asks. 

‘OK,’ I say.

‘They’re clipped according to the amount of exercise they take. They get hot and sweaty if they’re out for the whole day, so those horses will be clipped out like Harriet’s. But if they’re only out for half a day, like the girls’ ponies, they’ll have a blanket clip.’

Clipped out? Blanket clip? And how does he know, since he’s not meant to be into hunting? Maybe he’s a closet hunter, shooter ’n’ fisher! Next thing I’ll find him out with a 12-bore and a brace of pheasants under his arm. Or whatever you use to shoot braces of pheasants. Or brace. Braces. Brace.

I frown. ‘Are you a closet hunter?’

He crinkles his eyes.

‘And shooter?’ I ask, getting a little warm under my Primark collar. ‘Oh my God! I hope you’re not a secret deerstalker as well! Because that really is a deal-breaker!’

He manages to do his crinkly thing and raise an eyebrow at the same time.  

‘Darling, would you hand these out,’ asks Maggie, coming up with a tray of Christmas cake. ‘And Duncan – can you hand round the whisky macs?’

I do my bit for the Montmarch Meet, defying death by handing out Christmas cake and stollen to the riders, but I’m now officially Concerned of Candlebury. The huntmaster seems to be tally-ho-ing. I hasten to find Lily and instruct/quiz her, once again. She assures me, once again, that she is fine and won’t attempt to jump over any fences or ditches. A stray hound turns back and trots over to me. I kneel down and stroke his ears before a young boy grabs him by the scruff and drags him back to the rest of the pack. And then they’re off. Oh God. 

Sunday, 25 December 2011

A Christmas truce?


Duncan has masterminded or even masterchefed a magnificent feast for the contemporary country house. My plate is piled high with crispy parsnips and roast potatoes the colours of autumn leaves, gingery caramelised carrots, beautifully crossed sprouts with pancetta, apple and cranberry sauces, chestnut and onion stuffing and chunky slices of a tender, brown, grainy meat topped with a thick winy gravy (which is possibly a reduction or even a jus).

‘Mmmm. Delicious,’ I say to Duncan. ‘My compliments to the chef. Is pot-roast beef a Scottish tradition?’

The whole table except Lily and me erupts with laughter.

‘Sorry,’ I say, bewildered. ‘What is it then?’

‘You silly goose,’ says Duncan affectionately, and they all burst out laughing again.

My cheeks are burning. How humiliating. The Sassenach Who Thought the Christmas Goose was a Pot Roast. I’m probably the only person in British history apart from Tiny Tim Cratchit who’s never had goose before. I pull a stricken face at Duncan.

‘Aww,’ he says empathetically. ‘It really couldn’t matter less. And it’s fair enough. Goose doesn’t look anything like poultry.’

‘No, a goose looks just like a cow,’ says Harriet tartly.

I feel like reviving that great Christmas childhood tradition of flouncing out and running up to my room. Instead, I affix my Formal Luncheon Smile. Charlie mutters something to Harriet under his breath. Everyone soon recommences chattering and clattering, except me, who finishes my plate in silence.

The young girls clear the first course while Jamie puts more logs on the fire. Duncan follows the girls out and they parade back ceremoniously, the girls bearing mince pies, whisky butter and cream, and Duncan holding aloft the flaming Christmas pudding.

When we can eat not a currant more, have pulled every cracker and read each corny joke, Charlie beckons his youngest daughter. ‘Ailsa – can you fetch me the sorting hat?’ 

‘You do this every year, Dad!’ groans Alexander.

‘We have newcomers in our midst,’ says Charlie.

‘We know which houses we’re in!’ joins in Iona. ‘Maggie is always Professor McGonagall.’

‘Who’s that?’ I whisper to Lily.

‘Head of Gryffindor,’ Lily responds dismissively.

I look at Maggie questioningly.

‘Maggie Smith, darling.’

Ailsa returns with a battered deerstalker with one flap missing and hands it to Charlie who, ignoring his elder children’s protests, puts it on Lily’s head so it covers her eyes. She giggles as he jiggles it around and makes mumbly, ruminaty noises.

‘Definitely Gryffindor,’ he pronounces.

I want to be Gryffindor,’ says Ailsa, grabbing it off Lily’s head. Charlie does his ruminations again and says, ‘Very good school report: I think you’re Ravenclaw.’ Ailsa pouts and emits a Lilyish grunt.

The hat is passed to me. ‘Ah yes, mumble mumble, hmmm, yes,’ pause: ‘Hufflepuff.’

‘What are Hufflepuffs like?’ I ask, clearly not only the sole non-goose eater in the British Isles, but the only person without an in-depth knowledge of the Harry Potter books.

‘Happy, honest and hard-working,’ says Flora.

‘Darling, they’re utterly charming and kind, not self-serving like the Slytherins,’ says Maggie. I catch her darting a look at Harriet.

‘Though lacking in glamour and style,’ retorts Harriet.

The sorting done, I feel I need to do a little sorting myself.

‘You all stay sitting,’ I say. ‘Harriet and I will clear.’ 

