If you had told me when I moved to Melbourne in the early 2000s that a pandemic in 2020 would see Australia close its borders, pull up the drawbridge and ban international travel, I would probably have hightailed it back to the UK (I can hear my Mum saying she wishes I had!). Never did I imagine having to face enforced separation from my family and a country I love dearly with an indulgent rose-tinted, nostalgic fondness.
But I/we’ve managed magnificently: we’ve been suitably British and stoic – and even a bit Buddhist (well, I have; ‘this too shall pass’) – and made the best of it. And, as one with strong Luddite tendencies (yes, I still have a paper diary and LOVE it!) I acknowledge that technology and video calling has given us a lifeline and a rich sense of connectedness; in fact, as a family we’re more up to date with each other’s news than we used to be. I am one of four: there’s two of us here, and two of us there and we have a sibling video call every Friday.
And, thanks to the perseverance of my eldest brother Charlie, Mum uses an iPad and is FaceTime literate. Mum and I started out chatting twice a week, then – as COVID dragged on – I suggested a new way to bridge the divide. When Melbourne is nine hours ahead of the UK, I drop in at Mum’s at noon her time on a Sunday, and we listen (via her radio and our respective iPads), to her favourite programme on Radio 3, Private Passions. Each week presenter (and composer) Michael Berkeley explores the musical passions and lives of his guests. Sometimes we’re riveted by the subject and their musical choices, other times we drift off into chit chat, easy kitchen table tittle-tattle. Quite often, Mum gives me an update on the birds on her birdfeeder, the state of her garden, what she is having for lunch or who has just walked past the window. It’s as if I am there in the room with her, and we treasure these special interactions.
I’ve also had regular Brit Fixes thanks to plugging into BBC Sounds and listening to abridged versions of classic favourites such as Middlemarch – how did Dorothea stick it out with the GHASTLY Rev. Edward Casaubon? – Desert Island Discs, a Victoria Wood retrospective and, just recently, a reading of a beautifully nostalgic and touching story, written in 1931, of a family on their annual holiday to the seaside. There’s something wondrous about my physical self strolling along banksia- and wattle-fringed coastal paths with my dog Bertie, my headspace transported to Bognor Regis on Britain’s South-East coast, following the Stevens family strolling along the Promenade. Escaping the humdrum of everyday life, excitements back then included freedom from wearing ties, tight collars and stockings, and securing a bathing box with a balcony!
Other wonderful Brit Fix moments have included TV programme Secrets of the Museum – a behind the scenes tour of London’s V & A – looking at the extraordinarily detailed and delicate work of the curators and conservators. What joy to sit on my sofa, getting up close and personal with exquisite treasures, without the slow shoe shuffle past glass display cases, peering in at the small font captions. Another highlight was an episode of Rob Bell’s Walking the Lost Railways of Britain which took in the now disused railway station in Great Longstone, the Derbyshire village where my mother was born in 1931.
So far, so good. But as the months rolled on, I realised, with great sadness and a very heavy heart, that I was going to miss my niece Annabel’s wedding in July this year (it had already been postponed from July 2020) and Mum’s 90th in mid-September.
Once again, technology came to the rescue. My sister’s friend John gave me the most splendid (and I use that very British word deliberately) guided tour of Annabel and Jonny’s wedding in South London. We kicked off early and I had a bird’s eye view of the cake, the flowers, the cheeky bridesmaids and the page boys scampering about, the latter my nearly 2-year-old great-nephew twins, like little princes in their red shorts, white shirts and tartan bow ties. I was there ‘live’ for the service, witnessed the exchange of vows, my niece radiantly happy and elegant, and Jonny resplendent in his kilt, cape and full tartan regalia, both brimming over with love. As they filed out, I had a quick chat with the just-married couple (making me the first person to address them as Mr and Mrs) and then stayed online while they were strewn with rose petal confetti, posed for photographs and then mixed and mingled. I had chats with many of the guests – from friends to family – until it got to 1am here and I had to remind them I was in my PJs and ready for bed!
And then, the weekend before last, my brother Tim and I video-called into Mum’s 90th birthday celebrations – in fact, it was a four generation, three-country call from Mum’s breakfast table in Nottinghamshire to Tim and me tuning in from Melbourne, and my niece Georgie and the twins (the page boys) in suburban Paris! On the first call we watched Mum – in the swing and bright as a button from the get-go – open some of her cards and presents.
We tuned in again closer to her lunchtime party. This time, the newly-married Annabel, now Mrs Recaldin, was emcee. As bubbles and copious canapes were served, Annabel waltzed us around pointing out Mum’s many cards (35 and counting), the birthday banners and balloons and the assembled guests. “Which of the grey-haired old dears do you mean?’ enquired Annabel as I asked to speak to some of Mum’s friends, “there are a few in the room!”
My brother, Charlie, toasted Mum with some heartfelt and touching words, acknowledging, too, the extraordinary kindness of her neighbours, George and Annette, who have been her rock and strength throughout the pandemic. “I’ve made it to 90,” replied Mum triumphantly, “and it doesn’t feel so bad!” Then, after thanking friends, family and neighbours for celebrating with her, she added: “I know I can be difficult sometimes…” Thank Goodness for gin, piped up Charlie.
Having felt weepy on and off all weekend about missing Mum’s party, I went to bed with my heart aglow. I felt the love through the screen and across the divide, and was thrilled to see Mum, the belle of the ball, in her green linen dress and pearls. The word splendid comes to mind again. And next year I’ll be able to visit in person, catch up on hugs, lots of them, and kitchen table chat.