An email from the school headed ‘important news – please read urgently’ was the first I heard about the hideous events of last Wednesday.
It went on to say that there had been a serious sexual assault in the Summertown area at 8.30am “involving a student wearing school uniform.” It advised parents to accompany children to school.
As we walked Bea to school we still had no idea of the enormity of the crime. A “serious sexual assault” is of course just that, but it could mean any number of things.
Not for a moment did we imagine that what had actually happened was that a 14 year-old girl on her way to school had been abducted from one of the busiest street corners in Oxford, thrown into a van, driven to some nearby woodland where she was subjected to a three-hour sexual assault and then dumped a mile away from where she was picked up.
The crime is shocking on so many levels. This was not a girl walking home at 2am alone. Not that that’s an excuse to rape someone. This was a girl on her way to school at 8.30 in the morning. Of course awful things happen during the day as well as the night, but the fact that these people were so brazen they picked on someone in the middle of rush hour just makes you wonder if anyone is ever safe. Hundreds of children walk down that road to schools. I wouldn’t have thought twice about letting Bea and Olivia walk alone there aged 14.
The victim was abducted on the corner of Banbury Road and Marston Ferry Road. It’s about five minutes from our house. Bea walks there every day on her way to school. (Incidentally the girl was not from Cherwell School where Bea is, but from another one nearby.) The corner is just at the end of the shopping bit of Summertown with its Marks & Spencers, Gail’s Bakery, Farrow & Ball, numerous charity shops and Oliver Bonas. It reminds me of the nicest part of Hampstead, but it’s even better, because it’s in Oxford with its fresh air and surrounding countryside, and not London.
If Inspector Morse were investigating this case, he’d say that daylight abduction and rape of minors just doesn’t happen in Summertown. Even the name has a kind of innocence to it.
Sadly this innocence has now been eroded. Bea’s school-friends can talk of little else (many of them know the girl it happened to), no one will stand on that corner again and be able to stop themselves thinking about the moment that poor girl was apparently bear-hugged to make it look like she knew her kidnappers and bundled into the car to God knows what kind of ordeal. I heard from one of Bea’s friends that she managed to text her mother to say she’d been abducted. So for the hours between the kidnapping and when she was found in a traumatic state frantically knocking on doors she was a “missing person”.
This was such an evil crime. I can’t imagine how the victim and her family are coping or dealing with it. Everyone around here is so shocked and saddened. Summertown will take a long time to recover, people will never ever forget last Wednesday.
I can only hope the poor girl it happened to can in some way get over it. And that they catch the bastards who did this.
It was while I was explaining to a French friend the rules of public school exeats that it hit me.
“Term starts on September 6th,” I told her. “And then he’s not allowed out again until September 29th. I can go and watch him play in matches though.”
“Are you allowed to speak to him?” she asked.
At the time it made me laugh. But then I realised that at best I will be able to hug him and say hello before he vanishes off with his new friends.
The closer we get to the beginning of term, the more I dread it.
It’s not that I am unused to my son boarding. He has been at boarding school since he was 10 years old. But for the last two years he has been at a small prep school 15 minutes away from our home. I saw him for matches twice a week. At weekends, thanks to local cricket training, he was always at home. So in effect he was a weekly boarder, which I always thought combined the best of both worlds.
Big school though is a totally different thing. I say goodbye to him early September and that really is it. He’s allowed his phone between 9pm and 9.45pm every day. But if past experience is anything to go on he might call me once a week at best. He will be fine; this is what he wants. Don’t think I haven’t tried to convince him to become a dayboy at a local school. He won’t miss me but I will miss him, and my only chance of seeing him before the month is out is to make a two-hour round trip to catch a glimpse of him pitch-side.
“Come September I’ll have to get a Labrador or a toy-boy,” I joked to another mother at the New Boys’ tea.
“Oh don’t get a Labrador,” she advised, “they’re terribly hard work.”
I’m not sure how my husband would feel about the toy boy. But the good news is that he doesn’t need any kind of child substitute. “I feel rather liberated,” he told me when I said I was worried about the prospect of our three children growing up.
