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Book One: Chapter 32

Monday 20th June

Shopping trip to Croydon. My Japanese mother-in-law travels 5,000 miles from the other side of the world to spend an afternoon shopping in Sainsbury's down Purley Way, followed by a jaunt around the urban nightmare that is the Whitgift Centre, resplendant with its very own Pound-Stretcher. Tomoko's brother spends several hours deliberating over a gift, which to his utter disdain is unceremonioulsy chucked into a carrier bag rather than meticulously wrapped by an origami expert at the check-out. Britain loses 100 points in his eyes, I can tell.

Tuesday 21st June

Short break to the Cotswolds. We stop off at Chipping Campden for lunch and outside I score a Celebrity Class A star-spot, one of my favourite actors, Mr. Ghandi himself, Ben Kingsley. He looks stockier than you would imagine, so I suspect that he has not stopped pumping iron since his astounding turn in "Sexy Beast". I demur introducing myself and allow him to enjoy his ale in peace.

Cotswolds

Our farmhouse is idyllic. Foals prance around like My Little Ponies (except they are regrettably not various shades of sickly pastel) and they greet us at the entrance along with bleating sheep and clucking chickens asking whether we would like our eggs tomorrow? In the evening, Tomoko and I venture out for some local pub grub, with Lily perched on our laps, slowly digesting a paper napkin. Around halfway through my succulent, if slightly over-garnished halibut, I feel a warm sensation about my groin and, well, do I need to continue? The mucky baby, blissfully unaware that she has severely curtailed our feast, is hoisted back into the car and I deftly replace her Pampers, ensuring that poo and back seat of car remain unacquainted.

In the evening, we chill out in the lavender garden back at the farmhouse and I soak in the fiery sunset; silhouetted cirrus slitting open a sky worthy of Turner, the increasing tenebrous landscape a chorus of livestock bidding goodnight to each other.

Wednesday 22nd June

Tour around the Cotswolds for the day, though there is no sight of Ben Kingsley. Bourton-on-the-Water is teaming with sailor-suited Japanese students and doddery old pensioners, both of whom have been ferried in a convoy of coaches and will soon be ferried out again. The pensioners are kitted out in Bhs and Clarkes, with those vulgar wrap-round shades one would expect to find on some Italian porn-star.

During our obligatory cream tea, Tomoko and I ask our guests what they would like to do on their last day tomorrow? They reply that they are going home. This takes us somewhat by surprise. Was their a miscommunication along the line between mother and daughter? Or did they reschedule their flight because Tomoko's mother is developing deep-vein thrombosis from sleeping on the sofa?

Thursday 23rd June

The Mitani's return home. Naturally we have to endure gridlock in West London, but eventually we arrive at Terminal 3 to bid them sayonara. I am sure I detect a skip in their step as they exit through the departure gate, possibly because we may have been the worst hosts ever? Once they have disappeared through customs, I consider whether to go downstairs for a Wendy's hamburger (this outlet representing the last vestige of the Wendy's empire, cruelly denied to us Brits several years ago.) But no: we drive home and spend the rest of the day debriefing each other over the week's events.

Sunday 26th June

We meet at Ali and Tom's flat with the NCT group: twelve adults looking distinctly more fatigued than one year ago; six babies sprouting into young boys and girls, each with their own party trick. One has learnt to sit up unaided; two are on solids, albeit with most of the pureed carrot smeared over his face. Lily demonstrates her "roll-over onto belly" routine, which draws inaudible gasps from her newborn audience. The babies are already different sizes. Like a box of eggs, they are the same but very individual. Lily is the smallest, though her diminuative stature belies the vice-like grip she has inherited from her mother. I once fretted about her being bullied in the school playground, but now I feel sympathy for the other kids in her class, lulled into a false sense of security by her Cabbage Patch looks. Already she finds it amusing to yank my underarm-hair and poke my eyes and she is barely six months old. I could do her for GBH.

Saturday 2nd July

We drive to Bluewater, along with millions of other people shopping before U2 and Paul McCartney herald the opening of the Live 8 concert. Somehow we end up buying our new summer outfits: Birkenstocks for Lady T, new brown Merrell trainers and a ridiculously expensive Fred Perry shirt pour moi. Lily gets nothing, except for a cheap plastic toy, half-price in Mothercare. She does not complain. I heed Sinead O'Connor's truism: "I do not want, what I haven't got."

I settle down to watch as much of the concert as possible. Razorlight, The Who, P. Floyd and Madge are superb. Mariah Carey makes me want to stab my ears, Sting delivers me into a temporary coma, whilst Velvet Revolver make me ask "Why???". Alas I miss Pete Doherty's shambolic performance, but I later hear that sales of "The Libertines" CDs actually fell the following week.