Duncan raises an eyebrow. ‘We can do it,’ he says, sounding a little concerned for my welfare, as if there could be a nasty accident while washing up the knives.

‘No it’s fine,’ I say valiantly.

Harriet carries out the pudding plates, puts them on the side and is about to make a getaway when I confront her.

‘Harriet,’ I say. ‘Look I’m sorry we don’t seem to have got off to a very good start. But it would be nicer for both of us, wouldn’t it, to be friends rather than foe? Can’t we call a Christmas truce?

‘I don’t know what you mean,’ she says. ‘Everybody’s making you very welcome here, aren’t they?’ As she stalks out, Duncan is walking in.

‘That’s because she is very welcome here,’ he says.

He comes over and puts his arms round me. ‘Well done for trying,’ he says. ‘Maggie’s tried dozens of times, but Harriet’s always on edge when there’s another woman in her orbit. We’ve found the best way is to let it wash over us – otherwise she’d spoil the atmosphere.’

By which I take it there is no Christmas truce. So much for my diplomatic tour-leaderly skills honed on the battlefields of ’Nam.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

The Christmas hols commence


Lily’s term ends with a candlelit carol service in the chapel. There’s a logjam of cars queuing to park at the end of a cowpat-ridden field. It’s like the Somme out there, black as night, teeming with rain, stinking slurry everywhere, figures looming out of the blackness and no clue as to whether they’re friend or foe.

Tweeded men and stilettoed women make their way like wounded moths towards the flickering light of the chapel. The Manor has a healthy disregard for Health and Safety. Some 200 parents and siblings jostle and cram into a space designed for 50. I loiter at the back along with some maverick dads, hoping to be allowed to remain standing. We take up position on the stairs, pressing ourselves into the wall as latecomers and girls carrying lit candles swarm past us to the gallery, which is already full to bursting.

Just as the jamming and shoving subsides and I find myself on a stair of my own from which to enjoy the novelty of being able to see my daughter sing, the headmistress fixes me with her unwavering eye.

‘Mrs Gray. Place up at the front here for one.’

Like a traffic police officer, she waves me to the front row of chairs which is practically in the orchestra. I put on my Jovial Parent Smile, breathe in as I edge past the first violin, try not to trip over the cellist and lower myself gingerly into a child’s chair that is being trespassed upon by a mother and wriggly toddler to one side and a tweedy grandfather to the other. Gracious smiles and pulling in of elbows all round.

To describe the view from the front row as ‘restricted’ would be economical with the truth. Within arm’s reach before me is a music stand with a blinding strip light that prevents me from seeing anything beyond. A hush descends. The strings take up their bows. Clarinet and recorder are pressed to lips. Mr Blackburn, head of music, is pushing his way past the choir and through the orchestra to take up position. He stops at his music stand, bang in front of me. All I see for the entire service is his ample posterior, so close that if I sing too enthusiastically I might inadvertently take a bite out of it.

After the service, when we finally disgorge onto the muddy bank and slither down to the drive, Lily and I are reunited.

‘Did you see me do my solo?’ she asks excitedly.

‘No!’ I cry. ‘I didn’t know you had a solo!’

‘It was meant to be a surprise,’ she says.

I feel like crying. We traipse in silence through the slurry to the senior cloakroom and over to the music room and back to her dorm and across the field to the car, gathering and dumping belongings by the light of my iPhone. We drive home in more silence. The much looked-forward-to start of the Christmas hols is an anti-climax all round.


Grasp the nettle and unpack Lily’s bags. I make two piles of washing, darks and whites, while Lily reads out the packing list.

‘White sports socks: three.’

‘Three?’ I query, rooting through to discover three solo socks of unknown provenance, but not one of the three pairs she started term with.

‘Knickers: three.’

‘But there are only about four pairs in your drawer. What happened to the other eight?’


I delve into the muddy black bin liner and pull out wellies, trainers, rollerblades and riding boots. Wait, there’s still something in there. Hmmm. Another riding boot. Unmarked. I arrange the three boots in front of me and gesture towards them.

‘Well I do have three legs, you know, Mum!’ laughs Lily.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Our very own Scarlet Pimpernel


‘Eliza! Hello-o.’ Luna is hovering over me. ‘If you can drag yourself away, it’s time to go get my glasses.’

As soon as I step away from my seat, Nancy sidles in. She addresses Duncan urgently in a low voice. I just catch: ‘… film about animal rights … the practice of eating dogs in Vietnam…’

Typical! As soon as he sees her Passion for Animal Rights, he’ll know I’ve been faking my Passion for Poverty ’n’ Film. 

We are at the opticians. It is the moment of truth. Luna heaves her new spectacles to her eyes.

‘Eliza! I can see! I’m not blind any more! This is amazing!’ Her voice is quavering with emotion. Beaming, she throws her arms around me and then turns to hug the white-coated optician and his dolly assistants, bringing smiles to all our stony faces.

Oh. My mobile! I fumble for it in my bag. New text.

Eliza. Hope yr phone switched on. Urgent. Come to Landmark 72 asap. Pls confirm you got this. Duncan x

A lover’s tryst! How thrilling! Hmmm. How to get rid of Luna? And what’s Landmark 72? 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Eliza's book

The posts between 4 November 2011 and 13 January 2012, with my adventures and dramas in Vietnam and beyond, have been whisked away for my new book! Am going to be famous!  