I don’t feel liberated. I feel slightly panicked. The girls of course will still be at home but at the age of 17 and 15 they hardly need me at all. I am a combination of a cashpoint and washerwoman, and that’s about it. Of course I have my work, but if I’m honest my weeks have been dominated by whatever sport Leo is competing in, or training for. Home matches against local rivals were highlights of the term. Collecting him every Saturday has been something to look forward to. Having him home was always a treat. Driving him to cricket training, watching him play, washing his kit, in short just being part of his life.
Of course I will still be a part of his life, but from September 4th I am no longer at the centre of it. I am no longer involved on a daily basis, no longer privy to the highs and lows. I might not know what’s going on with him from one week to the next. Of course no news is good news when it comes to children at boarding school, but it can feel quite gloomy when you’re at home waiting for the phone to ring like some has-been actor waiting for their agent to call or an Olympic athlete on their way home with only retirement looming.
It’s now mid-August. I still have another couple of weeks until I have to hand him over. My husband has suggested that come September, rather than go for the Labrador or the toy-boy, I should take up golf.
I don’t think things are quite that bad.
It all starts with a phone call.
“Mummy,” Olivia yells. “It’s an emergency, I came off my bike and my tooth has come out. There’s blood everywhere.”
It is impossible to work out from the hysterical rant where she is but we rush out of the house at 11.30 at night in the general direction of Headington. By the time we are half way there Olivia has taken control, called an ambulance and is being looked after by paramedics. We arrange to meet at the A & E unit of the John Radcliffe hospital.
“We’ll probably be here until four in the morning,” I half-joke to Rupert as we walk in.
Soon afterwards Olivia gets there. She looks awful. Swollen lips and blood on her face and hands.
“I have the tooth,” she tells me proudly. I want to weep.
The ambulance lady tells us to go to the waiting room while she sorts out the paperwork with the admin staff. An hour and a half later we are seen by a nurse who takes Olivia’s temperature, does some blood tests and runs an ECG.
“You’ll have to wait to see the doctor,” she says.
“How long?” asks Olivia, who is by now in pain and terribly uncomfortable with ECG plasters all over her and a needle in her arm.
“Well, there are nine people in front of you. Probably about an hour and a half.”
I look at my phone; it is just after 1am.
“Why don’t you go home?” I say to Rupert in true Swedish masochistic fashion. “There’s no point both of us waiting.”
Rupert leaves quicker than you can say Zlatan. Olivia and I settle back into our chairs in the waiting room.
Happily there are no horrific injuries. In fact with some people it’s tough to determine who is the patient and who is the carer. Opposite us there is a mother there still wearing her Oratory School overall with her two red-haired sons who look like they are in their late teens. To our left an elderly woman is huddled up in the corner using a nylon onsie as a pillow. I have no idea what’s wrong with her, apart from her onsie that is, and some rather dodgy slippers. Olivia offers to help her open a carton of orange juice she is struggling with, but she firmly refuses. A boy in white football kit sits on the other side of the room, the initials LM on his shirt, just like the pros. He is barefoot so I assume something has happened to his feet. To the right of us, almost hidden by a coffee machine that invites us to “relax with a long milky latte” on a small screen, is what I think must be a homeless man by the look of him. He is snoring lightly, clutching a green plastic bag with ‘Patients Possessions’ written on it in black. He wears thick red and white socks and no shoes.
An elderly man arrives and plonks himself next to us. He immediately offers Olivia an orange juice from a white paper bag. Olivia shakes her head.
“The snack packs you get at this time of night are not up to much,” he tells us helpfully. He must be a regular. Olivia groans in pain and looks for her headphones. They’re covered in blood from the fall. I wipe them with a tissue.
“I’m diabetic as well,” says the regular to no one in particular.
“Philip,” we hear a nurse raising her voice from a treatment cubicle not far from the waiting room. “No spitting.”
“I’m from AFRICA,” shouts Philip in defiance. “From Uganda.”
“That’s great,” says the nurse. “We need to rehydrate you Philip, you’ve had too much to drink. I need to put this needle in.”
The regular burps or farts, I can’t tell which. “Pardon me,” he says smiling at us. “Does your friend want some orange juice?” he asks Olivia, nodding towards me.
Olivia removes her headphones. “She’s my mother.” Then she lies back in the chair and closes her eyes.
“How long did it take you to do your nails?” asks the regular in his warm Oxfordshire tones. Olivia doesn’t respond.
