Sunday, 13 November 2011

Our very own Scarlet Pimpernel


‘Eliza! Hello-o.’ Luna is hovering over me. ‘If you can drag yourself away, it’s time to go get my glasses.’

As soon as I step away from my seat, Nancy sidles in. She addresses Duncan urgently in a low voice. I just catch: ‘… film about animal rights … the practice of eating dogs in Vietnam…’

Typical! As soon as he sees her Passion for Animal Rights, he’ll know I’ve been faking my Passion for Poverty ’n’ Film. 

We are at the opticians. It is the moment of truth. Luna heaves her new spectacles to her eyes.

‘Eliza! I can see! I’m not blind any more! This is amazing!’ Her voice is quavering with emotion. Beaming, she throws her arms around me and then turns to hug the white-coated optician and his dolly assistants, bringing smiles to all our stony faces.

Oh. My mobile! I fumble for it in my bag. New text.

Eliza. Hope yr phone switched on. Urgent. Come to Landmark 72 asap. Pls confirm you got this. Duncan x

A lover’s tryst! How thrilling! Hmmm. How to get rid of Luna? And what’s Landmark 72? 

Friday, 4 November 2011

Eliza's book

The posts between 4 November 2011 and 13 January 2012, with my adventures and dramas in Vietnam and beyond, have been whisked away for my new book! Am going to be famous!  

Thursday, 3 November 2011

Bonjour Saigon

'He wouldn't listen to me,' says Maggie, the Dowager Countess of Montmarch. 'None of them would. Of course I knew, but they were all in his thrall because you said he was in charge.' It turns out that the group traipsed after Steve around the airport, from the Reef Bar to the Glass Bar to Caffe Nero to the Mango Tree and back to the Reef Bar, pausing for a few hours' restless kip, strewn across strips of empty seats.

'We sang songs to keep our spirits up,' says Maggie, taking a swig of her daiquiri. We are sneaking in a secret cocktail before meeting the others for dinner.

'What,' I say, 'like Roll Out the Barrel and It's a Long Way to Tipperary?'

She lets out a booming guffaw. 'We're not that old! I was there for the Summer of Love! No, things like I Can't Get No-o Satisfaction and I'm Leavin' on a Jet Plane, don't know when I'll be back again and I've got a Ticket to Ride and I don't care!'

Oh my God. They all look like my parents in their slacks and Hush Puppies and uncrushable travel wardrobes. But the reality is, half of them are nearer my generation than my parents'. Maggie can only be about 15 years older than me. 20 max. I must say, though, this trip is otherwise marvellous for the self-esteem and fear of Early-Onset. Honestly! They may have a good handle on 60s song lyrics, but Maggie and I are the only pair with any common sense around here. Maggie, despite her girl-guidey/pony-club boom, has a youthful twinkle in her eye and a dark sense of humour. Steve is out. Maggie is my new right-hand person.

Yesterday, though. Quel nightmare. After a mad frenzy of discussion to officials, texts back and forth to Mike and Loc, and invoking the name of the British Ambassador, the manager of the Oriental and various CEOs dredged up from my old Bangkok days in order to expedite reclaiming the group's baggage which was thrown off the previous day's Saigon plane and being held in some sort of top-security nuclear bunker, and reissuing new boarding passes which by some miracle they agreed to do at no extra charge despite it being against company policy, we made it onto the Saigon plane. Loc was there to greet us, all smiles as he wiped the sweat off his brow.

At the Grand, we met up with the two Americans, Luna and Nancy.

'My, you finally got here,' said Luna, a smart New York doctor in her late 50s. In contrast to my dazed-looking, whiffy, beslacked flock, she was all washed and blow-dried, in a little slip dress, gold jewellery and clouds of perfume.