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Bonjour Saigon

'He wouldn't listen to me,' says Maggie, the Dowager Countess of Montmarch. 'None of them would. Of course I knew, but they were all in his thrall because you said he was in charge.' It turns out that the group traipsed after Steve around the airport, from the Reef Bar to the Glass Bar to Caffe Nero to the Mango Tree and back to the Reef Bar, pausing for a few hours' restless kip, strewn across strips of empty seats.

'We sang songs to keep our spirits up,' says Maggie, taking a swig of her daiquiri. We are sneaking in a secret cocktail before meeting the others for dinner.

'What,' I say, 'like Roll Out the Barrel and It's a Long Way to Tipperary?'

She lets out a booming guffaw. 'We're not that old! I was there for the Summer of Love! No, things like I Can't Get No-o Satisfaction and I'm Leavin' on a Jet Plane, don't know when I'll be back again and I've got a Ticket to Ride and I don't care!'

Oh my God. They all look like my parents in their slacks and Hush Puppies and uncrushable travel wardrobes. But the reality is, half of them are nearer my generation than my parents'. Maggie can only be about 15 years older than me. 20 max. I must say, though, this trip is otherwise marvellous for the self-esteem and fear of Early-Onset. Honestly! They may have a good handle on 60s song lyrics, but Maggie and I are the only pair with any common sense around here. Maggie, despite her girl-guidey/pony-club boom, has a youthful twinkle in her eye and a dark sense of humour. Steve is out. Maggie is my new right-hand person.

Yesterday, though. Quel nightmare. After a mad frenzy of discussion to officials, texts back and forth to Mike and Loc, and invoking the name of the British Ambassador, the manager of the Oriental and various CEOs dredged up from my old Bangkok days in order to expedite reclaiming the group's baggage which was thrown off the previous day's Saigon plane and being held in some sort of top-security nuclear bunker, and reissuing new boarding passes which by some miracle they agreed to do at no extra charge despite it being against company policy, we made it onto the Saigon plane. Loc was there to greet us, all smiles as he wiped the sweat off his brow.

At the Grand, we met up with the two Americans, Luna and Nancy.

'My, you finally got here,' said Luna, a smart New York doctor in her late 50s. In contrast to my dazed-looking, whiffy, beslacked flock, she was all washed and blow-dried, in a little slip dress, gold jewellery and clouds of perfume.

'Well, we've sussed out Saigon, haven't we, Nancy?' she said with a dazzle of red lipstick and white teeth. 'We've done the Cu Chi tunnels. I was interested in the dioxins and incidence of cancer, because I'm a doctor. And then we did the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes but it offended a lot of Americans, so they rightly changed the name. Nancy thought the foetuses in the jars were like a freak show, but they didn't worry me because I'm a doctor. And we stopped for a café. Basically, you just say any word in French and it's the same in Vietnamese! Ca phe. Ga. You know, gare, station.'

I didn't say, 'pho!' I gave her the forced toothy smile of one who has a Passion for Tour Leading.

'We're not together,' said Nancy, who is young enough to be Luna's daughter and whose style is more outward-bound grunge. 'I'm from California.'

This morning I proposed a day off to the Lost-in-Bangkok contingent. 'I thought you might like to recoup,' I added.

'What, recoup our losses?' snorted Miss Chick.

'No,' I said defiantly, despite feeling caught out by one who should be the more senile. 'You know, recoup... recuperate.'

But no, they were all on for the full tour. While I had to catch up on business matters by the pool, they trotted off with Loc to the Ben Thanh market and Thu Thiem across the river before breakfast (in my defence, they have had a whole extra day in Asia to get over the jetlag), and then we split up - me with the ones who wanted to see the tunnels and the foetuses, Loc with the others to see the Reunification Palace, History Museum and various pagodas. I must say, they may be naive but they're full of energy, these silver citizens. I was flagging in the 30 degree swelter, but nothing would induce them to give up and go back to the Grand for a swim.

'Better drink up, Maggie,' I say, nodding in the direction of the lift. Our ladies are emerging in blue and beige shirtwaisters, our gents – Man No 2 joins us this evening - in outward-bound Rohan trousers with zip-off legs.

'We're poor little lambs, who've lost our way...' sings Maggie.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Bangkok airport

15:00, Bangkok time

My nose is pressed to the porthole again as we make our final descent. Gosh, it's completely waterlogged down there. But the captain says the main airport is fine. In fact it's a beautiful sunny day, apart from the band of smog hanging over the city.


Two texts from Mike:

'We've lost them. No word. Not on next Thai Air flight. V serious. FIND THEM!!!!'
and 'Text me as soon as you land.'

And one from Loc.

'Hello Mrs Eliza. I am Loc, your tour guide. Please phone me on arrival in BKK.'

Wow! The airport's completely swanked up since I was last here. Acres of marble and steel. Travelators galore. Right. Here's our luggage. And there's my suitcase. Uh! God, it's got heavier. Right, suitcase on the trolley. Trolley dolly on the trolley. Ready to go out and face the music.

