Friday

The second worst chat-up line in the world.

We didn't do a lot in Cooktown while we waited for the tyres to be shipped up to us from Cairns
because back in 1989 there wasn't a lot to do. In Cairns, they had described the people of Cooktown as 'ornery' which didn't mean awkward but seemed to mean, hem, parochial and with rather closely-related families. I have no evidence of that being true at all.
At the mouth of the Endeavour River, it was the gateway to Australia's gold-mining region and now it's thriving with a bitumen road from Cairns but, when we were there, the road was rough and the greatest prosperity seemed to come from the shrimp boats.

It's a tropical town and the hostel where we stayed had its fair share of giant cockroaches and cane toads so we spent much of the time resting and reading in the local pub where we ate crocodile (which tasted like slightly tough fishy chicken) and kangaroo (which tasted like slightly rabbity chicken).  To our great surprise, after 24 hours, they started giving us drinks on the house.

Now, Australians and Northern Queenslanders in particular, are very friendly but this is not normal so, for fairly obvious reasons, we queried it. Turned out they had a lingerie show in four days' time and given that Sarah and I were the slimmest girls currently in town, they were hoping they'd be able to persuade us to take part as models...

They were certainly confused about our status: one man and two sheilas. Were we both with him? It had to be so because there seemed no other explanation. But if one of us were available, which was it? Bets were on at the bar.

Pete gave it away when he stopped a bonzer bloke from chatting Sarah up but let a guy get me a drink so after that I was fair game. I hate to think what the local girls thought but in the days of the unsealed road there weren't that many female strangers in town and new blood is always popular.

The chat-up line I remember doesn't seem that bad but wait for it... The guy had a couple of gold teeth and several days' beard before it was fashionable. He sat on a chair backwards and said, 'You wanna come out to my shrimp boat? You can use the shower.'

It was dark; his shrimp boat was moored in the estuary and the only way to get to it would be to swim in the crocodile-infested river.

I don't think you have to work very hard to anticipate my (very polite) reply.

We didn't stay for the lingerie show (shame! I hear you cry) and when the tyres arrived we headed south again, our time in Queensland nearly over. I do wish now that we had gone further north into the Northern Territories but I will always remember with great love my time in Queensland and the men who, if they didn't manage to date me, certainly made me laugh.

NB The worst chat-up line in the world is on this posting: http://www.totallylookedafter.blogspot.co.uk/2015/02/to-end-of-world.html


Wednesday

Cape Tribulation

Sarah and Pete at Cape Tribulation. Paradise ... but there's danger lurking!
Sarah and Pete arrived in Cairns the next day with a sturdy 4x4 to take us north into the Daintree National Forest, Cape Tribulation and beyond to Cooktown. The name of the Cape is, perhaps, a suitable warning. It's where Captain Cook's ship, Endeavour, hit the reef and, as he said, 'the start of all their troubles' (mostly sickness from there on).
Australia is full of things that really, really want to attack you and quite frequently kill you. There are the legendary spiders for a start — the funnel-web, the redback, the mouse spider, fiddlebacks, tarantulas and even the trapdoor spider whose bite can give you lethargy and nausea if nothing worse.
There are taipan snakes, brown snakes, the, the box jelly-fish (those will kill you, soon as look at you at certain times of year), death adders, cone shells, the blue-ringed octopus and sundry other fearsome beasts.  The sand flies on the beaches aren't much fun either.
And that's not even mentioning the saltwater crocodiles — or the sharks.
On the yuck-but-harmless side, the cockroaches are enormous.
In addition, there are bugs, cane toads (enormous and scary but harmless to us if you don't count falling over in shock when you see one) and ... and plants that will attack you too.
I went horse riding in the dappled, steamy forest and encountered the Wait-a-While or Layer plant — a kind of vine with thorns that will happily catch on your clothing or snag your skin so it bleeds as you pass (very ouch when encountered with bare arms while cantering!).
Everywhere we went, there were warning signs; every beach cautioned us against the saltwater crocs. We didn't see one; I think they were more scared of me than I was of them.
It was wonderful to be with dear friends. As another friend, who has just lost his wife, wrote recently, the loneliness of bereavement is both hard to describe and devastatingly debilitating at times.
No, Sarah and Pete could not replace Henry, but they were a constant presence and, together, we were exploring, travelling and, as a threesome had that precious resource of one of us being in the back seat of the car to have some alone time.
There were still many nights when I cried myself to sleep but, in Queensland, there was always a tomorrow of something new; something to experience, to appreciate or even to be slightly scared of.
We drove north and took the ferry across the Daintree river into the park, a lush and sensual tumbling of trees and plants, streams and creeks, calling birds and frogs and a soft, humid sheen that lifted the temperature into the high 80s.
At Port Douglas, with its lovely hotels (we stayed in a hostel but had access to a wonderful swimming pool), Pete and I went out to the Barrier Reef again.
i was scared. Even getting into the water was hard but there was a hand to hold mine — and it did help that it was a comforting male hand – and he waited in the water with me until I was ready and willing to put my face below the slightly choppy waves.
Together we swam in a paradise of beauty over the reef surrounded by yellow butterfly fish, purple and green parrot fish, clown fish, angel fish, bright blue damsel and surgeon fish, stripy trigger fish and the great grey hump-crowned wrasse.
Not one sign of anything scary, just beauty and life-force.
Swimming in coral is never quite as bright as you will see it on the TV — they are using lights with which to film — but it is still a rainbow of colours. You're not supposed to feed the fish (and we didn't) but I remembered taking bread out into the waters of the Seychelles with Henry and how eagerly the fish had taken it from our hands, their mouths hard and blunt against our skin.
Back on the road north, we were on an un-tarmaced surface from Port Douglas north to Cooktown. Several times, we took detours down mud tracks and gravelled surfaces, fording rivers, watching turtles 'plop' into waters to escape us, gazing up through the canopy of glittering green at flashes of colour of unidentified tropical birds.
On one road we even cut back the branches of a fallen tree and forded a river up to the base of the doors before being stopped by a rock fall. All silly, pointless adventures (but with pemmican obviously!) but great fun.
Then, blessedly, just outside Cooktown and on the 'main' road, we got a puncture and discovered that the spare, too was flat. All we had to do was limp a few hundred yards into the main street and call the car hire company.
Who promised to send two new tyres by sea which would take only three days.
Hello Cooktown. What do you have to offer?

Monday

The barracuda.

