Sunday, 18 December 2011

Home for the Holidays (from American Daughters)

There was nothing better than coming home. Especially in the quiet somnolence of an early Sunday morning. John huddled against the cold in the corner of the cab as the taciturn taxi driver, trying to get the heater to work, took to the splendid isolation of the bus lane on an empty M4. It was that dismal time of the year before the winter solstice. The rain lashed against the windows as the wind buffeted the taxi. It was still semi-dark. The gunmetal sky above the glare of the obnoxious orange street lamps refused to surrender to the dawn.
He thought back to New York where it had begun to snow the night before, barely covering the ground in Central Park with a light powdering, which he had thought must have been altogether heavier up in Robin’s beloved Green Mountains. He had managed to catch an early evening flight out of Kennedy. Two days ahead of schedule. He had thought he would need at least the Monday to tie things up in New York, but when he returned to The Plaza early on Friday afternoon he found his PA had telephoned from London leaving a message. He was able to dash over to the lawyer’s office and witness the signing of the contracts for the loan of the artefacts to the museum. On the Saturday, after realising he could now put weight on his leg again and dispense with the crutches, he had a breakfast meeting with the curator about the shipment and the protocols the Colombians would require for the opening of the new exhibit.
‘Expect the boys from the DEA to be all over you at the customs clearance,’ he jokingly warned. ‘Narcotics have entered the States more than once concealed in fake artefacts.’  
His only regret was, later in the day, receiving the anticipated telephone call from Hilary confirming that she and her sister would not be coming over for the holidays. He could sense the fierce protection of his ex-wife in this.  That was that then, he thought. Time to move on. He made one last attempt at continuity.
‘When will I see you again?’
‘I don’t know. It’s up to you, really. Try calling the next time you’re in the States. You know where we will be.’
‘Yes, up to your neck in math.’
‘Don’t remind me.’ She sounded relieved that he had taken their refusal so easily.
He had seen it coming. ‘Stick to your guns, then.’
‘I will.’
‘And Robin?’
‘Gone up to Blueberry Hill today, a few miles beyond Breadloaf into the mountains. It’s one of her favourite hikes. She’s speed walking, prepping for her cross-country. She said that snow was on its way. She said she could smell it in the air. I guess she’ll come through fine.’
Easier, John thought, without having to confront her father.
‘You’re both great! Take care. I love you.’
There was a pause, a hollow silence on the line.
‘Yes. You take care too.’ Hilary was showing she was in control and she was not going to reciprocate the effusion of her father’s expression.
Nevertheless he had succeeded in making contact after all this time, something to be proud of, and something to tell Livia as part of his surprise of being early. He loved surprises. He could see her in bed, the crisp white Egyptian cotton sheet covering her up to the golden sheen of her hair, her svelte body coiled into itself. She would have tossed off the duvet at some point in the night. 
He was certain she would be more than surprised that he had finally acted with his daughters. They had talked about it many times and she was often critical of his reluctance to take the necessary step. He had always said that the timing was important, but the longer he had put it off, the when diminished and the how extended its significance. Now it was done, and though defeated in his wish to get his daughters over to London, he was not destroyed. Quite the contrary. He took a triumphalist attitude to his action. The trip had been, with this one exception, an unqualified success. His Sunday in the bosom of his London family would finish off the recovery of his self-confidence.
By the time the taxi slowed, as it rattled along the narrow, exposed, elevated section of the A4, he was making plans for the rest of the day. At the anticlimactic end of the motorway, passing over the dull brick houses and light industrial landscape of Brentford between the tall and often vacant office buildings, the dark, gunmetal sky ahead had ceded to a paler, bluish aluminium and the rain had been blown to a stop by the wind.
His stepson, Andrew, frittering away a gap year, was unlikely to surface before noon, no doubt as a result of clubbing well into the early hours. So he could invade the master bedroom and spring a surprise on his wife. He enjoyed the spur of the moment gesture that would disturb her equilibrium. He’d be happy to see her and she him. And they could spend one of their lazy Sundays together. He hoped she’d have got in some bagels and cream cheese. In the early days of their marriage he used to order them delivered to their door by that solicitor with the bossy wife who ran the delivery service and that faux-American bar in South Ken which Andrew seemed to enjoy. And they could encamp in bed and . . . .
As the cab descended into Chiswick he tapped on the glass partition behind the driver. He directed the uncommunicative cabbie to take the one-way system south through Earls Court, a diversion from his planned route along the Cromwell Road. Turning on to the Fulham Road, the cab then motored past the bleak facade of the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital and on through the Beach stretch under the poor illumination of the quaint white street lamps the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea insisted on maintaining in this neighbourhood. It passed the red canopy of Luigi’s deli where both he and Livia liked to shop for authentic Italian specialties, and the Puss in Boots where Andrew would often stop off for a drink on his return from a match at Stamford Bridge, and then gave John the opportunity to glimpse inside Vingt Quatre. It was his favourite stopover for eggs benedict any time of the day or night. The few locals who could drag themselves out of bed early for the Sunday newspapers were already filling up the tables.
John called a temporary halt a little further along the road in the area dominated by an agglomerate of interior design and antique shops. At the corner of Old Church Street, out front of a building that had once housed the Queen’s Elm pub and that had demonstrated its poor karma by degenerating over the years into a clone of a trendy Notting Hill bar, then a fashion boutique and ultimately into an office for a real estate broker, the flower-sellers were busy assembling their stall. John bartered half-heartedly over a dozen lilies with a sleepy-looking young trader in his blue football anorak, jeans and trainers, cigarette in one hand and styrofoam coffee cup in the other. But the barrow boy stood his ground after detecting the occasional American twang in the prospective purchaser’s accent.
John handed over the cash to the stallholder’s assistant, who had wrapped the flowers first in transparent and then in a more decorated paper, and jumped back in the cab. He was pleased with himself. Livia always liked fresh flowers in the flat and frequently came home with an armful from one of the Knightsbridge stands or even from as far away as Pimlico Square. They were adequate if less convenient substitutes for her local stall that had stood under the canopy of the Danish Embassy on Sloane Street until it became a victim of increased security measures.
As he was driven towards Brompton Cross passing Amanda Wakely’s, where Livia shopped when she needed a dress that was truly haute couture, the Christmas trees on the streetlights and the decorations in the shop windows demonstrated a more intense and purposeful effort for the forthcoming festivities. He glanced reflectively at Butler & Wilson, a choice location for Livia’s penchant for costume jewellery, impressively restrained in its decorative approach to the season, and then grimaced at the gaudy approach taken by the ineffably up-market Theo Fennell, where the pink to purple neon and the curtain of bright white mini star lights gave the jewellers an almost garish brothel-like facade which would not have been out of place in Soho.
He made sure the taxi drove him through Walton Street rather than taking the tourists’ route back out onto the A4 and down past the shopping temptations of Beauchamp Place, knowing full well the cabbie would hate being directed so fastidiously. It was perhaps John’s favourite street in London, where the small boutiques were not to be outdone by their more effusive larger retail counterparts in other shopping districts of the city. He laughed at the outrageous competition between the antique shops on the north side for the largest and grandest of wreaths, a pheasant feathered offering covering the whole window of one such emporium the undoubted and outrageous victor. In the middle of them was the more austere frontage of Van Peterson, with its silver and white gold jewellery, where Livia had bought him cufflinks and he had reciprocated with a pendant designed by the man himself and opposite it was Eclipse, their favourite location for pre-dinner drinks before a visit to Turner’s or Daphne just round the corner. If Dickens had been writing today, he thought momentarily, this would be his chosen Quality Street, although he had to admit that the residential section in the middle was somewhat boring and the turnover in some of the boutiques was annoying. 
But it brightened up at The Enterprise gastro-pub on the corner of First Street and beyond, where even the red diplomatic police cars parked outside the station at the kink in the road just beyond Nina Campbell’s added to the festive feel, contrasting with the silver trees outside Scalini’s. On his left before the end of the shops were the two he frequented most: Jeroboams, where in the first blush of their romance he and Livia had disappeared into the bricklined vaults below the street to quaff a special burgundy; and Baker & Spice, the popular patisserie where Livia bought the wonderful bread baked on the premises in the renovated Victorian ovens with whole garlic cloves caramelised inside and sumptuous almond horns for which he had a particular weakness. They turned off at Pont Street and then again south to circle the square where home and the heart were for John.