'Well, we've sussed out Saigon, haven't we, Nancy?' she said with a dazzle of red lipstick and white teeth. 'We've done the Cu Chi tunnels. I was interested in the dioxins and incidence of cancer, because I'm a doctor. And then we did the War Remnants Museum, which used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes but it offended a lot of Americans, so they rightly changed the name. Nancy thought the foetuses in the jars were like a freak show, but they didn't worry me because I'm a doctor. And we stopped for a café. Basically, you just say any word in French and it's the same in Vietnamese! Ca phe. Ga. You know, gare, station.'

I didn't say, 'pho!' I gave her the forced toothy smile of one who has a Passion for Tour Leading.

'We're not together,' said Nancy, who is young enough to be Luna's daughter and whose style is more outward-bound grunge. 'I'm from California.'

This morning I proposed a day off to the Lost-in-Bangkok contingent. 'I thought you might like to recoup,' I added.

'What, recoup our losses?' snorted Miss Chick.

'No,' I said defiantly, despite feeling caught out by one who should be the more senile. 'You know, recoup... recuperate.'

But no, they were all on for the full tour. While I had to catch up on business matters by the pool, they trotted off with Loc to the Ben Thanh market and Thu Thiem across the river before breakfast (in my defence, they have had a whole extra day in Asia to get over the jetlag), and then we split up - me with the ones who wanted to see the tunnels and the foetuses, Loc with the others to see the Reunification Palace, History Museum and various pagodas. I must say, they may be naive but they're full of energy, these silver citizens. I was flagging in the 30 degree swelter, but nothing would induce them to give up and go back to the Grand for a swim.

'Better drink up, Maggie,' I say, nodding in the direction of the lift. Our ladies are emerging in blue and beige shirtwaisters, our gents – Man No 2 joins us this evening - in outward-bound Rohan trousers with zip-off legs.

'We're poor little lambs, who've lost our way...' sings Maggie.

Wednesday, 2 November 2011

Bangkok airport

15:00, Bangkok time

My nose is pressed to the porthole again as we make our final descent. Gosh, it's completely waterlogged down there. But the captain says the main airport is fine. In fact it's a beautiful sunny day, apart from the band of smog hanging over the city.


Two texts from Mike:

'We've lost them. No word. Not on next Thai Air flight. V serious. FIND THEM!!!!'
and 'Text me as soon as you land.'

And one from Loc.

'Hello Mrs Eliza. I am Loc, your tour guide. Please phone me on arrival in BKK.'

Wow! The airport's completely swanked up since I was last here. Acres of marble and steel. Travelators galore. Right. Here's our luggage. And there's my suitcase. Uh! God, it's got heavier. Right, suitcase on the trolley. Trolley dolly on the trolley. Ready to go out and face the music.

Oh God! Where to start? I am just staring to left and right, wondering how to find 10 needles in an Asian haystack when I see Steve!

'Steve!' I cry. Oh my God. And there, following in a slightly weary train, are the wizened pair and the Countess and everyone! Even Miss Chick, still in her check!

'Eliza!' they chorus. 'You made it!' They seem in remarkably good spirits. Or perhaps it's just the relief of seeing their lost leader.

'What happened to you all?' I ask. 'And what are you doing here? You should have just gone through transit for the Saigon flight.'

'Well,' says Steve, giving me a knowing look. 'No Saigon flight.'

'We trusted him,' chips in Wizened 1.

'Yes, we did,' says Wizened 2. 'He said he'd been in 'Nam.'

'Chelte'nam,' scoffs the Countess.

'But how come you ended up here, and not in the transit lounge? They'd have called your flight from there. You couldn't have missed it.'

'I don't know about transit,' says Steve. 'We just followed everyone off the plane.'

'But what about your luggage?' I can't understand how they managed to buck the system. They shouldn't have been allowed through to Arrivals. 'Your bags were checked all the way through to Saigon. But if you didn't get on the flight, they would have called you over the Tannoy. Didn't you hear any announcements?'

'No,' they chorus. 'They all speak Thai, here, don't they?' says Steve, with the look of One who Knows Better.

