'I've lost my words,' announces Cousin Claude over breakfast. Lily, Dusty and I are visiting during half-term, as an imminent-departure-to-Vietnam-panic-displacement activity. Plus, Claude went to Vietnam last year and is going to bring me up to speed on significant changes over the past decade.
'I thought they'd gone for ever,' she continues, 'but Tina said to me, “Claudette, it happened to me. Go to Asia. You'll find your words.” And I did, Lize, I did. While I was walking under a palm tree in Nha Trang. It was like the mist lifted and I could think. Admittedly i wasn't actually talking to anyone at the time. But somehow I felt I'd cleared the backlog of all this... this....' She gives an exasperated squeal. 'You see, I've lost my words … this... this... random communication that's ... squirted, not squirted.... you see, lost my word again .... It's very much like when you dry in the theatre and you're standing on stage with adrenaline jumping up your jacksy and all you have to say is “keep” and you suddenly say “retain”.
'No, all this random stuff bombarded at you, coming at you. It bogs you up. It jams up your system. I rebooted myself in Asia, that's what I did!'
I take a moment to reflect on the possibility that I might also reboot myself in Asia. Find my words! But I'm thinking, Asia: mayhem, noise, frenzy, colour, life, motorbikes bombarding you, coming at you. Not the sort of place a scattered, system-overloaded woman would find her words, surely?
'That's somebody else's mayhem and hubbub though, Lize, and the great thing is you can go into yourself and touch base with who you are and what you believe. You don't have to be part of the communication flooding into you at all angles. It's a relief when you get it back and you realise it's not Early-Onset … you know, Early-Onset....'
'Maybe it's congenital,' I say. 'It's happening to everyone I know. Sally, Cass...'
'But they're not in our family,' points out Claude. 'No, I think it's Britain. It's living in the West. There's just too much going on. Or maybe it's just old age.'
Lily shuffles in. She has Early Onset Teenageriness and has given up her words.
'Now Lily,' says Claude, holding up a black hoodie with day-glo stripes. 'What do you think of this, because it's a bit young for me. I bought this and thought, this will make me feel young, but no, it's too young for me, and again, too small for me. So I thought, no, this has the look of Lil about it.'
Lily puts it on, does up the zip, pulls the hood over her head and grins in a slightly self-conscious way. The sleeves are about eight inches too long and it comes down over her bottom.
'There, perfect! And not too big,' says Claude.
'She loves anything that's an... an....,' I start. 'Oh God, I'm doing it now. Anything that isn't too girly. Ambivalent. Androgynous!'
'Now look,' Claude is saying from the scullery. 'I've got Crunchy Nuts, I've got Bran Flakes, I've got these little packs, what do you call them... like a big pack in a little pack and there's lots of them and they're all different, and actually nobody ever eats them generally. Or,' she emerges with a purple bag in one hand, 'do you want this stuff? It completely sorts out your nails. It's flax, sunflower, pumpkin and goji berries. It's incredibly expensive but you just put a little sprinkle and it's completely fabulous if you've got crap nails or little whitey things.'
'Is it seeds?' I enquire.
'No it's chopped up and completely gets in your teeth,' she says, nearly tripping over Dusty as she returns to the table. 'Oh Dusty, darling. Wherever I go, you are determined to lie down under my feet. I do hope you're not going to pop your paws while you're here.'
She spoons some seed-berry mix into my bowl for me to try.
'Muerurgh,' I mumble. ' Bit sawdusty. Oooeugh. And sour.'
'Yes,' it is, she agrees. 'It's lucky I like it, because I'm terribly fussy. Now, Lize, we'd better get on to Asia because we've got a lot to do today if we're going to go for a walk and have lunch and make pompoms and see Tintin.'
She opens up her laptop with her Asia photos. 'Now the trouble is, because of my thing, I won't be able to remember anything about Vietnam because I can't remember anything even though I was there last year. But what I would say is, I was so aware of all these people thinking they're experiencing the country because rose petals are put in their bath and there's a nice bit of batik folded up on the pillow, but they get in an air-conditioned bus and do the Cu Chi Tunnels and then at lunchtime they're back in their bus to go to an air-conditioned hotel and then they're back in the bus to go to the Reunited ... the Re... you know, the United Reform...'
'Exactly, so they're never really experiencing what it's like to be there and part of the experience is, it's terribly hot.'
I'm nodding and mmm-ing in agreement. 'I'd love to take them off the beaten track, but there's a set tour and I imagine all the hotels and restaurants will be pre-arranged. I'm just there to hold their hands really. They're all going to be old ladies. I'm meant to be the Expert on Culture and History and everything, but I think Mike realises it's not really my bag. He called and said he's told them I'm a Food and Fashion Expert and they're quite keen to have some things run up, but I don't know if my guy in Hoi An is still there and he's not answering his emails.'
'It doesn't really matter,' dismisses Claude. 'They're all the same, like Chinese restaurants in Gerrard Street. They've all got different facades but they're all using the same kitchen. I used Mickey Moon in Hoi An - he would do the fittings and then it would disappear off to the factory and the next day, he'd fit you in it. They all use the same factory.'
I write down Mickey Moon, Hoi An, in my notebook. 'What about Saigon?' I ask. 'It is still called Saigon, isn't it?'
'Absolutely. Although we called it Hochers.' She looks at me over her specs and gives a Three Little Maids From School titter.
'So what's it like now?' I ask. 'It was one big building site when I was there, and millions of motorbikes so that you couldn't cross the road.'
'It's still much the same. Twisted cables everywhere, not really a building site. But I was only there for a day, so I just had my hair done. Your ladies might enjoy that. It's cheap as chips and they do your colour and your nails at the same time. Of course, while you're sitting there, men would come in and go up the stairs and you'd hear a 'Guh! Uh!' from upstairs, and you'd go ho-hum, back to my nails.'
'Yuk!' I grimace. I glance at Lily, who is in her own dream world, swirling her soggy Crunchy Nut flakes around in a milky whirlpool.
Claude looks at me with her Three Little Maids smile. 'Well, Lize, you'd just think, this is their life, they've got to eat. And then, I'd go off to the best hotel in town for a drink. You know the one, what's it's name? The Graham Greene hotel.'
'Cuh-something,' I say. 'Or is it the Excelsior? Cuh... Oh, never mind. What about Nha Trang? I never liked it when we used to go – the fact that the beach is right on the main thoroughfare - but we're staying there two days, it seems.'
'Oh I loved Nha Trang,' rhapsodises Claude. 'The fact that it's like the Riviera with the boulevard in front of this heavenly long sandy beach. I'd pay less than tuppence to go to this beach club where we'd sit by the pool on a sunlounger and, look!' She turns her laptop to face me. 'That's my lunch. Sushi and a watermelon juice. Heaven!'
'Who are they?' I ask, pointing to a picture of Claude towering over a group of Vietnamese dressed in blue.
'Ah,' says Claude, with a little sigh. 'That is my hairdressing team. It took six people to colour my hair.' Her tone suddenly changes to one of alarm. 'Oh darling! Is it Friday? I'd completely forgotten! I've got to run round to The Cut Above. Mark said he'd trim my fringe.' She snaps the laptop shut and runs off.
Hmmm. Perhaps I should take Claude along as Hairdressing and Luxury Lifestyle on Less Than Tuppence Expert.