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Diary: Caroline Chartres

16 February 2018


Seeing stars

ONE of the things that I like best about this new chapter since the Beloved’s retirement is rediscovering a rhythm in life.

The City of London was an in­­toxicating place to live (and that’s just the traffic fumes), but the pace is relentless. London is the city that never sleeps; the stars are almost invariably occluded by the constant light pollution; and the commercial value of land — in the Square Mile, in particular — means that tiny, ancient churchyards are often the only surviving patches of green.

Pedestrians flood across the Mil­len­nium footbridge, making a wel­come but constant connection be­­tween the historically divided north and south banks of the river; retail units in the shopping centre at the east end of St Paul’s are let on the understanding that they are open seven days a week; and even night­clubs in the City now draw crowds at weekends.

Suddenly, since our move, we are living in a place where we can see
the constellations; where the Plough moves across the sky as well as over the fields; where things grow, and die, and grow again. The changing patterns of light and shadow tell the time and season (Number Two son, staying on an otherwise uninhabited Hebridean island, had so much light from the recent Supermoon that he didn’t need candles for three nights running).

It has awoken in me a sort of distilled memory: things that I’d forgotten I had ever known. Kick­ing through autumn leaves, or travelling along a road bordered by leafless hedges in the failing light and muted colours of a winter afternoon, evokes other, long-ago afternoons from my childhood: woodsmoke, and light­fall, and walks with my father. There is a comfort in redis­covery, and in joining up the dots — unlooked-for bonuses in being a post-Londoner.

Sooner or later

A CONSEQUENCE of this seemed to be a new relationship with Time. The Beloved and I have always operated on different clocks: not only the classic owl-lark distinction, but he has a healthy regard for time­tables, whereas I assume that time is elastic — that there is always room to squeeze in one more thing before the deadline — and am invar­iably surprised when it rebounds and hits me on the nose.

This, er, relaxed attitude is, of course, infuriating for those who recognise that optimal timetables are frequently unrealistic, but who are denied any satisfaction from being right, since it inevitably involves their being kept waiting by their tardy colleagues (my epitaph might read “Now she really is late”).

I started to see that it is actually more relaxing to arrive with time to spare — not to have to find a panicked detour because of unex­pected traffic jams or roadworks — even if I have not yet acquired my mother-in-law’s lifelong habit of arriving in time for the train before the one she was actually aiming for.

But the thought of trains alerted me to the truth that what has changed is not, alas, a new maturity in my attitude to time, but, rather, the simple discovery of a Network railcard. Now, I can travel more or less when I choose rather than rush to catch what was the cheapest train available when I bought the ticket, long before I knew what my plans would eventually be. Perhaps matur­ity will have to wait for the Senior Persons railcard.


Health cheques

WHEN the dog had major surgery recently, it involved preliminary tests and assessments, pre- and post-meds, anaesthesia, and nursing care, as well as the skill of the surgeons. At every stage, we were presented with accounts itemised down to the 371 staples needed to seal the wound.

The costs were eye-watering, but it did help to have them laid out so clearly. If only, I thought, the NHS is­­sued similar printouts, it might help to concentrate the mind as well as the overdue discussion about how its overstretched resources could best be used.

Then I happened to be at my mother’s local surgery, where a rolling screen displays some of the most sig­­nificant pharmaceutical costs to the local NHS; alongside, it shows the over-the-counter price for a compar­able product, as well as what the potential savings could buy in lieu.

Thus, paracetamol costs that par­ticu­lar health authority almost £750,000 p.a.; if everyone who cur­rently has it on prescription bought the six-tablets-for-19p version, the annual savings would be enough to fund an additional seven doctors. Which does, indeed, concentrate the mind — as did the text message I received, reminding me of an out­patients appointment: “If you don’t attend, it will still cost the NHS £120.”


Versicle and response

IN THIS household, the liturgy with which we marked the centenary of women’s suffrage may not have been Cranmerian in its quality, but it never­theless had a decidedly tradi­tional slant.

The Beloved realised, as we were about to leave the house for an engagement, that he had no ironed clerical shirts. He produced a crumpled one, and we launched straight into the antiphons: “What shall I do?” “You could start by put­­ting up the ironing-board.” A pause for reflection; then, “Where’s the ironing-board?”


Apocalyptic put-down

NUMBER Two daughter recently bumped into someone she had known at school. He had asked her out; she couldn’t go, but was baffled by the subsequent frostiness of his friends.

Puzzled, she checked her phone, and found to her horror that the mes­­sage that she had thought ex­­plained that she had no free evenings until the end of term had fal­len victim to the perils of pre­dictive text: she had actually said that she wasn’t free . . . until the end of time.

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