'But the announcements would have been in English as well.'

They all look at each other, shaking their heads. 'No,' says Steve. 'All we heard was Double Dutch.'

'So have you picked up your luggage?'

'No,' says Steve. 'We were waiting for you to sort that out.'

I'm still incredulous. 'But didn't you look at the departures board, even if you did somehow end up in the main arrivals area?' I ask.

Steve nods, smiling his knowing look. 'We all had our eyes peeled. Nothing to Saigon.'

'Thai Airways? TG whatever it was? 6.25?'

'No. Chang something. Fooket. King Kong. Ho Chow Mein. No Saigon.'

Oh God. Oh God. 'Ho Chow Mein.... Do you mean Ho Chi Minh City?'

'Yes, that's the one. But, trust me, no Saigon.'

Oh God.

Up, up and away

Right, Mike. Deep breath. Call.

‘Mike, it’s…’

‘Eliza! What the fuck is going on?’

‘I’m sorry, Mike, but I lost…’ my voice quavers, ‘I lost my grandmother.’

‘Oh!’ He sounds stunned. ‘Oh. I’m sorry. When? Why didn’t you tell us?’

‘I was in a state of shock. I got the phone call to say she was dying literally as I was about to check in. I thought, I can’t leave the group, but I had to. I thought it would sound too trivial – you know, because she was old, so it was inevitable. But she was so devoted to me. I just wanted to be there at her side, stroking her soft ears – I mean her head, you know, holding her hand when she went. I couldn’t bear for her to think I’d abandoned her in her final hour. Anyway, I’m sorry. I pretended I’d forgotten my passport because then there was nothing to be done but go back for it.’

‘Hmm, mmm,’ Mike is saying throughout this speech.

‘But I’m sure they’ll be all right,’ I add brightly. ‘I put Steve in charge. He seemed absolutely up to the job. I texted him last night with Loc’s number and where to meet him and everything.’

‘Hmm, mmm. That’s assuming they got as far as Ho Chi Minh, isn’t it, Eliza?’

‘Oh God! Didn’t they?’

‘Loc just called me. The plane’s just arrived. No group.’

Oh God!

‘Do you have Steve’s number?’ I ask.

‘Yes. Straight through to voicemail. You know, a lot of our punters don’t understand about roaming.’

Oh God.

‘Have you tried any of the others?’

‘I’m at home now, as you may appreciate, given that it’s . But I’m going to have to go into the office now to find the others’ numbers, though  I expect the small minority that actually have mobile phones will also have them switched off or not set up for roaming. We’ll have to see, won’t we?’

Oh God.   

‘Mike,' I try to sound calm and measured. 'I have to go now as they’re calling my flight. I’ll be there tomorrow afternoon, and I’m sure they’ll have contacted you or Loc by then, but anyway, I’ll sort it out as soon as I get there. I’m really, really sorry about this.’



I love this feeling of hushed suspension as the plane comes to a halt before pulling out the stops. And, foot on the pedal, off we go! The lights of Heathrow are racing by, and we’re up… up… and awaaaay. Mmmm – nice First Class-style recline before we level out. Now we’re banking steeply. I press my nose to the porthole. Below me are the twinkling orange lights of London, the red and white streamers along the roads, the black serpent of the Thames.

Urgh. Cabin sparks to life, lights flicker on, you may now unfasten your seatbelt, click, snap, bustle in the aisle. Why do they always have to spoil it?

Right, I’m having duck red curry and pak choi and … which movie? Oh this one looks good. Kristin Scott Thomas looking tragic and ethereal and a sweet little girl from Vietnam. I’ve Loved You So Long.

