Riding to Rincon

 

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Chestnut Mandibled Toucan

I dunno, you spend hours tiptoeing through the jungle hoping against hope to see a toucan, binoculars scanning the canopy, and blow me if there isn’t one sitting on a garden fence at the minivan  station. And not just sitting there either, showing off like a Hollywood matinee idol whilst enjoying a shower from a garden hose.  “Toucans like it cool” Oscar had said – don’t they just. Forget binoculars, there he was, making sure his wing pits were thoroughly clean, improbable bill wiped dry back and forth, back and forth on the railings, then feathers tucked back in neatly for the admiring crowd that had gathered.  I got out my phone.

“Nils, it’s Granny… happy birthday.” What fabulous synchronicity to have the chance to impress this uber-naturalist, now 13 years old, boy.  “Guess what? I’m watching a toucan having a shower, and …oh my god… there goes a flock of green and red macaws. Are you having fun?”

“Yes Granny, thanks for the money, we’re all having tea now….”  Of course they were, they were 6 hours ahead in Machynlleth, and I was interrupting cake “I’ll take a picture for you” I said releasing him to get on with the important stuff.

Everything about the toucan is extraordinary.  Their giant bills, their huge size, their spectacular colouring – who wouldn’t want to use them to advertise a creamy glass of beer? They are jaw dropping. This one was a Chestnut Mandibled  ‘who likes to bathe in water-filled hollows high in trees’ says the bird guide.  9cm larger than the Keel-Billed which ‘makes harsh and monotonous croaking crick crick crrik, with a resonant wooden or mechanical quality like sound of winding an old clock’, in chorus, like a pond full of frogs’. Birders really go for it description-wise, like connoisseurs of fine wines, and I’d love to hear that and even more see it, as they apparently head-bang their great bills back and forth in all directions as they sound off.  Had it been less absorbed in its ablutions, the Chestnut Mandibled, on the other claw, makes ‘a shrill yelping KeeuREEK or yo-YIP a-yip, a-yip, and expresses aggression with a mechanical sounding rattle deeper than that of the Keel Billed’. No surprise that they dominate in the fruit trees, size matters in the bird world. Are you sensing a toucan obsession developing?

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Chestnut-Mandibled Toucan

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Keel-Billed or Rainbow Toucan

The ride to the minivan swap station had been a right old bone shaker, twisting round, up and down a roller coaster road, torment for Tessa and the little Russian boy whose parents seemed singularly unsympathetic to his toucan green face and gritted teeth.  I know that look well… the yawning that’s one step from an up-chuck. He gratefully chewed one of Tessa’s ginger sweets.   “Little boy sick” I called out to the driver, who immediately stopped for the poor kid to take a walk up and down and have a breather. His parents told him not to make such a fuss. I felt for the poor little chap.  I suffered terribly as a kid. For a while crisps stopped me being sick, then it was ice-creams.  Can you believe my parents bought that line?Image result for map of rincon de la vieja national park

It was good to shake off the journey with the Toucan show, and then be chivvied into a different van and set off due north west, almost to the Nicaraguan border, for another volcanic hot spot. Rincon de Veija is a volcanic area, not a pointy kind of volcano like Arenal, more a range of steaming, puffing ‘fumaroles’ that help to make Costa Rica the carbon neutral country it is, the steam cleverly piped and utilised.  It  has the added excitement of the possibility of firing off in any direction.

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Rincon de Vieja National Park

First the driver had to locate our accommodation and he’d not been there before.  When at last he saw a sign for Casa Aroma del Campo he dropped us off by some impressive iron gates with a drive leading to an imposing Spanish style house.  They were locked.  It didn’t seem right.  I rang the bell next to a key pad. Nothing happened.  I rattled the gates a little. Weren’t they expecting us?

“I can’t remember what Casa Aroma looks like, can you?” I said to Tessa.  “I don’t remember it looking like this.” I rang again. We stood there, somewhat forlorn, way out in the middle of the ‘campo’, suitcases at our feet, hot and dusty, contemplating the locked gate.  “Something’s wrong, stop the driver. Quick.”

A head popped out of an upstairs window.

“Casa Aroma? Up the track, over there” he waved us away, gesticulating at one of the roughest tracks I’d ever seen (though Gloucester County Council roads take some beating at the moment).

“Surely the minivan isn’t going to attempt to go up there?” Tessa said.

We bumped and swayed our way uphill, hoping to god that ‘Smell of the Countryside’ would be at the top. The driver was not happy; nor would I have been if it had been my vehicle.  In the kerfuffle of finally reaching the top and seeing a Casa Aroma del Campo sign and hauling our cases up the last few metres, I left my shade peak in the minivan. We watched the driver bump his way back down, ignoring our waves and shouts. Ok, it wasn’t the most fashionable object and my kids would die to be seen with me wearing it, but I’d found far more effective than sunglasses. It made taking a quick photo or raising binoculars far less faff.

We called out. Nobody came. We wandered around the hacienda style bungalow even more confused.  A bright green parrot, perched on top of its cage eyed us suspiciously.. A large black dog, seemingly completely harmless, thumped her tail a couple of times, setting up a cloud of dust from the concrete.

“Hola, hola…welcome, I am Eric, that is Liberty, and this is Coco…say ‘hola’ Coco.” Coco sidled away from him.

Eric showed us to the most orange room I’d ever seen “net is just for romantic” he explained when we noted only one of the beds had a mosquito net.  “Pool is down there, very natural. Liberty is friendly dog, Coco likes her neck tickled …come on Coco, Coco cop, Coco cop,” he  chivvied. Coco glared at us with her red eyes.  “Vegetarian, no problem” he said chalking up a seven course menu on the board. He checked us in and easily persuaded us to take up his offer of personally driving us to some hot springs “very natural, very nice, you can have mud, I only charge petrol.”  IMG_2840

Can I blame Christmas? Getting the decorations down and things prepped for my house sitter?  Woefully unprepared, Tessa and I realised we had miscalculated our cash stash, and hadn’t allowed for paying for evening meals. Everyone had been reluctant for us to pay for anything in colones and when we paid in US dollars, gave us change in colones.  Same old story.  I should have known. Now here we were, goodness only knows how many miles from a hole in the wall with mostly colones in the stash, and me with just $10. We really wanted to do the hot springs.  Would he accept colones? Eric sighed deeply, he shrugged OK.

With time to spare before the evening ride to the springs Tessa hooked up with her family on Skype, and wandered around with her tablet for an hour or so showing them all around.

“This is Liberty…we’d stroke her but she’s sticky with dust…and this is Coco the parrot…and this is our room, and that’s Mary reading in the hammock…”  I looked up from the New Yorker and waved at them.  There are times when the world shrinks beyond belief, and, seeing them all in Tessa’s Cotswold cottage sitting room was one of them.  Sometimes I look at the stars, an extraordinary thing that is a human being with eyes and fingers on hands, and my mind is blown. Really, who needs drugs?  Life is some weird trip. I wandered off to find the pool.

On the way to the springs Eric stopped for us to photograph a site that to me seemed to sum up Costa Rica. Why fell a tree when you can split the road around it? the hot springs at Rincon were much more like what I’d expected from my experience of hot springs in Thailand, though more contained.  There I’d just made my way up a hot stream, dammed from time to time to make pools, increasing in heat until it was so intense I’d had to clamber back down to where it was bearable.

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Over the road from the main springs were the ‘natural’ ones, so we thought we’d try them first. The stream trickled downhill through woodland, it was still and deserted. We  picked our way carefully along the paths till we found a shady pool we particularly liked.

“Ow, christ, ow, watch out” I shouted across to Tessa who was just picking her way in carefully.  I’d just swam right into the submerged branch of a fallen tree, and was having trouble escaping from more hidden branches.  No wonder it was so quiet. The natural pools were indeed natural, unkempt and set like traps for the unwary. Hightailing it back across the road to the main set up we were relieved to find a series of pools roughly fashioned out of concrete beside a larger stream with no overhanging branches.  They even had approximate temperatures chalked on boards next to each pool.  The place was heaving with people, chatting, taking selfies and generally having a ball shouting and splashing around.

“Come on lets get muddied” I said to Tessa and we joined the queue for an attendant to slather us all over with mud using a huge paintbrushes. We staggered away like zombies to wait for the mud to dry and absorb until we looked for all the world like a a row of  Gormley figures. Once we’d dried to pale grey and started to crack we slithered over to a row of cold showers set in the rocks. I found the ‘just perfect’ pool to wallow in, like Goldilocks porridge not too hot, not too cold, with only a smattering of other people. I floated on my back, eyes closed, thinking ‘this is the life.’ It seemed like I’d floated like that for an age when I had a very shocking awakening obliviously floating right into a bunch of young men sitting around the edge drinking beers. I spluttered my apologies and paddled away embarrassed. “Did you enjoy that” giggled Tessa, who had watched the whole incident unravel from a distance.

IMG_2856Eric diverted along a back road on the way back.  We were itching to see a puma, and he assured us they were regularly seen there, as the sign would indicate, but it was not to be. Truth to tell, puma’s don’t want to see people, and so well camouflaged are they that you could walk right past one and not know it. There are constant rumours of them living in my valley back home in the Cotswolds, carcasses of deer eaten from the hind quarters forwards found, but only rare sightings.