Sunday, 11 December 2011

Dancing for a Toña or two

11 December, 2011 el Hípico, León
As the sun went down over this wonderful old capital of Nicaragua, inspired by horses dancing to music (dressage salsa), with a little encouragement from the crowd and a few hastily learned steps, I joined the Toña girls for a dance or two. Fortunately I was at the back so I could follow the moves of the dancer in front!


Sunday, 20 November 2011

Third Part of the Prologue of American Daughters

They walked slowly over to the Atwood Commons Dining Hall, where the lunchtime crowd was beginning to thin out. John sat down as Hilary offered to wait in line to get their meals. He asked her for an omelette, fries and coffee.
After the bleakness of the campus up at the dorms he was happy to be surrounded by all the noise of undergraduate feeding time. It was also a further respite from the hand-to-hand struggle with Hilary. The students were the classic New England co-ed mix in their Middlebury College hoodies and sweat tops, dark blue, purple, green and grey seemed to be the predominant colours, with a few girls in more refined cashmere and a few guys in warm-up suits. They were noisy but not boisterous, more like junior professionals in an office canteen than students in a campus cafeteria. They carried their trays to the long tables, oblivious to an older, overdressed stranger in their midst.
When Hilary returned to the table with their food, two female classmates accompanied her. Debbie, a slight, dark-haired pixie of a girl with bright, mischievous eyes sat down opposite John alongside Hilary. Her home was on the outskirts of Keene in upper New York State, across the lake from Middlebury. The girls would often repair en groupe to her place for their short breaks, as they had for the previous weekend, with Robin in tow, to celebrate Thanksgiving. It was a large modified ranch house, from which her parents, who were both vets, ran a successful practice. Later Hilary would confide to John that they all thought her rather spoiled by her doting parents.
John talked with her about skiing in the area as he’d been to Lake Placid many years before. He amused them with his tale of a traumatic descent he’d experienced on the Mount Van Hoevenberg track in the Budweiser bobsleigh, comparing it with the slide down the La Plagne run in le taxi bob and the complimentary glass of champagne at the finish. He resisted telling them that the French locals called their white four-man taxi bob with its high, protective sides the fastest suppository on ice. Somehow he didn’t think that description would go down particularly well with his daugther’s friends.
Hilary looked on quietly, with a self-contained nonchalant air, as she demolished her vegetarian lasagne. She would have been proud of his restraint, he fondly thought. At his side sat Virginia, a lanky, pale, blue-eyed blonde from Minneapolis, very much quieter than the animated Debbie. She had struck up an instant rapport with Hilary in their freshman year. Both worked in the library to supplement their living allowance and one summer Hilary had joined her working at a summer camp in Minnesota. Neither she, nor his daughter, contributed much to the winter sports conversation.
It was something of a relief for John when Brad joined them. He was obviously a long- standing butt of their jokes and took them all with a good grace. He’d placed a salami sandwich, coffee and a Snickers bar on his tray, his selection the subject of gleeful derision.
‘Brad, can’t you eat anything else for lunch? You seem to have the same items on your tray every time I see you,’ Debbie charged.
‘I’ve gotten kinda used to them. Saves me from thinking.’
‘And we know you have to go easy on that score, don’t we?’ This from Virginia.
‘Yep. No doubt about it. Need to marshal my limited resources.’
‘Poor Brad, the thought miser. You can always revert to that box of Oreo cookies your mother sends you every couple of weeks,’ Hilary observed.
‘Yeah, sure. And that’s the last cookie you’re ever going to beg off me, Hilary Swift.’
John sensed there was a deeper link between his daughter and the cookie monster from New Jersey. He queried her about it as they returned up the hill after lunch.
‘Brad’s a good friend, nothing more. I think he secretly fancies Debbie. She’s more his size. I think Virginia and me are just too big for him. Too tall, I mean. But I’ve told him what I think about that. He and Debbie would be a disaster together. She’s got this weakness for jocks and wild parties. Brad just isn’t that interested in sport, the clubs or the party lifestyle. He’s resolutely not a joiner. And neither am I. I’ve stayed away from all the clubs, the replacements for the fraternities and sororities that were banned on campus a few years before I got here, and haven’t regretted all that one minute.’
‘Why banned?’
‘Simple. Alcoholism was the prevalent social disease on campus.’
‘Did it work?’
‘Er, no. The frats moved off campus. And there are still plenty of students who come here to get wasted. Middlebury still has the rep for being a social school. Club Midd they call it. I just keep out of it.’
‘But you’ve got your rugby crowd.’
‘Oh yes. Now that’s altogether different. A load of laughs. But with Brad, for all his playing dumb he enjoys nothing better than a glass of red wine, a book and a philosophical conversation. That’s why we get on so well. Except I prefer the occasional brew.’
John laughed. This was one aspect of his daughter he hadn’t put into the equation.
‘Pick us up at seven, then,’ she said when they reached the car.
‘Thanks.’
‘For what?’
‘Thanks for everything. For being you. For seeing me. For letting me into your life just a bit. For not being too hard on me.’
‘No problemo. Anyway you’ve had it easy so far. You’ve only had to tackle me.’ Turning on her heel she gave him what appeared to be a pre-prepared parting shot. ‘Robin is something else altogether!’       