Oh God! Where to start? I am just staring to left and right, wondering how to find 10 needles in an Asian haystack when I see Steve!

'Steve!' I cry. Oh my God. And there, following in a slightly weary train, are the wizened pair and the Countess and everyone! Even Miss Chick, still in her check!

'Eliza!' they chorus. 'You made it!' They seem in remarkably good spirits. Or perhaps it's just the relief of seeing their lost leader.

'What happened to you all?' I ask. 'And what are you doing here? You should have just gone through transit for the Saigon flight.'

'Well,' says Steve, giving me a knowing look. 'No Saigon flight.'

'We trusted him,' chips in Wizened 1.

'Yes, we did,' says Wizened 2. 'He said he'd been in 'Nam.'

'Chelte'nam,' scoffs the Countess.

'But how come you ended up here, and not in the transit lounge? They'd have called your flight from there. You couldn't have missed it.'

'I don't know about transit,' says Steve. 'We just followed everyone off the plane.'

'But what about your luggage?' I can't understand how they managed to buck the system. They shouldn't have been allowed through to Arrivals. 'Your bags were checked all the way through to Saigon. But if you didn't get on the flight, they would have called you over the Tannoy. Didn't you hear any announcements?'

'No,' they chorus. 'They all speak Thai, here, don't they?' says Steve, with the look of One who Knows Better.

'But the announcements would have been in English as well.'

They all look at each other, shaking their heads. 'No,' says Steve. 'All we heard was Double Dutch.'

'So have you picked up your luggage?'

'No,' says Steve. 'We were waiting for you to sort that out.'

I'm still incredulous. 'But didn't you look at the departures board, even if you did somehow end up in the main arrivals area?' I ask.

Steve nods, smiling his knowing look. 'We all had our eyes peeled. Nothing to Saigon.'

'Thai Airways? TG whatever it was? 6.25?'

'No. Chang something. Fooket. King Kong. Ho Chow Mein. No Saigon.'

Oh God. Oh God. 'Ho Chow Mein.... Do you mean Ho Chi Minh City?'

'Yes, that's the one. But, trust me, no Saigon.'

Oh God.

Up, up and away

Right, Mike. Deep breath. Call.

‘Mike, it’s…’

‘Eliza! What the fuck is going on?’

‘I’m sorry, Mike, but I lost…’ my voice quavers, ‘I lost my grandmother.’

‘Oh!’ He sounds stunned. ‘Oh. I’m sorry. When? Why didn’t you tell us?’

‘I was in a state of shock. I got the phone call to say she was dying literally as I was about to check in. I thought, I can’t leave the group, but I had to. I thought it would sound too trivial – you know, because she was old, so it was inevitable. But she was so devoted to me. I just wanted to be there at her side, stroking her soft ears – I mean her head, you know, holding her hand when she went. I couldn’t bear for her to think I’d abandoned her in her final hour. Anyway, I’m sorry. I pretended I’d forgotten my passport because then there was nothing to be done but go back for it.’

‘Hmm, mmm,’ Mike is saying throughout this speech.

‘But I’m sure they’ll be all right,’ I add brightly. ‘I put Steve in charge. He seemed absolutely up to the job. I texted him last night with Loc’s number and where to meet him and everything.’

‘Hmm, mmm. That’s assuming they got as far as Ho Chi Minh, isn’t it, Eliza?’

‘Oh God! Didn’t they?’

‘Loc just called me. The plane’s just arrived. No group.’

Oh God!

‘Do you have Steve’s number?’ I ask.

‘Yes. Straight through to voicemail. You know, a lot of our punters don’t understand about roaming.’

Oh God.

‘Have you tried any of the others?’

‘I’m at home now, as you may appreciate, given that it’s . But I’m going to have to go into the office now to find the others’ numbers, though  I expect the small minority that actually have mobile phones will also have them switched off or not set up for roaming. We’ll have to see, won’t we?’

Oh God.   

‘Mike,' I try to sound calm and measured. 'I have to go now as they’re calling my flight. I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon, and I’m sure they’ll have contacted you or Loc by then, but anyway, I’ll sort it out as soon as I get there. I’m really, really sorry about this.’



I love this feeling of hushed suspension as the plane comes to a halt before pulling out the stops. And, foot on the pedal, off we go! The lights of Heathrow are racing by, and we’re up… up… and awaaaay. Mmmm – nice First Class-style recline before we level out. Now we’re banking steeply. I press my nose to the porthole. Below me are the twinkling orange lights of London, the red and white streamers along the roads, the black serpent of the Thames.

Urgh. Cabin sparks to life, lights flicker on, you may now unfasten your seatbelt, click, snap, bustle in the aisle. Why do they always have to spoil it?

Right, I’m having duck red curry and pak choi and … which movie? Oh this one looks good. Kristin Scott Thomas looking tragic and ethereal and a sweet little girl from Vietnam. I’ve Loved You So Long.