I was very aware of being not normal in the months after Henry died; grief had set me somehow about
half an inch out of my skin and everything looked and felt wrong wherever I was. I didn't want to kill myself but I didn't really have much life-force either. I had a constant feeling that if I stepped out in front of a bus and it didn’t stop, I wouldn’t have minded.
I certainly wasn’t paying very much attention to life. I didn’t see the point in anything which is a horrible way to be. And I was hoping that running away to Australia would help.
It was my birthday on the day after I arrived in Cairns. so I went out to the Barrier Reef to do some snorkelling. I had been planning to wait until Sarah and Pete arrived but there are only so many circuits you can make of a town when you’re miserable.
The ship that took us out was crowded with Japanese tourists so I could hide quite neatly in the crowd. I did listen to the announcements on where to swim and where not to go.
‘Just avoid the deep water,’ said the announcer. ‘You’re perfectly safe in the shallows and we keep an eye out for you. No one’s ever been hurt in the shallows but you must stay there because there are sharks in the deep water and we have reason to believe that two divers were killed by an giant barracuda only about six weeks ago. That guy wasn’t within 20 miles of here but it’s best to be sure.’
Into the water we all went and I floundered around for a while, hating it. My mind wasn’t relaxed enough to deal with all the shouting, giggling and photograph-taking all around me. What did I do? Yes, of course I swam round the boat. I had completely forgotten what the announcer said.
There was a very large fish in the deeps; lurking. It was enormous, with great black marks like portholes down its side. It was side on when I first saw it and, interested, I took a photograph with my underwater camera.

Of course, the flash attracted its attention and, instead of being just a large fish a long way away, it flipped in less than a second to face-on and came towards me so fast it was like a blur. It had very big teeth and there's no doubt that it was a giant barracuda.
It is true that time slows down in a crisis. I remember the terror — and I also remember thinking very clearly "I want to live." Until that moment, I hadn’t been sure.
A Voice cut in to my thoughts very clearly "Swim forwards and make as much noise as you can. When you get near, hit it on the nose. If it turns, poke its eye with your thumb."
So I did the complete opposite of what instinct wanted me to do — swim away as fast as possible — and obeyed the Voice without thought. I swam straight at the barracuda, yelling under the water.
It flipped away before I was close enough to hit it.
I lay there and watched it; it watched me. What did I do next? The Voice suggested “You could swim backwards.” I never knew I could do that but I could! When my legs touched the side of the ship I turned and swam round it as fast as I could. Out of the water, I vomited with fear and shook like a leaf.
I didn’t tell anyone on the ship; I was too scared of being told off and there was no one else who was about to be as stupid as I had been. But as I sat, wrapped in my towel, shivering, I knew: I wanted to live. Henry’s death was not the end of me and I would survive.
I still have the murky, slightly out-of-focus photograph of that barracuda on the desktop of my computer to look at whenever I’m feeling small or scared. It helps.


Saturday

To the End of the World.


Australia

I chose Australia because two of my dearest friends were on a one-year Sabbatical travelling round the
world and would be in Cairns at around the time of my birthday in April. In those days before mobile phones we had had a couple of emails and one phone call during Henry’s illness when they had been adamant that I would be welcome to travel with them should the worst happen.
I also had a former work colleague and friend who lived in Sydney and one of Henry’s oldest friends lived in Perth. So I had a range of places to visit if I chose.
The trip was paid for by the sale of Henry’s Nagra, a then state-of-the-art recording machine which had travelled the world with him taping soundtrack for wildlife documentaries among other things. Henry told me once that if you ever see an eagle rising majestically from a tree on TV it’s not from hours of patient waiting and filming but usually because the sound recordist shot at it with a catapault.
The Nagra brought in £9,000, a veritable fortune, and it enabled me to fly business class on a four-stop journey to Cairns, Sydney, Perth and Bangkok. There is a saying that crying into a damask cushion is no better than weeping into a cotton one but when it comes to leg-room and 24 hours of flying when you’re already miserable, that goes right out of the window. I won’t say I got drunk on the journey but I certainly quaffed much the champagne that was offered.
It was almost unbelievably hard to go but it was impossible to stay. I was going quietly crazy in my little house in Harborne and once I had cleared out Henry’s flat in London and let it, there was no more need for me to travel up and down the motorway. His friends in London were all kind and asked me to supper when I was there, where I met the ‘lone widow’ syndrome for the first time. For some it means you’re a threat — vulnerable and alone and (in some women’s eyes) liable to get laid easily; for others you’re an awkward knobbly bit on the end of the table.  The worst dinner party was the one where everyone was clearly going to start on the cocaine after pudding ... I made my excuses and left early so I wasn't the sore thumb sticking out but it shook me. After all, I’d only known Henry for 18 months. Had he ever indulged? I would never know.
I made a beautiful plot of spring flowers where his ashes were buried — and someone rode their bicycle over it. Such things are annoying at the best of times but heartbreaking at the worst.
And I was angry with everything. I swore I wasn’t angry about Henry’s dying (I was one of those ‘nice’ people who didn’t get angry). But I got mad at shopkeepers, at the people who engraved his stone for getting one word a millimetre out, at drivers, at the news. I got angry because the whole world just kept turning just as if nothing had happened. To the world, of course, nothing had. Life goes on (hideous words to someone newly bereaved).
I think the final straw was having supper with an old friend and colleague from Central TV when he said “don’t cry” when I shed some tears over my chicken. “Don’t cry”? Two months after Henry died, don’t cry? Of course he was trying to say it to comfort but trust me, it didn’t work.
I needed to be somewhere where I could begin to find ‘me’ again on a blank canvas. You have to think clearly when you are somewhere new and Australia was certainly that.
My family worried that I wasn't sane enough to be setting off for the unknown, but adventure has always been my friend and this time it was going to be a life-saver. If I had to think on my feet, at least my thoughts would have some kind of positive focus.
I thought I saw Henry standing on the tarmac as I climbed up the steps to the shuttle to London at Birmingham airport (this was back in the days when you still walked to an aircraft). It was as though he was trying to say goodbye to me. Every cell in my body pleaded with him to stay a little longer and I believed that he was with me for much of the journey. Such imaginary or spiritual comforts mean a great deal to the bereaved. Whether we do experience the beloved or not it helps to have faith that we do.
I arrived in Cairns the night before my birthday and was lucky to be allowed in, given that my Australian visa, which had arrived at the last minute, thought I’d be better named “Whitehorse.” It was a wonderful introduction to the Aussie state of mind that the immigration officer was happy to let me pet the beagle sniffing at my baggage while he pondered my passport. I told him about the puppy who’d be greeting me when I got home and he decided that “what the heck, you’re a dog-lover not a smuggler. Welcome to Oz!”
Sarah and Pete hadn’t arrived in Cairns yet; they were hoping to arrive within the next 48 hours so I had nothing to do but settle into my hotel room and walk around the town, which was mostly shut, it being a Sunday. There are only so many baths you can reasonably have in a day so by 6pm I was done and, tentatively, went down to the hotel bar with a book to pass an hour or two prior to deciding what and where to eat. I thought I’d have a glass of wine and read in a public place; you cry a lot less in public.
Within 15 minutes of my being there, a young Australian man threw himself into the seat next to me. I looked up, surprised and he landed me with the worst chat-up line in the world.
“Me and my mates at the bar got a bet on,” he said. “I bet them ten bucks you can’t be as mean as you look.”
Actually it worked. I was so nonplussed and also so lonely that I talked to him, explaining why I looked so unappealing. He was a true Aussie bloke and thought I should just cheer up and get on with things. After all, that's what Henry would want me to do, right? He managed to persuade me to go for a walk with him by the levée and we bought fish and chips which we ate, sitting by the water. I have a vague memory that we even went to a broken-down bar and danced a little but to be honest I can’t remember if that’s true. It ought to be true because dancing was just what I would have needed back then to shake the misery out of my body.
But I went back to the hotel alone. My Aussie friend was quite sure that Henry wouldn’t mind if I slept with him but I had no such intention. I didn’t even kiss him and he ended up being quite sure that he’d lost his bet. “You’d feel a lot better for a decent shagging,” he said.
I didn’t agree. I was still holding the memory of Henry's body close to mine and wearing as many of his clothes that would fit — and which still retained his scent. But I’ll always be grateful to my first Aussie friend for helping me through that first evening on the other side of the world.