Wednesday, 16 November 2011

Way To Go, San Diego

   The platitudinous response to San Diego is Sea World, the Zoo, Old Town and the Gaslamp Quarter. Coming away after my longest stay here I have other notable memories. As the plane mounts skyward the living Google stretch of topography shows you so much more.
   From the beaches to the mountains it is a city blessed by its lack of density. The mesas, canyons and arroyos mean there is no endless plain of ticky-tacky development. The cityscape is vertically varied with its heights and depths. The coastline offers everything from easy access beaches with smooth walking, jogging, cycling, rollerblading and skateboarding paths to towering cliffs of sandstone and mud where the rich seem to be engaging in the brinkmanship of real estate poker with sumptuous developments precariously close to the edge. The vegetation enriched by its decorative imports (palms are not a native species here) and nourished by the scarce commodity of water is semi-desert to cultivated. Fresh produce is abundant in the travelling street markets that show up one day a week in a neighbourhood parking lot and move on to the next.  Choose from the sweetest of grapes to fresh picked strawberries, plucots (new to me), green, white and yellow beans, organic breads and pickles. Vendors are friendly and know their regulars. It’s a city that gets on with its life without fuss and a camaraderie rare in the US.
   It’s relatively easy to get about. Public transport is well organised with trolleys, buses and trains for which you can buy a $5 all day ticket. Good value. Drivers are generally laid back. One rarely hears a horn blown in anger or with bravado. Cyclists have lanes on many city streets and convenient racks on the front of buses.
   My plane tracks back eastwards out of the Pacific. I can see the brown kelp beds off Point Loma, the magnificent stretch of beaches from Mission Bay up to La Jolla and to the south the spread-eagled harbour with the military airfield and the Coronado hotel on the island made famous by the Curtis, Lemmon, Monroe comedy. Further off lie the cloud-shrouded mountains of Mexico, the border only ten miles from the city centre.
Take a walk to the Cabrillo Monument celebrating the discoverer of the city on the heights of Point Loma. On my day there I was lucky to have sparkling clear views of Tijuana, on its inclined plain above the border, and a further ten miles down the coast of Baja beyond. Below the point the sailing ship used in the film Master and Commander was bending to a gentle breeze. A flotilla of dinghies fought each other for the lead in their race like demented white-winged moths in slow motion. It was Veterans Day weekend and as many families were visiting the graves of their loved ones interred beneath the lawns of the military cemetery as were trekking through the lighthouse or exploring the tidal pools below.
The equilibrium between the conservative military presence here and the radical surf ideal is curious. Each culture goes its own merry way, not without some crossover. Likewise one can set a thriving art scene against the scientific research of the universities and the bio-tech businesses, the latter now sadly downsized. There are also racially, religiously and sexually diverse communities where tolerance is practiced if not always entirely upheld.
   This is not a black and white city. It is intriguing to see the burgeoning Asian American community dominating the demographic at UCSD while latinos are a dynamic presence at SDSU. The overall mix of the city is true to the American spirit of welcoming all. This is what makes San Diego tick, the 21st century melting pot.
   The city is not without its problems, of course. Housing is prohibitively expensive, a shock to the system for anyone moving here from the American hinterland. I was based for my stay in North Park, a community of small artisanal houses slowly gentrifying into a neighbourhood to rival the adjoining South Park. The streets are wide, designed in the nuke phobia of the 1950s to accommodate tanks and tractors to clear the anticipated rubble.  
   As the name suggests it is adjacent to San Diego’s Central Park, Balboa Park. This rises from the flats of downtown to the heights on its eastern edge with hills aplenty. There is even room for a municipal golf course in the centre of the city here. Sports activities range from walking, jogging and cycling (including a velodrome) to tennis, swimming, association football, and baseball. A collection of museums that would do many other cities proud lies within the park limits, including arts, science, ethnic and the military. For local or visitor alike there is plenty to do, places to go, people to see, events in which one can participate.
If one is a true masochist one can support the two local professional teams, the Chargers in football or the Padres in baseball. Appropriately ironic names, perhaps, the former full of unfulfilled ambition, all offence, no defence, the latter without a prayer. It seemed strange to see Raider fans more in evidence and certainly more vociferous than their Charger counterparts at the Qualcomm Stadium where true to type San Diego lost their “local” Californian derby by giving up a key interception in the dying seconds.
   But why pay to watch professionals lose when you can go out and be active yourself? This seems to be the San Diego way. The beaches offer first class surfing for all, especially when the Santa Ana is blowing offshore. It’s deceptively cold so wet suits are de rigueur. And the further north one moves to the outskirts of the city the better the waves. I meditated in the tranquil gardens on the cliffside at the Golden Lotus Temple designed by Paramahansa Yoganananda before taking to the line up at Swami’s beach at Encinitas. I sipped a schooner of Natural while watching the surf school newbies return from a session at Mission Beach as the sun fell down the sky behind lifeguard station 19.
   At night the Gaslamp Quarter comes into its own with the bars, pubs and clubs. My friend Monique, a gorgeous redhead from Mexicali, who works in the downmarket Hooters, led me on to the dance floor at various watering holes. I thought Onyx had the best vibe, more latin than the others we visited. For eats I rated George on the Cove at La Jolla, my favourite, for lunch on the upper deck looking down on the pelicans, seals and sea kayaks. And a big shout for Aaron, a great bartender there, who really knows his wines. I have become addicted to fish tacos, that Baja specialty, now seemingly ubiquitous. And there is nothing like the challenge of an enormous plate of pancakes with fruit and the bottomless coffee cup at The Mission on University Avenue, rated in the top 25 breakfast experiences in the country.
   Way to be, San Diego! I will be back.

