London Calling and Teenage Kicks
Running around like a sailor on shore leave doesn't seem to be enough within the contiguous United States. I haven't been to London or anywhere out of the country aside from Toronto in a couple of years and it seems another life, a geological age, 2000 or more years. My life B.C. is like a dream. Nothing feels the same and I am experiencing everything with new eyes. I have a get out of jail free card. Kevin is coming with me as he's never been to the UK. April, my friend since I was 14, will join for a week and we will be there for her birthday. Emma will be in the UK for a couple of weddings, so we can all have an adventure together. Real World London style.
My good friend Martin's wife Kate also has cancer, and her prognosis is not good. Rather than torture herself with further treatments, she's facing the inevitable with the common sense and humor the British are famous for. Keep calm and carry on. She's having a going away party and I want to be there. It will be the first time I will meet her after hearing about her for 15 years, and it will also be the last time I will see her alive. Already, Kate sounds like my kind of woman - unsentimental and facing her situation head on. Martin is also having a party of his own the next week which is devoted to music, which is how we met. He's got two jukeboxes, and I gave him a box of 45s or 7-inch records the last time I was there and now I get to see them in action.
Kevin and mangy fox, If you look closely.
We're staying at my sister Heidi's house who has what we New Yorkers call a townhouse in Islington, which has become a fashionable neighborhood lately. It has 4 stories and a lovely back garden. Every time I go there, I don't want to leave. I recall meeting Heidi for a cup of coffee in Paddington Station and me saying I never wanted to leave. Every time I go, I wonder why I don't stay. This time, I do have to get back. Every trip I make has a three week time limit until I am back on the drip. Tick, tick, tick, drip, drip, drip. Countdown to next chemo
My hair is starting to come back in as I'm not on the "bad chemo" anymore - that hair falling outie type chemo cancer is famous for. We take the overnight flight, tube to Euston Station and cab from there because we're too dang tired to do another tube and figure out the bus. April arrives later and we're excited to get out and about. We meet our friend Omar for or dinner, whom I know from the music scene in NYC, and to check out one of the nightclubs, Road Trip, he manages in Hoxton, which is the hot area of late. We know we are in the right place because the Mens' room is marked "Sids" and Womens' is marked "Nancys". To be extra cheeky, the accessible toilet is called "Larrys" and has a photo of Larry Flynt flipping the bird from his wheelchair. There is a woman in the DJ booth who is playing great music. This is the beginning of an amazing adventure, and we're here for two of my three weeks off!
One of the great things about staying with Heidi is that it feels like living in London, not like being a tourist. We sit in the garden in the evenings surrounded by lovely trees and flowers. We go to the corner shop and get the basics so we don't have to eat out every meal. I have a part-time job with my friend's cryptocurrency company, so I wake up every day and work, plowing through emails and the occasional conference call. We plan some exploration and touristy stuff because we can't help ourselves but channel our ugly American. We need to oblige Kevin.
We have a main bus line outside the door. Kevin and I travel above ground in a double decker bus to do some sightseeing. I take Kevin to my favorite museum - The Imperial War Museum. Seeing the actual equipment and articles is very powerful. The Battle of the Somme installation is heartbreaking. And The Holocaust exhibit is just overwhelming. The vehicles are a feat of engineering. We grab a sandwich at the kiosk outside. The evening tourist activity on our agenda is seeing a West End show- The Lieutenant of Inishmore. Lieutenant of Inishmore is to cats what John Wick is to puppies - except funny. Hapless boobs are put in charge of looking after an IRA terrorist's cat, the cat meets an unfortunate accident, and hilarity ensues. Aiden Turner spends a good deal of time sweating, covered in blood and crying about his cat, and we are crying with laughter. I would never turn down an opportunity to see this again.
Friday night, April and I take the Southwestern Rail to the home of Martin and Kate Percival. I've known Martin many years though music, and I see him on every trip to London. April has also met Kate in NYC, but this is my first time meeting her. It is both April and Kate's birthday. Kate has terminal cancer and is having a gathering of friends. She is a master quilter and invited her crafty crew. We wake up in the morning and I'm eager to prepare. I love a party. I imported ridiculous Dollar Tree partyware that says "Princess". There are plates and napkins with a unicorn with rainbow mane and tail. The centerpiece is a rainbow unicorn. Kate will either appreciate the camp or kick me out. I await my fate looking for a signal of approval.