Friday

After the End, the Beginning.

I'd be the first to admit that I probably had it relatively easy being a widow. After all, I'd only known
Henry for 18 months so my previous life was still accessible. I can only imagine the crashing of worlds when a long-established marriage ends.

Even so, my future had been taken away — even more so because I had gambled my career by going into TV documentaries about China and Tiananmen Square had put all future visits off the cards. So I had no husband and no career.

Back in those days, before we had the habit of going to war in the Middle East and we got used to the shipping home of the bodies of young men, widowhood in your 30s was still quite an unusual thing and most people simply didn't know what to do with me.

There were the oddest comments, almost simultaneously as in "I think you're wearing too much black, dear," and "I don't think you should be seen out with Alan; what would people think?" Alan being an old boyfriend who had morphed into a dear friend many years before.

I found a friend looking at the dress-size of the outfit I was wearing for Henry's funeral because she couldn't believe that I was down to a size 10 and I think she was actually quite cross about it as we'd both been gently plump together.

Henry had no family apart from an estranged brother who was slightly mentally unstable. Pete turned up at the funeral, of course, and announced to those already waiting at the crematorium that he had stopped the hearse on the way in to make sure that it was actually Henry in the coffin. He said they took the top off for him and showed him the body. I know now that he fibbed but unfortunately, then, my nine-month pregnant cousin believed him and fainted.

I think Henry's funeral was the main reason why I was eventually to become a minister. He was an atheist and I was an armchair Christian (turning up at Christmas and Easter and rather like St. Augustine as in "God grant me chastity, constancy and patience — but not yet!") I couldn't face giving him a humanist funeral and there were very few other options back then. But I asked Rev. Ray Price, our family's vicar, not to say those terrifying words, "I am the resurrection and the life" ... and "I am the way, the truth and the life" because it meant I would, effectively, be hearing my lovely husband condemned to hell as an unbeliever. Ray said, "Those are the words of the service" and said them all so that's just what happened which is a terrible thing to experience at a loved-one's funeral. But I did make a vow that I would make sure that other options were open to grieving families in future. Now, of course, with many secular funeral celebrants and the Interfaith Seminary, it's not an issue.

That day, I also had the odd experience of being chief mourner at a funeral where everybody else, apart from my family, had known the deceased much longer than I had — a funeral that included five previous girlfriends, two of whom had turned down earlier marriage proposals. Of course that shouldn't have mattered but oh, how very much it did!

A couple of nights before Henry died I contacted one of his best friends to warn him and he arranged for a group of Henry's mates to travel up to Birmingham with him to sit a vigil by his hospital bed. I'd met only one of them and, if that sounds strange, remember that Henry, his friends and I all worked in TV where we travelled abroad most of the time. When we were home, they weren't and vice versa. Thanks to Rev. Ray Price, who also turned up that evening with a bottle of whisky it was a strangely pleasant night, exchanging reminiscences across the bed where Henry lay sleeping but, hopefully, hearing every word.

They all came back for the funeral so I had some support with the group of five ex-girlfriends (all still mates) who were understandably both upset to lose Henry and curious to see this stranger who had come in at the last moment. They were all tall and good looking and I was so terrified of them that I had to be almost bullied into going downstairs to meet people at the reception after the funeral.

Marianne was the most difficult; Henry had called her the love of his life before me and he had always given her bunches of red roses. Me, he gave bunches of mixed flowers. It shows how lost in my youthful ego I was — and how much stress I was under — that although Henry had managed a few weeks earlier to ask a friend to send me some flowers on his behalf on Valentine's Day, I threw them down the hallway because they weren't the red roses that I wanted so much.

There were lots of questions on how we had met and why we had married so swiftly — the previous pattern had been courting for two or three years. Not exactly the kind of conversation you'd expect at a funeral and I did feel somewhat corralled by all these older, elegant females. But once it was over and everyone had gone, I was able to relax a little back into myself.

I'd not had a night alone in the ten days between Henry's death and the funeral. Dear friends came to stay to keep me company and one non-ex-girlfriend of Henry's came too. Her name is Marilyn Cutts, a former member of Fascinating Aida and she's a fabulous woman. We got on really well from nowhere and I still remember lying in the bath with Marilyn sitting on the floor opposite, both of us holding a glass of wine. We were discussing possible futures and how love could come again. I said that maybe there was a chance one day in a year or two; after all, I was fairly presentable. The only real problem was my feet which are rather large. But no one turned down a girl because of the size of her feet.

It was a soft lob to a singer who threw back her head and gave a fabulous, throaty rendition of Fats Waller's "I can't love you 'cos your feet's too big." That was the first laugh. You always remember the first laugh after death; there's a mixture of joy, hope and guilt but oh, it feels so good!

That night, all alone, I took a gin and tonic to the bath, lit a candle and wept until there were no more tears left. Shrouded by friendship and family I had been unable to go down to the depths of my grief but now I could sink into the abyss. For a long while it was frightening, feeling more and more anger, sorrow and pain; like travelling into the core of the planet in total darkness.

And then, at the very heart of the no-thing-ness there were suddenly sparkles of light and a feeling of deep, deep peace. Beyond all pain there is Grace. I hadn't known that before but it was a blessed moment.

And so began the long, painful process of rebuilding. I went through Henry's address book to tell all his acquaintances that he had gone which frequently led to my introducing myself as Henry's wife and having to listen to a couple of minutes of ribald "Well the old dog! Finally got caught did he? I'll never let him hear the end of this!" before having to break the bad news.

People tried to help; they meant well. One of them erased the only sound I had of Henry's voice by putting his own voice on the answerphone "because a single woman shouldn't have her own voice on the answerphone so people know she's alone." What?

Another asked what he could do. I said "mow the lawn please." He arrived six weeks later, by which time I'd already done it twice.

It was hard and it just got harder. I didn't know who I was any more; I didn't fit any categories; I didn't know what to do or who to be. I had no job to keep me busy. Luckily I had enough money as I could sell Henry's sound recording equipment which was much in demand. But I wandered around the house lost and lonely and confused. Drastic action was needed.