Sunday, 13 November 2011

Second Part of the Prologue of American Daughters

He held her shoulders, looked her straight in the eye and choked out ‘Hi you.’
‘Hey, John. It’s been a long time.’
‘Too long. Too long. Mea culpa. Mea culpa. Let me look at you.’
She was uncomfortable under his gaze and her ghost of a smile, which had faded the longer he held her, now disappeared altogether. He could see her face had become more like her mother’s. It had lengthened, become slightly fleshier. She was not at all heavy set but he thought she might become more voluptuous in middle age. She was taller than he had expected, even in her loafers. About five six he guessed. Her green eyes were flecked with brown, a throwback to his own hazel colouring.
‘Come on up to my room. Let’s not hang around out here. It’s freezing. Can you walk ok? What’s with the crutches?’ She refocused on his injury.
‘Oh that. Nothing too serious. Managed to pop something in my calf playing tennis before I left London.’
How he had cursed his brother-in-law for roping him in to a late season doubles match at Campden Hill. He hadn’t warmed up sufficiently and fell down like he had been shot, reaching up on only his fourth serve. It had been an annoyance to have to be helped from the court, an annoyance compounded at the Westminster Hospital when his leg had been strapped up and he had been handed the crutches by a kindly nurse.
‘No. It’s not too serious,’ Hilary admitted in a flat, matter-of-fact voice once she had heard the details.
‘I should be off the crutches in a few days time. Just have to keep the weight off the leg. Before I left England they told me I could put twenty per cent of my weight on it, whatever that means. Was a bit awkward getting up here.’ No, he realised too late he shouldn’t have said that.
‘You could have postponed the visit.’
‘Not likely. It’s been a long time coming.’
‘But now? Why, after so much time?’
‘Let’s talk about it when we get up to your room, may we?’
‘Robin’s got classes all day, as I think I told you on the phone, so she’ll be with us tonight. In thirty minutes we can go down to the cafeteria for lunch, if that’s ok with you? Then later on I want to do some work. So you can go on over to the hotel and check in. Ok? Make sure they don’t give you a room in the annex. The main part of the inn is genuinely colonial but the annex is fake. It’s just a modern building dressed up as old. They seem to place new parents in there unless they know what to ask for.’
‘Thanks for the advice.’ He thought he might have figured it out for himself. He was getting over the shock of hearing how Midwestern her accent was, with even a few traces of a southern drawl, no doubt the legacy of her high school years in Atlanta, and an occasional tendency to end a statement in a rising pitch that suggested the speaker was unconsciously questioning its veracity. The early years on the East Coast seemed to have left little vocal impression. There was also a throaty lack of inflexion about her voice, as if it was the product of some professor’s invented automaton. He’d noticed it on the phone but reasoned that the connection was partly responsible. Now hearing it in person he knew he had been wrong in his perception.
He looked forward to seeing Hilary’s top floor room in the dormitroyit with a sense of expectation. He knew at a glance it would give up more clues to his daughter’s Weltanshauung.
It was inevitably a small, narrow oblong in a residence hall that was one of the more recent additions to the two hundred year old campus. But she had made the most of the space by doing away with the bed and putting her mattress on the floor. The pillows were strewn with a haphazard collection of stuffed animals. To his throat-clenching delight John noticed that a pudgy, lambswool teddy bear, which had been sent over from England by his aunt after Hilary’s birth, seemed to have pride of place. Her mother had derided it as too heavy and unwieldy for a baby and put it up on a shelf. There it had stayed, to be later joined by a sibling, with the arrival of Robin, some two years later. But, by the time Hilary was five, John had reintroduced the bears as robust playmates that could withstand all sorts of physical punishment, not the least of which was catapulting them to the ceiling of the girls’ bedroom. It was a game they loved called bears in space.
Above the makeshift bed a large collage of images and text attached to a corkboard with coloured drawing pins. Extracts from Nature, press cuttings from the college newspaper showing sports tables with Middlebury highlighted in green felt-tip, a magazine page showing the bejewelled, oily alien leader in Stargate clipped to a large poster of the pyramids, a couple of sayings from The Prophet written in a flowing script, a poem in Elvish and Roman lettering from Tolkien, and a facsimile of the matrix taken from the film of that name with its lurid letters and numbers glimmering menacingly against the black backdrop. Higher up the wall a couple of shelves carried textbooks, a few sci-fi and fantasy novels and a couple of photo albums. Between the bed and the door the cupboards were all closed, revealing nothing of Hilary’s wardrobe, or sports equipment, save for two pairs of skis, one alpine and one cross-country, stacked in the corner.
Her desk was positioned in front of the window, through which could be seen, round the corner of an identical building next door, the wooded farmland stretching down towards the southern reaches of Lake Champlain with the purple haze of the Adirondack Mountains beyond. On it’s top was an untidy conglomeration of books, folders, writing pads, a frog mug, which contained a variety of pens and pencils and other stationery necessities, a desk light and a framed photograph of Hilary, Robin and their mother, all in parkas on a beach, their hair blown every which way by the wind, laughing at the camera. He noticed that Brenda looked very young with her daughters on either side, almost like their elder sister.
‘You’d best sit here,’ she said, offering John the only chair, and removing from it a pile of books.
He handed her his coat, which she put over her parka on a hook behind the door.
‘I’d prefer it here,’ he said, releasing his crutch and lowering himself painstakingly onto her mattress beside the stuffed animals. ‘That’s better.’ He stretched out his left leg across the floor. Better, he thought, to allow Hilary the high ground, sitting on the chair.
‘You sure you’re comfortable?’ she asked, leaning her bum against the edge of her desk.
‘This isn’t going to be easy.’ She had kicked off her shoes and was twitching her toes impatiently.
‘It’s alright.’ He wished he’d also taken off his jacket. The room was too warm.
‘I don’t mean that,’ she riposted quickly, indicating his leg with her foot. ‘I mean what happens next.’
‘Go on.’ John had braced himself for this. He’d heard it, rehearsed it, and never resolved it in his mind.
‘I just want to have my say. When you left I didn’t exactly even get to say goodbye.’
‘Not exactly.’
‘Please, John,’ she demanded firmly, pent up anger making her speak through tightly controlled lips. ‘Hear me out. I was seven; Robin was five. I didn’t understand. Brenda told us that you had gone away and left us. I was ashamed to go to school. It was the start of a new school year and I didn’t have a daddy. It was not until I tearfully fessed up to my teacher that I realised that lots of kids didn’t have one. Lots of kids I knew. It was like a secret society within the school. Suddenly Robin and I were reluctant and unwitting members.
‘It was not until years later, when you had ceased to exist for us, you may as well have been dead, that we began to get cards from you. Out of the blue. It was like a message from the grave. You can’t imagine. We had a complete family by then. And we’d moved to Georgia. We didn’t like it as much there but Mom was happy. Steven was our daddy then and for a while he did a very good job.’ She looked penetratingly at her father as she said this, as if to ensure she was inflicting pain.
‘You were not in our minds. The cards were an intrusion. That’s how it felt. We opened them, read them and put them away. Out of mind. And, like with this visitation now, what suddenly spurred you to send them? What are you doing here? A sudden whim?’ This last rhetorical question she uttered with as great a combination of disgust and contempt as she could muster. ‘Then all that stuff about college. Why did you think you could suddenly come into our lives by suggesting we should go to an English university? What was that all about? We’d been brought up in the States. By our mother. We’re American, and we wanted to go to college here. All those prospectuses you sent us. They went straight in the garbage.’
Only half American, he thought, immediately repressing the temptation to open his mouth to make a cutting retort. He decided to take another tack.
‘I only thought it might be good for you to broaden your horizons. A summer school in Brittany is not the whole wide world you know,’ John protested feebly.
‘When we’re ready we’ll take off I suppose. And I wouldn’t mention Brittany. Not a good idea.’
The girls had spent a summer in Brittany on a French immersion course. It followed Hilary’s high school graduation, to which John had not been invited. Despite a note from Brenda letting him know when and where they would be in France, in a fit of pique he had used the excuse of a commitment to a dig at a recently discovered Inca site at Choquequirao and refused to change his plans. So the one opportunity he’d had to meet them in Europe had gone begging.
‘And now?’
‘I’m coming to that.’
But the core revelation of her thinking was cut short by a knock on the door.
‘Hey, Lar. You in there?’
A young male voice with a Jersey accent straight out of the mean streets prompted Hilary to pitch forward from her perch against the desk and walk over to the door. She opened it and pulled the student in by the arm.
‘Hi Brad. Come in and meet my father.’ Her aggressive tone was switched off in an instant.
‘I won’t get up if that’s alright with you.’ John offered his hand.
Brad, with his curly dark hair surmounting a swarthy bespectacled face and dark day’s growth of beard, bent over to shake it.
‘Pleased to meet you, Mr Swift.’
‘And I you, Brad.’ Not just for yourself, John thought, but because you have successfully defused the bombshell Hilary had been preparing to detonate.
‘Sorry to disturb you, Lar, but I need that math text you borrowed.’
‘You didn’t disturb anything, Brad. Just having a go at John here.’
‘Don’t worry about it, Mr Swift.’
‘John, please.’
‘Don’t worry about it, John. She has a go at all of us.’ Brad smiled ingenuously at his joke.
‘Brad’s very much one of us. He doesn’t talk very much about his father.’
‘And being in construction he doesn’t talk very much about me.’
A New Jersey builder, Brad’s father had declared Middlebury a total waste of money for his lazy, untalented wastrel of a son, knowing all too well that this description would never win out against his wife’s devoted indulgence. Brad was no jock, the only type of student to impress his father. Nevertheless he looked quite muscular, if short, under his red and white madras shirt.    
‘So how is the math?’ John enquired, eager to change the tack of the conversation.
Hilary held her nose and grimaced. Brad chuckled.
‘I don’t know why she’s acting strange like that, John. She’s cruising to ace it.’
‘Yeah, yeah, so you say. I hate it, but it’s gotta be done, if I want that bio major.’
‘Such a talent, Lar, you should have gone for physics.’
‘That’s even worse for me.’
‘Not from what I’ve heard you say, debunking this quest for the theory of everything.’
‘Oh, sure. You’re the geek physicist amongst us, Brad.’
‘Astrophysicist.’
‘As long as you get the math done.’
‘Well, I won’t get it done as long as you have my text.’
They smiled at each other as if it was a private joke. In any courses they shared they split the cost of textbooks to save money. She handed him the heavy volume.
‘While she’s out drinking her beer I’ll be slaving over this.’
‘I’ve told you the drinking’s part of our training regime.’ She laughed at the thought.
‘Training? Ha! I wouldn’t like to run into your gang after training.’ He informed John that Hilary played outside centre for the women’s rugby team, and that a keg of beer completed their training programme for the week. And they topped off their matches with yet another keg. ‘Bacchantes of the oval ball.’
‘Oh really? The only reason that you know all this is that you come along to matches to perve after Natalie Wolff.’
‘What? Get outta here! That six-foot Amazon who catches all the lineout ball? You wouldn’t get me near any of that pack of yours.’
‘Me neither, if I can help it.’ She grinned playfully at him. ‘I try to keep running well away from trouble.’
Clearly, Brad went along to support Hilary but neither of them would let the other admit it.
‘You coming over to Atwater?’
‘I’ll just drop this on my desk and see you there. I’m starving.’
‘No way! You’re so predictable, Bradley. We’ll follow you down.’
Brad helped John to his feet, and led the way out of the room. Hilary stopped the elevator at the third floor to go and see if by any chance Robin had returned while Brad and John descended to the lobby. Robin’s room, two floors down from Hilary’s, faced south towards the centre of the campus. Brad hustled off and in a moment Hilary had returned skipping lightly down the stairs.
‘Just as I thought. She’s gone missing. There’s a note stuck to her door saying she’ll be back at five.’