Back at Casa Aroma del Campo Eric’s seven course meal turned out to be the best we’d eaten so far in Costa Rica. Veggies fresh from the campo, bean soup, a kind of tasty scrambled egg with spring onions and herbs rounded off with a ‘flan coco’.  Paula’s description of Casa Aroma came back to me: ‘a little bit arty and funky’. “Perfect” I’d said.  And yes, we found it right up our unbeaten track,

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Still soporific from the spa, we both turned in early to read and for me to catch up on my journal. We marvelled at how soft our skin had become from the mud. There were curious night sounds I couldn’t identify, but it was a deep sleep nevertheless.

Coco woke us at the crack with a hideous squawking.  It only stopped when the cook arrived from the village and slip-slopped over to her with a piece of toast.  That bird is spoiled. I tried to ingratiate myself with her like Eric suggested “Coco cop, Coco cop” I said inching my hand towards her to indicate a neck rub. She made to stab it with her vicious beak

“She only like men” called out the cook, well thanks Eric, pity you didn’t mention that.  I felt sorry for the bird, the cage was filthy, partly because she seemed to spend all her time standing on top of it, crapping and clutching at her clawful of toast, glaring. Were her wings clipped? I asked Eric when he re-appeared.

“No she flies free.  Goes away sometimes and comes back.” Well I hope she goes off for hot sex with a secret lover and has some fun in her life.

IMG_2869 (1)The next morning our guide Freddie picked us up early.  ‘Rincon is famous for its tall trees’ said Paula…she wasn’t kidding, but I have to say that by then I felt that if I had to endure hearing about the lifecycle of the ficus tree once more it’d go crazy.  I’d come to realise that when guides are a bit stuck for something to show visitors they resort to this patter. Freddie was well meaning, studying hard to upgrade from minivan driver to full time guide, but when you hear an unusual bird call and ask “What’s that?” “A bird” doesn’t really cut it. Bernie the driver, a trained guide was actually more knowledgeable.  Freddie redeemed himself when he pointed out an anteater way up high in a tree.  Did you know they did that?  My vision of an anteater is of an animal pottering along on the forest floor hoovering up ants with it’s long snout. To see one eating high up in the canopy was a revelation, as was the sandpaper tree. Yes it is very wise to keep your arms to yourself in the rainforest.

We smelt it before we saw it – sulphur. Then we heard it. Plop, hiss, plop.

“Oh my god, look at that” steam was rising up among the trees. We’d reached the active area, and there was the vent of a fumarole right in front of us.  Crusts of colourful chemicals surrounded the vent, boiling water in it.  Nearby was a large mudpot.  Plap, plop, plop.

“They should have films of this showing in dentists surgeries” said Tessa. “And at the post office” said I.

I feel a bit guilty being so excited by volcanoes, especially when people in Hawaii are fleeing for their lives from one at this very moment while I write. But it’s like looking at the stars.  I am amazed that we can survive on a round rock, with a furious furnace of molten rock in the centre, barely contained in places by a thin crust, sicking up lethal rivers of larva.  The sharp smell of sulphur caught in my nostrils.  How can this be? Existence was blowing my mind again.

Tessa filmed it on her phone.  I stared and stared at it, mesmerised so I jumped when Freddie reappeared from making a phone call right behind me.  I turned around. He looked at me closely.

“Are those real?” he asked.  He pointed.

“My eyes? You mean green? Yes, they are. Cowpat green.”

“Beautiful,” he said and walked away. Curiosity or a come on? You decide.

 

Journey to the skinny bit in the middle.

Costa Rican Mafia and polyamory in the swamp

 

Cute aren’t they? The White-Faced Capuchin monkey, as gorgeous to look at as a decorated cup of the brew it’s named after, as well as the hooded friars, is also known as the Costa Rican Mafia.  It didn’t take us long to go from ‘oo, wouldn’t it be amazing to see a Capuchin to ‘oh my god, it’s trying to steal the sugar.’ Sadly, where they are around easy pickings (i.e. tourists) they’ve developed a sugar addiction, making them relatively easy to snap, but a nightmare for restaurant staff. They are also extremely clever.  We were told about two beach capuchins putting on a bit of a show dancing for a charmed tourist, while their accomplice unzipped his backpack and necked a bottle of coke.

We arrived in Tortuguero well in time for lunch and, such was our lack of checking, had the unexpected delight of finding two tours were included as well as the canoe trip at dawn the next day. As we waited to go into the dining hall capuchins did their best to cement their reputation. Someone thought they saw a toucan, we missed it, only catching the post-seeing-a-toucan excitement.

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Oliver gathered us together at the dock to take us by boat down the canal for a jungle hike. Some guides, you can tell immediately, get it – have a passion for the environment, oodles of experience and are full of knowledge.  As soon as I heard him imitate the call of the rare Trogon, I knew we were in the hands of an expert. I used to help my ex (a warden with the RSPB) with bird surveys and that’s how you do it, especially in the UK where most of them are LBJs (little brown jobs). It worked.  Soon a pair of Trogons answered his call and came to check out the competition.  For those that are curious they were either Orange Bellied (4, below) or Elegant (No.7 below) close relatives of the iconic, extravagantly tailed Quetzal.  I have a particular interest in seeing a Quetzal because for years their truly crazy call startled my friends when I used it as a ringtone on my mobile.  The trogon however has a soft 5 or 6 descending note call.IMG_0091

Our little group walked quietly along the concrete path through the jungle – concrete because a law was passed a couple of years ago in Costa Rica to make everywhere accessible to wheelchairs. Whilst it might take something from the experience of adventuring in the jungle, it actually protects tourists from it in many ways and the rainforest from them. “Don’t touch anything, or lean on a tree without checking first” said Oliver “there are snakes, insects, and some plants have savage spikes, same are  poisonous. Be careful.” A row of leaf cutter ants flagged up a warning on the handrail.

One woman complained it was too dark to take photographs. rain drenched us, but as Oliver pointed out “it’s a RAIN forest”. Swathed in capes and waterproof jackets, binoculars and cameras (the lucky few with long lenses) at the ready, we hoped to see a jaguar slinking by or a tapir sloshing about. How can anyone live in a jungle let alone find time to build fantastic temples?

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The soggy forest floor was lit in places by a tiny fungus like glowing cups of fire; sap from the ‘blood tree’ bled a massacre onto the concrete path. A spiny nut had provided a good bite for a monkey or a possum.

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Blood Tree

I heard the young woman travelling with a woman around 80 years old, call her  ‘Nanny’. I was curious. As we boarded the boat to go back to Evergreen Lodge I asked if she was travelling with her grandmother. She was doing  exactly that, she said, and what’s more, they were having a great time. I was inspired. I resolved to offer to take each of my four grandchildren on a special trip, somewhere they really wanted to go, when they reached 18. How cool would that be? The plan risks it being a bit naff for the youngest of the four, who is only 10, if I’m a bit decrepit by then, but hey, what better incentive to keep fit?

The next trip  to Tortuguero village was an exercise in how to keep jolly in the rain. Easy for a couple of Brits, neither of us moaners.  ‘No such thing as bad weather, only wrong clothes’, we reminded ourselves.  We looked at the ice-cream stalls along the ‘high street’  (mostly a row of tourist shops) but it was hard to work up an enthusiasm for one under our umbrellas. No wonder Tessa and I are good travel companions.  She and I share a passion for hardware shops.   I’ve  visited hardware shops all over the world, and usually find something different to bring home, though I never did have the nerve to fit the squirty loo hose I brought back from Thailand.  (What was I thinking? A hose attached to the loo in a wooden floored upstairs bathroom with four grandchildren?) Sadly Tortuguero hardware shop had little to intrigue, though I regret not getting a picture of the leather machete sheaths hanging in a row.

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We headed for the beach instead, behind the row of shops, famed for the turtles who, in a spectacular event each November, heave themselves ashore in their many thousands to lay their eggs. “Don’t swim” Oliver had warned “there are crocodiles and sharks in the sea.”  A sea, despite being Caribbean, that churned and crashed angrily on the shore. Funnily enough I wasn’t in the least bit tempted.

As night closed in I went for a soggy walk alone along the path from our cabin. Always a good mimic I repeated the Trogon call.  Birds stirred nearby, but they weren’t coming over to play. The night shift was starting, and I stopped to listen to the ringtone frog, the alarm clock frog, the faulty smoke alarm frog and the dripping tap frog. It was another world, and I loved it.

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“Listen” I said to Tessa when I woke next morning “hear that?”

“No, what?”

“That’s it. Nothing. Nada. It’s stopped raining.”

The light was different, it was warmer, and in the far distance we could hear Howler monkeys call.

It couldn’t have been a better omen, for this was the day I’d anticipated for over a year when I saw a picture of my friend Amanda canoeing up a tropical river. It had been the stuff of my dreams for so long I can’t actually remember when it began but it was undoubtedly inspired by a plethora of wildlife documentaries and reading about female explorers.

