FEBRUARY ~ Out of the mire and clay
1st February ~
No. No. No! Mum is making me give a talk to the W.I. (the Brimpsford Women’s Institute) with an otter. Tonight. She’s double-booked and already dressed in a safari suit, hurrying off to appear as an amateur herpetologist in a film about iguanas. She knows nothing about reptiles, but when I challenged her earlier she looked at me as if I was imbecilic and said she was acting the part. Well, she’s a very stressed part. ‘Don’t tell me I’m stressed.’
Now I’m stressed. Distressed. I’ve bought a ticket to Johannesburg and leave in ten days’ time. 'The Lord’s plans are irrevocable!' But I’ve decided a certain amount of stress is probably a good thing. It stops one turning into an iguana.
2nd February ~ The ladies of the Women’s Institute were adorable and laughed at all the right places in my talk entitled ‘Having to live with Otters’. Luckily the Chairwoman was a Swallows and Amazons fan, thrilled to give me a fee of £30. I need the money.
I’m going to have to streamline my life; make it simpler. Epicurus said, ‘Contentment consists not in great wealth, but in few wants.’ I’ve decided to cut my outgoings right down to the minimum and separate myself from my possessions. This has got to be healthy. I want to do more with less. I need to fit myself into a suitcase anyway. Pippa is going to rent my flat with everything in it and look after the repairs, maintenance and insurance. A very sweet trainee production assistant called Hope is moving in to keep her company. She comes from Nigeria.
It looks as if I won’t need a new car after all. Perry wants to borrow my tramp mobile, as Tamzin insists on calling it, and will keep it on the road until I come back. To Tamzin, I’ve bequeathed my dead sheep. This is her name for my sheepskin under-blanket, which she has been longing to try out. I’ll keep clothes and things in my room at my parents’ house for future use. My main expense now is decent health insurance.
3rd February ~ ‘Are you the one who makes the hawk soar and spread its wings to the south?’ Robin found this in the book of Job. It’s taken completely out of context.... or is it? He said that he’s not at all happy that I’ve decided to go to South Africa but cheered up when I suggested he should come on a horse safari. He loves travelling, being detached from responsibilities.
I found a Canadian film crew in our house. Dad said he was sweating with embarrassment as they had spent the morning filming Mum in the kitchen with the otters leaping around in the sink (together with the washing up), making their own way into the ’fridge (which is always chaotic) and breaking eggs onto the floor (which is filthy). By the time I arrived they were filming Mum, bum in the air, trying to extract Jims from underneath a chest of drawers. I took a cup of tea to the continuity girl. ‘Are you off to film any other interesting animals?’
‘Animals? Aw no. This is a series about great British eccentrics.’ I don’t think my parents are aware of this.
The Producer asked me if I could possibly keep the cockerels quiet for a while. I’ve regressed to being a film runner. One thing I gained a great deal of experience in at the BBC was asking people to stop making a noise: I could stop pneumatic drills drilling, chain-saws sawing, Rastas from playing basket ball – once I even stopped the traffic going down Bayswater Road, but could I do anything about the cockerels? I found the only thing that worked was letting them out to scratch around in the field. Disaster. I went to shut them up later, when it was beginning to get dark, and found Terry running around looking flustered. There were feathers everywhere. Albert had disappeared. Mum was very upset. She was furious with me and spent hours wandering up and down to see if he was hiding anywhere, but I’ve got a feeling we won’t find the body and am wracked with guilt.
4th February ~ Big packing-up session in London. Good-bye sofa, good-bye desk, good-bye television. Good-bye Television. I feel right about all this. Have inner peace. What really matters is what happens within us, not to us.
5th February ~ I’ve a funny feeling I know who ate Albert. I found an awful lot of feathers in the haystack where Jake has a hidey-hole.