Monday, 24 October 2011

Update from Jane Boyd re Miraflor, Nicaragua

Jane (Juanita) Boyd, who runs the Cafe Luz and Hostel Luna in Estelí, Nicaragua filed the following update on conditions in the Miraflor Reserve at 18.43hrs BST Sunday 23 October.


The rains have stopped thank goodness, though we're forecast more, though not sure when. The cases in Miraflor are emerging slowly still hearing new issues, comms, food and health issues being the most critical, but clothes are drying and people getting warm again, helps for the morale if nothing else. We're looking closely at helping with medicines, and roof structures for the homes, I've been shocked by what I've seen, the conditions in some homes.


See the previous post for further details.

Saturday, 22 October 2011

Flood Disaster in Nicaragua

   I am posting Jane (Juanita) Boyd's email in its entirety so you can see the extent of the problem in the Estelí region and particularly in the Miraflor Reserve where she does an enormous amount of work supporting the local communities. She has been working at ground level there for eight years. This email was passed to me from friends John and Brian both of whom have done volunteer work in the rural communities in Nicaragua.


Dear friends and supporters

Summary and weather situation (as best we know it)

We are launching an urgent appeal for Emergency Action from here in Esteli, Nicaragua, to ask for your financial help and assistance in raising some funds this week.
We are currently in Day 9 of a severe tropical depression that has found Esteli to be the worst hit region of this country. Many of you will have heard about the rains and storms that hit Mexico and Guatemala. That was storm 10/Hurricane Joda, storm 11 and we are experiencing storm 12-E/Irwin a slow moving depression now threatening to convert into a hurricane to top it all.
The most deaths and landslides are occurring in these regions here and in Salvador.