Within two months, I had put down a deposit on a new-born beagle puppy to give me a reason to want to come home — and run away for six weeks in Australia.



Thursday

While You See a Chance, Take It.

It's twenty five years ago this weekend since my first husband, Henry Barley died. We were married for one year and sixteen days and I have no regrets.


Henry married me because of a hedgehog. I married him because of the recording artist, Steve Winwood.
I had long been cunning in my resistance to marriage, while believing all along that I wanted it. That contradiction was almost certainly inspired by watching my parents’ years of mutual unhappiness and sitting at the joy-free table of Sunday lunch where, no matter how good the food (and it was, it was!) there was constant emotional indigestion in the air. With middle-class angst, too much puppy fat and enough training in not showing off to make me dull as ditchwater, I believed no one worth
having would want me. I didn’t realise that my strategy of falling in love only with those who were unavailable was also an effective defence. I can’t say the men I languished over were commitment-phobes; most of them were seriously committed — committed that is to steam engines, amateur dramatics, their own reflection or their wife.
And yet, one day, at the ripe old age of 32, I found myself in the far reaches of China, being proposed to by an ordinary, unassuming, perfectly pleasant, grey-haired man, nine years my senior, whom I’d met just seven days before. He had never even kissed me and I’d not looked at him twice — apart from asking him to lend me the money to buy a live hedgehog which someone had bought at a market and was taking home for supper. I hired a taxi to take me out into the country to release the hedgehog back in the wild and Henry offered to come with me in total amazement at what daft and soppy things this woman was prepared to do.
We were in the north east of Jilin Province to make a television documentary and he had just been out late that night to record something known as ‘wild track’ — ambient sound for editing into the film.
I heard him come in at about 9pm and took him a mug of cocoa, because I was nice, that’s all. I’d have done it for any of the crew. It was sub-zero outside; there was no heating in the hostel and I’d travelled in China for long enough in the 1980s to know that sachets of hot chocolate were a survival aid, not a luxury. You could activate them with the constantly-present thermos of hot water left in every room for the ubiquitous tea.
I didn’t fancy Henry a bit, that honour was currently reserved for the (married of course) production manager.
 Politely, I knocked on his door and waited.
He opened it, looked understandably surprised; accepted the metal mug and asked me in.
I went, diffidently. He asked me some questions about myself and indicated that I should sit down so I perched politely on the end of the single bed.
He said ‘thank you for the cocoa.’ And then said something weird that my brain threw into the trash bin before it could be presented to my consciousness. Something about the rest of his life.
I said, ‘What?’
‘I’m asking you to marry me,’ he said.
In north-east China in 1988, there were no mobile phones, no email, no social networks, not even normal telephones which I could have used to bolster up my defences by phoning a friend. I was as far out of my comfort zone as I possibly could be, filming a TV documentary with a herd of strangers who expected me to know what I was doing when I didn’t. I was cold, tired, terrified, disorientated, lost, lonely and out of barriers.
So I said, ‘Perhaps.’ That was because I was nice. It seemed rude to say ‘You must be out of your tiny mind!’ to someone who was either being very kind or who genuinely was out of their tiny mind.
‘Excuse me, I have to go now,’ I added, politely and got up.
He nodded, smiled and opened the door for me.
Yes, I did look back down the corridor when I got to my room to see if he was watching me. He wasn’t.
I didn’t have any experience of marriage proposals and I was more perplexed than anything. I slept perfectly well until about 6am and then was wide-awake for no obvious reason. It wasn’t the light; that morning was dull and overcast. It wasn’t the birdsong; you don’t get birdsong when the local population has eaten all the birds. I had politely eaten sparrows on many previous visits to China though I never managed to cope with sucking the out their brains bit which was, according to my interpreter, a delicacy.
It was murky and cold so I clambered into every layer of clothing I could find and went out, as bulky as the Michelin Man, for a walk in the birches and aspens of Jilin Province. We were filming at a forestry railway at Shan He Tung and staying in temporary rooms that the lumbermen and railwaymen used while they were chopping trees, replanting and extending the line. There was no town nearby so supper and breakfast had been brought up with us on the narrow gauge train; it was a wonderful excuse for our hosts to banquet and drink though we had all (at my warning) been very careful not to drink much of the firewater they call Mau Tai which could blow half your brain out without a detonator.
It was only very early autumn but already the trees were mottled with gold and we were high enough for the sun to be rising across the valley below me. It was not going to be a particularly dramatic sunrise; there was too much cloud and the sky was dull grey rather than silver. I walked, my mind full of that day’s filming and whether, as a first-time documentary director, I would be able to continue to fool the rest of the crew that I knew what I was doing. I wasn’t thinking about Henry’s proposal — in the cold light of day, that was plainly ridiculous. But I did have my Walkman on, mostly because the aforementioned lack of birdsong was rather depressing.
Once I was warm enough, I stopped walking and sat down on a log to watch the dawn. I changed the cassette and the introduction to the first track of the often-listened-to Arc of a Diver by Steve Winwood began to sound in my headphones.
I put the previous cassette in the pocket of my anorak. And, as I did, I kid you not; a tiny sunbeam broke from the dark clouds and flowed across the fingers holding the cassette recorder. As I looked down at the unexpected warmth, it began to expand, widening until the light shone right into my eyes, making me screen them with my hand.
I stood up, the better to see the emerging dawn and, as I did, Steve began to sing:
‘Stand up in a clear blue morning, until you see what can be. Alone in a cold day dawning, are you still free? Can it be?
‘When some cold tomorrow finds you; when some sad old dream reminds you; how the endless road unwinds you. While you see a chance take it. Find romance, fake it. Because it's all on you.’
‘It’s not a clear, blue morning,’ said the critic. ‘You couldn’t be that stupid!’ it added as my thoughts turned to Henry Barley, still asleep in the basic accommodation below. But I knew, I knew that Nemesis had found me. I knew that I would go back down that hill and say ‘yes’ to marriage to a man I barely knew and certainly didn’t love. It was time. It was time to surrender: to learn how to love a real human being and to learn how to be loved in return.
Henry died one year and six days after our wedding — on 16th February 1990. It was a wonderful time for the first six months and a terrible time for the second after he received a terminal diagnosis. Those last months, a time when we were still falling in love, were gruelling as he suffered with malignant melanoma and finally died from chemotherapy. But even so, I have no regrets. I learnt how to love and be loved and, when I was ready was able to be loved again. And I was able to be there for the last year of a wonderful man's life to make sure that it was filled with love and as much happiness as possible. 

Tuesday

Marriage in the Seychelles.