Oh God. I’m snivelling and snuffling and the man next to me is adjusting his eye mask and shifting away from me in his seat. This always happens to me. Whatever movie I choose on a plane, it always chimes with my current state. So this one, pretty grim as it turns out, is about a woman who’s just out of prison for murdering her six-year-old son. At the end we discover she killed him because he had a painful terminal disease. Euthanased or -ized him, in other words. Causing her lifelong, overwhelming pain. Done out of pure love. Waaa!

They've turned the lights down at last and I’m just drifting off when I sit up with a jolt, eyes wide open. I didn’t have Dusty killed so that I could go to Vietnam, did I? No. No. I didn’t. No. Sandy said. The vet said. Dan said. They all said it was the right thing. It’s coming back to me, now. The vet said I’d feel anger, guilt, all the usual things, but it was The Right Thing. I slump back in my seat. Oh God. Bereavement is like an earthquake. You get the initial shock and all the emotions that go with it, and then just as you think you’re on stable ground again, you get these aftershocks that hit as viscerally as the first.

Tuesday, 1 November 2011

Dusty's memorial haiku

Always at my feet,
indeed, sometimes under them;
always in my heart

Sad faces

Ah. Email from Lily.  


Hmmm. I'm still none the wiser. Is she feeling upset or just acknowledging that it's sad?


Phone rings. Oh good. It's from the Manor.

‘Mum!’ a little voice pipes. ‘I’m confused. Am I staying tonight or coming home?’

‘You’re staying, darling. I’m almost at the airport now. I went home yesterday because of Dusty Do, but I’ve got to fly to Vietnam tonight.’  

‘Oh, OK. And Mu-um, you know how Esme’s coming home for the weekend when you're back...’

'Mmm.' I bite my tongue. 

‘Can we make pompoms for Santa’s grotto?’


‘And Mu-um, I told Esme about Dusty. Is that all right?’

‘Yes. It’s not a secret, unless you want to keep it secret…?’

‘No.’ Am I imagining it, or does her voice sound a tiny bit higher-pitched and tighter than normal? ‘Mu-um, I was a bit upset at tea when I read about Dusty.’

‘Well, darling, it is very sad.’


‘Was Esme nice to you?’

‘Yes. And Mu-um, Esme told Sassie. Is that all right?’

‘Yes, darling. It’s fine. Are they the only ones in your dorm who know? Do you not want the others to know?’


I take this to mean that she’s not sure.

‘Mu-um, there’s the bell for prep. Bye!’

My funny girl.

Right. Just pulling in to Heathrow. Check in first and then brace myself to call Mike. I wonder how my group is getting on. They should be on their way to Saigon right now. The thing is, they'll be fine. They only had to wait a couple of hours at the airport and the local guide is meeting them at Saigon to take them to the hotel.


The tributes are flooding in. Texts, Facebook posts, emails, phone calls. As my iPhone chings to life for the umpteenth time, the man across the aisle humphs, gathers his things and moves to another seat.

‘She was an amazing person,’ says Vincent. ‘I’ll always think of her as Lily’s dog-sister. She really was a member of the family.'

‘Oh hey now!!’ emails Sophia’s sister Rose. ‘Hey now’ is her family’s unique expression of comfort and sympathy. ‘Such brave girls (you and her). Richard says he will always remember Dusty for her kindness. She was so sweet-natured and nice to Percy when he wasn't always very nice to her (although he is very sad to hear the news and is now considering his own mortality). Iona says, “Super Hey Now,” which is the most healing and comforting phrase in the Fry lexicon. Xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx’

Facebook message from my goddaughter Alice, Sophia's daughter. ‘She really was the most adorable baby girl, with a personality more endearing and intelligent than a great many humans. You must be heartbroken. But I honestly can't think of a dog who enjoyed a more loving family and rich life than she did.’

From Meredith, who's seen Rose's tribute on my wall and isn't even a dog-lover: 'My favorite doggie of all time. Endearing, affectionate, obedient, uncomplaining (esp about dieting!), and beautiful.  You can’t get better than Dusty. I am sad – and I send you a very big hug.'

