10 November, 2006

lost in the Barbican, found at the Savoy










Whew. Michaelmas Fair over, and may I just say that our class mother says we set a record: we sold every last skanky toy. It turns out that if you remove, say, a well-loved Spirograph set from its tired old box, wipe it up with a diaper wipe, wrap it in shiny cellophane and tie the top with raffia, you can charge a pound for it and it flies off the table. Just before the big rush, a hilarious ex-New Yorker mother that I had just met asked if I wanted to grab a sandwich at Villandry, so we headed out, exchanging stories madly along the way. Wendy said, "You realize that our school is rare in that they have established a no-scans admissions policy." "No scans?" I said. "OK, I'll bite. What do you mean, no scans?" "Well," Wendy said, "in order to make sure their children will have a place at some of the other girls' schools in the city, pregnant women are going in with their ultrasound scans, and an estimated due date, and putting them down." "Oh, stop, Wendy," I said, "you mean unborn children are being signed up for preparatory schools?" "Yep," she said, "only not our school. Absolutely no in-vitro admissions."

The feeling in the air by 2 o'clock was an exact replica of the atmosphere at PS 234 for Winter Fair, or the Spring Auction. Kids out of their minds with excitement, damp money clutched in their hands, filled with sugar and desperate to buy something, anything. I tried to remember the feeling, not just imagine how they felt but really remember it, that Friday-afternoon, autumnal, special-occasion, no-worries mood, running around with my friends, my mother behind a table looking helpful and welcoming (lord knows I came by my school-mother martyrdom honestly), but I couldn't, really, recapture the sense of utter bliss and celebration. What happens to that feeling when you grow up? Maybe some people are better at holding onto it than I am, but at least I could enjoy looking in on my child feeling that way. There were all the traditional English fair things I had always read about (except no teas! darn): the Toy Tombola, the Lucky Dip (oh, the excitement of not knowing what might come up!), the sweets stall, Father Christmas in his grotto! My favorite moment of the day: Annabelle comes running up to her mother to show her what she bought and her mum wails, "But Annabelle: we DONATED that!" The impossibility of bringing something you have been wanting to get out of the house for ages, because your child will find it and buy it back.

Oh, and also a wonderful story about a visit to a popular choice of senior schools among our set. One of class mothers reports that she was led around by a charming young teenager, full of enthusiasm, and when she asked about the food, the girl said firmly, "It's really quite good. My mum absolutely put her foot down about it. She's quite keen on food." Something prompted the mother to look at the child's name tag. Mimi Lawson-Diamond. Yes, well, with the Domestic Goddess Nigella Lawson as your mum, it might hold more weight than my opinion does at our school.

Finally all was gone, with Amy's exuberant mum Kelly shouting at the end, "Fine! Fifty p will do! Just take it!" then, aside, "Can you tell I'm in retail?"

We emerged into the late-afternoon sunshine to find a taxi and hightailed it to the stable, where Avery had the enormous responsibility of grabbing the bridle of a smaller gull's pony and leading her all the way across the Bayswater Road (Alexa following at a safe distance, of course), to the ring where Avery's own pony was already waiting. My mind's eye saw her crushed in the road when the pony balked and a lorry ran over her, but no, all was fine. I simply froze as I watched, suspended in that limbo of boredom that is the lesson time. Around and around, Alexa screaming ceaselessly at the children: "change your lead at 'haitch' [the tacked-up letters around the ring to help guide the children] and go large, Avery, and Rosie, you're on the wrong diagonal, sit two beats..." On and on. The universal experience of a riding lesson, plus freezing cold. I find it amusing that Avery completely believes that I love her lessons. What I do love is getting to see her improve at something, and be so determined. But the lesson? Please. Back at the stable, Mr Ross Nye was in attendance, dropping a gnarled hand on a small head and asking, "How was that canter today, young Emma?" I wished him Happy Anniversary, he and his wife having celebrated 50 years this week. "Thank you, my dear, and what's more, they have been happy years."

This morning found me on the tube trying to get to The City of London School for Girls, and since I didn't know how long it would take me, I allowed a whole hour. Well, typical me, the tube ride took all of 15 minutes, but I managed to take advantage of the full 45 minutes that were left to get utterly lost. Well, not lost exactly, just stuck inside the hideous complex that is the Barbican theatre and music mecca, walking in circles looking for the school. Just hopeless. Finally I called the school in shame and chagrin, and ended up experiencing the lost-person's equivalent of delivering a baby while on the phone to 911: I kept that lady who answered on that *&^% phone until I was at the bloody door of the school. "Now, sweetheart, if you see the music shop on your left you're going the wrong direction. Pass the pub on your right..." So embarrassing. I slunk inside the school in case she was behind the front desk and I had a big red L for "loser" on my forehead. Anyway, I went on the tour with two slightly lame little 12-year-olds who kept looking at each other and giggling at every question they were asked, and having precious little to say to enlighten us. And the physical plant? Let me put it this way: the school and I were both built in 1965 and we both could do with a little lick of fresh paint and some new carpet. And actually, I think 1965 was a better year for humans than for institutional architecture, so I may be ahead in the race. Anyway, UGLY, can I tell you. Poured concrete and tired bricks.