Oh God. I’m snivelling and snuffling and the man next to me is adjusting his eye mask and shifting away from me in his seat. This always happens to me. Whatever movie I choose on a plane, it always chimes with my current state. So this one, pretty grim as it turns out, is about a woman who’s just out of prison for murdering her six-year-old son. At the end we discover she killed him because he had a painful terminal disease. Euthanased or -ized him, in other words. Causing her lifelong, overwhelming pain. Done out of pure love. Waaa!

They've turned the lights down at last and I’m just drifting off when I sit up with a jolt, eyes wide open. I didn’t have Dusty killed so that I could go to Vietnam, did I? No. No. I didn’t. No. Sandy said. The vet said. Dan said. They all said it was the right thing. It’s coming back to me, now. The vet said I’d feel anger, guilt, all the usual things, but it was The Right Thing. I slump back in my seat. Oh God. Bereavement is like an earthquake. You get the initial shock and all the emotions that go with it, and then just as you think you’re on stable ground again, you get these aftershocks that hit as viscerally as the first.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Dusty's memorial haiku

Always at my feet,
indeed, sometimes under them;
always in my heart

Sad faces

Ah. Email from Lily.  


Hmmm. I'm still none the wiser. Is she feeling upset or just acknowledging that it's sad?


Phone rings. Oh good. It's from the Manor.

‘Mum!’ a little voice pipes. ‘I’m confused. Am I staying tonight or coming home?’

‘You’re staying, darling. I’m almost at the airport now. I went home yesterday because of Dusty Do, but I’ve got to fly to Vietnam tonight.’  

‘Oh, OK. And Mu-um, you know how Esme’s coming home for the weekend when you're back...’

'Mmm.' I bite my tongue. 

‘Can we make pompoms for Santa’s grotto?’


‘And Mu-um, I told Esme about Dusty. Is that all right?’

‘Yes. It’s not a secret, unless you want to keep it secret…?’

‘No.’ Am I imagining it, or does her voice sound a tiny bit higher-pitched and tighter than normal? ‘Mu-um, I was a bit upset at tea when I read about Dusty.’

‘Well, darling, it is very sad.’


‘Was Esme nice to you?’

‘Yes. And Mu-um, Esme told Sassie. Is that all right?’

‘Yes, darling. It’s fine. Are they the only ones in your dorm who know? Do you not want the others to know?’


I take this to mean that she’s not sure.

‘Mu-um, there’s the bell for prep. Bye!’

My funny girl.

Right. Just pulling in to Heathrow. Check in first and then brace myself to call Mike. I wonder how my group is getting on. They should be on their way to Saigon right now. The thing is, they'll be fine. They only had to wait a couple of hours at the airport and the local guide is meeting them at Saigon to take them to the hotel.


The tributes are flooding in. Texts, Facebook posts, emails, phone calls. As my iPhone chings to life for the umpteenth time, the man across the aisle humphs, gathers his things and moves to another seat.

‘She was an amazing person,’ says Vincent. ‘I’ll always think of her as Lily’s dog-sister. She really was a member of the family.'

‘Oh hey now!!’ emails Sophia’s sister Rose. ‘Hey now’ is her family’s unique expression of comfort and sympathy. ‘Such brave girls (you and her). Richard says he will always remember Dusty for her kindness. She was so sweet-natured and nice to Percy when he wasn't always very nice to her (although he is very sad to hear the news and is now considering his own mortality). Iona says, “Super Hey Now,” which is the most healing and comforting phrase in the Fry lexicon. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx’

Facebook message from my goddaughter Alice, Sophia's daughter. ‘She really was the most adorable baby girl, with a personality more endearing and intelligent than a great many humans. You must be heartbroken. But I honestly can't think of a dog who enjoyed a more loving family and rich life than she did.’

From Meredith, who's seen Rose's tribute on my wall and isn't even a dog-lover: 'My favorite doggie of all time. Endearing, affectionate, obedient, uncomplaining (esp about dieting!), and beautiful.  You can’t get better than Dusty. I am sad – and I send you a very big hug.'

‘I’m crying too much to go to Sainsbury’s,’ writes Sophia from her BlackBerry® wireless device.

I haven’t even told Sal or Cass yet, but I can't. Not now. I'm feeling drained. Plus my London friends were probably more attached to Dusty as a person, having known and often looked after her since she was a baby. 

I want to talk to Lily, but she’s been so shut down lately that I don’t think phoning will be a good idea. Quite apart from the fact that one can never get through. I email her.
‘Hi Darling, I’m very sorry to say, our darling Dusty Do has gone. Poor baby girl. I decided not to go to Vietnam until tonight, so I could be with her. She went to sleep very peacefully, with me stroking her silky ears all the time.’

I close my eyes and try to sleep. The bus corners and a shaft of sunlight floods my vision. The loss of Dusty comes in a wave that overwhelms me. My eyes open with a start. I look out of the window at the cars speeding past, the trees in their brilliant autumn coats. I need to stay in the here and now. If I close my eyes, I see Dusty lying on the floor. It’s a good thing I have this trip to concentrate my mind, or I could imagine sliding into a black hole.