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We assembled at the jetty at 5.45 a.m. and were introduced to our guide Ray Brown.  We wobbled onto the small rowing boat with a German and Swiss couple, Ray standing at the back doing the paddling.  A black vulture circled overhead. Someone thought they saw a shark fin.

“Possible, said Ray ” there are sharks and crocodiles in the canal here, manatees sometimes.” Ray explained he grew up in Tortuguero village.

“Did you swim in the canal?” I asked him.

“Of course” he said paddling across to the other side, “ask me any questions you like” he said “what do you want to see?”

“I’d love to see a tapir” I said.

“Ah, difficult” said Ray “but I’ll try my best.  They like to graze in the shallows.  They eat Water Hyacinths.  Look Howler Monkey” and he paddled us over to look. “Iguana” he said poking the boat into the canal side. Iguanas, explained Ray, change colour from green to orange, depending on what they eat. It reminded me of an acupuncture patient I had once who’d turned herself bright orange with her serious carrot habit. The iguana we saw was half way there. Ray knew where things hung out, poking the boat into the side canals and lagoons. The cayman’s lair was empty that morning.

“What are those ?” The trees on the banks looked from a distance as if someone had thrown tissues up them.  He paddled in close. They were exotic flowers, as big as a head with red stamens and phallic pistle (if I remember my biology right).

“I used to be a Rastafarian,” said Ray “can you believe that? But I had to cut my dreads off to get work.”  He picked a flower to show us close up. “This is what we used it for. Not allowed now, national park.” Tearing up and mushing all the parts of the flower into canal water he mixed it to a pink slime.

“There,” he said pouring it onto his head “makes your hair grow very nicely. Anyone want to try?”

“I will” said Tessa, to my astonishment “come on Mary, you too.” The others in the boat declined while Tessa and I rubbed it into our hair. I can report my hair has grown very fast this last month, though I’m afraid it’d take me till I’m 80 to grow dreads.

As he paddled Ray told us how there were no doctors or clinics in the village.  His father had helped in all the births of his brothers and sisters . Such was his natural skill, he was midwife to all the children in the village.  I wonder if he learned something from the amazing Feminista bird?

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Bobbing on a boat doesn’t necessarily make for great photos, so I share this with you from a bird guide.  The Jacana, with its improbable feet for walking on floating vegetation, has a habit I can’t resist sharing.  Ray said it was known as the ‘Feminista’ bird explaining she took no part in the upbringing of her eggs…but he left out half the story.  She is actually polyandrous, defending a territory of 2 – 4  males at a time. She puts in a bit of effort at the beginning, helping her first male to build a skimpy nest on the floating vegetation. Then she lays him 4 buff coloured eggs, scribbled over with blackish crisscrossing lines (like a very young child might decorate an easter egg).  He incubates them, (without any help from her, carefully tucking his wings under the eggs to insulate them from the damp of the floating nest) while she buggers off to make eggs with her other paramours.  He has even been observed rolling the eggs to safety over the vegetation if a flood threatens the nest.  They hatch after 22-24 days, when he carries them to safety tucked under one wing, like recalcitrant toddlers, legs dangling. ‘The mother may help to guard them’ says the bird guide.

Ray Brown steered us into the side canals, where crocodiles lurk and vegetation brushes the arms of the unwary. Honestly, it was one of the biggest thrills of my life.

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On our last morning in Tortuguero Tessa and I went for a bit of an explore on our own.  Walking to the far end of the lodge “do not eat in the wrong restaurant, stick to the one I direct you to” was clarified. Our pool was a rather sorry affair, even despite the weather it didn’t look at all attractive. The other half however had a luxury pool with bar and loungers.  No doubt the food was an upgrade too. But we were content without the luxury, we agreed we didn’t need clipped lawns and stylish ‘tropical’ planting. Our only regret was we hadn’t had time to take a couple of kayaks into the back canals on our own…but maybe that wasn’t such a bad thing after all.

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Journey to top right of the skinny bit in the middle.

“It looks a bit posh to be our hotel” I said to Tessa.

“It is though, look, ‘Don Carlos'”. We’d arrived at San Jose in the dark, impressed by the exorbitant display of Christmas lights, and cunning ways they’d created Christmas trees, surprised by how big the city was.

“Wow”. We trundled our cases into a 1920s lobby to be greeted warmly by the receptionist in perfect English. Formalities over, he reminded us our bus would leave for Tortuguero at 6.30 in the morning.

“I think it leaves at 5.30” I said. He smiled politely.  “Maybe”.  If there was one thing worrying me about our trip it was the knowledge that Tessa prefers a slow start in the morning. I know better than to call her before 9.30. I do too, but by that I mean back to bed with a cup of green tea, check Facebook, 10 minutes learning Spanish, 15 minutes yoga, 10 minutes trying to meditate, and half an hour breakfasting shouting at John Humphries on the Today programme….How on earth was I going to get her up in time?

I scrutinised the travel programme.  “He’s right, it does leave at 6.30.” Seeing an opportunity to justify 6 months struggling to learn Spanish I took myself off to the desk. Duolingo says I was 50% fluent after all.

“You are absolutely correct,” I said in hesitant Spanish “the bus does leave at 6.30” I beamed when he nodded a yes. “Was that OK ” I asked, ” my Spanish I mean?”  “Perfect” he said, his one eye twinkling.  I burst back into our room “I did it. He understood. My Spanish works.”

“How about I shower first in the morning so you can wake slowly?” Tessa readily agreed.  Too jet lagged to eat, despite our having researched several vegetarian restaurants in San Jose, we turned in at 8 o’clock. I felt guilty at passing up the opportunity to get a flavour of the city, but fell into a dizzy sleep, listening to the Archers on Tessa’s huddle.

“Aargh. Bugger.”

“Everything alright?” asked Tessa when I emerged from the bathroom.

“I forgot. I put loo paper in the pan. Just had to fish it out”

“But I didn’t flush in the night after I peed.”

“Neither did I, but better that than a blocked loo when we need it.”

“Eew,” said Tessa.

“It’s Ok, I washed my hand after.”

This was to become a familiar cry on our trip – Costa Rican plumbing is absolutely fine, as long as you remember to put the paper in the bins provided next to the loo and preferably not mistakenly reuse it like Margot in My family and Other Animals.

Rickshaw had warned us about ‘Tico time’ so our expectations were so relaxed about departure I was startled to find the lobby full of people and luggage at 6am and drivers calling out names and destinations. I hurried back to our room to warn Tessa. She’d been having a bit of a re-pack and the bed was spread with the contents of her suitcase.  “I’ll tell them you’re coming” I said and trundled my shamefully heavy suitcase stuffed with ‘might come in handys’ (50 years of travelling the world has taught me nothing) round to the lobby.

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Lobby, Don Carlos Hotel

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It’s never a good idea to do a long bus ride on an empty stomach, especially if you get travel sick like Tessa, so I lent her my acupressure wrist bands and we snacked on cashew nuts.  There was only coffee available, which neither of us drink. It was going to feel a long wait till the breakfast stop half way through the 2 hour bus journey.

The mini van called at a smart hotel to pick up more people, then an even smarter one where we were re-shuffled into different coaches.  I watched our cases like a hawk there being some confusion about destinations, which luggage hold, which part of the luggage hold. and which coach they went in. Stomachs grumbling, we set off into traffic in a slow trundle out of the city, tempted by distant views of mountains in cloud.”Look,” I nudged Tessa “rainforest.”

“It’s so green,” she said “just like England. We could be in the Slad Valley.”

“It’s meant to be the dry season” I said, as rain lashed the windows and condensation fogged the inside. The driver was peering through a small clear patch about the size of a football. “There’s something wrong with the air conditioning.”

“I might sue you for damages for misrepresentation of the weather” she said, shivering and fishing for her raincoat for another layer.

“Bet you’re glad you brought a fleece” I said, wiping a hole to see out of the window. No sooner had we left the suburbs than we were driving through tunnels of dripping, gushing, vine strung, creeper-clinging jungle.  It didn’t remind me of Laurie Lee country it reminded me of Tarzan. I kept my eyes peeled for Howler monkeys and toucans.

The breakfast stop, to our surprise, was at a smart cafeteria, with an enormous dining area, set up for tourists to be fed, coffee’d and redistributed into different coaches and mini vans. A kind of tropical Victoria coach station surrounded by rainforest, with breakfast buffet of rooster (fried rice and red beans), pancakes, rolls, eggs, meat and that dire stuff Lipton’s has the nerve to call tea.

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Noticing a crowd gathered on the path staring up at the tree tops with binoculars I lept up, grabbed mine, and slammed straight into a glass wall.  Fortunately the damage to my nose was slight, my pride took the hit worst. But like the slap on the wrist I once got from a jelly fish in Thailand when I swam out too far, it was a good reminder to pay attention. It was a false alarm.  Someone thought they saw a sloth, a crowd quickly formed and it turned out to be vegetation.