My ebulent self is completely antithetical to the British temperament, which I lose sight of because I can't help myself. I'm like a puppy bouncing around the kitchen looking for a way to help in the party prep. Kate is calmly in control and judging from her amazing collection of vintage crockery, she'd gonna school me.
"How can I help?", I ask, tail wagging.
"Get out of my way!", Kate quips back in such a way that I feel flattered that she's given me a smackdown.
I go and sit like a good dog, waiting for my next command. Kate relents to my eagerness and has me slice zucchini into sticks for the dip. My dollar tree pink decorations are allowed on the table. It is permissible that I unwrap the puddings and also put them out. I'm arranging plates and napkins and pink plastic forks, waiting for the guests to come. When Kate is barking out orders with a twinkle in her eye, I cab see she thinks I'm a good dog. We become a well-oiled party machine, as long as u follow her lead in the dance. I just have to obey the pack leader.
Guests come bearing quilts with detail and wit that is most humbling for this hamfisted clod. In addition to puddings, Kate has put out bowls of beaded necklaces, hat pins, stitched ornaments and other hand crafted delights that are parting party favors. I take a bright orange and pink-beaded hat pin and stick it in my wig. I'm sitting, wagging, waiting to be barked at. I'm in awe of the talent in the room. One of the most amazing quilts has squares of CATS stitched from leftover fabric with button eyes, or stitched, or missing, but ALL the individual personality as cats have shines through each one. Kate is presented with a quilt that the group has made, with a nod to Martin, where each square resembles a jukebox-ready 45 RPM 7-inch record.
At the end of the party, Kate is feeling weakened from standing and the excitement and goes upstairs to take a rest. I finally find my purpose and take charge of clean up, though there is a good squad of people to help. I wrapped the food, cleaned serving bowls and gathered the glassware like a good barmaid. I'm doing as much as I can without knowing the kitchen, running the dishwasher and putting clean items away with Martin's direction. Thank goodness for disposable Princess plates. The recycling and the trash is sorted and whisked away, the volume of which signals a successful event. In the morning, Kate is refreshed and we take our places in the kitchen as we rehearsed it. We move in silent synch about the cupboards and table. Sunday Brunch is a feast of leftovers. April and I head back to London. Kevin and I will be back next week for Martin's gathering of friends, when it's his turn to hold court and fire up the jukeboxes.
Getting back to London, April heads to Paris which leaves me, Emma and Kevin to roam around and do a pub tour of the Thames. We sit in some tourist trap on the South Bank and look at the amazing new landmarks that keep cropping up - the Cheese Grater, the Shard, the Gherkin, the Walkie Talkie, MI-6. I think of the old BT Tower and ask, "What is THAT called?". Emma answers with consolation in her voice, "Oh, darling, we don't love it enough to mock it."
I am MOST EXCITED to see the Spice Girls exhibit which is right down the road on the bus line. Emma and are are giddy at the prospect of what this Mecca of Spice can impart. We read a scathing review which galvanizes our determination. We arrive at the Business Design Centre on Upper Street. The moniker is a little obtuse - an exhibit about the Spice Girls. Apparently, a fan boy spent £100,000 on 7000 items which sounds impressive until you do that math. Are there are 7000 £14.31 items?Some £5 items and other £100 items? We step off the city bus and RUN to the Spice Bus to get a whiff of a Sweaty Spice who might have shagged a hot dude in there 20 years ago. We are as gutted as the tour bus itself.
from candy to bedroom sets for teenage girls, to cereal box T-shirt iron-ons. Costumes were mercifully on loan. The only other item with some gravitas was a Spice Vespa. Emma declared, "It's the grubbiest exhibit I've ever been to." It's hard to compete with the David Bowie Exhibit. To quote a line from the Spice Girls Movie, "That was brilliant, without being any good."
