So there was an Englishman and a Russian in a Mexican bar, which does sound as though it might be a mildly interesting joke, but is in fact me and Stan waiting for our respective planes in Concourse B at Dulles airport, his Aeroflot to Moscow having been delayed several hours until midnight, and my Virgin Atlantic bang on the money at ten after eleven. I’m spending too much money on a dinner which, under suave blandishments from the barman, is now consisting primarily of Dos Equis and tequila side shots. This of course makes me quite gregarious (and I always wondered whether a secondary definition of that word should be “Pickersgill-like”), so we chat merrily for an hour or so, sharing something of our life histories as émigrés, he having relocated to Reston in ’95, me to Good Ole Suth’n Marelun in ’93. Stan, whose given name is in fact Stanislav, as you might have guessed, is a dealer in rare and collectible musical instruments, so if you always wanted that 1957 Gibson guitar (and are willing to pay for it), Stan is your man, to be found at www.musicoutlet.ru, with offices in Moscow, St. Petersburg (and, presumably, Reston), and there, my friend, is the promised plug! Due to the usual media stereotyping (or perhaps the tequila), I imagine, or perhaps romanticize, that Stan is a secret Russian gangster, nevertheless with a heart of gold, which runs completely contrary to the observation that he is interesting, pleasant, and looks much more like Omar Sharif than Robbie Coltrane.
The previous couple of weeks have not exactly been an orgy of preparation for the unexpected continuation of the trip, but more like an orgy of trepidation with some preparation thrown in. We were about at the point of financial recovery from my last sojourn when a series of phone calls throws all the spanners into the works at once. We’d been spending what’s become a usual Friday early evening at Robert’s Restaurant and Bar in Prince Frederick, getting back a little after eight to find a message on the machine that I should call cousin Harvey urgently. Being too late to do so at that point, I reset my alarm for 3am so I can get up and reach them first thing UK time, forgetting to watch Doctor Who in the process, and by this process learn from Jean that mum has been rushed to hospital with a more or less dead leg, and that amputation is likely. I call the hospital for some less alarmist information, and finding them as wonderfully sympathetic and helpful as in the past to a son who is 3,000 miles away, quickly learn that she has a DVT, which I have to have explained to me is a deep vein thrombosis, and no, they are not going to chop her leg off, having decided on a more conservative treatment since she wouldn’t have very good odds of surviving such an operation. I thank the nurse, who gives me a likely schedule for mum’s release back to the nursing home, and Google DVT to get better informed, learning that this is a blood clot situation with rather serious implications. I am happy that she is in good hands, however, and call Jean and Harvey back the following day, letting them know I have spoken to the hospital who have indicated that all should be proceeding well and mum will be getting out of there within a week. “I don’t think that’s very likely”, opines the perpetually gloomy Jean, but it turns out we are both wrong in our respective ways.
Monday brings the phone message from Harvey: “I’ve got some sad news for you”, and from his tome, which is even more lugubrious than usual, I immediately know what that news must be. My researches have shown me that a deep vein thrombosis clot can easily dislodge and shift to the heart or lungs with fatal results, and, confirming the worst with a phone call, I deduce this is what has happened, since getting any actual information from the taciturn cousin is akin to finding a nugget of gold laying about on the streets of Walthamstow. The funeral is arranged for October 16th, apparently the longest delay possible, to give me time to sort out travel. For this I am grateful. We are still dealing with various degrees of skint, but my kindly and excellent employer lends me $500 (and arranges to send flowers!), so with this and wages I am able to book a flight, buy a suit and pay half of October’s rent to the also kind and understanding landlord Mike. Itineraries are discussed and arranged, and once again the generosity of fan friends makes places to stay the least of my worries.