However, the classrooms looked exactly like classrooms everywhere, the gulls in general looked happy and energetic (and since school was actually running, unlike at St Paul's and Godolphin's nighttime tours, they can't just have locked up the odd children, unless they put them all in the locker rooms). The headmistress was very impressive, but just about the second sentence of her speech was, "I am retiring in the summer." So much for that beacon of guidance. I don't know. I wish John had been there too. It's very competitive, though, and very hardy and edgy, I'd say. A lot of energy. We stopped in a science classroom and watched 20 gulls in red jumpers and red skirts, eyes trained on their teacher, who was attempting to explain electrical circuits to them. I'm afraid we happened in at an inauspicious moment, however, because he had just asked, "And what is the force called that pushes the electrons along?" and about ten girls called out "Duracell!" He just sighed.

I raced home in a combination of tube and long walk down the Edgware Road, having to buy a single ticket since my Oyster card seemed to have been pinched by one of the 600 people I asked for directions at the Barbican, or else I dropped it at the school when getting my Chapstick out. Who knows. So I was on foot. Home, gave a pat to my posh going-out clothes and was off again. Oh, posh clothes: you will chuckle. The skinny black sort of faille pants were purchased at the San Francisco Clothing Company on Lexington Avenue in 1992, to celebrate my first job at Hunter College (gotta wear black when you're an art history professor in New York), and the Rodney Telford jacket was bought the week after Avery was born, to reassure myself that I would once again, someday, be a size 6. And the boots? Black ankle length high-heeled Varda, my absolute favorite last, purchased at least three apartments before we left the city. Proves one of my most treasured adages: if it's black and you save it long enough, it will come back in style.

I ended up taking a ruinous taxi to the Savoy to have lunch with my friend Susan, since I was fresh from my humiliating directions defeat at the Barbican. Finally I unburdened myself to the driver, and he was all sympathy. "Why, love, we taxi drivers do the Knowledge to learn our routes, and we all dread the days when it's the Barbican!" We had a nice discussion of why the leaves are still on the trees, coming to the conclusion that like everything else, it's global warming. Except that it was freezing cold! John had reported last night that every single leaf has fallen from the Red Gate Farm trees, and... had been swept up, raked, blown, hoovered or otherwise wafted from our property by forces unknown. Those lawn guys! Honestly, why do they keep coming and working for us with no money coming in? Still, why complain. One year without raking will not kill us. I remember last year we waited so long that we were shoveling leaves. Under SNOW.

To the perfect, iconic entrance of the Savoy, where I gathered up Avery's overnight bag and skate bag for her sleepover with Jamie (always arrive at one of the world's poshest hotels in style, is my motto) and went into the lobby, looking for the Savoy Grill where I had booked us. Before I went in, I looked at the menu propped up on a marble table outside the door. Eeek, a 55-pound three course lunch. On top of the taxi! I just couldn't do it. I swallowed my pride and the awkwardness of having to change things around, and went up to the desk and arranged to have our reservations switched to the much lower-key menu and atmosphere of the Banquette, still run by Marcus Wareing and so, promising an excellent lunch. That ordeal over, I sank down with all my clobber in a plush velvet chair, and a nice dapper little waiter-ish man caught my eye and glided over. Just then I noticed a sign saying, "Reserved" sitting on the table beside me. Posh places always make me feel so awkward! "I'm so terribly sorry," I said. "Who is the table reserved for?" And that little man bowed deeply and said, "For you, madam." Now that is just sweet. So I ordered a glass of champagne and sat back to wait for Susan. She came in, her usual elegant self in a gorgeous autumnal sweater with fringey cuffs. She is the sort of person who keeps her reading glasses in a little pouch hand-knitted for her by her daughter Sophia. I would like to be that sort of person.

We had a lovely lunch. Susan had a pear and stilton salad with crispy bacon, and "goujons" of plaice (a goujon being the English word for what we'd call "fingers," you know all those foods that don't have fingers except when they're fried, like chickens and fishes) with homemade tartare sauce. I really could not say where the word "goujon" comes from. I know it is a real kind of fish, a sort of catfishy fish, but then it couldn't be made of plaice. And he was a 16th century French sculptor, but that's a stretch. Could someone in France five hundreds years ago have inspired a term for English junk food? Probably not.

I probably ordered wrong because both dishes were so heavy and rich, but they were so good that I'm not sorry. I started with duck spring rolls and a sweet chili dipping sauce, and then braised pork belly with black pudding mashed potatoes, parsnips and grain mustard sauce. To die for. The only flaw? No leftover containers. So I watched sadly as the portion of pork belly and potatoes went away not nearly depleted enough. To have John there! He can always finish anything. We had enormous fun gossiping, talking school choices, catching up on each other's lives the way you do when you have both the present and the past to talk about. She has had a fascinating life filled with friendships whose glamour and craziness make excellent lunch conversation. How lucky I am to be in a town that contains Becky and Susan, the Savoy, King's College. I could do without the Barbican, though.

Rushing off to meet Avery, Jamie and her mother at the skating rink, where we traded off belongings: I gave away skates and overnight bag, and got backpack and gym bag in return. A kiss and goodbye. What shall I do with myself this evening, all by myself? I know, I know, just don't get lost.

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