The next exhibit is not so grubby and curated by professionals. It's the TEETH exhibit at the Wellcombe Collection which is a fascinating history is dental instruments. It's hard not to envision the interrogation scene fo Marathon Man while looking at these primitive and sometimes barbaric instruments. We find a few pubs around Euston Station, which was my old stomping ground when I went to school at University of London. Emma is meeting up with some former work friends at a members-only club, so I don my wig and proper dress to look like I'm worthy of being invited to such an establishment. A friend of Emma's Tammy joins us. It's been 12 years since I have seen her. We have a mutual connection we avoid referencing. After a few drinks, she confides, "I'm sorry I can't be friends with you on Facebook...". It has been forbidden. I laugh. Being friends in real life is more important than Facebook. Emma was also issued the same ultimatum, but refused to comply which sealed our lifetime bond. I ASSURE Tammy it is fine, as she seems genuinely ashamed, and we get past it. Tammy, Emma, Kevin and I head to another pub for a pint after the others have left to toast to our friendship.
It's back to going full tourist once again. Emma has the brilliant stroke of booking us the VIP experience on the London Eye. For only £15 more, you get champagne and skip the line. At least 3 of us can kill £15 worth of sparkling wine EASILY, and the general admission line is probably an hour long. We await in a VIP room, and are escorted to the head of the line where we are met by a bar cart wheeled on to our Eye Bubble. I could do the London Eye 36,620 times and it never gets old. We have a clear day. They said A GLASS, but the nice lady obliged us with two. I inform ALL friends visiting London that the VIP experience is the way to go.
I returned the favor by booking us the Churchill War Rooms, which is sadly sans booze and not like a favor at all. Very un-Churchill-like. Again, we get the pro-tip of booking in advance lets you skip the line. The inside is crowded and FASCINATING. Everything from Churchill's PJs so he could jump out of bed and work, to the wired switchboard communication system. Like the Imperial War Museum, the weird and wonderful gadgets and the ingenuity of the technology of the day we now take for granted was breathtaking. There are even sun lamps as staff stayed underground for weeks and months. The detail of the Map Room requires sober attention. Some of Churchill's famous speeches were made from the microphones in his bedroom. I now imagine him in his pink pajamas delivering historic pronouncements in his booming voice in the comfort of velour.
Portchester Castle along Southwestern Rail
Emma has another wedding to attend, and Kevin and I head out on the train to Fareham to Martin's party. Kate and I greet each other with a big, enveloping hug as we are now old and fast friends. Martin & Kate's daughter Ellen is there with her companion and a bohemian clan who arrived in a van and look like a band. I met Ellen over a decade earlier when she came to New York and stayed with me in my apartment. I can now see both of her parents in her. Martin orders take out which accommodates the evolved vegan diet of today's youth. The next day, Martin puts the young people on jukebox duty as changing out the records with the song labels in the right slots and maintaining the order of the empty sleeves is of utmost importance to a collector. Martin is calling numbers like it's bingo. Kevin is fascinated by the mechanics of the jukeboxes, brilliant in their simplicity. The music, not so much for him.
The guests begin to arrive from the Fareham station and it's quite a different crew to last week. Music fans from near and far converged - Germany, Netherlands, Belgium and places in the UK further afield. It almost looks like a convention of music critics or record store managers. George Hill is there, who is a friend on Martin's I met when End of the Century premiered in New York. The most fun is playing the jukebox, pushing the buttons for the selections like we did when we were kids. Brings back memories of my local pizza parlor where a slice and a small coke cost $1 and the rest of my money went in the jukebox.
Again the next day is leftover surprise Brunch and Ellen and friends load up the van to head off. Kevin and are are enjoying the garden, Kate's garden, which is that lovely planned wildness that traditional English gardens have. The is a compost heap and two "summer rooms" which are shed with barn doors that open up to the garden to become sitting rooms. Those were great hang spaces yesterday, as the house was pretty crowded and the weather was wonderful. Kevin admires the construction of the greenhouse. Martin & Kate's cats, Fred and Rita, can wander freely about the garden. Fred, too, is nearing the end of his life. He has inexplicably grown a tumor in the same place where Kate's was. He never strays from her.
