Alice Thomas-Ellis

Diary - 24 April 2004

Ghosts, fairies and no cigarettes in a rural idyll

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As I lead a life of more or less untroubled serenity and I am in perfect health (except for a slight cough), it was unsettling to learn that I had cancer and that it looked inoperable. It wasn’t, thankfully, and a most delightful surgeon cut it out. Cancer is a strange disease and I am aware that it may still be lurking around biding its time, but there is nothing to be gained by fussing. Anyway, I still feel in perfect health and so when people ask if I feel better I have to explain that, so far, I haven’t felt ill. When the locals learned of my condition, as locals will, they all said that Eric, who lives a mile away up the mountain, had had the same thing and was now as fit as a flea. Just the other day, along came Eric on his digger and, sure enough, he is a fine, upstanding figure of a man with rosy cheeks. We had a nice talk about scars and the lovely nature of our shared Egyptian surgeon, who has the sort of charming manners that we thought had died out with the black-and-white movie.

I warmed to another fellow patient while in hospital. Immediately after she swallowed her dose of morphine, she reached into the bedside cabinet, drew out a half bottle of Scotch and poured a slug into her bedtime milk. I gave up alcohol when I gave up cigarettes, since I cannot see the point of one without the other, but I still understand. I sometimes feel a little sullen around 6 p.m. when once I would have set a match to the logs, opened a bottle and a packet of 20 and put the cares of the day behind me.

Not that there are all that many cares. There was the flood when the drains backed up and the crash when the ceiling fell down; sometimes in a storm the electricity goes off and every now and then something to do with the water supply has to be pumped up; the sheep ate the fuchsia and the hydrangea and the rabbits eat most of the few other things — but on the whole the valley is more tranquil than it was in the Middle Ages when, judging by the history books, it was a bit like the Balkans. One of my only worries is that the slugs are beginning to emerge with the onset of spring. When I say they remind me of Jeff Bernard, I mean they make me think of him because he had such a horror of them. If it was raining when he came to stay, someone had to go to the door with a stick and fling them out of his path. Several times I have found enormous slugs with leopard-like markings reclining replete in the vegetable crock, which does give me the cauld grue.

With some foreboding we decided to let the barns to holidaymakers but, with a few exceptions, they have been as good as gold. My favourites so far have been a Chinese family who cooked delicious things on the barbecue and invited us to share them. When they first arrived, they paused in the village to consult a map. I had told a friend of their imminent arrival, and so, seeing a Chinese gentleman gazing round with a baffled expression, he threw up his window and called, ‘Mr Chang, you take the first left, drive two miles and it’s on the left after the bridge.’ It couldn’t have happened in London.

As well as the holidaymakers, there are also the ghosts for company — or rather there were. I think Janet had the last encounter with them when they were playing music in her bedroom. After hunting high and low for the source of the sounds, she suggested that they shut up and they did. I thought they might have returned when my youngest grandson saw someone no one else could see standing by the gate to the field, but I think, from what I have learned since, that this was not a ghost but a fairy. What, you might ask, led me to this supposition? I will tell you. My friend Moyra, who has written a book, Axing the Faun, about her experience with fairies, explained to me how to see them. They are not the gossamer-winged creatures with inverted buttercups on their heads that you find in storybooks, but something more serious-looking. The best time to view is when dusk is falling; the best place, the edge of a forest. Failing that, a shrubbery will do, or even just a clump of stuff in a railway siding. You focus on an object nearby but simultaneously let your sight drift beyond it. There is a knack to it, rather like seeing those patterns that you squint at until they become three-dimensional.

The theologically straight and narrow might frown upon a belief in fairies, but those who have encountered these entities, elementals or whatever they are, cannot deny the evidence of their senses. They realise that God’s creation is more varied and strange than we suppose. Many children see fairies as a matter of course but, depending on the mindset of the adult in whom they confide, are either patted on the head or told not to tell fibs. I believe the grandson’s fairy was of the forest variety, being clad in a brown coat and a green hat and not having a nice face. The grandson gave it as his casual opinion that it was dead, but what does he know? When we find a publisher for Axing the Faun you can make up your own minds. Mind you, it might be just as well not to bother with elfland because, although not necessarily malevolent, the fairy folk are unpredictable and things could turn nasty. Moyra herself suffered a good fright and has fled for succour to orthodox Catholicism.

Speaking of books, I have just completed one, a kind of anecdotal history of what the ancestors thought and wrote about food. I have, however, neglected to include a list of all the horrible words that people use to describe food: starter, portion, wedge (of lemon or pie), topping, puddle, drizzle, spoon (used as a verb), fork (likewise — knife used as a verb has different connotations), delight (used in conjunction with something else as a noun), jus, coulis, helping, zesting, salad leaves, etc. For reasons I cannot quite articulate, I have also gone right off the word pudding and am toying with the idea of reverting to the — admittedly unpleasant — ‘sweet’. The phrase ‘Enjoy your meal’ is enough to put anyone off his oats for a long time.