French had put a condition on giving Henry and me a marriage blessing — if he hadn’t liked us he
could have said ‘no’ — but I didn’t doubt for a moment that he would agree. I was right. Even better, after we had travelled to Mahé and had tea at the Palace, French offered to marry us in the cathedral; not just a blessing but the full wedding ceremony itself. Henry really liked our friendly local Archbishop and had no problem with the concept. He was one of those amiable atheists who didn’t have an issue with anyone else believing as long as they didn’t try and change his inner world. And he wanted his new wife to be happy, whatever that would take.
I was happy. I felt very blessed. I’d just wanted a church wedding but my ego was thrilled to be married by an Archbishop in a cathedral, even if it were a tiny grey stone building smaller than St. Peter’s back at home. So why was it that on the morning of our wedding, I froze? I couldn’t come out of the bathroom, to head out for the ceremony. Instead I just stared in the mirror at the image of a white-faced woman in beautiful apricot-coloured dress, wearing those very pearls that had been tried on by eager Chinese women and crowned with frangipani on her familiar piles of tumbling hair. I couldn’t move, or think, or do anything.
‘Darling, we have to go,’ said Henry anxiously.
‘I can’t do it,’ I thought. ‘I can’t, I can’t.’
It’s easy enough, with hindsight, to say I had an intuition of what was coming but I didn’t. It was almost certainly just pre-wedding nerves and without family to flatter, comfort and reassure me, I felt very alone.
I asked Henry to pour me a glass of champagne and then told him in no uncertain terms to go away and give me a minute. He did.
Still I stared at my image in the mirror. I drank a glass of champagne, remembered that I was presenter of live TV and radio shows and that when the cue was given, you started the programme no matter how you felt. It was show time. I went out to get married.

Later that afternoon, I went snorkeling. We didn’t have any kind of reception so we were at a bit of a loose end after we came back from the church. It was all a bit flat, to be honest. We spent some time in bed and then, as Henry was sleeping, I went out into the warm, azure ocean to lie dreamily in the shallows watching the fish. There were only patches of coral in the bay of our hotel but it was still beautiful. The weather was glorious and I let the water waft me here and there, feeling perfectly content. At one point, an unexpected wave, probably from a passing boat, washed me close to some coral and I put out my hand to ensure that I wasn’t scratched. I thought nothing of it.
Henry was still sleeping as the sun set so I went to have a bite to eat at the beach café, slightly depressed that it was that on my wedding night I was dining alone. As I raised my burger to my mouth I noticed a mark on my brand new wedding ring. It had been scored more than halfway through by something incredibly sharp. It could only have been the coral but I had no recollection of hitting it so hard. I was devastated that my beautiful ring had been so badly damaged within hours of the ceremony. It seemed like a horrible sign. I was too upset to realise that I had been saved from a half-severed finger.
Three weeks later, when we were back in London, I did some journalistic shifts for Capital Radio in London. My wedding ring had gone off to be mended and I was wearing another, an antique wedding ring known as ‘the Warskett ring’ in my family. I didn’t want to be bare-fingered so soon after marriage and the Warskett ring fitted perfectly well.
While editing a piece for the evening news show, I put my hand out to stop a tape machine that had just finished re-winding and showed no inclination to stop. I caught the metal spool in exactly the same way as I had caught a thousand others during my years in radio. That day, it cut a slash in the Warskett ring that was identical to the one cut by coral on my wedding day.

Finding Love in China.


Over six years of visiting China I ate some pretty odd stuff, much of it completely unidentifiable. I still wince at the memory of sea cucumbers —  sea slugs — and of 100-year-old eggs. Sparrows’ brains never did it for me although snake and camel were quite tasty. I have a horrible feeling that I did eat dog once ... and I definitely tried mare’s milk cheese which was nose-smartingly strong.
One thing I never ate, knowingly, was hedgehog.
In 1988, together with PBW, I wrote a book called China By Rail.  Dad wrote the first, technical, chapter and took the photographs and I wrote the rest of the book. From that came the ITV documentaries Manchuria Express and Slow Train from China and it was while making those that I met Henry.
He said he fell in love with me on day three while we were filming in a marketplace in Jilin in Manchuria. It was full of bright colours and crammed with fruits and vegetables, medicine stalls with dried frog and snake and even weirder stuff, stalls groaning with spices and wooden cages packed with live chickens.
As I wandered around, being filmed by the crew, I saw a man walking along with a curled-up hedgehog in his hands. Ning Fang, our interpreter, told me he would have bought it for supper. She didn’t see anything wrong with that but, soft, unrealistic Brit that I was, I rebelled. It just goes to show how strong cultural influences are. In the UK we don’t eat hedgehogs so it just felt terrible.
‘Ask him how much he wants for it,’ I urged her. With a shrug at these strange foreigners, she did. He was willing to sell it though she told me that it was probably for twice as much as it cost him to buy.
I didn’t care ... but as I was filming I had very little money on me so I asked each of the crew in turn to lend me some cash. They all refused apart from Henry who emptied his pockets for me.
With the transaction completed, I took the hedgehog back to the hotel in a carrier bag. No one but Henry would go near me, the rest of the crew were muttering about fleas but he was plainly intrigued.  That evening, I hired a taxi to take me out into the countryside to release the hedgehog back into the wild and Henry offered to go with me.
We drove for about 20 minutes until surrounded by fields full of young corn. Then I told the driver, in my pidgin-Mandarin to stop the car and walked out into the greenery, hedgehog in hands.
Just as I rolled it gently out on the ground there was a shout and to my horror what was presumably the farmer came running out of nowhere.
Hastily I got back into the taxi and we drove off while the farmer shook his fist at us. As I looked out through the rear window, he was raking through the corn to see what I had done.
He probably found the hedgehog and it most likely ended up being his supper instead of the first man’s. I was horrified but there was nothing I could do. I had done my best, soppy girl that I was.
Henry said very little the whole time but he told me later that this was the moment when he made up his mind to make me his wife. He thought I had a kind heart and would make a wonderful mother. Unfortunately, he was the one who would be needing both of those, not our children.