Noble dog

I give Dusty’s ears one last stroke in the back of the van before they drive her away. My first-born, the most devoted girl you could wish for. Gone. I managed to stop myself asking what now. I suppose the deep freeze is inevitable. But at least she’s going to have an individual cremation and they’ll bring me the ashes when I’m back from Vietnam.

Dan puts his arm round my shoulders as we watch the van disappear round the corner. ‘Well done, Lize,’ he says, giving me a little squeeze. Tears are glistening in his eyes.

We go back in for a cup of tea before heading off to Canham to catch the 3.15 to Heathrow. I wish we’d thought of that yesterday. It’s just that I had everything precision-planned.

‘There are some dogs that are real personalities,’ Dan is saying. ‘Bonzo was one and Dusty was another. Digger’s an insipid dog really. His personality consists of jumping in the air with all four legs and barking.’

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Dan, who has always mocked Dusty for being working class, while his dog, Digger, is of noble breeding. Dan, who has hitherto dismissed Dusty for being insipid, just because she lies under the table rather than be boffed by Digger.

Why do people always wait until you’re dead before they can say something nice about you?

So farewell then, Dusty Do

Pad downstairs to see my baby. She is still in situ, under the table, breathing heavily through her double chins. I crawl under the table to sit with her, stroking her ears and neck. Dan is already up and out, feeding the animals. I am staying over at his, though he wasn’t best pleased at having to pick me up after he'd gone to bed.

Turn on my mobile. Six missed phone calls and three texts, all from Mike.

: ‘Just got your text. Pls call asap.’

: ‘Eliza, where the hell are you? Pls call as soon as you get this.’

: ‘Eliza! Call me! You can’t send the group off to Thailand on their own! They have to change flights and we don’t have a rep there!’

Switch off my mobile again. I try and breathe but my lungs seem to have seized up. 


Call the vet. My nice man isn’t in yet.


Still not in.


Ah, he’s there.

'I think Dusty's near the end,' I say. I get as far as 'near' when my voice starts cracking up. 

'Is she having difficulty breathing?' he asks.

'Well her breathing isn't great, but the swelling has got much worse. It's like an Elizabethan ruff around her neck and her muzzle looks like she's been stung by a wasp.'

'Ohh,' he sighs sympathetically. 'I've got a few things to do this morning, but I can come out late morning. I'll bring a nurse.'

The minute he says it, I can’t believe I’m doing this. It seems so sudden. So final. This really is it. Today she is going to die. And it's my decision. 

'Oh, I don't know,' I squeak through suppressed tears. 

'We knew she didn't have very long, didn't we, Eliza?' His tone is kindly but firm. He must have done this a zillion times before. 'We have to think about her quality of life, and it isn't good, is it?’

I ask if it’s OK for him to come to Dan’s. It’s the same distance as Mistlebourne from Candlebury, though in the opposite direction.

‘That’s fine,’ he says. ‘I'll be with you around 12.' 

I am barely off the phone when a text arrives from Sophia, who has been one of Dusty's greatest fans since she was a puppy. 

'How is Dusty? I woke up worrying about her. xx'

I call her immediately. 'She's going to be put down today,' I sob.

'Oh Eliza, I'm so sorry, oh I'm sooo sorry,' she cries. 'She's been your truest and most devoted friend.'

'She has,' I blub. Oh, she has. 

'The thing about dogs,' says Sophia, 'is they always support you and never go off you for a day or say mean, sarcastic things like children do. Sometimes I feel very disloyal to Peggy and I love her to bits and will probably have to book into the Priory when she goes, but I think Dusty is more intelligent. She is so human in her responses. She's very intuitive.' 

I love Sophia for getting Dusty. For not being stiff-upper-lipped and telling me it's for the best and she had a good life. I know it is for the best and she did have a good life, but such catch-all phrases don't touch the soul. It's because Sophia had a true connection with Dusty. 

'I'd love to think of her in that happy hunting ground in the sky,' she continues, 'but I'm afraid I don't really believe it. I think she'll just go into a deep, peaceful sleep. And I love being asleep, so it can't be bad. The children will be so upset. She's like part of our family. Nothing could ever replace her because she's so unique. We will never ever ever forget her. Ever.'


Dan comes back from the animal rounds and, incredibly, Dusty gets up to greet him, wagging her tail.

‘There, you see,’ I bleat. ‘Now she seems OK! But I’ve just called the vet and he’s coming over at 12.’ I tail off, in tears again.

‘Yes but Lize, she’s not getting any better really, is she?’ says Dan. ‘I’m proud of you for making the right decision.’



The vet and nurse arrive. I go out to meet them and we exchange rueful smiles. As we go in the house, Dusty gets up to greet them, her tail whizzing round like a helicopter.

‘Oh look at her,’ I say. ‘I don’t know. Do you think she…?’

‘She’s lost a lot of condition since I last saw her,’ says the vet gently. ‘And look at this oedema.’ He grasps a chunk in front of her chest. ‘It’s not giving her any quality of life.’ Dusty sinks down to the floor again. ‘And look, she musters the energy to say hello, but it’s taking it out of her. I think you’re doing the right thing. You’ve given her a chance. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always done what’s right for her. You could keep her going for another few weeks, maybe, and I’ve seen people do it, but it’s for them, not for the dog. She’s ready to go.’