I am quite cranky the last couple weeks at work, and my nasty side shows itself on a couple of occasions, earning me rather surprised looks from my workmate Woody, but he takes it all in his stride as usual. I occasionally feel like I’m on the verge of bursting into tears, avoiding this actually happening by imagining what that would look like and how embarrassing it would be, thereby, I suspect, merely postponing the inevitable. I get a call from my friend David, who has learned of my sad news by the expediency of meeting BB on an offchance. David is a professional counsellor, and fine friend that he is immediately offers to drop whatever clients he has at any given point if I feel the need to talk about it. Considering this, I tell him with heartfelt sincerity that the mere fact of knowing that he is there for me and would do this makes it less likely that I would need it. The rally round is happening for me, and I am quite bolstered, and indeed more than a little humbled by this.
My sociability at the Mexican bar continues onto the plane, aided in part by the much nicer experience of flying with the affable and efficient Virgin Atlantic rather than the grumpy and uncaring United, as previously. Never, ever again will I accept reduced service to save a hundred bucks. The ease, comfort and just general helpfulness of Virgin more than defrays the extra. On the flight, which is less than full, I meet another expat, Jim the ex-Marine who now resides in Finland with his wife & 3 kids. Apart from this detail, I find it difficult to recall too many of the specifics of our conversation, since not only am I still in a partial tequila daze, we start in on my duty free Jim Beam Black after dinner until a cabin attendant mentions to us (several hours later!), that we really shouldn’t be doing that and would we mind stopping now. I am not entirely surprised to discover later that we managed to kill half the bottle between us. Throughout we are ministered to mostly by the lovely Aimee who, in common with all other things Virgin Atlantic is pleasant, helpful, efficient and quite beautiful. I make no apology for the fact that this might sound like an ad, but the truth is that Stan, Jim and Aimee have on this day collectively left me feeling far less funereal than I might have expected to otherwise.
We deplane to a pleasant Sunday morning, and Jim and I shake hands as we part ways, he to his Helsinki connection, me to London Transport and Croydon. Mark had sent me a three-page email with copious alternative methods for attaining the welcoming confines of Banana Towers from Heathrow, so of course I manage to find a route other than one he has proposed. The largely uneventful journey is punctuated by a nolley sighting on the tram, and the rotund one insists upon seeing me off the vehicle and ensuring I am pointed in the right direction, Mark’s instructions notwithstanding. Almost at the top of the road, I see the Sainted One hisself walking out to meet me. “What? You think I couldn’t find the fuckin’ way?”, is my greeting to him. I suspect I am expected to be fragile, and perhaps I am feeling that a little in a way that only tequila and Jim Beam can induce.
“Open the fuck up”, I cry pleasantly, if loudly, through the letterbox, eliciting a giggle from Mark and an admonition from Claire, who nevertheless does open the fuck up with some alacrity. The portcullis is raised and I am admitted to what proves to be a very nice gaff indeed, possessing a little back garden with which I am to become familiar and am to sprinkle with cigarette ends. We have a little catch-up, Mark provides some back issues of Private Eye for my perusal, and I shortly decide to have a bit of a nap to soothe my ravaged body. I awake in time for Sunday night at the pub with a nice collection of the usual suspects, and this passes in a pleasant haze to be followed by an equally satisfying curry from Banana Towers’ local joint. I sleep well, waking once to go out for a cig at about 3am, and once all are up and about I watch others eat breakfast while I consume my accustomed one (half a pot of coffee, half a pack of cigarettes), and tool out to East Croydon station accompanied by the overprotective Mark, equipped with copious itinerary options to Hertford North provided by a tenaciously organized Claire, all of which I naturally ignore and travel by a different route.
The Sign of the Scalded Scrotum beckons once again, and after I am collected by Eve and John at the by now familiar Bridge House pub, I remark as we cross the threshold: “This is starting to feel like coming home!” The evening is as marvellously companionable as was the previous one, I occasionally doze in the chair and am fed beer and fish pie and fail to write the continuation of the trip report, which I decide I shall do in the morning, and am here as good as my intentions.
There is a shirt to iron and a grieving son to make presentable for his appearance in a couple of hours time. I feel like I might burst into tears now.