Sloths are like that, I was to discover, looking for all the world like a bunch of moss and moving just as fast.  Moss grows happily all over their fur, fertilised by the Sloth Moth. Since the sloth only eats leaves it’s digestion is very very slow. Once a week the sloth makes a torturous journey down from the canopy to have a shit. The Sloth Moth has a charmed life laying it’s eggs in sloth dung.  Next time the sloth takes it’s weekly dump emerging moths hop on, their mucky feet adding a little je ne sais crois to the sloth’s coat which grows an excellent disguise of green moss. It’s a win win if you can bear to be a moth farm covered in dung.

The next stop was at the end of the road to Tortuguero, a village buffeted by the Caribbean on one side with a quiet lagoon on the other. It’s accesible then by an hour or so boat ride along a river and canal. We were let out at a busy dock area by the river with cafe and loos near the waiting boats. Here I had my first experience of the confusing Costa Rican currency.  I handed over $10 to the loo attendant, and got a handful of colones coins in change.  I had absolutely no idea if it was the right change. Since the notes are for thousands and millions and I didn’t understand the coins, (I am dyscalculic) I often rely on other people to do the maths.  Tessa was baffled too however.  We no doubt tipped too much or too little, were constantly shocked by the prices and wondered why no one really wanted our colones. However it was a welcome ‘comfort break’ and I’d probably have paid $10 for it anyway. Dragging our suitcases down the rough ground to the river bank we were re-sorted onto different boats depending on our Tortuguero hotels, luggage loaded onto separate boats.

There was a kerfuffle from one of the other boats. A woman had mistakenly left her suitcase at the hotel in a pile set aside for temporary storage there. Oliver, our guide, is on the case, but has to tell her bluntly the only way is back.

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“It’s a boat” sighed Oliver on our Evergreen Lodge boat” don’t all sit on the same side.” The last boarders shifted over sheepishly, rocking us back level. “There are sharks and crocodiles…don’t trail your hand in the water please, and put on your life jackets. If the captain sees something interesting he will turn the boat for you to see it in turn, don’t all stand up at once.” Red Fingernails obviously didn’t listen.

We churned down a soupy brown river thickly lined on both sides with all the pot plants we’d ever known in the 60s and 70s, blown up to jungle height. It was a completely thrilling way to arrive.

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The river opened up to a broad canal for the last part of the journey, rather ominously called the Penitencia, and pulled up at Evergreen Lodge dock.

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“OK” said Oliver “I will give you your room numbers,some go to the right, some to the left, there is a restaurant each direction.  Your cases, if they were labeled, are already there. Do not muddle up. Eat at the restaurant on your side.” (We were only to discover why we were instructed thus just before we left.) And so we arrived at the fabulous Number 17, soaked, happy and thrilled to be so immersed in the forest, where, who knows, anything might come sliding, howling or creeping by?

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An inclement proposal

Letting down her hair

Bianca was at the door. I smelt her as soon as I opened it: rose and lavender with a hint of mothballs. Rose was that day’s theme. A floaty chiffon scarf around her shoulders, rose coloured. A gauzy print dress, rose patterned on deep purple, the asymetric hem falling  in as yet unfashionable waves. All topped off with a large straw hat encircled with faded silk roses, crowning shining plaited coils of fox red hair.

Purple was the background theme of my childhood, much favoured by members of The Order of the Cross. Their scriptures, invented in the 1930s and 40s by the Reverend J.Todd Ferrier (‘Our Friend’) were heavy tomes covered in …purple damask. Order members were all pacifists and vegetarian. On Sundays at the Sanctuary (an upstairs room above my father’s surgery) my parents and their friends, fellow members, would in turn transmogrify into preachers, cloaked in soft purple satin robes. During the long and incomprehensible services, with wheezing hymns pumped out on an organ, I watched the coils of incense rise. I listened to the caged budgies in Gloucester park opposite, and felt the hard rush seats barcode my bare thighs and dreamt of escape and the nut roast for lunch.

Bianca was just one of the colourful characters of my childhood, where a FatherMother was worshiped instead of god, Christ was ‘The Master’ and where angels hovered everywhere. Androgynous pictures of them in floaty garments hung over my parents’ beds. A Guardian Angel, I learnt, was always there to protect me. (A dangerous idea for an adventurous child addicted to the Famous Five books). Bianca, of all the members of The Order, transfixed me. She sits here by my desk. A little cloth sculpture by a fellow member. Her hands are suspended in front of her chest; the knitting needle pins that held a tiny ball of wool have fallen out of them long ago. Her neck is broken and her head would lol onto her chest without the strip of masking tape that holds it up, so you can see the coils around her head. Nevertheless she is every last stitch the Bianca I knew.

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A ‘grunge’ dresser long before the word was invented, before charity shops existed, she would trawl jumble sales to assemble her outfits; topping them off with gaudy paste broaches. She already seemed ancient when I knew her – but then most grownups did. By the hairs on her chin, and freckled arms, she must have been in her mid 50s or 60s when my five year old self opened the door to her.

In ‘reduced circumstances’, I believe Bianca lived in a grace and favour caravan in the woods next to Resthaven, an old people’s home near Stroud. On Wednesdays she would take the 56 bus from Pitchcombe to our house in Gloucester to help my mother with the ironing. Ours was a busy doctor’s household. In school holidays there would be shirts for four brothers and my father to iron, whilst my mother fed sheets through a rotary iron. But on quieter visits, when my big, rowdy, messy brothers were all away at boarding school, I would have quality time with Bianca. I would be ready for her with a little hoard of gold coloured hairpins clasped in my hand, pins that she had shed around the house the previous visit. Pins that held the coils in place.

Taking a break from the singeing hot kitchen, Bianca would retreat to the cool of the downstairs cloak room, which smelt of damp woollen coats and air-wick loo freshener.  There she would indulge me by letting down her hair. Hair that when released fell heavily down to her ankles in fiery Rumplestiltskin waves from the plaiting. She brushed and brushed it till it shone and crackled letting me feel it’s silky softness. How I envied that hair. My brother Ian once found me sobbing in front of the slightly foxed bathroom mirror after the savage haircut my mother favoured. “No one will marry me now” I wailed. It became the family joke for a while, making me blush to my roots each time it was mentioned.

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I asked Bianca one day “Did you ever have a fiancee? Didn’t you want to marry?”

“Oh dearie me. What a question. Well as a matter of fact I almost did. He was an emperor and a king you know.” My eyes widened. “Black and beautiful and his chest was covered with gold medals and chains. A neat silver beard – oh he was so handsome. “

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Emperor Haile Selassie

Emperor (and self appointed King) Haile Selassie was exiled during World War II to Bath, in the West of England. She told me that at the time she was a companion to *Lady Macaulay and often attended elegant social events with her. Presumably it was at one of these events she met Selassie. I found this picture of her in fancy dress. She stands on the far right, hair not yet ankle length, but well on the way.  I imagine him transfixed, like I was, by her long red plait, and graceful bearing.

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“He proposed to me darling, and gave me a black-stoned ring. I had to turn him down. He was King of Ethiopia. It’s very hot there. I didn’t think the sun would suit my complexion.”

Many years later, when I was in my 30s, it fell to my mother to clear out Bianca’s  possessions when she died. A kindly duty she often did for friends and one I was always eager to help with because who knows what treasure might be unearthed? Bianca had ended her days in a high ceilinged, but small room in Faithful House in Cheltenham. A home for elderly nurses who were on their uppers. The staff were rather keen for a quick and thorough clear out, she had piles of suitcases in her room and in their storage. I searched every little faded box, tissue paper screw and suitcase for that ring. I didn’t find it. Perhaps she gave it back? What I did find, however, was pure gold. In a long box, wrapped in tissue, tied at each end with a pale blue satin ribbon, was folded a fox red plait.

 

*A Wiki search for information on a Lady Macaulay has sadly revealed nothing.  However I did find this woman, a writer, Dame Rosa Macaulay, whose home was completely destroyed in the blitz. Might she have fled to Bath at that time? She too was drawn to deeper spiritual dimensions. Macaulay was never a simple believer in “mere Christianity”; her writings reveal a more complex, mystical sense of the divine. Her unusual take on Christianity would have been right up Bianca’s street, she would have made a perfect companion. Like Bianca she too was a pacifist and between wars was a sponsor of the pacifist Peace Pledge Union, until she recanted in 1940, after her home was flattened perhaps?

I want to believe this is the Macaulay that Bianca companioned in Bath.  Who could not resist someone who writes this memorable first line from her book The Towers of Trebizond: ‘”Take my camel, dear”, said my Aunt Dot, as she climbed down from this animal on her return from High Mass.’

 

 

Pictishwoman gets her placard out for Trump

On Friday 21st January 2017  I shared on Facebook:

“It’s like when a close relative dies.  You half wake and it’s a good day, a normal day.  And then you remember….It’s the worst reality show ever. (Or ever, ever, as Trump would say).”

I spent the day on a ‘craft project’ and kneading bread. The bread rose exceptionally well.

