Low life

Don’t bring me sunshine: a week in the Surrey hills

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

6 August 2022

9:00 AM

I’m staying for a week in an 1850s house in the Surrey hills that looks-wise might have been built for the suburban 1920s. I came last night. ‘Sorry about the rain,’ said the UK Border Force lady. ‘Rain is exactly what I was hoping for,’ I said.

This morning the owner went to work, leaving me alone in the atmospheric old house. Before he left he warned me about the dictatorial cleaner. ‘She’s called Maria and she comes from Madeira and she’s particular about you not being in the same room while she cleans,’ he said.

When she came in I was sitting at the kitchen table looking out of the window at the darkening, gathering rain clouds. Also, I was thinking about the lights going out all over Europe in that first week of August 1914 and wondering what the wealthy inhabitants of the house had said about it.

‘Hallo,’ she said. ‘My name is Maria. I am from Madeira. What is your name?’ She was losing her hair and had a Bobby Charlton comb-over job. ‘Hi Maria. My name is Jeremy.’ ‘Are you planning on sitting here for a long time, Jeremy?’ I said that I would happily sit in whichever room of the house she liked. ‘I will begin my work upstairs. You can move later. Have you ever been to Madeira? It is a beautiful island with blue sea. What did you say your name is? I forget names so easily.’ ‘Jeremy,’ I said. ‘And I’ve forgotten yours already too. I’m so bad at remembering names,’ I added, ‘that I don’t even bother to listen the first time.’

She laughed at that. ‘Remember I am Maria. Maria from Madeira.’

She went upstairs and began vacuuming furiously. I’ve come over to England to pick up the grandsons for their annual fortnight in France. This summer they missed their long-booked flights because my son neglected to renew the elder one’s passport in spite of being nagged silly about it by me since March. He had too much on his mind, he said. As a last resort, from France I arranged for him to have a face-to-face emergency appointment at a passport office and was fortunate in getting him one in London, which is one hour from Basingstoke, where he lives. It was touch and go whether my boy would bestir himself even to do that, but he managed it.

Then he went on holiday to an all-inclusive resort in Marrakesh for a week with his wife. I am pinning my hopes on his finding a note on his doormat on his return from Morocco on Thursday advising him at which delivery depot he will find the renewed passport. The final hurdle will be him delivering his two sons to the airport in time for the flight.

What should have been a simple matter of someone applying for a passport renewal last spring has spiralled into a complicated and costly business. Along the way my son and I lost confidence in one another’s intelligence. Hard words have been said. Reading between the lines, however, his life appears to be falling apart at the seams in various ways. And because there is no level of incompetence, disorganisation or insolvency with which I cannot identify, I love him more not less.

Presumably Marrakesh will be his last reckless indulgence for a very long time. Yesterday we chatted on the phone. ‘How’s it going?’ I said. ‘Forty six degrees today,’ he said. I’d had three pints of lager by 11.45. ‘What time does the bar open?’ ‘Eleven thirty.’

Now I am here crouched like a wicket keeper in the Surrey hills, awaiting his return from Marrakesh, ready to pounce the moment he has the renewed passport in his trembling hands and whisk the boys back to France on new, astronomically priced flights.

After moving Heaven and Earth upstairs, Maria appeared in the kitchen. ‘You are still sitting there!’ she said. ‘Are you OK? ’ ‘Did the first world war affect you much in Madeira?’ I said. She was taken aback. ‘I don’t know. Which war was that?’ ‘The one that started in 1914.’ ‘I don’t know. Whose side were we on?’ ‘Ours.’ ‘Ah, Britain. Always strong. Did we win?’ ‘Yes. Eventually. Sort of.’ She beamed with pleasure at the thought of beautiful Madeira being on the winning side.

‘Shall I move now?’ I said. ‘Yes. But I am worried that you sit here for such a long time just looking out of the window. Are you a historian?’ ‘No. I’m watching these beautiful rain clouds gathering,’ I said. ‘Oh,’ she said. ‘Do you think it’s going to rain?’ ‘I hope so,’ I said. ‘Well, just for now,’ she said, ‘can you watch the beautiful clouds from an upstairs window while I clean the kitchen?’

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