The city of Esteli has bared the brunt of the rains, floods peaking on Friday, but today and forecast tomorrow more severe rainfall is to follow. We have had 9 days of 24/7 rain.

The affected zone of Miraflor:
Miraflor Natural reserve is a high mountainous region, surrounded by the Esteli river, the Yali river, with dirt roads and steep landscapes. Within the danger area are over 33 communities, thousands of people, living in very impoverished conditions, susceptible to these most severe of weather phenomenons. The people are strong, but not well nutritioned, they find work but only when it's available, they sustain poor weather but rely on access to the outside for most healthcare and supplies. I have worked with these communities for nearly 8 years now, and am still shocked by some of the conditions in which many still live. The rainfall this last week has surpassed that of the terrible Hurricane Mitch of 1998, Many houses are better reinforced, roads always built up with stones by hand, but that's not everyone, and these rains have are passing the limitations of most.

Our role:
We administrate the eco-tourism programme of Miraflor, and also work 2-3 further social development projects within the reserve. Our responsibility for these people, especially those beyond most social programmes that reach many parts, is huge and I turn to the goodwill of our supporters and your solidarity to support our emergency action. 

Our/my work here is voluntary, no administration costs are taken from donated funds, nor would be taken. Cafe Luz y Luna works as a social enterprise, not a registered NGO, we can act quickly, in collaboration and all our regular social programmes are sustained from our business and tour activities as well as some valuable donations.

Current Situation:
The big rivers are breaking bridges, foot bridges are becoming damaged and impassable. All small streams and small rivers are torrents and impassable. The water table is too high, outside toilets are flooding into the open, flat areas are becoming impassable.

The crisis is as follows;
The buses have been unable to reach many routes in Miraflor. At least 8 communities are completely cut off, due to road damage (collapses) and landslides. They have no food left to sell in the villages. The rain and cold has led to several homes being damaged and thier families left at high risk, children and the elderly especially. The threat of further landslides is at red alert. Animals are dying, the biggest investment a family can have. Most importantly many  of the most impoverished families rely on a hand to mouth existence of working as farm workers daily, where they earn $2-$4 a day, if and when they work. There's been no work and they have no money to buy the food at the local shops, perhaps selling at inflated prices for it being so scarce.

The weather forecast is poor, at least another 10 days of rain, though we remain uncertain. We fear epidemics of illness to follow, through contaminated water in wells, springs, poor self-care of the weak, children and elderly especially, many of whom live alone with little ability to walk far.

Tomorrow I am returning up to Miraflor to help with the governing organization Foro Miraflor, the city council, Minsa/the health medical brigades, and due to the national crisis, funds are at a minimum. 

We, Cafe Luz y Luna have been asked to provide the following;


Rolls of Black plastic, nails, hammers > to cover roofs, and protect walls from the pouring streams of water from entering the houses
Sweaters and jackets > a surprisingly rare commodity despite the cool climate in the mountains, and most will be wet by now with no way to dry. Needed to assist in prevention of severe colds/flu and respiratory diseases.
Some hats for extra warmth
Pampers/nappies > Disposible nappies, usually plain cotton cloth variety are used but no chance of having any washed and dry. Especially for newborns and young toddlers, help avoid unnecssary water contamination
Baby milk > expensive and there's little milk production right now, necessary for the young
Blankets . a few dozen for those in shelters and those without in very impoverished housing
Wet weather gear for the local leaders.

Cafe Luz y Luna has already spent the spare funds we had for food deposits in other communities. 

  • Therefore I appeal to our dear friends and supporters to help just a little to fund these necessary goods.
  • We look only for 5-10 GBP or $10 per gift or more as you or your friends and associates can afford it.
We expect to help too with emergency free food and supplementary medical packages, like vitamins and oral rehydration packets, water filters where needed.
The government provides food at lower than cost prices but it's not free. We see the need to provide some free rations to the most affected and those evacuated families in the coming days. There's even a crisis for underwear !, for firewood, it's not dry anywhere, for dry bedding or mattresses in certain areas not otherwise attended. Other emergency materials are being provided by the council and government for now.

Tomorrow I will post photos of a damage report committee that returned today. But we are seeing heavy downpours tonight already worsening access and the situation.

On a personal level, I hugely appreciate your help and support. A full account of expenditure will be posted after these emergencies subside.
Any excess funds, will be maintained in a separate fund from donations, for emergency social needs in Miraflor maintained by Cafe Luz y Luna.
Opportunities of working with eco-stove projects/Give-a-stove a chimney, water filter projects, immediate housing needs are optional for this emergency fund, set up by our Friends in Ireland,  but supporters would be informed during the decision process.
We continue to work in many themes in Miraflor, including environmental iniatives to help with prevention of soil erosion, organic gardens fand food security programmes, protection of water sources and environ. education, with basic healthcare and gender issues workshops addressed, through our Mobile Library bus starting this December. Watch this space. Please check our website.

For those in the UK you can transfer to the following account.
Many friends are in the USA, Canada and Europe. We will set up a Paypal account or otherwise we can set up a coordination with friends in the USA who can transfer us funds, since Nicaragua also trades in US$$.

UK Bank Details

07-01-16
a/c 01840079

Thank you so much for your time.
A paypal account with details will be issued ASAP too, along with photos in the next 2 days.

Abrazos from Nicaragua

Jane

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Prologue Opening from Work in Progress (American Daughters)