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Grannies against Trump

Next morning, Saturday 22nd January,  if not literally painted in wode, I rose fired with enthusiasm, shining out my inner wode, in Pictishwoman mode.  I travelled with friends to Bristol to share the love, communality, humour and determination of 1000 women, partners, children, grannies and babies because I had to add my voice.  I had to say this is not normal.  He is not normal.  Times are not normal.  But together we are strong and we won’t be silent.
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Knowing I was joining with millions of women all over the world,  made me feel just a little bit better.  I had to be with the truth tellers.  People who can count, and do count in more ways than one.  Who see black and know it is black.  Who see white and know it is white and won’t be told otherwise.  But don’t misinterpret this.  We know  a ‘race’ is something you run and is otherwise completely irrelevant to our friendships .Who know a combover con when we see one, and come on, really, we couldn’t give a fig about the size of your genitals Mr Precident (yes I meant that spelling).  As  one banner said ‘Melania, Blink if you need Help’.

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Pictish Woman

Naked woman hanging in straps – extreme life-drawing

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“Ha”, you might well ask, “you felt uncomfortable,  what about the model?”

New year, new you.  It’s the January mantra isn’t it?   This year, with us boomers defying our dodgy knees and wrinkles, the mantra was elaborated with a promise to halt mental decline by trying something new.  At our age wandering into a room and thinking “now why did I come in here?” is a little bit scary (not that it isn’t something I’ve done for, I don’t know, years…)  so I decided to fill the yawning gap left in my life by the folding of my much loved calligraphy class with something completely different.

The leaflet wasn’t particularly specific.  What was ‘extreme’ life drawing? I’d heard rumours, I’d seen the straps at a recent exhibition held in the studio. I called the teacher.

“I hear you hang your models from the ceiling?  Won’t that be a bit advanced for me?”

“It might be a bit tricky the first couple of sessions, then it’ll click in”.

Apart from an inspiring afternoon in Cricklade with their art group in November it had been 50 years since I did any life drawing. I wasn’t convinced. Wouldn’t I be running before I could toddle?

“There’ll be other beginners,” said Paul.

“Can’t I just try a session and see?”

“You’ll be fine.  Really.”

Some people have the knack of entering a room gracefully whatever the circumstances.  I’m not one of them.  With my board slung under one arm, art kit in the other hand, bundled up against the sou-westerly monsoon raging outside, I clattered my way in.  Having politely stepped back to let other students lead the way in, I found all the best places bagged.  Not that there really is a ‘best place’ when you’re life drawing, it somehow always feels like that.  It’s like choosing in a restaurant and then preferring the other person’s platefull.  My memory of classes at the Richmond Institute all those years ago was arriving late and seeming to always  get the rear view.  Hence I’m quite good at bottoms.

Layered up for January, I’d not allowed for the fact that of course the studio would be hot enough for a model to strip. Our model, in this era of health and safety, was well looked after. When I modelled at St Martin’s Art School in the 60s it was a couple of 3 bar electric fires on a stand directed at my torso.  I was so nervous a trickle of sweat would form just below my breasts and trickle down to pool in my belly button, while my feet froze.  It was very tense waiting for the pool to spill over and tickle as it made it way south.  (There may well be, in attics, pictures of a model with gritted teeth and blue feet.) I squeezed my way back through all the easels out to the loos to strip off as much as I could with decency.

When I came back in the model was sitting on the podium under the shiny blue hanging straps wearing a rather fine silk dressing  gown. I had no idea of this protocol the first time I modelled.     I’d rushed to St Martin’s from a hard day’s kicking up dust at the ballet school. “How much do you pay?” I’d asked.

“7/6 clothed or 8/9 nude.”  It was a no brainer for an impoverished student at The Brooking Tully Ballet School in Chalk Farm, living on Vesta curries and Mars Bars. I was very nervous, but I needed the money. I took a deep breath before I left the curtained off changing room in the corner of the studio, and strode out boldly, naked and ready to roll.  The teacher had a quiet word with me during the break.  I reappeared after the break wearing my black PVC Millets mac with needlecord collar, which just about covered the nether regions.  I don’t think I even owned a dressing gown.

Our model dropped her gown gracefully at a nod from Paul, climbed on top of the 3ft high podium, nimbly hooked a foot up into one of the straps, grabbed two of the other straps and settled into a pose.  I thought of orangoutangs who make a nest like this in the forest.  But this wasn’t anything like a sleeping position, it was extraordinary.  I wondered if she was also a circus performer?  With her hanging quite high above us it dawned on me that however which way she posed there would be extremely challenging foreshortening to cope with and I am no Michael Angelo.

Next door to my right was making huge bold charcoal strokes; the other side was groaning.  I started on an inhibiting piece of A3 paper with her head, so at least there was room for that. 15 minutes in, of the 40 minute pose I found that there was not enough room to include her elegantly placed foot.  This was a shame because that was the part of the pose that kind of made it.  Her toes rested very lightly on the podium anchoring her. If I chopped a theoretical foot off her leg would it fit in? Cross with myself I decided to use A1 paper next, or was it A2?  I’m that much of a novice, I wasn’t sure.

“How much longer?” asked the model. I wasn’t surprised.  Those straps looked like they cut in, even though they were about 3 inches wide. (Actually they too added another layer of complexity despite her slight frame.) I was in admiration that she could hold the pose with only the smallest stretch of a hand occasionally to release the grip. (The hand part of my drawing began to look like a bunch of bananas – a sort of time-lapse hand.)

“You’ve got 5 minutes, but come out of it now if you need to,” said Paul.

It was a relief  for me too when she took a brief break.  I asked next door if she was a professional artist.

“I’m a set designer.”

“Thought you were experienced…would I have been to any of the productions you’ve done?” When she lists the RSC among other places she’s worked I knew I was out of my league.

“Put your pictures up on the wall” said Paul “step back and take a look”.

“WHAT? You didn’t tell me we had to do that? What is this, the wall of shame? Please don’t make me do that.”

“It’s the only way to learn.  Here’s some masking tape.  No one else is going to look.”

I winced and pinned up my drawing as near to the floor and hidden by my  easel as I could get away with.

Another pose, this time so foreshortened that I mostly had arms and hands to deal with and the rest peeping behind like far off mountains, her face, the first mountain, hanging down this time.  In the longer tea break I had a sneaky look around the room.  There were some seriously good artists.  No one else had bananas.  I ate a piece of shortbread.  It didn’t help.  I had a chat with the model.  She told me about her other job – so that’s where I’d seen her before.  I recognised her as soon as she described the uniform.  And no, it wasn’t in the circus.

I suffered nightmares all the week following.  Naked ladies hanging in straps kept appearing swinging above me with their distortions, cackling and jeering.  I phoned my niece Delphine in Bristol.  She does life drawing.

“Wow Aunty Mary, it sounds fantastic.  I’d love to do that.” But the class was too far away for her to take it over for me.  I’m not usually a quitter.  Honestly I’m not.  That song ‘pick yourself up, dust yourself down…’ it was written for me, but the morning of class the following week I texted Paul, spoke to him and quit.  I felt really bad about it, then huge relief.  And then I remembered.

One of the last life drawing classes I did at the Richmond Institute I was interrupted.  It was a rather good drawing too, I still have it in the attic, with it’s significant date.  I used to stay overnight after the class with my old school friend Liz who lived nearby, we took class together.  That evening there was a knock on the door and her parents came in.  They had that look.  Some of you may know it, and if you do I’m sorry.  They had the terrible misfortune to be the bearers of bad news.  They asked me to come with them a moment.  They didn’t have to speak.  How did I already know? In the bleak corridor I learned that my beloved father had died suddenly: a heart attack, playing golf – it’s how he would have liked to go. He was only 63.  I was 17.

This week I transferred to Paul’s ‘basic drawing skills’ class.  There are a few excellent artists in this class as well but I didn’t mind.  I drew an ancient metal tea pot and an old Tibetan bell.  The drawings I did are not perfect, but I loved the process: the smell and shine of the metal pot, the weight of the bell, the feel of the squashy rubber.

There’s a blank page here I can’t wait to fill next week.

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A Vegetarian Child’s Christmas in (1950s) Gloucester

Once upon a time Christmas began in December, with just a little tease, no baubles, no blast of lights. The tiny window, number 1, hidden in the busy picture sprinkled with glitter. When we propped the calendar against the window the picture always thrilled. Around the middle of the month, when I opened number 15, the delicious smells of Christmas would waft upstairs to my bedroom.

“Come and stir” she shouted. I whizzed down the mahogany bannister and thew myself at the kitchen door. She unlocked it, brow dusted with flour, housecoat awry, cursing “bloody patients” for the phone always seemed to her to ring while she was in the middle of something – which was always. I listened to her snap “Well how long have you had the cough? Then why didn’t you call Dr Horsley earlier? This is a very busy time of the year you know, you can’t expect him to just drop everything….” Afterwards the wooden spoon clattered harder against the side of the big cream bowl.

“Make a wish, and stir again.”
“You put breadcrumbs in there? Eeuw.” But when I stirred, feeling the heavy drag of the mix against the spoon, then tasted it – it was delicious.

