So there we were, chatting to a neighbour who had just dropped by, when an odd scratchy-scrabbling sound emerged from the radiator behind the sofa. I thought it was just the eccentric noisomeness of old plumbing. However, the radiator was not on. We looked at each other quizzically but the scratching stopped and so we talked on. Later, I pulled away the sofa and saw Mrs Tiggywinkle looking up at us brightly from under the radiator. The hedgehog, presumably, had dodged cats, dogs, foxes, pinemartens and children while ambling into our house to hibernate. No place better, obviously. It was a sign that winter is on the way. Other signs are more conventional: I have started to wear gloves on my morning bike ride into work.
We are back, nearly, to being a two-dog household, with the appearance each school-day of Tequila, a very fine and lively border collie who had been getting even boreder at home during the day while her owner, a special needs teacher at the international school, was at work. Bonnie is delighted to have a playmate again. She has missed daytime canine company ever since the departure of the irrepressible Licorice.
Alli says that she doesn’t like surprises, and so I have mostly repressed my urges in this direction. But she comes from a family all of whose members absolutely never tire of surprising each other at regular occasions so I have never taken this legend very seriously. I surmised that she would like surprises that are well prepared, do not leave a mess to clear up, broken things to mend, floors to sweep, mistakes to correct. So for her birthday I put away the poster paints, sent back the paintball guns, cancelled the male strippers, the strawberry jam, cream and feathers and arranged instead for all five of us to go to Berlin. I brought the children into the plot a couple of weeks early and they told Alli early one morning that she and they would be taking an Easyjet plane to meet me in Berlin later the same day. She was surprised.
We stayed at the landmark Kempinski Hotel on the colourful Kurfurstendamm and ate and drank very well throughout our stay, which featured plenty of shopping and sightseeing. Gwen and I went to the zoo and climbed the Fernsehturm from where the city can be seen in all its historic glory. We also went for a sushi dinner (a first for Alli) and Berlin’s Hard Rock Cafe (where Alli was serenaded with Happy Birthday). We walked extensively around the city, marching down the Ku’damm and the Unter den Linden. We travelled a lot on the trains and the u-bahn. We went to a rather eccentric Sunday afternoon concert featuring impersonators of popular singers. We strolled clean through the Brandenburg Tor no less than 25 years after I saw it for the first time and promptly had a coffee at Starbucks. It was a full and exhausting weekend and Alli and the children were impressed with their first ever visit to the city. I kept getting a knot in my throat when I thought of my first challenging visit there as a European Commission stagiaire in 1983 under the shadow of the wall, with the grim sentries at Friedrichstrasse U-bahn watching heartbroken and tearful old Berliners taking their leave of each other when visiting time between the western and the eastern part of the city was over.
I was in England on two separate occasions for work, firstly to give a presentation at a science day at Ascot Racecourse. I had not been there for years and so was astonished at the new building on the racecourse. It’s horribly ugly, with serried terraces of butch betting shops taking precedence over palladian views of the horses. For architectural style I christen it new posh brutalist – just a mess of steel and stupid shapes – it should be knocked down as soon as possible.
My second visit to England was altogether different: I attended the NGO Earthwatch’s “Sustainaball” at the precious village of Little Wittenham in Oxfordshire and went on a field trip to look at forestry research the next day around Wittenham Clumps and Long Wittenham. The Clumps are still in fine shape and are now being managed properly by the Northmoor Trust. There has been archaeological excavation recently and significant ceremonial graves were found. I like this news as it proves that the place was sacred and symbolic in pre-Christian times. On an impulse I then drove further west to visit an old friend whom I had not seen for years. He is now firmly ensconsed in the Wiltshire village of Upavon, hard by Stonehenge. As is the case throughout Wiltshire, the villagers’ mental state is mad going on barking. But the village has the feel of magic and boasts fine buildings with ancient worship places on which churches have been sited for more than a thousand years. There was far too much traffic. My friend was in good form but I did lecture him briefly on the inherent merits of staying in touch with the Stanbrooks.
We have had increasingly desperate messages from our estate agent in Hassocks who has been trying to sell our house since May but our family discussion culminated in a simple decision to take the house off the market. This was shortly after we received an offer of six shillings and eightpence for our five bedroom house in a desirable Sussex village nestling beneath the South Downs. So we are in retreat, but, D.V., we are in a far better position than many of our friends and acquaintances, some of whom have lost their jobs in the past few weeks of financial mayhem. We are still healthy, blessed, employed, fortunate, and more or less coping. But none the wiser.
with heartfelt thanks to our benefactors all,
Tiggywinkle Tequila Kempinski