A stake in the ground

A few weeks ago I stayed in a rather grand seventeenth century merchant’s house in France. It had walls a metre thick and backed on to a hill, which was all very fine for protecting against the biting north wind but, 350 years later, made phoning or texting a lottery. Unless, that is, I went upstairs to our bedroom and pressed myself against the window in the sloping roof. Contortions were also needed in an altogether more humble, two-up, two-down cottage in Cardiff. Here, the best spot I could find was about four feet above the floor in front of the fireplace – just too high to speak when sitting down, and too low when standing up.

Notwithstanding the contortions, the search for hotspots was made easier because the houses were relatively small and we were told that access was available. Imagine the luck required to find any reception in the middle of nowhere.

When we were in Kenya, halfway up its eponymous mountain, someone had clearly struck lucky. Each day a trickle of guides, guards, and trekkers made their way to a wooden stake that marked the spot. There, and nowhere else around, they could use their mobile phones to check out for inclement weather, forest fires or home news.

These digital ‘windows’ are a real godsend, whether within the house or in the expanse of Africa, but there are other special hotspots which are invaluable too; albeit that they are rather more prosaic. In my more everyday haunts I know the whereaboute of the all-too-rare public toilets, of the few coffee houses that don’t play background music and of the more likely places to find a taxi.

But all these serve essentially physical needs. There are also intellectual oases, at least that is how I see them, hiding away in people’s minds. Out of sight and certainly not signposted, there are these sources of unique insights whose whereabouts I am privy to, and to which I can turn when needs demand. In a world of unceasing chatter and information excess, these minds offer special havens. Importantly, their owners are friends who are happy to help, generous with their thoughts, know how I work, and rarely begrudge me the time.

So, for expert insights into English literature, it’s to Neil’s mind I turn. While for resolving knotty legal issues relating to my work, for years it was Joseph. And recently two other friends with specialist oasitic qualities helped me out when part of me felt very deserted. Both instances related to my recent bereavement – please forgive me for referring to this again.

Of the two friends, one is new, the other more established. John happens to be a classical music buff. Rohan and I had been sent a home-made disc which contained some of my son’s favourite operas. It came in an unadorned, plain plastic cover. We were keen to identify a particular aria to be played at his funeral but without the customary accompanying blurb, the search was fraught. However, all was resolved when, over the phone, I played the piece to John. After only a few bars he recognised the music and the composer, and seconds later the actual performance (Trio Soave sia il Vento, Così Fan Tutte, Mozart, Glyndebourne 2006). It sounded wonderful.

Rohan and I were considering who might speak at the funeral. As his father, I was torn between feeling a duty to say something myself, and feeling a strong need to sit quietly in the congregation, allowing me to reflect and to mourn. At this point I turned to Leanda, a psychiatrist with more than a passing knowledge of bereavement. In response to her insight, I wrote a letter ‘to Dan’ which was read out. Importantly, it felt right. Leanda’s help, particularly how she set out the issues, was invaluable.

Finding exactly what one needs can be a lottery. Knowing their precise whereabouts, and how to  access them, makes a real difference. And like the oases of yesteryear, these sites, by their very nature, are few and far between and well worth treasuring.

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