After all this time John’s self-possession deserted him. He wanted to make sure that he saw her before she saw him. He just wanted that one momentary advantage, to be able to look at her. A moment of discovery. He knew she would be more beautiful than any of the photographs he had seen.
Like a guerrilla commander readying himself for a skirmish he sized up the lay of the land for an advantageous position. The weather, timing and topography had joined together to provide him with a perfect place. He’d done it so many times before on battlefields from La Haye Sainte at Waterloo to Touro at Lake Trasimeno looking in on the past, but this reconnoitre was more concerned with the present and the future.
He’d dressed meticulously for the occasion, not in camouflage but more in an attempt to be inconspicuous. Over a plain, dark blue button-down shirt he’d added a light, crewneck lambswool sweater and his dark grey jacket with the elbow pads. The navy blue cords fitted his well-proportioned physique snugly and the new brown shoes he’d had to go out and buy at Saks completed the effect. He grabbed his dark blue and brown leather outdoors coat from the back seat and struggled into it. Although a watery sun shone insipidly through a thickening cloud cover it looked like the temperature would drop below freezing after dark. It was already noticeably colder this much further north.
He’d followed the directions he’d been given and without too much trouble he’d pulled up in front of a modern residence hall on the upper side of the clinically manicured campus at Middlebury. As he hobbled from his rental car he cursed the crutches he had to use. The journey from New York City, with only the use of his right leg, had been tiresome, although inside him there was an exhilaration he couldn’t quite repress. Finishing his work in Manhattan in the early afternoon the previous day, he’d avoided the commuter rush and, guided by the ‘eye in the sky’ traffic reports on the radio, had headed uptown and out on to I87, the Adirondack Parkway. He’d noticed the air altogether crisper and cleaner by the time he’d left the environs of the city and it certainly felt brisk when he stopped off in a rest area in the dark of the early evening north of Albany. He’d eventually called it a day when he found a small modest motel open for business, one of the few in the off-season on N7, just across the state line in Vermont. And the following morning he’d been uneasy after a leisurely breakfast of pancakes and coffee as it had tried to rain and he’d watched a flurry of raindrops run down the window mixed with a sleet of deformed snow crystals that melted on contact with the glass.
As John worked his way with some effort up the pathway to the dorm, a pretty co-ed emerged from the building, wearing a fur-lined khaki parka, her small beanie and grey scarf struggling to confine her long blonde hair. For a moment, a heart-lurching moment, he had thought it was Hilary, as the girl strode towards him, her head down, carrying a file folder and a couple of books. She barely stepped aside for him as he continued his unsteady progress towards the door. Reaching the lobby he’d realised Hilary was not there to meet him at the appointed hour.
He glanced at his watch and smiled to himself. He was a few minutes early. She’d said she would be working at the library in the morning, so he asked the next student coming down the stairs for directions. Not that he was going to walk all the way there. Better, he thought, to let her come to me. It was a new century, a new beginning, but inevitably, for John, it felt as if he was doing what he knew best, digging something up from the past which, he hoped, would give a different perspective, however small, to events back then. He knew it was not going to be easy.
He did, however, manage to walk round to the other side of the dormitory, which stood above a large expanse of grassed quadrangle surrounded by grey limestone and white marbled buildings. It was an almost treeless open space reinforcing the cold, pristine, Calvinist feel of the older buildings. He didn’t much appreciate the austerity of Colonial Revival architecture. The campus harboured nearly two thousand college students with a healthy appetite for partying or the outdoors, or possibly both, to say nothing of the excellent educational and support staff. There was an almost inverted snobbery in that Middlebury was just a college and had no postgraduate faculties. Before him, cut through a grassy bank, a dozen stone steps led down to the gravel paths that criss-crossed the bare landscape.
It was that brief industrious academic interval between Thanksgiving and Christmas, when students were buried in classes or finalising assignments before the winter break chores of reading and revision for their end of semester exams. Certainly they were spending most of their time indoors, unless preparing for the winter sports season and the glories of the winter semester. That one month one course interlude allowed for an afternoon of skiing to reward their attendance at morning classes, topped off by an evening of study and socialising in their cosy dorms with plentiful helpings of hot chocolate before the parties started.
John stood back from the top step looking down to the corner of a building some sixty yards away, round which he was certain she would come. The stiff breeze coming out of the northwest from Canada was cold, the sky suddenly leaden, as if confirming his earlier appraisal that snow was imminent. He was glad he’d remembered to put on his coat before leaving the car. He turned the collar up, feeling the cold air on his neck and regretted he’d forgotten his scarf.
At last a hatless figure marched into view in a royal blue parka and black turtle neck, jeans and loafers, her helmet of dull gold hair swinging from side to side as she strode forward determinedly against the wind carrying a pile of books. Her parka was unfastened so that the breeze caught at it and made it flap against her body. John had an irresistible desire to run to meet her, only held in check by his incapacity.
She involuntarily hesitated as she turned onto the gravel path that led up to the steps, suddenly aware she was being watched. John had succeeded in capturing the moment. Many mixed emotions surged through him. He swallowed to clear his throat. Hilary came on methodically up the path and climbed the dozen steps, the faintest of smiles playing at her lips, her eyes moving from his face to his crutches.
Good, he thought, at least the injury has been useful for something. However she must have envisaged their meeting, she would not have put anything like that into the frame.
At last she was with him, the shadow of her smile broadening a touch, as she reached the top step and burrowed into his coat. The moment of their embrace, when she would physically connect with him, was something he’d dreamed about time after time, feeling the weight of her firm body pressed against his. It was never going to be long enough whenever she pulled back.