My eyes are streaming, but I nod bravely. ‘OK, go ahead.’

They fetch a blanket and a towel and coax her on to it. She is now standing, unwilling to lie down. Is it a sign? The vet gently picks her up and lays her on her side. I sit on the floor beside her head. She’s so soft and warm, with her bear-like coat. So… alive. She breathes. She lives. I stroke her silky ears. I’m getting my last fix. I can’t believe she’s lying here, eyes open and searching, wondering what this is all about, and in a minute, at my decision and mine alone, she will be dead.

‘Keep talking to her,’ says the vet, as the nurse shaves off a rectangle of fur from her hind leg. Her front legs are too swollen, he says.

‘Good girl, Dusty baby,’ I say. ‘Good Dusty Do. My baby girl.’ Tears plop onto her head.

After a moment, her eyes stop moving and the lids half-close. Her body relaxes. She is still soft and warm. I keep stroking her and we keep talking. I’m reminiscing about when she was a naughty little puppy and used to bite my ankles. And the time she took herself for an after-hours walk in the park in London, and while I was waiting at the hole in the gate, I got a phone call from a girl to say she’d found my dog. She wasn’t lost, I told the girl, she was just having a little fox chase before bed and was on her way back to me. Oh, said the girl, so you mean I’ve kidnapped your dog?

There is laughter. And more tears. My baby.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Coming home


I am standing in front of the Thai Airways check-in area. Wearing my Asia To Go yellow string nylon baseball cap. Honestly. My worst fears coming to fruition. What is Mike thinking of? He’s meant to be an upmarket tour operator. Ah. There’s the first of my ladies. She’s wearing a blue and white checked shirt, beige slacks and a jaunty neckerchief. Along with her Asia To Go cap.

‘Hello, I’m Eliza,’ I smile, holding out my hand and hoping she can’t see through the make-up to my red, tear-worn eyes, which are now prickling and smarting from overuse.

‘Miss Chick,’ she says, briefly making contact with her limp, clammy little hand.

‘Should I call you…?’

‘Miss Chick,’ she repeats firmly.

I am saved by three more arrivals, a jolly, booming one and a pair of wizened little ones. As I’m greeting them, I notice Miss Chick is squeezing anti-bacterial gel on her palms. Yellow baseball hats keep bobbing up through the crowds until I count in all nine of my flock. Eight women of a certain age (an age that starts at least a decade above mine) and one man, who seems quite genial if paunchy and reeking slightly of BO. We're meeting the other three members of our party at the hotel tomorrow evening - two more women flying direct from America to Saigon and a British bloke who's doing some charity work in Vietnam.  

I lead my group round the maze that leads to the check-in counter and stand by as Miss Chick checks in, followed by the wizened pair, twittering and fluttering like little sparrows, holding up their ziplocked travel toiletries to double-check they’ll be allowed through security with them. The booming woman, who turns out to be the Dowager Countess, reaches the counter and slaps down a much-thumbed and visa’d passport. She turns and winks at me. I smile, but my chest band is tightening. How can I do this to Dusty?

Right. They’re all checked in. Just me now. Oh Dusty. My heart has never felt so heavy. This is it. I heave my suitcase on to the scales. 24kg. Bit over. And it’s not going to leave much room for outfits from Hoi An. But what can you do when you have to pack for smart hotels and mountain walks and beaches and typhoons and freezing fog and monsoon rains and sweltering sun and air conditioning?

‘Passport?’ the woman is saying.

I riffle through my money belt. I glance over at the group. They are all looking at me. I do some more urgent riffling, then make a show of checking every pocket of my jacket, my handbag and my trolley dolly hand luggage.

‘I can’t find it,’ I say. ‘It’s gone.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t issue a boarding pass without seeing your passport,’ says the check-in woman.

‘I think I’ve left it at home,’ I say in a stricken voice. ‘I’m going to miss the flight if I go back. But I’m going to have to. Can I change my ticket and travel on tomorrow’s flight?’

She points me in the direction of Customer Services. I lug my case back off the scales and wheel over to the group. The wizened pair are clucking nervously.

‘Problem?’ asks Steve, the genial paunchy chap, asserting himself as spokesman for the group.

‘I definitely had my passport when I left this morning,’ I assure them. ‘I’m just going to go through all my things somewhere quieter. Give me your mobile number, Steve. I’ll call or text you as soon as I find it, or …’ I tail off. ‘Anyway, you all go through to security. Steve, could you take charge until I catch up with you?’

‘Right you are,’ he says in his down-to-earth northern accent. I sense he is relishing his new position of authority.

‘Make sure you all stay together,’ I call as my brood of yellow ducklings waddles off uncertainly, quacking to each other.

Right. Customer Services. I weave through the crowds, running over a few toes. Gabble my story and, incredibly, they issue a new ticket. More weaving to Excess Baggage. Dump my oversized case. Google: National Express. Is there a bus to Candlebury at this hour? Oh my God! Last bus, 8.30. I might just make it. I race through the terminal with trolley dolly in tow and hurl myself at the bus with minutes to spare.