Next came the cake, “far too late” she fussed “I should have done it months ago.” I became adept at dodging her cat’s cradle paths from the sink in the scullery to kitchen table, and stove. I learnt the importance of the ‘heavy drop’. Spoon suspended a foot above the bowl, I let the mix plop into the bowl like a cow pat. Not enough plop? More milk would be added. A splat instead of a plop and you’d blown it but with the drop just right the cake would be evenly moist all through. What we feared most in those days was not the soggy bottom, it was the soggy middle.

Biscuits were made in industrial quantities, almond and hazelnut. The smell of singed hazelnuts meant keep well away from the kitchen, for the stove was unpredictable depending on the direction of the wind. (The birds did well out of baking days.) Mum’s hands became shiny with butter as she rolled the dough into balls. My job was to flatten them slightly as I pressed a nut or a quarter of cherry into the middle of each one. The cooked biscuits were arranged on plates on a lacy paper doily and covered in greaseproof paper to be distributed to the receptionist at the surgery, Brewer our gardener, Mrs Grindle the cleaner, the dustbin men, the postman, Zigna Laarson (in exchange for her hated peppermint creams) and Bertie Robertson the sports master at my brothers’ school, also a vegetarian. Bertie, a bachelor with no family, would join us on Christmas day.

My poor mother had scant help from any of us as the day approached. My father would be fighting off his own asthma, struggling to cope with all the afflictions caused by the seeping, soggy, town of Gloucester (Dr Foster made a wise decision). I don’t remember my brothers, all older than me, lifting a so much as a scuttle. Perhaps the lock on the kitchen door was testament to my usefulness? Never easy about her relationship with her spinster sister-in-law who came to us most Sundays, Aunty Mamie would be fetched from her flat in Longford which overlooked the advancing floods. Sitting by the fire, knees akimbo, exposing long pink silk knickers she would read.

Aunty Helen in one of her good moods

Aunty Helen, another of my father’s sisters, who lived “Up North’ would be fetched from the station to sour the cream and spread misery with her interminable pessimism. (We’d beg to exclude her every year – it never worked.) In the afternoon the two aunts would vie for the spot in front of the fireplace, hitch up the back of their tweed skirts and rub the warmth into their buttocks and then turn like spits to do the other side, skirt held out. Banished from the kitchen, they bickered the day away in this manner.

None of this helped my mother’s crescendo of stress, which peaked around midnight on christmas eve when she’d finally get round to dressing the tree. Pernickety about how it was done, she left only the lametta for me to add in the morning. Sent early to bed I’d lie awake, fizzing with excitement, hearing her scuffle about in the boxes of decorations. I turned round and round in my bed like a dog in a basket terrified Father Christmas wouldn’t come if I didn’t sleep.

The weight on my feet and the rustle of tissue paper when I moved woke me before dawn. “Not yet,” she’d hiss through the door, “wait till seven.” After a few minutes I’d rap on the bedroom wall again until she gave up, and came in to perch on the end of my bed to share my surprise and delight as I unwrapped the gifts from their screws of tissue paper. The contents were deliciously familiar each year: a clicking frog, chocolate money, paper flowers that opened in a bowl of water, a few walnuts, plastercine, maybe a small cloth bag of brass jacks and ball, a few marbles. Lastly in the toe, without fail, a cox’s apple and a tangerine. (I’d completely forget that I’d spent the weeks before christmas with my head stuck between the gas fire and the chimney in my bedroom requesting a fairly costume.)

As soon as I was allowed up I’d race downstairs to be first to find the box of homemade fudge on the front door step. Each year Bertie ran all the way from from Stonehouse to Gloucester to deliver his present before dawn and then ran home again to change.

Opening our presents took up most of the morning; they were not the extravagant toys of today. Fuzzy felt, maybe an etch-a-sketch – one year a Mason Pearson hairbrush that I did my best to get excited about. A ten shilling note from Granny, the same from Aunty Mamie. I remember the year I realised that it didn’t have to be all one way. I had a small amount of pocket money and I used it to buy a pack of Price’s candles and some wax crayons. I melted them together on the stove and made big coloured candles in pudding bowls for my four brothers, aunts and parents. My brother Ian was withering, but I thought them very nice.

Bertie would reappear around 11, ice blue eyes sparkling in his tanned climber’s face, sheep white aran sweater; I loved Bertie from when I was about 4 years old. After he arrived we were rounded up to be taken for a long walk, leaving Mum on her own to cook dinner for 10. I’d bag the front seat in Bertie’s white sports car so I could have him all to myself. Dad loaded up my brothers and we’d drive miles to the Forest of Dean, the Malverns or even as far as the Black Mountains to ‘work up an appetite’.

Finally the meal: a great feast, spread out on the sideboard in silver serving dishes. Eaten off green Beryl plates on delicate white lace mats that only came out once a year. The silver candles, gravy boats, cutlery and crystal glasses had been polished to perfection by Mrs Grindle. Dad filled our glasses with fizzy apple Shloer – for there was no alcohol allowed for Order of the Cross members. The cake, the pudding and the trifle more than made up for it however.

We never had an hors oeuvre, the meal began with nut roast, gravy, roast potatoes and parsnips, and sprouts from the garden with the slugs washed out. The gravy was flavoured with marmite, the bread sauce by floating a onion studded with cloves in the milk and adding a rare treat: white breadcrumbs. There’d be jelly made from red currants I’d helped to pick in the summer. The Christmas nut roast was made special by adding a sausage roll of stuffing made from white bread, thyme, sage and grated lemon rind laid through the middle. When the roast was cut, circles of pale green stuffing appeared like magic in the middle of each slice. Pine nut kernels, rare and terribly expensive then, were sprinkled on top with dabs of butter to roast it.

Finally, the puddings. First we had Christmas pudding (brought to the table with blue flaming brandy licking the sides), served with a sweet white sauce. My mother, with sleight of hand, sneaked a silver 3p bit wrapped in greaseproof paper into each portion. Then we had mince pies served with top of the milk and strong cheddar cheese; trifle; fruit salad; meringues and brandy snaps stuffed with cream. Funny thing is, I don’t remember any of this being turned down by any of us. We even managed to end the enormous meal by eating one of mother’s favourite Elizabeth Shaw mints. The only thing we rejected were the Meltis fruit jellies (from a grateful patient to an ungrateful family) and Zigna Laarson’s dreadful peppermint creams.

With Chris at dinner

The Curious Incident with a Man on the Floor of the Guggenheim

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Waiting for the half naked man I paced about reception in MOMA.  I went to the loo again.  Sat and flicked through the guide book.  How would I recognise him clothed?  Without the hairy chest on his Facebook profile I had nothing to go on.  Now, had I taken a closer look at his website I could have been a lot better informed.  Although I might not have been there waiting had I paid more attention and scrolled through his photos of street scenes in Madison Avenue to his David Hodgson biographical selfies, particularly the one with the tape measure.

“Mary?  David.  How are you?”  I guess he’d seen plenty of pictures of me on Facebook.  He was wearing a suit, which surprised me a little, but then it was a long time since we were allegedly at our free spirited school together.  How was I?  I smiled.

“Great, fine, so good of you to come and meet me here.”

He walked me out of the lobby and into the sunshine.”You probably remember my older brother, Bill?”

Of course, Bill.  I remembered Bill Hodgson.  I was definitely at school with him.  He was a year, or maybe two years above me.  I believe I last saw him at the 40 year school reunion.  At 16, and often kissed, my girlfriends and I paid little attention to  the younger boys.   Although come to think of it I do remember a  fling with someone who David told me is pretty big in banking in New York. Lucas Van Praag, (described in the Guardian newspaper on the 3rd March 2010 as the ‘canny, sharp-tongued and invincibly shrewd face of Goldman Sachs PR department)  was  charged with defending the bank’s public image.  I guess you’d have to be a bit teflon for that job.  He became a cult figure on Wall Street, with ‘a reputation for firing cerebral, elegantly worded nuggets of scorn at anybody who dares to attack the financial institution’.  OMG and I kissed him?  I don’t remember his tongue being particularly sharp, but he ranked quite high in the kissing stakes despite being set upon by a 16 year old cougar.   I wonder if he still keeps a toy vampire squid on his desk?  Do get in touch Lucas and let me know.

Back to David Hodgson, who turned out to be an amiable, arty, leftwingy kind of person, with a healthy dose of cynicism, much like the other  guys I’m still in touch with from school. The thing about our progressive co-ed boarding school was that we came out of it feeling we owed the world something, not that it owed us.  Which is more than I can say for most of the Eton educated cabinet in parliament.

“I thought I could walk you up to the Guggenheim, we can grab a bite on the way?  How would that suit you?”

At Starbucks he pricked his finger to check his levels as we queued, and ordered as “Voldemort” (no-one so much as raised a brow).  We chose a spot mid-pavement perched on the edge of a fountain between by lunching office workers.

“Did you get that you walk on the right of a pavement to go with the flow?” His sentence matched his perfect English public school boy accent ( Americans, read ‘private’ school) without a trace of American twang.  His sidewalk advice should be given to all tourists in New York.  From having lived near Cambridge and Oxford in the past, I know how intensely annoying gawking tourists can be. Give it long enough and feel like bashing them out of the way rudely.  I’d expected to be bashed out of the way myself by go-getting power walkers in New York, but had naturally blended with the flow and found it a breeze.  Only the stupid cell phone conversations get in the way.

