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The Italian who came to tea
Having couchsurfed my way around Turin in March, I was delighted to get a chance to return the favour when I got a request to surf my couch from a fellow couch surfer.
Anna is the same age as me, a girl in her prime, and lives in Milan.
I do a quick check of my calender and the Ryanair website, bingo, I find a midweek flight from Milan to Bournemouth for 20 pounds return NO TAX. I quickly send off the details to Anna who is delighted and books it up straightaway.
In her email she says she has just read TE Lawrence's The Seven Pillars of Wisdom, she has fallen in love with him and wants to come and lay flowers on his grave.
I am so ashamed to have to admit publicly that I have not read any TE Lawrence, ...yet.
I am however very familiar with his grave. Several summers ago I drove out there to have tea with a friend at the schoolhouse and having scoffed scones a plenty I returned to my car and found I had locked my keys in it. I don't know how I did it as I'm sure I couldn't do it now if I tried. The weather took this precise moment to chuck down an unseasonal May monsoon. I sheltered in the porch of the graveyard whilst The Beard, box of black magic tucked under his arm, cycled the 8 miles out there to, I quote 'Save' me. I dont generally enjoy being kissed by a sopping wet sweaty man with a runny nose but on this occassion I made an exception.
As I stand and wait for Anna in arrivals I realise that I have only seen one tiny photo of her and that we don't have each others mobile phone numbers. Bournemouth airport is so small though that we practically bump into each other.
Anna is a powerhouse of fun, she comes bearing gifts, a huge chunk of fresh parmesan and a slab of chocolate. Her English puts my Italiano stupido to shame. I am now in Anna's world and I feel like life has gone up a gear. She was born in Argentina but left for Italy in her 20s. She is single, has no kids, she used to have a dog but he jumped off the second storey balcony of her flat. She works for a German bank and has MS.
MS is horrible. Anna has to give herself injections every other day to stay on top of it. A bad attack a few years ago left her incontinent, she describes this time as 'very bad'. Now she is no longer incontinent because she has what she describes as a peacemaker, if only, peace of of an important kind anyway. This bit of electrical magickery allows her to feel when she needs the loo. She goes pretty often, just in case.
She doesnt let this or her slightly shaky legs stop her doing anything, she is, and I say this with feeling, one hell of a woman. Before MS she used to direct films, now she films her neighbour's shy mynah bird for youtube. When her illness meant she couldn't travel she stayed local and wrote a book about the history of Milan, just for fun. She is tall and beautiful and has a smile that reminds me of how it felt to roll down grassy slopes as a child. I am in awe of her.
And I am not the only one.
Over fish and chips that evening she tells The Beard about a website she is registered on called Galaxy Zoo. His eyes widen and I see a look come over his face that I havent seen since the day I walked up the aisle of a church with my gladrags on. She describes how this site sends you photos of galaxies, which after a short period of training you can then help to classify. I manage to reach over and lift his bristly jaw off the table just in time before any drool comes out. Apart from a holiday to Cape Canaveral this is the closest The Beard will ever get to being a real live astronaut. Immediately after tea I see him don his NASA baseball cap and become one with his laptop and the ever expanding galaxy.
Hitting the TE Lawrence trail.
The next morning we buy one perfect long stemmed white rose and drive out to pay homage to Anna's love. Car keys clutched firmly in hand, I watch as Anna looks incredulously at the humble grave. She was expecting something grander. She is pleased to be here though and with great drama she places the rose on his grave. I had been hoping to indulge in a little posthumous scone scoffing but sadly the tearoom is closed.
Next stop is Clouds Hill. I am still just about a member of The National Trust, it is a remnant from when I still had money in my bank account. It is soon to be a casualty of my new liberated lifestyle and I shall miss the view from the top of Corfe Castle, the diminutive and divine copy of La Chapelle at Tyntesfield and the awesome sweeping grandeur and quirky grotto of Stourhead, to name a few.
So I am catching Clouds Hill just in the nick of time, or actually not as when we get there, well when we get there I knock on the door of a house with a lovely garden only to be told that Clouds Hill is on the other side of the road!!!!! Then we find that the real Clouds Hill is closed!!! Major disappointment. There is a man in green overalls pretending to work hiding behind a landrover behind the padlocked gate to the grounds. I try a few polite "excuse me's" to no effect and revert to my normal loud "excuse me" which finally gets his attention, I think he knew we were there all the time but was hoping we'd go away ... oh poor innocent fool.
Anna is impressive and actually has tears in her eyes as she wails "But I have come all the way from EEEtaly to see the 'ouse of LLLawrrence". The man in green cracks with the ease of the Queen's teaset sat on by Jonah Lomu, and he let's us hop over the fence. I leap over with the lightness of a young gazelle [this may be a big fat lie] and we follow the path through the woods to the former gamekeepers cottage. For the second time that day I see Anna's face register suprise as we find the tiny and plain little house, then she chuckles and realises she should have expected this, she is getting to know the real Lawrence better.