“I think she’s asleep,” I say.
“Oh,” he replies. “I thought she was just dozing.”
There is a loud crash. Philip has thrown something at the nurse.
“You’re the devil,” he shouts.
“I’ll call security,” she threatens.
There is an alarm coming from somewhere that never ceases. It is made up of two beeps, one low sonorous one and the other shorter and sharper on top. A rather repetitive hospital concerto.
The regular huffs and puffs and tries to strike up a conversation with the lady with the onsie, she’s not interested.
“Liam Mulligan,” calls a blonde nurse. The young footballer gets up and follows her on his shoeless feet.
“Philip do you know why you’re here?” asks the nurse in the distance.
“Your neighbours found you collapsed in the lift and called an ambulance.”
Everyone is here for a reason. Obviously most people come because they’re ill or hurt. But the regular just seems to be looking for someone to talk to. I wonder how often he comes here. He still bears the marks of a normal human being, for example his blue check short-sleeved shirt is immaculately ironed. But he wears filthy slippers and his hair is dirty. His manners though are impeccable. The regular was obviously a man of discipline and rules before he fell into this circle of hell that is the A&E unit. Now he can’t seem to get out. I imagine him there night after night with his inferior snack pack trying to strike up conversations with people who don’t want to talk.
As it gets later (or earlier depending on which way you look at it) the circles of hell get more sinister. After 3 am we are getting to the business end of the night. A fat drunk person of indeterminate sex and more tattoos than clear skin walks in, glares at the woman with the onsie for a few minutes as if they are about to murder her (or maybe steal her onsie), then lies down on the floor and falls asleep.
In the distance the alarm churns out its monotonous symphony. It has now penetrated my head to such an extent that I think if I will hear it for hours after we leave, rather like you sway after getting off a boat.
The tussle with Philip is finally over. He must have fallen asleep.
It is now almost 4am. Olivia is still asleep. Three young students come in; one of them so drunk he can barely move. He sits down next to the Oratory school mother who moves seats immediately in case he projectile vomits. He doesn’t, he just leans forward onto his arms and falls asleep, his head hanging like a heavy pendulum from his neck.
His two friends sit close by: a boy and a girl. They are formal with each other, almost shy. The girl, who has blonde hair scraped back into a ponytail, has brought some studies with her. Very sensible.
A nurse comes and calls the name Thomas. The pendulum sways slightly.
“Thomas, can you stand?” she asks, approaching him. Again there is a sign that he has heard her, but barely any movement. The nurse and Thomas’s friends heave him to his feet and take him off to a cubicle.
Oratory mother’s son comes back from his check-up and they leave. So now it’s just us and the nutters. The regular has fallen asleep, an unopened orange juice in one hand.
The homeless man is called. He moves unsteadily, obviously drunk as well. As he sways past us I see a tattoo all the way down his left arm. Carpe Diem it reads. He clearly didn’t.
It is half past four. Olivia wakes up in pain. “I just want to go home,” she wails. I ask the nurse how many more until we see the doctor. Two more. The bright neon lights now feel like an instrument of torture. Everything hurts and I’m not even injured.
Thomas is wheeled past. His friends get up to follow the bed. They stand a respectful distance from the cubicle, but close to each other. They talk about Thomas, just to keep the conversation going. They smile a lot. I wonder if they were at a party and about to start snogging before Thomas lost the plot. Maybe they will joke about this night on their wedding day.
A nurse comes in and wakes up the regular. She gives him a small plastic pot.
“No rush,” she says. “But when you can.”
The regular looks at her and then the pot. “If I don’t want to widdle I don’t want to widdle. It’s as simple as that,” he says.
Another drunk arrives. He sits down for a minute then gets up, his frayed, dirty jeans covering his bare feet. He shuffles up and down the corridor opposite the waiting room like a tiger in a cage. Does anyone wear shoes in this place?
At 5 o’clock a doctor finally comes for us. He is neither McDreamy nor McSteamy. In fact the closest we have had to any lookers is an orderly with a fleeting resemblance to Eden Hazard.
“Hello,” says the doctor brightly. “And what brings you to A&E this morning?”
“Actually we arrived last night,” I tell him.
