VERONICA is from Bologna, but is working as a health-care assistant at the Cumberland Infirmary, in Carlisle. She always greets me with a cheery “Ciao, come sta Lei?” when I have been visiting my mother during her recent admissions. I encourage her to drop the formal “Lei” and use the friendly “tu”, but not only in observing this linguistic convention does she reveal herself as somehow “old-fashioned” and profoundly courteous.
Rather splendidly, Veronica wears a traditional nurse’s cape to confront the northern summer wind and rain, although otherwise she dresses conventionally for a young European woman. She is brightly sweet with the patients, and my mum perks up considerably when she is on duty, if only because she knows she will get a bit of light-hearted banter underwritten by abiding respect from Veronica.
Veronica recently went back home to enter a competitive exam for entrance to a nursing course at the University of Bologna, and was one of the 20,000-plus competitors for the single place. Returning disappointed, she is still volubly grateful to have work and experience from the NHS, in spite of the obvious challenges faced by the institution.
Once, when we were in full Italian flow, one of the doctors passing in the corridor stopped and commented, “You’re not speaking English.” This observation made, he went on his way. I have learnt from my attendance here as my mother’s next-of-kin and chief carer, that assessment, followed by a limited appraisal of the situation, is perhaps the most one can expect from the medics; factual, reasonable, but still, at times, frustrating.
IN WATERSTONE’s, in Carlisle, I had what felt like a panic attack — or what I’ve heard them described as being like: shortness of breath, a racing pulse, a need to sit down. It was the books, their weight bearing down on me, that mimicked the more serious sense of physical oppression that sufferers of these incidents experience in very truth.
I remembered that I had felt it at least once before, venturing as an undergraduate downstairs in Blackwell’s, in Broad Street, Oxford, and facing the irrefutable fact that it was impossible to read, let alone assimilate, the knowledge, opinion, and argument held therein.
I had come to Waterstone’s with the express purpose of buying a novel — even though I have recently been reading non-fiction more regularly — pushed by the sense that summer and unignorable stress were requesting something “escapist”. But which novel, and pitched at which level? Literature or entertainment?
I floundered before the tables of two-for-one bestsellers, shuddered at the Fifty Shades series, and found myself gaping mindlessly at General Paperback Fiction. On a recent in-service training course at St George’s House, Windsor, I had managed not to read the prescribed Nemesis by Philip Roth: I was now contemplating the entirety of his oeuvre afforded by North Cumbria. It seemed I was being guided to an unavoidable encounter.
And then, on the very edge of my plumping for Portnoy’s Complaint, was revealed a dea ex machina: Virago Modern Classic’s reissue of The King Must Die, by Mary Renault. I grabbed it from the shelf, paid, and fell gasping into the bracing air of pedestrianised Scotch Street.
Back in time
I HAD read it first in hardback while staying with my Aunt Elspeth and Uncle Joe at their summer villa, south of Athens. They had travelled the world with the Metal Box Company through the 1950s to the 1970s — my cousins were born in India — and here, now, was taciturn, golfing Uncle Joe, the chief engineer of Hellas Can, the local Greek subsidiary.
Aunt Elspeth retained her air of being the most sophisticated of my relatives. I remember hearing Spiro Agnew giving testimony on the BBC World Service news during the impeachment of President Nixon that summer, which marks it as July/August 1974. I devoured Renault’s version of the Theseus myth — Minotaur, Mycenaean age, and manliness — with something close to unseemly hunger. Well, what else should one expect from an 11-year-old?
I ate everything else, too, that was so alien to the Lancastrian stodge served at home: home-made herby meatballs, fat butter beans in a rich tomato sauce, peaches picked from the Attic orchards, even octopus, at the restaurant overlooking the temple of Poseidon, at Cape Sounion.
I overheard Aunt Elspeth question the existence of an afterlife in adult conversation, and I kept on reading Renault. Only Uncle Joe questioned its suitability for my age, and, I dare say, gender. Now, reading again of Theseus’s childhood, of which I have absolutely no recollection, I have rediscovered some of my own with a vividness that startles me.
Thoughts from Carlisle
AUNT Elspeth died in 2004. Taking her funeral (and trying not to shy from her declared atheism) at Hook Norton, I remember watching a televised debate in my hotel room between George W. Bush and John Kerry — oddly appropriate, this recurrence of United States politics, seeing that Elspeth’s urbanity suited the glamour of contemporaneous Hollywood stars.
One of her grandsons was serving in the US Marine Corps, too, and attended in uniform, compounding this impression. India, Greece (ancient and modern), and, finally, rural Oxfordshire, all imagined by me through a mid-century feature-film lens — each a far cry from a Carlisle council housing estate in the ’20s.
Now my mother, Elspeth’s much younger sister, Yvonne, is back in their home town, ill and in hospital. And I think of Elspeth’s past and my own, perhaps because I daren’t yet contemplate hers.
The Ven. Jonathan Boardman is the Archdeacon of Italy and Malta, and Chaplain of All Saints’, Rome.