Martin announces that The Undertones are playing a festival right down the road from him. WHAT are the chances? He has not counted on attending, as he doesn't want to leave Kate on her own, and of course spend as much time with her as possible. From how many times The Undertones were played on the Jukebox yesterday, Kate knows how much this would mean to Martin, and is annoyed, again, that she's being fussed over. I contact Damian to see if he can accommodate the three of us for the guest list and he generously obliges, because how many times will I be in the UK when they are playing? I think the last time they played NYC, I could not go and had to sell my tickets. I had not seen them for years - not since Punk Rock Bowling Las Vegas 2011.
We get to the festival, a roots rock festival, just in time for their set. It was 15 minutes down the road from Martin's. I don't want to bother anyone before the show. I see Damian's wife Viv and daughter Rosa, whom I last saw when she was five. Now I'm gushing like and auntie, "Oh, what a lovely young lady you've become!". Line check. John checked his guitar with The Stooges TV Eye. Michael Bradley turns on his witty stage banter. Show starts and Paul is always an engaging front man. Kevin is also enjoying the show. I think the only other band I've taken him to that he liked was The Sonics. For the next song, Damia goes up to the mike and makes a dedication of a song to me, and as a cancer almost-survivor, and it's TEENAGE KICKS. I'm gobsmacked and there are tears in my eyes. The best song in the world. I feel so great and so small at the same time. Martin can tell how much this means to me. He's smiling ear-to-ear, too.
After the show, I give the band enough time to chill out and change and wait at the picnic tables outside. Martin is chatting to Michael Bradley. I head in the the dressing room and greet Damian and family. I think his for the dedication. He asks me how I am. Well, top of the world now! I pull off the AY wig and show the downy fluff that's growing back, but without it, I still look like a cancer person. We take a group photo of our reunion. I have a nice catch-up with Paul who tells me he STILL has the silver 45-center necklace I gave him. I have given SO MANY of those away, I need to get another myself! (I later found out that Elyse of Hellkats-LA who made it died in 2014). We say our hellos and goodbyes. The Undertones closed the festival, and we did not want to be away from the house too long.
The next morning, at breakfast there is this impending doom that it's nearing time for Kevin and I to head back to London. I don't want to leave. I feel as if I've made a friend for life but know once I walk out that door, it may be the last time I see Kate alive. I linger. I walk about the garden. I take another long gaze at Kate's quilts, and post a photo to Instagram. I'm wandering the house, looking at the art in every room, the bathroom decor, and even my coffee cup is all Kate. I'm packing my bag, but it's not the usual feeling of anticipation - it's dread. Kate exclaims, "Do you have any room in your suitcase?" She grabs up the quilt I've been fawning over for two weekends. And then another, and then a third. "These go together, they are a set." Even if I didn't have any space in my suitcase, I'd gladly dump out the contents to fit these quilts alone.
us. We smile. It's pure biittersweet joy. We gather up our things and put them by the door. Martin has another parting gift for me - he bought me The Undertones box set of all their singles and had it signed by the members of the band, which is something he was doing after the gig. Another stunning surprise. We say our final goodbyes and we're off to the station. Kevin and I ride the train in silence. For once in my life, I want to be quiet and still. I absorb the Hampshire countryside.
When I leave London, Kevin and I are parting ways - Kevin is going to Ibiza to experience the world-famous club scene with his new best friend Omar. Leaf is from Ibiza, and gives Kevin plenty of good advice on where to go for the island's natural beauty and sights off the beaten Path. Miranda, a friend I met through Emma who worked at Kew, arranges for Kevin to spend the day at the garden, which he declared the best part if the trip. i'm headed back to the States, where are are separated again, by the IV cycle once again. Kevin will be back in Florida, and I am back to my chemical ankle bracelet. I get back to the cottage and unpack my most precious cargo. The quilts are out on the back of the sofa, and Undertones box set is up on the mantelpiece. I want to be quiet and still once again,