Our wedding was in the Seychelles. This was before package weddings abroad became popular but we both loved adventures. Henry wasn’t interested in a church wedding and I wouldn’t consider a register office. Both his parents were dead and all that was left of his family was a brother with whom it would only be polite to say he had ‘issues.’ Most of his friends were ex-girlfriends or came from within and around the media and, most likely, would be away on any given date so, if we had been married in the UK, my side would have outnumbered his by about 100-1.
Running away to a tropical paradise seemed be the best bet. My folks didn’t mind. My Mum was agoraphobic and my Dad probably heaved a sigh of relief at how much money he would save. It was all arranged via our family travel agent, the miraculous David Ibbotson who had fixed trips for Whitehouses in parts of the world that didn’t even admit tourists yet and had got Dad, Michael and me into Argentina only two years after the Falklands Conflict. I was quite satisfied because all the wedding documents referred to a ‘minister’ and Henry thought it would be wonderful to be married on a beach.
Then, three weeks before we were due to leave, I discovered that ‘minister’ on the travel documents meant ‘registrar.’ This will come as no surprise to anyone who has got married abroad in the 21st century but to me it was a bombshell. As a fully paid-up Armchair Christian who subscribed to St. Augustine’s prayer of ‘God grant me constancy, chastity and patience — but not yet’ I wanted to be married by a priest. It was the first wedding for both of us after all so it wasn’t as though I was asking too much.
There was an alternative: we could have had a swift wedding at my family’s church where my Mum still went but I didn’t like the vicar, hadn’t been for years apart from at Christmas time, it felt hypocritical and it would all have to be horribly rushed. Suddenly it seemed that this just wasn’t going to be the wonderful, romantic wedding that I had hoped for. I was devastated.
I’d found out on a Friday and, by the Sunday afternoon as Henry left my house in Birmingham for a late-night shift in London, I was a complete mess. I waved him goodbye miserably and, as his car turned out of the road and I turned to go back into the house, I heard church bells tolling for Evensong.
They were the bells of St. Peter’s in Harborne, just down the road and, almost without thought, I grabbed my coat and bag and got into the car to drive straight there. I wasn’t even sure exactly where the church was located; I’d been there just once for my brother’s wedding years before. Hah! That seemed horribly ironic at the time, but something just drove me directly to that church that evening. It never occurred to me that it might be an incredibly selfish thing to do to turn up at a strange church and pray for a miracle. It didn’t register that I’d been the agent for my own karma in deciding to marry far away from family and friends and choosing the un-trodden path. I just knew I had to go and I had to pray.
So I stood and sang and knelt and prayed all through Evensong at St. Peter’s. I prayed for any kind of miracle that would mean that I could be married by a priest in the Seychelles in less than three weeks’ time.
Just before the end of the service, the vicar, Rev. Michael Counsell, said this:
“And prayers for the Church throughout the world, particularly our sister Church St. Paul’s in Mahé, Seychelles.”
At the end of the service he must have thought he’d been attacked by a wolverine. I introduced myself by saying ‘You don’t know me from Adam, but I’m getting married in the Seychelles in three weeks’ time and I desperately need your help.’
He listened kindly as I explained the problem and invited me round for coffee the next day when he would discuss the matter with me further. He thought he could help, he said.
The next day I tumbled over myself trying to explain the miracle that had taken me to St. Peter’s to hear him speak. Michael listened patiently to my inarticulate apologies for not having been to the church before and how much I wanted to be married in the sight of God even if I didn’t actually go to church.
‘I suppose you say those prayers every week,’ I said, finally tailing off.
‘No,’ said Michael. ‘Not at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever prayed for the Seychelles in church before. It just came into my head to do it. That’s why you’re sitting here today. I said it for you to hear. That’s how God works.’
Michael gave me the phone number of his old friend from seminary, French Chang-Him in Mahé.
‘You phone him and tell him that you’ve spoken to me and ask him if he will marry you at St. Paul’s. I’m sure he will do it,’ he said.
I went away hopeful. Oh dear God, you have given me this chance, please let the vicar in the Seychelles agree!
I telephoned the vicarage in Mahé that very day and Rev. French Chang-Him answered the phone in a beautiful well-modulated voice with a strong French accent. He listened to my garbled story and my plea. He thought for a while and asked me a couple of pertinent questions. Then he answered:
‘If my friend Michael Counsell has recommended you and, if he will give you and your fiancé pre-marriage counseling, then I will bless your marriage. Come and see me for tea on the day after you arrive in Mahé and we will arrange it.’
‘Thank you so much! Where do we come?’
‘The Bishop’s Palace. Everyone knows where it is.’
‘The Bishop’s Palace? You work there?’
‘Yes, didn’t Michael tell you?’ said French Chang-Him. ‘I’m the Archbishop of the Indian Ocean.’

Kicking over the traces.


Each night I attended a banquet at a different place in Changchun, being celebrated as a foreign
dignitary and eating clear soups with meat and vegetables, 100-year-old eggs, sea cucumbers, sweet-and-sour pork, chopped chicken, river fish that seemed to be 70% bones, chopped duck complete with bones, bean curd flavoured 20 different ways, all kinds of mushrooms including one type that looked, rather amusingly, like mini penises, pak choi and other green cabbage-like vegetables. Some of it was delicious, some of it took quite a while to get used to and sea cucumbers are definitely the food from hell. Bravely I ate as little rice as I could.
Desserts were fresh fruit or little cakes made to look like Western cup cakes but made with a strange, tasteless custard. Sometimes we had fresh lychees or red tinned cherries which I came to love for their sweetness and tang.
I ate only with men. Women would serve us but the concept of equal opportunities in the businesses I visited seemed to be limited to the work floor and not to celebratory dinners with foreign princesses.
The drinks were canned orange juice, beer, Mau Tai — a kind of clear rocket fuel — or very sweet wine. Probably fortunately for me Chen wouldn’t let me drink the Mau Tai. I think it wasn’t meant to be suitable for women. I don’t like beer and I couldn’t stand the wine so I did, at least, keep completely sober which almost certainly limited my capacity for conversational errors. There was, of course, the never-ending tea. I don’t think I could have survived without that tea.
All through the week, Chen chaffed and worried over me and I worried and chafed back like a dog on a lead. I longed to speak to the real people as well as to the officials and to eat real Chinese food instead of the magnificent banquets of 10 or 12 courses. I wanted to hear someone laugh over something silly, to understand a Chinese joke or two and to be told that I was doing well. I tried to teach Chen some English jokes but he couldn’t understand the concept. He was born earnest and he thought it was his job to tell me whatever I was doing wrong. I so, so wanted him, just once, to tell me that I was doing something right.
I wanted to explore the markets alone instead of being escorted around the department stores in an entourage of ten. I wanted to talk to the people who actually worked in the truck factories and embroidery factories and on the steam engines but it was not permitted. I did my best and was incredibly ungrateful and horribly lonely.
I found out that I was wearing all the wrong clothes and, given that this was the 1980s with shoulder pads and bright emerald boiler suits I think, in retrospect, Chen was right about that. Had I been 20 years older and dressed in more classic style I would have made more sense to them; but as it was, one official believed that I’d turned up at his factory in my pyjamas.
At last, Chen and I took the overnight train back to Beijing. I heaved a sigh of relief at the idea of being back at the Peking Hotel and hopefully being allowed a day on my own to wander as I pleased before being put on the airplane to head back home. I wouldn’t be meeting Dad as he and Mark were still two weeks away from heaing home.
When Chen told me that we were going to the very basic Railway Hotel instead and that he had a full itinerary for me for the last day, my heart sank. I endured rather than enjoyed the Heavenly Temple and the Empress’s Gardens and that evening I sat in my tiny, plain room with no lavatory even on the same floor and cried tears of exhaustion and disappointment. At 9.30 pm I cracked and climbed out of the window and went AWOL.
For three hours I wandered around the streets of Peking alone, meeting nothing but polite curiosity and kindness. Using sign language, I brought a bowl of noodles and meat from a street vendor, I watched a tumbling show, I spoke to dozens of young people who wanted to practice their English and toured the Friendship Store — the shop for foreigners which in those days filled with furs and silks and jade — until my heart sang. I tried on sarongs and kimonos and spent money joyously. I loved China!
Back at the hotel, after midnight, I crept in by the front door. Chen was sitting at reception, his dour face grey with fear. We looked at each other and he sprang up with relief. I felt dreadful. The poor man must have been sick with worry that his charge had gone missing .
“I’m quite safe,” I said. “I have been talking to the young people.”
He nodded and bless him said nothing but ‘Goodnight’ as I passed. What could he say? I was the foreign princess and he was simply grateful that I had come back unharmed. If I had not, he would have been disgraced forever. God knows what nightmare scenarios he had been picturing.
I went to my tiny room wondering how he had known I had gone but, of course, I was hardly inconspicuous. I felt wracked with guilt but was still glad that I had had my own adventure. It was such a relief to kick over the traces and find a little of China on my own.
I had no idea that I would ever be coming back — let alone again and again — and when the time came to leave I was heartily relieved. It had been a true baptism of fire.
Goodbyes were said courteously all round and reassurances sought that I had had a good time. It had been an amazing time, whether or not I had enjoyed it was hardly the point. What an opportunity!
On the plane to Hong Kong, the air hostess asked me if I would like a drink. I said, ‘yes please, a gin and tonic.’
She looked at me with an experienced eye. ‘How long have you been in there?’ she asked.
‘Two weeks,’ I said.
She smiled and said, ‘Have a double.’