Back on the other side of the fence we get chatting to a guy in leathers on a big motorbike who has come all the way from Essex to fnd the house closed too. For some reason he had the effect of making me incredibly giggly. I think it must have been that time in my cycle when, according to some documentary I watched one day when my channel changer batteries were flat, I am on the look out for a hunky chap to mate with, as opposed to the rest of the month when all I want is someone who doesn't mind if I watch three episodes of 'Place in the Sun' back to back. He tells us about a marker stone further up the road that shows where Lawrence, having survived a horrible war sadly died after motorbike accident at the site. I say goodbye, toss my hair at him with absolutely no effect whatsoever and head off.
We park at the "tank viewing area" which I guess is there as some sort of emergency planning precaution. Designed to save the world, in the event of a national rail strike, from being taken over by crazy trainspotters who are out for blood because there are no large machines moving past for them to ... spot. No doubt the army will step up and drive tanks around for them to watch and quell the uprising.
A loo break is needed and there is a handy pub nearby called ... "Clouds Hill". We walk in hoping to see Lawrence memorabilia only to find a cavernous place that resembles a truly awful youth club. Dorset is really letting down the tourists today. Fortunately Anna is keen to try "crisps with vinegar on" They make my half a pint of flat lemonade slightly more bearable.
Undaunted we continue on in our effort to enjoy the TE Lawrence Dorset connection. At the advice of my Mother in Law and with a map from The Beard we go to Wareham. There is a church here that has an "effigy" of Lawrence, whatever that is.
An ancient old church built on the walls of the town, it looks promising, but something's wrong, the doors won't open. Conveninetly there is a note on the board telling us where to find the keyholder in such an event, it is held by a chap in a shop only a hundred metres or so away. I feel relieved as I was beginning to feel like Richard Attenborough's character in Jurassic Park where all the dinosaurs are hiding and his tour guests can't see much of anything.
Would you believe me if I told you that the shop was shut???? I know I couldn't, well until I remembered that this is Dorset. The words on the door said "Weds half day closing". I swear that I am going to do a poll of 100 sixth form students and ask them to describe what half day closing is. I am betting, well nothing 'cos I haven't got any money, but I am guessing that none of them will have a clue. I'm sorry now that I made that comment about the film and I realise that this is the Jurassic coast, but surely half day closing went out with .... the dinosaurs?
I now have no more little Lawrence related visits left up my sleeve ... so we go for lunch. Credit crunch style I had brought a picnic and we sat in the sun by the river like two lifelong friends whilst I ate bread and Anna fed the ducks with it. Something to do with her stomach being "closed until at least 4 in the afternoon", the words stomach and closed in the same sentence just did not make sense to me.
Anna told me about her latest obsession which is pirates, female pirates in particular. I told her about Chesil Beach and how on a moonless night pirates could navigate where they were on the Dorset coast by feeling the size of the pebbles.
When we got back to the car, yes I had the keys thank you very much, I also had a parking ticket. I have not fessed this up to The Beard yet, neither have I paid it yet. I am a fuguitive from justice, next time you read my blog I will have texted it on the mobile phone I keep hidden under my pillow in my jail cell. You may think this is not a very good hiding place but I found loads of contraband under pillows in cells in the days when I was on the right side of the law. The fact that I found it there does actually go to prove the point that it is not a very good hiding place. I hope there aren't any prisoners reading this, I don't want to give them any tips. Actually I do have one very good tip I would like to give them. If you don't want to go to prison again, don't break the law. Am I being hypocritical, am I on a slippery slope, just one parking ticket in Wareham away from the great Swanage steam railway robbery.
Just before we left for the airport the next day I received a parcel of sky lanterns that I had ordered for Fuzzy Lip's 18th birthday party. He was going camping in France with friends. I asked Anna if she had ever seen them.
She told me that the previous year she had been going through some books in her attic and found one that she had won as a prize at school.
Everyone in the school had attached a tag to a balloon with their name and the school address on and then let them all go at once. A list was placed on the noticeboard in the corridor and every time a tag was returned they would record who's had gone the furthest. Every day she came into school and still her balloon had not been found.
Some weeks later it came back, she was so excited, her balloon had gone the furthest and she won a prize, the book.
Although it had been forgotten in her attic for many years she still had the book and the tag with the name and address of the finder was slipped inside it. Over 30 years after someone had found her balloon she realised she had never written to say thank you, so she decided it wasn't too late and wrote to express her gratitude.
Amazingly her balloon friend had not changed address and she received a reply from the man's daughter. He was now ill with a kind of dementia that meant he couldn't remember the things he had just done or anything from the recent past. He could however remember things from way back and finding Anna's balloon was one of them. In her letter to Anna his daughter spoke of the huge joy having this memory brought back to him had given her father and herself, when otherwise he had so little memory of his life left to him to enjoy and share. This had been something that he could talk about coherently and through it he was briefly able to find himself again.
Anna, see ... I told you she was amazing.
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