He examines Olivia, asks some questions and then we are free to go. My neighbour who is a doctor thinks they might have kept us in to check for any signs of concussion, but they might have told us that. It feels like an extremely long wait for not much.
The ambulance lady from earlier reappears.
“Have you come to drive me home?” asks Olivia sleepily.
“You wish,” she smiles, giving her a hug.
We walk out into the broad daylight.
“You go in when it’s dark and come out when it’s light,” I say to Olivia. “It’s the opposite of going to the cinema.”
We see Rupert driving towards us. I can’t wait to get home. “And I thought the film went on a bit.”
My husband’s and my reaction to the images of Hugh Grant doing a great impression of a beached whale in Mallorca were very different.
“How disgusting,” I said, pushing away my breakfast. “There’s no excuse for that.”
“How marvellous,” said my husband. “The pressure’s off. Pass me another sausage.”
Up and down the country men of a certain age not only breathed a sigh of relief, but allowed themselves to breathe out properly and let it all hang out for the first time in years.
Here was Hugh Grant, cinematic icon, sex symbol and floppy-haired hero looking worse than them. I can imagine them admiring themselves in the mirror thinking ‘I haven’t even got moobs, I’m a stud’.
Hugh is a classic example of a middle-aged man who has decided that for him the war is over. By war I mean the battle to stay in shape, to remain young looking, and meet the ageing process head on. He has decided to slide into middle age in comfort (and rather dodgy looking swimming trunks).
I have lots of friends who have done the same. They have vast bellies, their shoulders seem to have vanished, they are jowly and look, well, old. Their wives on the other hand don’t. They take care of themselves, stay trim and dye their hair. They are starting to look ten, even 20, years younger than their frumpy husbands.
There really is no excuse to look like Hugh Grant. While I know men who are heading inexorably towards a flabby future, there are those (much rarer) who have taken charge of their destiny. They exercise, they don’t drink a bottle of wine a night and they watch what they eat. I have one friend who at 40 is younger than Hugh but he has the body of a 20 year old. I can’t imagine that by 55 he will have let it all go.
Staying in shape becomes a habit once you start. It’s the starting that’s tough. Especially when you’ve sunk as low as Hugh has. But the amazing thing about getting in shape is that it really doesn’t take very long. Start now. Do some exercise every day. Cut alcohol down to weekends. Try not to eat bread every day, or carbs at night. There are tiny tweaks you can make to your life that done together will add up to a new, rejuvenated and reinvigorated you. Who looks like Hugh Grant used to. I feel a sequel to Smart Women don’t get Wrinkles coming on. Yep, you guessed it. Smart Men don’t get Moobs.
My new book is out. It all started with a flourish this weekend when the Daily Telegraph serialised it (link below).
Publishing a book is a bit like having a baby. There is a long gestation period, followed by the new-born phase where you have to help them along. After a while you just have to let them go and hope for the best.
The good news is, they are unlikely to rebel in their teenage years and the worst thing they can do is refuse to sell.
So my new baby is out there, and if you do buy it, I hope you enjoy Smart women don’t get wrinkles. Of course we do get wrinkles, but the point of the book is to minimise them, and also to meet ageing head-on as opposed to just letting it take us over.
I think this is a great time to be ageing. A friend of mine suddenly has a 70 year-old boyfriend and said yesterday “well, of course 70 isn’t old any more”. Imagine saying that even 10 years ago? Look at style icon Iris Apfel gracing our TV screens at 90 in a car ad. Or that Swiss billionaire having twins aged 54. On a more negative note, Japan is suffering from a ‘grey crime-wave’.
If 70 isn’t old any more and you may be called on aged 90 to advertise a car your great-grandchildren will be driving, you need to make sure you are ageing well enough to enjoy life once you get there. And this is what the book is about, not just wrinkles. It’s all about how to stay young, when you get old.
I read with dismay that Germany is about to introduce single-sex carriages on the underground due to the amount of sex attacks on women by migrants.
What kind of message does this send? It sends a message that we are willing to accept this outrageous behaviour and are taking steps to incorporate it into our society and way of life.
This is entirely the wrong message. Just as it was entirely the wrong message to let a man in the north of England get away with molesting a young boy due to “cultural differences”. So while a football player is sentenced to six years in jail for “grooming and molesting” a 15 year old girl, another man gets off with raping someone who really is a child.