Monday

The Princess Diana of Changchun.


I was royalty from the moment I stepped down from the train in Changchun. This was  an incredibly
important event for them and a true baptism of fire for me. I truly had no idea how unusual a white woman would be — or how powerful they would think me with the might and power of a prosperous Western city and the BBC behind me. Waiting on the platform were the Mayor and four other serious-looking Mau-suited men in grey and blue from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Introductions were made and hands were shaken. From then on it was a whirlwind of events, banquets, meetings and interviews as I was displayed to the whole city. I did the best I could to stop the panic showing in my eyes and the prayer ‘Dear God, don’t let me screw up,’ was constantly in my heart and on my lips.
I was paraded around schools, colleges, hospitals, factories, railway depots and offices. It began with the university; a large echoing grey building where I was welcomed in the traditional Chinese reception room with white-covered armchairs and a thermos flask of tea always dispensed by a woman. There would be wrapped boiled sweets and 3D pictures of trees made from wax on the walls and at least four men in Mao suits. This formula was the same with each and every destination. Each time the entire workings of the place were painstakingly explained to me with everything translated by Chen and after I had expressed full comprehension and gratitude for their kindness in letting me visit, I was given a comprehensive guided tour.
In the university, I saw students of all shapes and sizes in classroom after classroom and sat in on an English lesson. At the end I was asked to give a speech. I stuttered and stammered with no idea what to say but praised them and told them a little about home. I got a standing ovation for saying I hoped they would all visit Britain one day. When I asked Chen afterwards how I had done he simply said ‘The speech was too short.’ I realised that nobody realised that I was inexperienced at this; I was expected to know what I was doing.
I sat through piano recitals, watched displays of Tai Chi and dance and everywhere in public was met with detached courtesy. But in the ladies’ lavatories women clustered shyly around me staring at my pink skin and pointing at my clothing. Sometimes, one would reach out and touch my bare arm, shyly, as if to see if I were real. Most of the lavatories were only flushed by the occasional bucket of water, and many of them were filled with menstrual blood which took a little getting used to and made me everlastingly appreciative for British public loos. In one open loo which was just a drain at one side of a sloping floor, they stood and watched to see if I would pee differently from them. And then were perplexed that I didn’t go at all.
I learnt very quickly that I can be very stoical and that was a relief.
At the Children’s Palace, a school for gifted children, I had my portrait drawn in charcoal by a nine-year-old girl genius.
‘She is making you much more attractive than you really are,’ said Chen excitedly as he watched over her shoulder. I think he was trying to impress on me the girl’s great talent.
‘Have you ever heard of the word “tact?”’ I asked him afterwards. Chen had not and was most interested in the concept, carefully writing down the word and its meaning in his ever-present notebook.
‘I’m sure you understand that nobody here could think you were pretty,’ he said, cheerfully. ‘Your hair is a strange colour; your clothes are odd, your nose is enormous and your whole face is too big.’
I wondered whether I had explained the word ‘tact’ correctly.
At another school, I was treated to a piano performance of Chopin by a ten-year-old boy. He fluffed it, losing timing and hitting quite a few wrong notes and he stopped in the middle, his tears of shame making it impossible for him to go on. There was silence. Every teacher from the school was there, together with Chen and my entourage of four men from the city government, not to mention 30 children.
I feared that the boy would be in tremendous trouble for what had happened but I was also outraged. The piece was far too difficult. I looked around the room at a sea of impassive faces.
Something made me stand up and walk over to the piano. I watched myself do it in a kind of horror as I didn’t know what the hell I was doing. Chen half got up and then sat down again. I didn’t even realise until he told me later that I had made a clear gesture to him to stay back.
The piano stool was quite wide and I was able to sit next to the boy, put my arm around him and tried to give him a paper handkerchief. I don’t think he’d ever seen one before so I had to mime wiping my eyes with it and indicate that he was to do the same. Then — and this was the miracle — I started playing the top part of ‘chopsticks’ very slowly while looking at him. Tentatively he placed his hands on the piano and played the lower part. We played together for probably a minute and then he stopped. I stopped too. We looked at each other; he smiled and, with me sitting there beside him, he began the Chopin again.
It might not have been perfect but it was quite good enough. And he even began to enjoy it towards the end because his face lightened up and his body began to flow.
When he had finished, I stood up and clapped as loudly as I could looking round the room and daring the audience not to clap with me. They did.
As I went back to my seat (there were other performers still to come) I hissed at Chen ‘he is not to be punished. Tell them!’ He nodded and said something to the head teacher who was sitting on the other side of me. I don’t know what it was but the man pursed his lips and nodded.
I don’t know what happened later; I have no idea if I made life for that boy better or worse, but I do know that I was always rubbish at the piano and that I don’t know how to play chopsticks.