Mum has handed in her resignation as a J.P. after thirteen years’ service. It has been very hard for her to let go but I’m glad. She has enough to cope with in life without the addition of draining voluntary work. An invitation has arrived inviting her to attend the International Otter Convention in India, which is exciting, and she’s looking forward to it already. She’s passionate about conservation, and drawing on her skills as an actress, is brilliant at conveying the message to others, especially children. We feel she should concentrate on this and let others deal with delinquent youths. The delinquent pet – Jake, has been granted parole.
6th February ~ Alastair is off to the South Pole to film penguins in a thermal zoot-suit. James isn’t envious at all. He gets seasick. He says he’d rather come with me, but isn’t that thrilled about the idea of watching rhinoceros from horseback. I am. Alastair thinks that I would feel isolated living way out in the bush and could get very lonely, but it can’t be lonelier than being ill. I can cope with that.
Tamzin said that Jonnie hasn’t noticed the dead sheep yet despite the fact that it makes a huge lump under the bottom sheet on her side of the bed. She gave me some riding boots, which are too small for her, in part exchange. Dad has given me a pair of binoculars and Mum has found me some old insect repellent. Granny keeps ringing to say Good-bye. I went to see Daisy. Mary-Dieu has never once thanked me for looking after her baby, but it doesn’t matter. She isn’t cross any more. In fact she was very funny and said she’d take the nightshift when I have kids. I hadn’t thought of that. I must drive her crazy, but she loves me. Loving despite of is more precious than loving because of.
Mum and Dad went out to dinner and arrived back with the prettiest little hen you have ever seen. She is to be a girlfriend for Terry. I hope he’ll be nice to her.
7th February ~ ‘What has been the purpose of this time Lord? This season of sickness in my life?’
Will I only be able to see the answer clearly from a distance?
I’d been going so fast. My days had just been filled with lists of things to get done. I’d fallen into the trap of putting the merely urgent before the important. It’s so easy to let our perspective become quite limited. We think our bodies so significant, and they are because we need to be healthy to operate effectively, but how much more vital is our spirit? We have eternity ahead of us. In our society we spend years educating our intellect and training our brains, and yet most parents are shy, scared of developing their children’s spiritual understanding. They see it as ‘Religious Education’, which is either unimportant or something that must be tackled by teachers at school.
An Texan girl once told me that the word Bible stands for Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth. B.I.B.L.E. We have the Maker’s Manual, but like most instruction books few people ever read it. Until things go wrong. Then it’s, ‘Help, I can’t understand this. Nothing’s working properly. Where did you put the instruction manual?’ Somehow we never find the time to read it. Well, I’ve had time.
I’ve learnt that, if Earth is our training ground, then we must expect to have to undergo trials here so that our spiritual muscle and resistance can be built up. If our body is in bad shape a virus will knock us sideways; if our spirit is in bad shape disasters will hammer us. Life is going to be full of tribulation. We’re always going to need the strength and confidence, the wisdom and understanding that lie the other side of suffering.
8th February ~
‘Yes, but I would really appreciate more of an explanation.’
I was given it. Jesus said, ‘Simon, Simon, (Sophie, Sophie) behold, Satan demanded to have you, that he might sift you like wheat, but I have prayed for you that your faith may not fail; and when you have turned again, strengthen your brethren.’ Well that’s what it’s for, so we can ‘strengthen and build up others.’ That is my commission. ‘To comfort others with the comfort I’ve been given.'
How does the Prayer of St Francis go? That we should seek not so much to be understood as to understand. Make me a channel of your peace.
9th February ~ I’ve packed my bags and I’m ready to go. I’m taking the suede chaps I had made in Farnham, a sketchbook and a hammock. Granny rang to say, ‘Smell Africa for me.’
10th February ~ Fly to South Africa.
I went to see how the chickens were getting on just before I left. I opened up the bedroom side of the hutch and found two perfect white eggs. It was so exciting to find them, like a symbol of hope.
Tamzin made me a special Going Away lunch and drove me to the airport. I didn’t feel at all strong; very shaky in fact, with a head full of cottonwool and rags, but I staggered onto the plane and let everything roll over me. I flew high on wings like an eagle; a steppe buzzard migrating south.