As we pull out of the terminal, I go through my money belt once more. Yes, there's my passport. Heart still pumping, I call Dan.

‘I’m coming home!’


On the way back from school, as soon as I get a mobile signal, I stop the car and call Dan.

‘I don’t know what to do,’ I sniff.

‘Look, Lize, we’ve been through this. I’m just finishing a few things and then I’ll be over. I’ll be at yours by 10.30. Are you all packed? And has Dusty got her overnight bag?’

‘Yes, we’re all ready. But I’m worried about Dusty. I don’t think she’s going to go on much longer. She couldn’t get upstairs last night and she didn’t even lift her head this morning to eat her little ball of food with the pills.’

‘But she is still eating?’

‘Oh yes.’

‘And she can get up?’

‘Yes, she did go into the garden before I took Lily to school. But she’s generally very lethargic. And the swelling is getting worse.’

‘Well look, Lize, I’ve said I’ll deal with it and it’s fine, I will, OK? I’m sure they can do an individual cremation. She doesn’t have to be thrown in with the masses.’

‘Oh, well that would be better…’ I say, hopeful for a second, and then filled with guilt and misgiving again. ‘But I can’t not be with her at the end,' I say in a melodramatic whine. 'She’d have stayed faithfully by my side if I were on the way out.’

Dan lets out a Saints-preserve-us-woman! sort of laugh. ‘Oh Lord! Here we go!’ he says. ‘Look, Eliza, I’m on my way. She’ll be fine. You never know, she might hang on until you get back.’

‘OK,’ I say weakly, starting up the engine.

We are at the Heathrow bus stop in Candlebury. Dan is busying himself putting my oversized luggage in the hold of the bus. Dusty is lying in state in Digger’s basket in the boot of the Land Rover. I stroke her ears and kiss her head. ‘Bye bye, my baby. You’ll be OK. I’ll see you soon. Good girl. Bye Dusty Do.’ She looks at me with her red-rimmed eyes. Resigned to her fate of going to stay with Uncle Dan where she’ll get boffed by Digger. Little does she know what greater resignation lies in store. What a betrayal.

‘All set,’ says Dan. He gives me a manful hug and I climb aboard the bus, sniffing and wiping my eyes and nose with the back of my hand.

The heating is overpowering and the windows are streaked with rain. I try to read Jon Swain’s River of Time, but I can’t focus. I sit with my eyes closed, sodden tissue in my hand, dabbing at my leaking eyes and nose. It’s such a handicap being sentimental, lurching between the past and imagined future, instead of being strong and proud like Lily, getting on with the here and now.

Old age, disease, decay. What is the point of it? Except perhaps, as the old, diseased and decaying become less themselves, to help those around them detach. Dusty isn’t herself. Not just the lethargy. She has been behaving rather like Lily (though presumably for different reasons), tolerating my advances rather than courting them. Normally if I sit beside Dusty on the floor she clambers on me, or butts me with her head like a goat kid, or rolls on her back to be tummy-rubbed. Am I just clinging on to the Dusty that was? But you don’t just discard things because they’re past their prime. 

At the airport. Right, plenty of time for a coffee before hoovering up the old ladies. I look at the departures board. Thai Airways to Bangkok isn’t even listed yet, so I can’t get rid of this ridiculously oversized suitcase. Well, the flight isn’t till 9.30. I’m never normally this early, but then normally I’d be coming from Chelsea. The later bus from Candlebury would have been cutting it too fine.

Manoeuvre my suitcase through Smith’s to pick up a Telegraph (the Guardian seems so irrelevant when you live in the country) and then into Starbucks. Mmmm! Crème Brulee Macchiato! Things are looking up. I park my suitcase, sit down and take a slurp. Urgh. Too sweet. Another sip. Actually not too bad once you’re past the caramel topping.

Text from Dan. My heart rate doubles. ‘Dusty ensconsed in her favoured place under the table. Breathing steadily. Hope you make it OK!’ There’s a jpeg attachment. I brace myself for a sweet picture of Dusty under the table. Oh. It’s a scene of four semi-submerged aeroplanes at a flooded airport. Argh! Thailand!

Google: floods in Bangkok. ‘Advancing floodwater in Bangkok saw commercial flights at Don Mueang Airport shut down…’  That’s the domestic one. What about the international airport, though? Surely Mike would have called if it was underwater? Hmmm… Seems to be open. Yes. ‘Flights are operating normally.’


Dusty… my baby.

There’s a tight band around my chest. I feel like a Thai plane, half-submerged, in suspension, waiting for something to happen, something to shift. Call Dan.

‘How is she?’

‘She’s OK.’ He sounds grave. Not his usual joshing self. ‘Hasn’t moved from under the table. That swelling round her neck. It looks worse when she’s lying down, flat out, doesn’t it? She doesn’t exactly have a jawline any more.’

‘No, I know,’ I agree. ‘Has she been out at all? I found she perked up a bit around this time when she thought she might get some supper.’

‘No, she really hasn’t moved.’ Dan pauses. ‘Lize… I think I should call the vet in the morning.’

I can’t speak. I can’t bear it.