‘I’m crying too much to go to Sainsbury’s,’ writes Sophia from her BlackBerry® wireless device.

I haven’t even told Sal or Cass yet, but I can't. Not now. I'm feeling drained. Plus my London friends were probably more attached to Dusty as a person, having known and often looked after her since she was a baby. 

I want to talk to Lily, but she’s been so shut down lately that I don’t think phoning will be a good idea. Quite apart from the fact that one can never get through. I email her.
‘Hi Darling, I’m very sorry to say, our darling Dusty Do has gone. Poor baby girl. I decided not to go to Vietnam until tonight, so I could be with her. She went to sleep very peacefully, with me stroking her silky ears all the time.’

I close my eyes and try to sleep. The bus corners and a shaft of sunlight floods my vision. The loss of Dusty comes in a wave that overwhelms me. My eyes open with a start. I look out of the window at the cars speeding past, the trees in their brilliant autumn coats. I need to stay in the here and now. If I close my eyes, I see Dusty lying on the floor. It’s a good thing I have this trip to concentrate my mind, or I could imagine sliding into a black hole.

Noble dog

I give Dusty’s ears one last stroke in the back of the van before they drive her away. My first-born, the most devoted girl you could wish for. Gone. I managed to stop myself asking what now. I suppose the deep freeze is inevitable. But at least she’s going to have an individual cremation and they’ll bring me the ashes when I’m back from Vietnam.

Dan puts his arm round my shoulders as we watch the van disappear round the corner. ‘Well done, Lize,’ he says, giving me a little squeeze. Tears are glistening in his eyes.

We go back in for a cup of tea before heading off to Canham to catch the 3.15 to Heathrow. I wish we’d thought of that yesterday. It’s just that I had everything precision-planned.

‘There are some dogs that are real personalities,’ Dan is saying. ‘Bonzo was one and Dusty was another. Digger’s an insipid dog really. His personality consists of jumping in the air with all four legs and barking.’

I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Dan, who has always mocked Dusty for being working class, while his dog, Digger, is of noble breeding. Dan, who has hitherto dismissed Dusty for being insipid, just because she lies under the table rather than be boffed by Digger.

Why do people always wait until you’re dead before they can say something nice about you?

So farewell then, Dusty Do

Pad downstairs to see my baby. She is still in situ, under the table, breathing heavily through her double chins. I crawl under the table to sit with her, stroking her ears and neck. Dan is already up and out, feeding the animals. I am staying over at his, though he wasn’t best pleased at having to pick me up after he'd gone to bed.

Turn on my mobile. Six missed phone calls and three texts, all from Mike.

: ‘Just got your text. Pls call asap.’

: ‘Eliza, where the hell are you? Pls call as soon as you get this.’

: ‘Eliza! Call me! You can’t send the group off to Thailand on their own! They have to change flights and we don’t have a rep there!’

Switch off my mobile again. I try and breathe but my lungs seem to have seized up. 


Call the vet. My nice man isn’t in yet.


Still not in.


Ah, he’s there.

'I think Dusty's near the end,' I say. I get as far as 'near' when my voice starts cracking up. 

'Is she having difficulty breathing?' he asks.

'Well her breathing isn't great, but the swelling has got much worse. It's like an Elizabethan ruff around her neck and her muzzle looks like she's been stung by a wasp.'

'Ohh,' he sighs sympathetically. 'I've got a few things to do this morning, but I can come out late morning. I'll bring a nurse.'

The minute he says it, I can’t believe I’m doing this. It seems so sudden. So final. This really is it. Today she is going to die. And it's my decision. 

'Oh, I don't know,' I squeak through suppressed tears. 

'We knew she didn't have very long, didn't we, Eliza?' His tone is kindly but firm. He must have done this a zillion times before. 'We have to think about her quality of life, and it isn't good, is it?’

I ask if it’s OK for him to come to Dan’s. It’s the same distance as Mistlebourne from Candlebury, though in the opposite direction.