These “cultural differences” should not be accepted in our society. In our society it is neither acceptable nor legal to molest young boys. In other parts of the world it is considered almost the norm. Remember that horrendous story about sex-slave boys being chained to the beds of officers serving in the Afghan army? Our army would, quite rightly, imprison someone who did that. In our society you can’t just grab hold of a woman because you like the look of her. In others, men are all-powerful and get away with murder, literally.
I no longer dare let my 12 year old son Leo go to a public loo alone. I have insisted the girls download rape alarm apps. Never mind terrorism, Europe is less safe because of the appalling life in so many other places, which means literally millions of people who don’t share our values want to live here.
Quite what we thought would happen when we opened our borders to people who have in some cases been badly damaged by war and\or others have a very different concept of right and wrong, I don’t know.
What I do know is that by introducing single-sex carriages, we are doing exactly what the terrorists who create such hell in our usually peaceful cities want. We are turning our liberal, safe and democratic society into one resembling theirs. Which means they are winning. And that is the wrong message.
It must be more than 10 years ago that I received a call from an editor at the French magazine Santé. I was on a train at the time, heading from our home in the south of France to London, and I remember the line being rather bad. The editor asked me if I would be interested in writing a beauty column for them entitled ‘Me and my…..’ I had to double check that I hadn’t misheard. “But I can’t write in French,” I protested. The editor suggested I find a translator. They wanted something with “typical British humour”. They had seen my column in the Sunday Times and decided I was the woman for the job. The Santé column is still going, with my lovely friend and translator Jacques Kuhnle translating every one. Over the next few months I am going to publish a selection here, starting with this one about Japanese skin care.
Me and my Japanese skin care regime
It was at the Viva Mayr Clinic in Austria that I first heard about Japanese skin care. I was there to research a book about ageing the Viva Mayr way. The clinic, situated on the shores of an Austrian lake, is the go-to place for those who can afford the time and the cost of taking the “cure” as they call it, which basically means cleansing from the inside out. I have neither time nor money, but one of the perks f being a writer is that you get invited to all sorts of places you could never afford to go to in order to write about them.
These retreats make for interesting social dynamics. For a start you end up wearing nothing but your dressing gown in front of strangers. And the first topic of conversation is usually (at Viva Mayr anyway) about your digestive system. I met a lovely woman called Kendal on my visit there. Once we had compared our digestive systems we moved on to skincare. Kendal lives in Japan and told me how Japanese women look after their skin. This is something that has always fascinated me, as you don’t really see many Japs who have aged badly. I assumed it was due to all the fish they ate, and in part it may be, but they are also dedicated to caring for their skin extremely well. Kendal gave me some of her Japanese products to try, along with a sheet of instructions for the facial massage that is at the centre of any Japanese cleansing ritual. I have since run out of the lovely products she gave me but this is where my ‘layering’ method of skincare was born.
It is more or less the same regime morning and evening, although in the morning I don’t remove my make-up and I use a day cream with SPF instead of a night cream.
It begins with removing my make-up. I use a lotion, usually Clarins Cleansing Milk with Alpine Herbs. If I have been wearing eye make-up I use an eye make-up remover too. Next it’s the deeper cleansing and massage stage. This is what the Japanese refer to as the ‘cleansing the pores’ stage, where you go beyond the superficial and get deep down into your skin. Here I use my favourite cleanser, Eve Lom Cleanser. You need a cleanser that is thick and creamy because this is also where the massaging comes in. The Japanese, as you would imagine, have an extremely precise set of instructions on the massage. I started by following them on the sheet of paper Kendal gave me, but now I just improvise. The idea of the facial massage is of course to deep cleanse, but also to relax the muscles, thus smoothing away wrinkles and eliminating toxins. Focus on your jawline, cheeks, forehead and the area around the eyes. I usually massage for between one and two minutes.
Once I have removed the cleanser, I tone. Following that I layer skincare products on my face and neck. I always start with a serum to nourish my skin; my advice pick one with active ingredients such as hyaluronic acid or vitamin C. Following that is the oil, and finally a night cream at night or a day cream for the day. And don’t forget the eye cream, another good excuse to gently massage your eye area.