Sunday 3rd July

Lily begins her epicurean career with her first proper meal. We plonk the baby chair on top of the kitchen table, strap her in tight and prepare her inaugural one-course feast of organic "Baby Rice". I have a nibble myself: it is disgusting, though still preferable to Brussel sprouts. But once Lily has got over the shock of her gavage, glutinous rice shovelled into her gob, she relishes every mouthful, even though half ends up smeared over her face, dribbling down her chin and trickling down her tummy inside the "Little Princess" babygrow to form a small tarn in her bellybutton.

Tuesday 4th July

So, I am in Borders book shop, in the magazine section perusing all the monthly publications worth flicking through, but not parting money with: Record Collector, Rolling Stone, Wine Spectator etc. I have a few minutes to check out the album review section in Q magazine when I spot a chanteuse by the name of Rachel Fuller.

Rachel Fuller

Surely not the Rachel Fuller, the girl who I vaguely recall amidst a haze of teenage angst and frivolity? But a bit of research reveals her to be one and the same. I only have two amorphous memories of her: one spending a night with a group of teenage friends, drinking copious amounts of cider in her garden shed, specially bedecked in cushions and duvets. I had just embarked on my first relationship with a girl called Jo, who enjoyed a brief spell as a lighting engineer for "The Jesus & Mary Chain", which seems odd given that goths spent most of time in darkness darkness.

The second memory, of which I have photographic evidence, is after my 18th birthday party, a free-for-all that presaged P. Diddy's efforts a decade later but without the personal Boeing 747's and unlimited Cristal. With around 500 teenagers in attendance, half of them members of the fairer sex, I was determined to get a snog. I failed miserably, partly because I ended up DJ-ing, partly because the party was shut down prematurely by half of Southend's police force after someone had broken into the champagne cupboard and partly because I was scrawny and not very good looking.

Now it seems churlish to say this, bearing in mind that she has a record deal, lives in an L.A. mansion with none other than Who axe-meister Pete Townsend, but at that time she was regarded as a "shoo-in snog". There must be something physically and mentally wrong with me if she did not grant me just a quick grapple in the aforementioned garden shed.

Having engineered us being alone, I failed. Miserably. The photo I have says it all, sitting uncomfortably in my shiny Next suit; dishevelled with a wan expression on my face, staring at the camera with an expression that says: "It's my 18th birthday...surely you can grant me one wish even if I don't particularly fancy you?".
I left her abode, libido unassuaged.

Contacting an old school friend who was also "acquainted" with Ms. Fuller, we speculate whether her incipient singing career would induce her to surf the net, seeking mention of her name, or indeed review of her new album. Perhaps she is sitting in a Bel-Air right now, racking her brain trying to work out who the hell I am, her memories no doubt as foggy as my own.

So I insert her name as bait in the "Meta tag" of this page, see if she bites. And if you do bite dear Rachel, do drop me mail and let me know how you are and whether you drink Latour or Lafite and why none of your PR releases mentions your Southend roots? After all, you take the Southend girl out of Southend, but never Southend out of the Southend girl.

Wednesday 6th July

Hoorah! The Olympics are coming to London and even though my council tax will be jacked up over the next decade to pay for it, who cares when we can watch the women's volleyball that I assume will be taking place on Chalkwell Beach, down by the White Shelter where we used to experiment with debilitating cheap alcohol. I venture down to Trafalgar Square to soak in some euphoria and bask in nationalistic pride. Alas, I miss the actual announcement and by the time I arrive, all I can see are puddles of confetti and gangs of truanting school kids pretending to have supported the bid since day one. I make a mental note to get my face tattooed with the Olympic rings to show my backing.

Thursday 7th July

Boo - we are being attacked. Unbeknownst to me as I hurtle up the Victoria Line, people are being maimed and murdered. I know something is up when Tomoko texts me to check if I am alive? I spend most of the morning watching the terror unfold as ambiguous eye-witness reports coalesce into the inevitable day that everyone feared. I walk round eerie, deserted Oxford Street, with many of the major stores closed. However, I do remark upon the fact that all the Poundstretchers remain defiantly open as does Burgerking, which gives an indication how a post-nuclear shopping street would look. I am anticipating a fraught journey home, but I manage to walk to Victoria and catch the only train to West Norwood with surprising ease. There is a surreal atmosphere on the train. Nobody mentions the terrorist attack but you know what is on everyone's minds.
"It could have been me."

Friday 9th July

Back to work. I procrastinate whether to take the tube, but then again there are so many armed police manning the stations that only the most idiotic terrorist (I know, that's all of them) would attempt anything the morning after. So I take the Victoria Line to Oxford Circus, wary of bulging rucksacks and suspicious glances. But life goes on.