Thursday, 13 October 2011

Spirit of Place in The Cushion Effect

   “All landscapes ask the same question in the same whisper. ‘I am watching you — are you watching yourself in me?’” Lawrence Durrell knew the answer only too well. I wonder if it is possible in this current era, where idle travel is such a rare occurrence amidst the ADHD lives we live, to summon up the genius loci in place names. And is all our interest in the landscape encapsulated in the real estate agents' mantra: location, location, location?
   Of course we all have our prejudices, which colour our senses. For example if I mention Liverpool and London the majority of readers will conjure up two distinctly contrary cityscapes in their mind. The industry and commerce of Liverpool seem of an earlier age to the material aggrandisement we see in the capital. The former is marked by a current sense of deprivation in the contemporary mind’s eye, despite the efforts to renovate the city centre and the riverside frontage. The latter is seen as the burgeoning world city, despite the enormous differences between rich and poor and the sink estates that north, south, east and west scar many of the villages that make up the metropolis.
   So what, dear reader, will you make of the place names in The Cushion Effect? Perhaps it is better to not have heard of them, although this is far from likely.
   Does one start from a macro viewpoint and drill down as if in a Google map? Perhaps. So I focus on London, the Berkshire/Buckinghamshire border and Devon.
   In London we can drill down a level to neighbourhoods: the Barbican, Barnes, Belgravia, Chelsea, Clerkenwell, Fitzrovia, Maida Vale, Mayfair, North Finchley, Shepherd’s Bush, Smithfield, Soho and St James’s. Whereas in Berkshire it’s Cookham Dean, Lambourn and Maidenhead, and in Buckinghamshire it’s Bisham Abbey, Bourne End, Christmas Common, Marlow, Taplow and Stoke Poges. In Devon the scene is set almost exclusively in or close to the South Hams: Ashburton, Ashprington, Blackawton, Berry Pomeroy, Blackpool, Buckfastleigh, Cott, Compton, Cornworthy, Dartington, Dartmouth, Denbury, Dittisham, East Portlemouth, Kingsbridge, Kingswear, Salcombe, Torquay and Totnes.
   A further level down reveals the streetscape and the banks, clubs, churches, galleries, hotels, institutions, restaurants, pubs and shops. The London streets include: Beech Street, Bond Street, Brook Street, Chester Square, Culford Gardens, Edgeware Road, Fleet Street, Fulham Road, Great Sutton Street, Harley Street, Jermyn Street, King’s Road, Lots Road, Park Lane, Savile Row, Sloane Square and Sloane Street. Within them are the significant locations of the Chelsea School of Art and Design, the Royal Academy, St Bartholomew’s Hospital, London School of Economics, St Paul’s School, Armani, The Blueprint Café, The Capital Hotel, Cerruti, Colefax and Fowler, The Connaught, Daphne’s, The Dorchester, Dover Street Wine Bar, El Vino, The Enterprise, Foyles, the Francis Graham-Dixon Gallery, The General Trading Company, Gucci, Hambros Bank, Harrods, Harvey Nichols, The Ivy, Joseph, Kensington Roof Gardens, Le Caprice, Lobb of St James’s, Marks & Spencer, Novelli's, Peter Jones, Prada, Le Pont de la Tour, The Savoy Grill, Searcy’s, Sloane Street, The Sutton Arms, Thomas Pink, The Ritz, Vivienne Westwood, Waitrose, Wasps RUFC and the 606 Club.
   In Devon as one might expect it’s the landscape and seascape as much as the institutions and edifices which take the attention. From the River Dart, Biddlehead Point, Bolt Head, Bolt Tail, Landcomb Cove, Mathew's Point, Mill Bay, Prawle Point, Start Bay, Start Point and Sunny Cove to Dartington College, Dartmouth Castle, Dartmouth Golf and Country Club, the Royal Dartmouth Yacht Club, the Royal Naval College, Salcombe RUFC, Totnes RUFC, the Arcturus Bookshop, AW Luscombe, the Fortescue Arms, the Royal Seven Stars Hotel, Sacks Wholefoods, The White Hart and the Willow restaurant.
   Further afield, more ephemerally in the context of this novel, are other UK settings in the Forest of Dean, in mid-Wales around Machynlleth and the Wirral. Overseas Canada, the original home of Leanne, the pivotal female character, features with locations in the hinterland of British Columbia centred on Penticton. In continental Europe Switzerland is the primary country considered focusing on Montreux and its environs in Valais and the Vaud.
   The Cushion Effect is rich not only in places but also in the characters who populate them. With the spirit of place one attempts to invoke an inviting imagery to be experienced. I hope you will come to enjoy it. 

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

My First Ob/Gyn (New York Stories 1)


   A stopover in New York is now on my itinerary before travelling to Los Angeles. It always conjures up in my mind my first time there. The city that never sleeps was the destination for my gap year, although in my case I think it should have been called a fill year. I loved it from the moment I arrived and took it all in from the helicopter shuttle that picked me up at Kennedy.
  It didn't take long for me to find him, or rather him to find me. He was, of course, a lot older than me, good looking in an academic sort of way, with a charming bedside manner. He had an office in Riverdale but worked mainly through one of the uptown West Side hospitals. Within days he had installed me in an apartment in the low seventies a couple of blocks from Central Park. I was naive, if not innocent. He showed me round his home town while I let him explore, well, lets just say the temples in the citadel of my mind (mostly unadorned sites of worship in that era). 
  We spent some glorious days that late summer and autumn in the Hamptons where he had the use of a beautiful beach house in Southampton. I particularly liked going up to the lighthouse at Montauk Point and surfing the ocean rollers nearby. Now you can fly out but then it was a tedious drive. To amuse me he lectured me on my oxytocin levels (going through the roof most of the time) and taught me a thing or two about Kegel exercises, which I put into practice only too well. 
  By the time winter arrived he had separated and invited me to join him in his house in Riverdale. Big mistake! It seems I was to be the wife substitute. That was not in my plans. An ob/gyn has just about the best job in the world for playing away. His beeper can go anytime 24/7 and, duty calls, he is off to see an expectant mother, to deliver a baby or, as when I was on the Upper East Side, to attend to me! But in Riverdale, the boot was on the other foot (ugly expression in the circumstances -- why does it bring to mind someone with their feet in the stirrups in his office?) and he would disappear into the night. I am sure his secretary was complicit in his nocturnal adventures. She had, after all, known all about me.
  I was working on a political campaign and found I had little time to appreciate exactly how inattentive he had become. Then one night in a restaurant, I watched him pull apart a lobster, his chicken of the sea, with his bare hands. With a dawning horror. What had he been pulling apart earlier that day in his office, in the delivery room, or the OR? Where had those stubby fingers been? One thing for sure, I decided there and then they would never come close to me again. The next day I moved out and started hanging with some Barnard girls, feeling altogether relieved that I had escaped heart whole with just a salutary lesson to remember.   

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

Branding, Labels and Product Placement in The Cushion Effect


  Some writers offer readers, friends and acquaintances the opportunity to appear as characters in their novels, either altruistically raising money for charity, or mercenarily cashing in on the current trend for celebrity, however minor. I have created fictional characters, no doubt with the traits and peccadilloes of people I have observed, conversed with, or interacted with in some way. 
  I have also mentioned a few real people in The Cushion Effect. For example, a business man looking very much like Andrew Neil tries to pick up two of the main characters in Daphne's. They think it might have been him. I am not so sure even though I used to see him there frequently, indiscreetly sitting at a window table having Saturday lunch there with a blonde companion. And, occasionally by himself, poor lamb!  Moreover, Sir Anthony Caro and Dr Francis Graham-Dixon have cameo roles in one chapter at an exhibition. There is aIso an appearance by Jesus Adorno, that doyen of maitre d's and face of my favourite restaurant, Le Caprice, who comes to the rescue of two of my characters on a girls' night out. I hope they do not mind supporting the ambience I am creating in their particular scenes.
  In terms of product placement I am not of the Broccoli persuasion, receiving vast amounts of dosh to promote a brand. Simply put, the labels I use elaborate the imagery of The Cushion Effect, carefully chosen to create a dynamic mental or sensational image in the reader's mind, and an appropriateness when linked with a specific character. The brand and product elements are used to evoke not only a visual sense, but also a sensation, where appropriate, of touch, taste, smell and sound. 
  I also want to make it clear that I am not personally endorsing these brands. My preferences are quite well known in some areas, such as lingerie (Agent Provocateur) and champagne (Bollinger and Veuve Clicquot). However the rich tapestry of the environment for the story is populated with some other leading brands and products, a selection of which you can follow here:

  
  I do hope you enjoy sampling the look, taste and feel of The Cushion Effect style.