Sleeping with Three Strange Men


As the train left Beijing station on its overnight journey to Changchun, I felt very alone and lost.  It was
The kitchen on a Chinese train.
a big step to be going out into this strange world alone apart from Chen, my interpreter. The other two, belonging to the Railway Publishing House, were remaining in Beijing.
‘You’ll be fine,’ PBW had said that morning as we hugged goodbye. ‘Just beware the carriage attendants and, whatever you do, don’t get drunk.’ I wasn’t in the habit of getting drunk so I was quite affronted by this but then I’d never had a glass of Mau Tai before.
Each carriage had its own female attendant guarding the steps onto the train and the one for our section smiled at me as I tried a polite ‘Ni Hao’ in greeting before boarding. I felt reassured and laughed off PBW’s warning until five minutes later she came into our carriage to check Chen’s and my tickets and roared at me for putting my suitcase on the wrong bed. ‘You put your case on that bed, you pay for that bed,’ she said. I got the message.
Chen and I were travelling soft class lying, which consisted of four white covered bunks per compartment with washbasins and loos at each end of the carriage. As the train started off, we sat on one lower bunk with two complete strangers on the other, both burly Chinese men who did not know whether to stare at me or not. Manners obviously forbade them to ask Chen about me and there was certainly nothing I could tell them myself
Normally, in those days, white people ate alone in the dining room of a train, either before or after the Chinese, just as in the hotels. However, Chen persuaded them to change the custom, explaining that there was only one of me and that I was relatively harmless. I was quite an attraction, a bit like a Panda bear in the UK so after some hesitation, a couple of men came and sat down with us. Chen was happy to talk with them while I amused myself trying the differing dishes on offer and the sweet wines of China together with the ubiquitous tea. We had fatty pork soup with cabbage, bean curd with sesame seeds, pak choi and chicken’s feet. The men sucked on those with relish but I declined politely and finished up my rice.
‘You must be careful in Changchun,’ said Chen. ‘To finish your rice means that you have not been well fed. It is very rude. As a guest you should hardly eat any.’
Chastened, I considered the very real possibility that these two weeks might turn out to be a very effective diet.
After supper there was little to do by the dim lights in the cabin but talk or read or go to bed — but of course if you are sharing a compartment you can only go to bed by common consensus. I wanted to read but Chen wanted to ask questions. By the time the lights went out — and they did go out at 10pm and you had no option of turning them back on — I was exhausted and feeling like a very poor representative of my country. That was a state which was to last for the whole of the rest of the trip.
The problem was two-fold: firstly Chen’s total lack of anything approaching a sense of humour and secondly, his profound intelligence and diligence. He was determined that, by the time I returned to the UK, I should be a credit to him and that he should be a credit to me. I should know Chinese history, art and politics to degree level and, as a light alternative to this barrage of information, he would interrogate me night and day in what proved to be a rather vain attempt to improve his knowledge of British art, politics and history.
To start with, we discussed the history of England with particular reference to the Hundred Years War, the Industrial Revolution, the Jacobites, William and Mary and both world wars. For the first time in my life I wished that I had not opted for Art ‘0’ level rather than History and my lack of knowledge was sadly felt. My interest in the Tudors did raise Chen’s hopes about my value as a source of information but that led to an hour and a half on Protestantism, Catholicism, Luther, Calvin, the Pilgrim Fathers, the Holocaust and the Huguenots during which I was, frankly, out of my depth.
It did however allow me to turn the subject to a spirited discussion on the existence of God where I, amateur though I was, almost managed to hold my own. God wasn’t officially allowed in China at that time and Chen was appalled that I, a modern woman, believed in such an anachronism. He was very put out by my assertion that the Chinese people’s lack of belief did not have any effect on God’s existence per se and certainly did not hinder God’s belief in Himself
Surely, he said, if God did exist, the very fact that so many people knew that He didn’t would be enough to make him doubt Himself. And anyway, he could not exist in China because He was not allowed.
At which point I felt a distinct desire for a gin and tonic.
Apart from debating Life, the Universe and Everything, it was quite tricky getting used to going to bed in a Chinese railway carriage with three quite unknown men. All of them slept in their shirts and underwear and it took me ten whole minutes to explain to Chen that I needed a few moments’ privacy to change into a nightgown. Once he had the idea, he chivvied the other men out as though he had always known of this quaint Western custom and I realised for the first time how very proud and how very terrified he was to have a foreign woman in his care. Half of his nagging and fussing was because I was such a completely unknown quantity with my inexplicable laughter and my long brown curly hair; my pretty frocks and my way of dancing and making jokes. He did not know that it was just me; he thought it was all Western Women and it was so important to him to tell other people that he had acquired this strange and esoteric knowledge of the habits of the female Foreign Devil. 

For all that, I did sleep well and, before I dropped off, I was amazed and relieved that I felt comforted and happy with the thrum, thrum, thrum, cer-lick, thrum, thrum, thrum, cer-lick of the wheels over the tracks and content to be lying in this strange, foreign bed on a strange foreign train with strange foreign people.
It took me some time to realise why I was so content until I realised that, as a baby, I had been lulled into slumber, more often than not, by tape recordings of steam engines and of the clunkety-clunk of bogies going over the gaps in rails echoing up through the floorboards from PBW’s study below. But it was more than that. Communication challenges apart, I was on the other side of the world, having a real experience of life where there was no opportunity to take anything for granted. It was scary but it was great. And the reason why it was great was because there was actually something to be scared about.
I’ve spent most of my life in a kind of low-grade fear. I suspect most of us do. Certainly, working as a journalist and radio presenter meant that I raced around on deadlines, competing with other journalists. That didn’t help but I think I was attracted to that nerve-wracking kind of world because I was nervous anyway. In some strange way, I felt better as long as there was a real reason behind my fear, even if that reason was dealing with Margaret Thatcher or a fierce news editor. Once, when I worked as a newsreader at Beacon Radio in Wolverhampton, I continued reading the news after the fire alarm went off because I was more afraid of the news editor than I was of burning to death.
It’s also true that sometimes it’s hard to tell the difference between fear and excitement. Perhaps the line is very thin indeed. I’ve often found it useful to ask myself which of the two I was feeling at critical times and often the answer has often surprised me. Sometimes I’ve been resisting something which could actually be very uplifting or releasing or just plain different by thinking I was registering fear instead of excitement.
However, it was not exactly exciting to be woken at 5.30 am by the blaring of the train radio and tannoy system coming on loudly in my ear. There was no ‘on’ or ‘off’ switch and the suddenness and the volume of the alarm were an unwelcome shock. The train radio had been on the previous evening but, then, it had just seemed part of the overall strangeness and it had stopped for the night as soon as the lights went out.
At breakfast the Chinese ate a mixture of meats and pickles with tea but the train staff, aware that they had a Female Foreign Devil aboard made a special effort for me. Hot, sweetened powdered milk accompanied two slices of cornbread fried in beaten egg, sandwiched with pickle and sugar and topped with two fried eggs.
To my shame, I couldn’t eat it. As the China years went by, I learnt to greet such a feast of carbohydrates with gratitude for it might be all I could eat that day. This time I picked at it and, when Chen had gone to the kitchen to ask for some more tea for me, I wrapped it in tissues and hid it in my bag.
Windows didn’t open on Chinese trains, but the lavatories opened straight onto the track so I was able to dispose of the evidence and sneak a Mars Bar from the stock of pemmican that the all-wise Dad had insisted that I packed in my suitcase for times just such as this. Nutritious, it was not. Comforting it was.