After lunch we walked up Madison Avenue towards the Guggenheim.  Me taking out my embarrassing little Canon pocket camera, David his sexy, proper camera.  It turned out he’s a shit hot photographer (hence the half-naked, arty selfie) with a history of having worked with some of the top photographers in New York, like for Vogue and stuff like that.  He did wonder if Lucas might find some work for him once, but didn’t get a reply.  Was the downside of being a progressive school not benefitting from the so called ‘old-school ethic?So the downside of being such a progressive school meant there didn’t seem to be the benefit of the  ‘old-school ethic’ ?

We were struck by this window displaying mini-me children’s clothes.

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Now, honestly, what on earth do parents who buy this sort of stuff for their kids expect?  Not dirty knees, or dribbled ice-cream for sure.  Manners, I suppose.  I hope – really hope – they were just party clothes, or wedding dress?  Please, please tell me that New Yorkers don’t dress them up like this for normal life?

“Here, move over here, you won’t get reflections?” said David.  I looked at his posture, which had a slight lift of the chin, making me wonder if that’s what happens when you live in New York and don’t  lose the wonderment of the skyscrapers?  David turned out to be generous too, offering more than just lunch.

“Look, next time you come to New York you must stay with us – save you a bit of money.”  His wife sounded lovely, and his dog.  I felt foolish for worrying.  It’s always reassuring when married men mention their wives, especially when it’s not in the ‘she doesn’t understand me’ kind of way.  I was so glad that I’d trusted my curiosity and decided to meet him.  We stopped to enjoy a moving window display.  If you look closely you can see the model move, jerkily, but yes she moves.  It was so cool.

  If you click on the arrow it should play.

And in case it doesn’t here are a few more samples of the incredible windows on Madison Avenue.

At the Guggenheim David bid his goodbyes, and left me to my own devices.  I took a few pictures and went into the giant snail shell.

“I’m sorry Ma’am the permanent collection is closed today.”

“What? WHAT?  But I’ve come all the way from England to see it.”

“We have a very nice James Turrell light show and exhibition”

“Who’s he?”

“You could call him a light artist? A sculptor in light.”

“But I wanted…”

“I think you’ll really enjoy it.  We only have about five Kandinsky’s on show at the moment.  Turrell’s show has taken over the whole space.”

“And you’re charging the same price?”  It stung.  I was baffled.  How could they do this to me?  What’s a few Kandiskys when they’ve stripped out everything else.  What timing.  What a bitter, miserable, disappointment.  With bad grace I bought an $18 concessionary ticket.

“Well I guess I might as well look since I’m here.”

She called after me as I slunk off grumbling.  “Enjoy.”

And then I entered wonderland!

James Turrel light installation at the Guggeneim

James Turrel light installation at the Guggenheim

Not the Wonderland of the diseased dance hall near Boston, REAL wonderland.  Stunning, sensational wonderland.  The void in the centre of the snailing staircase so distinctive of the Guggenheim was filled with coloured light and prone people.  Some leaning on the walls staring upwards, and some lying on the floor on a large circular mat in the centre (which must have been provided after the video below was made).

http://www.guggenheim.org/turrell

Turrell had stretched fine muslin  or gauze-like material in stacking cone shapes in the space.  Looking up into the layers of gauze gave the effect of clean, egg shapes with varying tones and depths of coloured light projected onto it, fading to natural daylight  at the very top.

For a moment I contemplated joining the people propped up against the wall around the edges of the space but what I really wanted was to get on that mat, and it was packed full, radiating with people glowing in the peach coloured light.  I waited and spied my chance.  A handsome bearded man, a similar certain age to me was arguing with his wife.  He was already settled on the mat.

“I’m not getting down there, I’ll never get up again.”

He couldn’t persuade her down.  I saw the narrow gap, about six inches wide.  The minute she stepped back I dropped down and wriggled myself cuckoo-style into the space.  It was kind of intimate.  I breathed a sigh of relief, my knees and burning blisters grateful as I relaxed. The air conditioning cooled me against his warm body. Maybe it wasn’t so bad after all that the permanent collection was closed.  I stared up at the ceiling.

“Oh wow!  WOW.  Oh my god.”  The colours changed softly from purple to magenta.

“I hope this is what it’s like when I die.  Do you think it’ll look like this when we die? “I turned to  look at the man.

“Oh look, it’s changing, oh I love that green, it’s like being grass, every cell turning green…oh look at the orange….”  I didn’t take LSD in the 60s and 70s, I was too scared of losing control and far too responsible a mother.  This was better wasn’t it?  A light show without the drugs and psychosis.  My companion (for now it was to all intents and purposes just me and him) chatted and marvelled away at the colours and shapes.  He seemed equally mesmerised and I believe a bit infected by my enthusiasm.  Either that or it was my accent.  English accents can do that I’ve noticed, but it can go either way. In New Mexico,  a friend of my ex-sister in law took against me misinterpreting me as a posh snob and was incredibly rude, alternatively an American girl thought a bloke from Wigan had the coolest accent.  Wigan?  (As Bill Bryson would say ‘somebody has to come from there.’)

“This is definitely going in my blog” I said “and there was me, so disappointed that the gallery was closed.”   I remembered the dome in London.  My daughter and I lay on the floor of a giant igloo installation looking at a light show projected on the ceiling.  We only came-to when a guard stood over us and said “ahem, excuse me ladies we’re closing.”  We hadn’t noticed everyone else had left.  We were asleep.

Handsome man asked about my trip, “No way.  Marblehead?  We live just up the coast from there in Rockport.”

Over an hour passed, maybe more, bathed in colour and happily whispering through an oft repeating orgasm of light.  It was a while before we noticed the sequence had started again, that we’d seen the whole show through at least once.  Before we peeled ourselves off the mat he said “I’d like to read your blog.  What’s it called?”  He took out his diary and wrote down the link.   We smiled,  shook hands and stiffly got to our feet.

“Enjoy the blog”  I said, and went in search of the Kandinsky’s.

Coming back from the loo I walked up the stairwell to look for the paintings and I saw my handsome friend.  He was with his wife.  She’d watched the whole thing from the  stairwell.  She glared at me. He tried to introduce me, but her handshake was frosty and her lips tight.

So, handsome man, are you following me out there in Rockport?  Did she forgive you when you explained? I’m sorry, I forgot to ask your name.

 

Waiting for the half naked Facebook friend in MOMA

 

 

David Hodgson

View from my room

View from my room

 

My second day in New York the sun came out.   I pulled on the little white dress and ‘Bowie flash’ earrings that I thought appropriate to meet a man profiled on Facebook half naked, who was either arty or somewhat dodgy, and says he was at school with me.

Was he though?  I didn’t recognise his torso (his eyes were hidden by his arm and boys at school weren’t that hairy).  I hadn’t admitted that when he contacted me on Facebook and said “I live in New York, shall we meet?”; it didn’t seem polite.  However his name did seem a bit familiar, and I was curious, and even though time was short I called him up and we agreed to meet at the MOMA entrance.  We’d eat somewhere else to avoid a superfluous $20 entrance fee for him.  From that I deduced he was busy the rest of the day, which might be a good thing in the circumstances.  8 flights down, and less than a hundred yards around the corner and I realised I had completely blown the dress code when the wind sliced past my shoulders and reminded me it was September. I puffed back up the 8 flights and changed, annoyed at myself for wasting precious time.

Map in hand I made my way uptown towards Macy’s.  You have to shop when you’re in New York don’t you?  Especially when you are 5ft 2ish and this is a country full of small latinos with narrow feet who have whole floors of department stores devoted to them.  Only I couldn’t shop.  It was overwhelming.  So much choice, and actually, if I thought about it, so little need, or enthusiasm.  I searched my way out of Macy’s (Mazey’s?)  and back out into the streets.

The soundtrack of New York is shouting policemen, sirens and traffic honking.  It’s mad on those streets; wonderfully mad.  And down at the bases of all the pointy, shiny buildings the people are ants, and look particularly mad.  Every other person appeared to be talking to themselves, gesticulating wildly.  Not quietly either.  They weren’t, of course, they were on ‘hands free’.

Backtracking, having overshot, I headed south.  I soon worked out that there was no point in hurrying, the traffic lights are set to average walking speed.  Speed up and you only get bossed ‘DONT WALK’ over and over again. I’ve crossed the road in Guangzhou and survived, it makes me pretty nifty, but it didn’t make a lot of difference here.  (Is this a subversive way to get people to slow down, help them to chill a little?  Or is the universe trying to tell me something)  I marvelled at the skyscrapers, the impossibility of them, the sheer brazenness, the confidence of architects that could design buildings like that.  From my small experience in a sandpit, I can’t understand how they stay up.  I loved the way remnants of a past-life New York intermingled, the deco touches, the reflections shimmering.  It wasn’t dark and claustrophobic at all.  Sky and sunshine were everywhere.  (In a good way I hoped, not like that new skyscraper in London that set light to the carpets in the building opposite and melted people’s cars.)