‘That’s fine,’ he says. ‘I'll be with you around 12.' 

I am barely off the phone when a text arrives from Sophia, who has been one of Dusty's greatest fans since she was a puppy. 

'How is Dusty? I woke up worrying about her. xx'

I call her immediately. 'She's going to be put down today,' I sob.

'Oh Eliza, I'm so sorry, oh I'm sooo sorry,' she cries. 'She's been your truest and most devoted friend.'

'She has,' I blub. Oh, she has. 

'The thing about dogs,' says Sophia, 'is they always support you and never go off you for a day or say mean, sarcastic things like children do. Sometimes I feel very disloyal to Peggy and I love her to bits and will probably have to book into the Priory when she goes, but I think Dusty is more intelligent. She is so human in her responses. She's very intuitive.' 

I love Sophia for getting Dusty. For not being stiff-upper-lipped and telling me it's for the best and she had a good life. I know it is for the best and she did have a good life, but such catch-all phrases don't touch the soul. It's because Sophia had a true connection with Dusty. 

'I'd love to think of her in that happy hunting ground in the sky,' she continues, 'but I'm afraid I don't really believe it. I think she'll just go into a deep, peaceful sleep. And I love being asleep, so it can't be bad. The children will be so upset. She's like part of our family. Nothing could ever replace her because she's so unique. We will never ever ever forget her. Ever.'


Dan comes back from the animal rounds and, incredibly, Dusty gets up to greet him, wagging her tail.

‘There, you see,’ I bleat. ‘Now she seems OK! But I’ve just called the vet and he’s coming over at 12.’ I tail off, in tears again.

‘Yes but Lize, she’s not getting any better really, is she?’ says Dan. ‘I’m proud of you for making the right decision.’



The vet and nurse arrive. I go out to meet them and we exchange rueful smiles. As we go in the house, Dusty gets up to greet them, her tail whizzing round like a helicopter.

‘Oh look at her,’ I say. ‘I don’t know. Do you think she…?’

‘She’s lost a lot of condition since I last saw her,’ says the vet gently. ‘And look at this oedema.’ He grasps a chunk in front of her chest. ‘It’s not giving her any quality of life.’ Dusty sinks down to the floor again. ‘And look, she musters the energy to say hello, but it’s taking it out of her. I think you’re doing the right thing. You’ve given her a chance. As long as I’ve known you, you’ve always done what’s right for her. You could keep her going for another few weeks, maybe, and I’ve seen people do it, but it’s for them, not for the dog. She’s ready to go.’

My eyes are streaming, but I nod bravely. ‘OK, go ahead.’

They fetch a blanket and a towel and coax her on to it. She is now standing, unwilling to lie down. Is it a sign? The vet gently picks her up and lays her on her side. I sit on the floor beside her head. She’s so soft and warm, with her bear-like coat. So… alive. She breathes. She lives. I stroke her silky ears. I’m getting my last fix. I can’t believe she’s lying here, eyes open and searching, wondering what this is all about, and in a minute, at my decision and mine alone, she will be dead.

‘Keep talking to her,’ says the vet, as the nurse shaves off a rectangle of fur from her hind leg. Her front legs are too swollen, he says.

‘Good girl, Dusty baby,’ I say. ‘Good Dusty Do. My baby girl.’ Tears plop onto her head.

After a moment, her eyes stop moving and the lids half-close. Her body relaxes. She is still soft and warm. I keep stroking her and we keep talking. I’m reminiscing about when she was a naughty little puppy and used to bite my ankles. And the time she took herself for an after-hours walk in the park in London, and while I was waiting at the hole in the gate, I got a phone call from a girl to say she’d found my dog. She wasn’t lost, I told the girl, she was just having a little fox chase before bed and was on her way back to me. Oh, said the girl, so you mean I’ve kidnapped your dog?

There is laughter. And more tears. My baby.