Saturday 9th July

Today is David Pope's annual drinkathon chez lui in sunny Leytonstowe. With the parents on baby-sitting duty (paid hourly in Lily's love) Tomoko is let loose for the night and joins me on the long trek to East London. We meet a rather weary Linden Wilkie on the Central Line, paying the physical price for his quest to drink every fine wine ever made (I reckon he is about one-third of the way there.)

As usual, we are scattered around David's living room, some on the sofa, others squatting on the floor or perched on rickety seats. This is the fourth time I have attended altruistic David's pillaging of his own cellar and this time the theme is mature Pinot Noir. His flat is the same as ever, the ominous crack still in situ, running down the corner of the living room. I offer to take a photo and mention the lackadaisical insurers but he politely declines. The fissure does not appear to have widened over the last twelve months, but I sometimes fear that a minor tremor could send his flat hurtling down into the Earth's crust.

The wines are interesting, but with a couple of exceptions unable to hold a flame to the Old World Pinot's served at the end. Everyone is extraordinarily knowledgeable and occasionally too serious about the fermented grape juice. But I guess I am the opposite: wine is my day-job and when I attend a social tasting I go into idiot savant mode, focus on the alcoholic properties of the wine, rather than whether it was over-chaptalized. Still, the night is enjoyable, the company convivial, the host as congenial as ever.

Wednesday 13th July

Off-line tasting at the Babylon restaurant at Kensington Roof Gardens. I endure the bus journey to Kensington where the top deck acting like a giant magnifying glass, focusing sunlight upon its helpless passengers. We endure one of those bus-drivers determined to squeeze us in like sardines and no doubt a few are perched on the roof or hanging onto the exhaust.

At Babylon I am escorted up to the 7th floor. There seems to be an Oriental-themed PR do upstairs, for in the reception there are two Western strumpets who I assume are dressed as geisha's, but end up looking like ragdolls with a mild strain of typhoid. Surely they could have hired a pair of real Japanese students? How many geisha's speak with a Romford accent?

The dinner/tasting is highly enjoyable, a dozen pairs, one young and one mature vintage of the same wine, all served completely blind. Highlights are the Cote-Rotie's from Jamet and of course, Linden's otherworldy Chateau d'Arche 1914. Alas, the two Smith-Woodhouse ports tip me wrong side of sobriety. I sleep on the sofa.

Saturday 16th July

This morning I face the challenge of shopping in Tesco's with Lily on my tod in order to give Tomoko a few minutes rest. A new world of shopping trolleys opens up when you have a baby, I never realised there were so many models. Alas, all the baby-ones have been involved in write-off collisions and patched up with a bit of cheap welding, although I eventually find one at the far extremity of the car-park, about five miles distant, that is usable once I have disposed of the litter that has accumulated inside.

Inside Tesco it is virtually impossible to do the shopping. Firstly, Tomoko's shopping list is completely random, so that I have to keep returning to the opposite end of the store to pick up those forgotten leeks or corn flakes. Secondly, every time my face is turned I find Lily surrounded by clucking middle-aged women besotted by twiddling Lily's toes or ruffling her strawberry hair and commenting how unbelievably cute she is. How about me? Where is my love and affection?

We meet Jude for lunch at the Kazan Turkish mezze in Pimlico. The waitress is stroppy and impetuous, takes our order as if it was the last thing she wanted to do on this Earth. I can feel her death-rays, so I move Lily to a safe location. She is too young. Despite the waitress, the mezze is perfect for a steamy July afternoon and even the non-vintage Turkish wine is palatable.

Afterwards, Tomoko has an appointment with the opticians, so Jude and I walk Lily to see the ducks in Saint James' park, where we find a group of Spanish students feeding a stork with Walkers crisps, which the poor bird is obviously unable to chew and swallow. After a quick coffee and chat, I rendezvous with Tomoko who is amassing £5.00 t-shirts from Uniqlo, which should last us for a year.

Sunday 17th July

It is a sun-drenched Sunday, too warm to stay in London, so we drive into leafy Sussex to revisit the llama farm in Ashdown Forest. True, Sussex is not the first place you would think would be home to packs of roaming llamas, but drive south from East Grinstead and you will surely find it. Although I would love to say that we are returning here to entertain and educate our daughter, the real reason is that Tomoko and I have a craving for some cream teas. So whilst Lily ought to be acquainting herself with exotic animal, instead she has to sit and watch whilst her parents gorge themselves on cream-laden scones topped with huge dollops of strawberry jam.

However the llamas fail to enamour little Lily. They are content to just preen themselves, masticate incessantly and somehow perfect a pious expression of superiority over the human race. As they sit there knee-deep in dirt and hay, they still have the temerity to give you a condescending eyeball as if we are nothing more than termites. Perhaps their superiority complex is down to their coveted fur?
Pah! If only they knew that most of their visitors venture here for the delicious scones and not them.