Getting a peep at the Empire State building I formed a plan to go up it at sunset.  I’d once made the mistake of queuing for hours to shuffle up to the top of the Eiffel Tower in Paris, only to look at the view from the top and think ‘OK. It’s Paris.’  Now everyone flies, views from the top of tall buildings need more than just height to excite. I like to watch London as the sun sets from the giant wheel on the embankment.  It’s pure magic as the lights gradually come on over town as the wheel slowly turns.  You can even get a sneak peak of Buck Palace’s enormous gardens.

When I eventually arrived at MOMA, neck-aching,  I went straight upstairs to lust over my favourite artists: Edward Hopper and Georgia O’Keefe.  Edward Hopper was, I think, a bit of a peeping tom.  Just look at this picture.

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Edward Hopper

 

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Edward Hopper

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Hopper again

 

 

I can empathise. There is something quite thrilling about looking into people’s homes when they are not aware.  The top deck of London buses at twilight, before people remember to close their curtains, is a particularly good for this.  (We British build hedges around our front gardens for privacy, unlike Americans, and then we make buses that can peep over. Don’t you just love that?)   Hopper’s models stare dreamily into the distance. It gives me food for their thoughts, as does his silent presence in the room painting away.

Pressure built though as I looked around the galleries.  So little time.  Two and a half days?  Was I crazy?  It wasn’t long before I was to meet the mysterious David Hodgkin and there were floors of the gallery left to explore.  I should have logged all the artists to inform you, but oh well….  However, I’ll share some of my favourites, and hope it inspires you to visit and find out who did them:

That last one reminds me of the excruciating pain I get when I suffer from iritis.  I could get a knock-off of the Mattisse dancers in a local furniture shop in Nailsworth (painted in China for the indiscriminate British shopper) but I think I’d rather gaze at the original in MOMA.  At some point I managed to let go of the enormous pressure of having such a brief time to enjoy New York.  I would come back.  Of course I would.  New York was under my skin.  They might not have adopted me (what happened to that proposal I sent to the New Yorker eh?) but I had adopted them.

I went in search of another favourite, Andrew Wyeth.  His painting “Christina’s World” is iconic.  I had mistakenly thought it was painted by Hopper for some reason.  But no, it was a painting Wyeth did of his neighbour Christina, sadly afflicted by polio and only able to crawl.  She hardly ever left her house.  And here she is, on the grass, looking back at her home, and possibly wondering how long it will take her to crawl back there.  I didn’t know this at the time, I thought it was a lovely picture of a girl in a sunny field, who had just woken up, been called from the house perhaps?  It was only when I came home to the UK I saw a documentary on Wyeth that revealed his extraordinary life controlled first by his father then his wife Betsy.  He was very close to Christina. I wonder if he felt similarly hobbled?

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Christina’s World, by Andrew Wyeth painted in 1948, the year I was born

 

I gazed long at Georgia O’Keeffe’s Abstraction in Blue.  Fabulous sensuous, breath-holding, vaginal work. Looking at her flower paintings I swear she used to transform into a bee and wriggle into their folds and have sex with them.IMG_5552

Georgia O’Keeffe, Abstraction in Blue

 

There was no time to linger longer.  It was time to meet David Hodgson.  I hurried down to the entrance lobby to wait, and have to admit – with some nervousness.  Who would he be?

 

 

Lost and found in New York

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You can’t help enacting a cliché when you hail a cab in New York, except no one barged me out of the way rudely.  Maybe I looked as desperate as I felt?

 Making myself understood was another thing.

“Gene’s, please, 73 West 11th Street, between 5th and 6th?”  Even saying the address seemed impossibly exotic, unlike  73 Cats Brain Quarry, Bunting Hill, which, as I’ve mentioned before, is the kind of thing you get around here.

“Jims?”

“No, Gene’s?”  I added the American inflection, in  case that helped – I’ve often wondered? Is that a sign of insecurity?  Even Obama does it?

“Ah, Djinns”  (I made that one up.)

“Yes, yes, Jinn’s, I know Jinns.”  We got there in the end.

It was a pleasant surprise to find the cab didn’t cost me a month’s pension.  In fact we arrived so quickly I realised I could have walked.  Finding a seat in the corner of the bar, with a good view of the door I breathed again and smeared on a  bit of lippy; the best I could do to smarten myself up. I didn’t risk ordering a drink, the night was yet young.  Instead I employed that mainstay of single travellers and got out a book and planned the next day – the day of the the BIG ART FEST.  I’d only been anticipating cruising the New York art galleries for about 20 or 30 years. It would be a knickerbocker glory of art: MOMA, the Guggenheim, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, piled in layers and the big blob of cream on the top the Witney, where I hoped to find one of my favourite American artists, Edward Hopper. My friend Janet said not to bother with Central Park (“It’s just a park”) but I hoped to combine it with walking to and from galleries.

Was Bernt caught up in traffic?  I scrutinised  everyone who came in.  These people didn’t look like they’d risk buying green bananas.  I only had a vague idea of what Bernt looked like, from a slightly blurred image in Nick and Jane’s wedding photos, but I did know he was a few years older than Nick, so he must be mid-late 50s.  It was a bit like internet dating but without the risk, or the deceptively youthful picture.   As he was probably expecting a Miss Marple lookalike I thought it was probably up to me to make the connection although Nick might have shared that he calls me ‘Cool Aunty’.

Gene’s was born in 1919 and didn’t look as if it, or it’s clientele, had changed much over the years. That seemed to be part of it’s charm.  I was definitely in the world of elastic waisted trousers (or in this case pants) but it was exactly what I wanted – ‘old’ New York, authentic Italian, and considering I had not had time to slip into a trendy little dress and posh up a bit – somewhere I could feel completely relaxed.

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When Bernt arrived it could be no one else.  I’d been told how charming he was.  Full of apologies for the traffic, he was immediately recognised by the maitre d’ who led us to a well placed table decorated with a single red rose.  The waiters buzzed around us and brought an hors d’oeuvre of fresh vegetables to dip. Bernt entertained me with tales of New York through a delicious meal of my favourite – Aubergine Parmegano – or, as someone called it in one of the reviews: ‘Eggplant Parm’.  While we’re on the topic of reviewers what was that whining diner on about saying the place smelt of ammonia, the chicken was bland, his wife’s mussels were chewy, the oreganato (?) mushy and the bread fishy.  Some people are just too fussy.  I say that not because I found it all delightful, but because nearly all the other reviewers gave the place top marks.  My guess is he didn’t find it ‘on trend’ enough and had been eating far too many smears of food on a plate drizzled with aged balsamic vinegar and garnished with pea tendrils. (I know they are tasty, but does anyone else find them scratchy to eat?)

The stories kept on coming, and Bernt, like everyone who lives in New York, had his sad tales to tell of 9/11, yet what I picked up most was an old worldly charm, a dash being cut, and an unmistakable air of the 1920s or 40s. Bernt’s crinkle cut hair and choice of tie could place him easily in that era.  I asked what kind of music he liked and was completely unsurprised to find he loved Swing.  OK, now I’m going to get weird…I pick up a sense of people’s past lives.  I got a strong impression one day off my friend Rosi, who makes me look tall (I’m 5ft 2½ on a good day) and who has tiny feet with exceptionally high arches, that cause her a great deal of pain.  On some level I knew that they had once-upon-a-lifetime been bound.   If only I’d had more time, I’d have loved to go Lindy Hopping with Bernt in New York.   Sometimes you meet a new person and it’s just easy.  Relaxed and humorous.  We laughed out way through the meal until the bottle was empty and a working man needed to get home.

The trouble with being someone who doesn’t drink much, is that when you share a bottle of wine over a meal, it’s much.  Not that I was embarrassing, or incapable of walking without a wobble, (though it’s a good thing I didn’t wear those heels) I just had to be a bit careful not to trip over a walking stick or two on the way to the door.  Luckily Bernt offered to drive me back to the apartment.

” I think it’s round this corner.  Oh, sorry, I thought it was.  Maybe the next block?  Oh dear, I’m sure it was this one – it was definitely red brick.”  Very helpful when most of New York, that isn’t high rise, is red brick.  “There.  There it is!”

Bernt looked relieved at this point, I said my goodnights, effusive thank you’s (he wouldn’t let me pay for a thing) and noted the slight freeze that said ‘for gods sake don’t kiss me’.   Once I’d worked out how to get the key into the lock and trailed up 8 flights, and managed the door into the apartment, I found someone was still up.  There was Tom,  whose wholesome, genial picture led me to book the room, sitting in his boxers drinking beer and watching South Park on the TV.  He barely looked up, though he did say ‘Hi’ between mouthfuls of cereal.  I grabbed my suitcase from the corner of the room, bumped down the dark corridor to find the door at the end.  The room seemed much smaller than it looked on the website.  There was a bed and a small table by it with a lamp. No chair, but a wardrobe of sorts where I could hang my clothes.  I slithered into the silky brown sheets, turned the pillow cover inside-out to avoid the pilling, and noticed the picture on the wall by the bed – the Flatiron.  It felt like a good omen.  I fell quickly asleep to the sound of city noises instead of owls and foxes.

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