Ushi – Oxfordshire July 2021

I remember it was an apartment, the darkness of the room, a grand piano at one end, Wagner playing on a record player, and Uncle Edmund telling me about the Ring Cycle. Into this strange, bohemian setting, came Ushi, herself full of light and life, offering tea and cake. Ushi, Edmunds new wife, who I presume now, was the reason we, my mother and I, were there. To meet her, a family inspection. Everything about that visit was new to me.

Later on a visit to Edmund and Ushi in Aston Tyrald, Edmund changed the direction of my life. He imbued me with a taste of Africa, I upted sticks, left the secure job at Imperial Cancer Research Fund, and climbed Kilimanjaro, Mount Meru, the Ash cone, the Livingstone Mountains. I lost my travel virginity.

Later I would visit the Baldons not to see Edmund but be around Ushi, the earth mother, the home maker. On one such occasion, full of moping for a rejection from Oxford John, (who I’d met on a previous visit walking the Ridge Way one summers day). After some days of expressing my grief in circles she turned to me and said: ‘There are plenty of more fish in the sea, Rachel’. Tough love she had, words I needed to hear. She was right of course.

Later still sitting in her Oxford kitchen, once again I was relaying a story of rejection – this time of Sugata, she listened again, allowed me to smoke a cigarette inside, and she heard me out.

I knew of her healing now, her kindness and warmth. She was the mother I longed for, my own having died long before.

We drove down, across country. Actually Michael drove, as I was falling asleep at the wheel. Arriving at the Horse and Jockey at Stamford in the Vale, we saw the H was missing from the Horse, which was prophetic. The previous night they’d called, they’d had an outbreak of CORVID-19 in the pub, all were isolating, but the rooms were separate so would be safe. We did not take up their offer of changing last minute knowing that with the rush for staycations in the UK, there would be no other places for us to move to. So here we were, in a stuffy room with a single small double bed, hot and stiffling, a car park without a tree in sight. I was sore of temper.

We climbed. I’d forgotten to put the word pub after the White Horse, where we were to dine, so sat nav took us to the white horse hill. At the top a camper with table outside, two glasses of wine on the table, with views over the land. I was envious of their calm enjoyment. We climbed. Hair bells, Scabius, yellow rattle, ladies bedstraw peppered the wild grasses. I asked a man if we could see the white horse, no he said, you need to be down to see it, he thought, although it was his first time here. ‘I think I’ll stay and watch the full moon rise from here, he said. I felt the stricture of my ties that didn’t allow me this freedom.
The pub was quintessential. The place where we should have stayed. A pint of delicious beer and cyder, a full pizza, dogs beside us. Back to the place with no H to the still hot room. A fitful night.

Still short of temper, Michael’s instructions mis directed us. We arrived, not with the anticipated 30 minutes to spare, but in time. Dominic greeted us, so warmly, with a hug (Do you hug? he asked politely) and words I’ve forgotten now, which softened my temper and so I looked out into the day.

We gathered. Around the hole in the ground, the coffin of woven whicker already in place. Ushi’s friends and family. Dom led the ceremony, starting with wry amusement, ‘It is my first time, it is just me, no MC, and I may become tearful’. Indeed he did. This is the emotional part, he declared. He spoke of his mother, her healing and nurture. His bike accident after he’d lost his foot and had it sown on again. Her robust massaging. He read a story from a woman whose life she had in effect saved through her treatment. Berenice, who was sitting on the grass beside, stood and spoke next, with a brief story of Ushi’s early life in Germany, of her three brothers, all older only one now surviving. Of how she was on a verandah until she could walk off it. Of the family holidays together (I remember Goa), of Ushi’s care of Berenice’s two daughters. My turn came next, followed by a woman who was once her neighbour, to whom she bought meals on wheels.

We dispersed from the field of wild grass and growing trees, and gathered again back at the Baldons, her home once and now, Berencie’s and Richards.

As we cousins gathered for a photo call, I thought she was almost the last, just Monica remains of that generation. We were the heads of the tribe now, the cousins. Jo, (her brother Chris not with us as he didn’t know Ushi), Katherine and Steve (no Richard as he was busy), Young Edmund and Sarah, their two daughters, Ioni and Sarah, and Nickie:
‘You do not recognise me’, she said with a smile. ‘We have all grown older!’ Nickie and I were contemporaries, often awkwardly fitted together in family situations. Her life had been extraordinary, forged in Africa, now living as a healing herbalist in London. Her son Adam, his Japanese wife and their son, who played with the dogs. Adam, who works out of Imperial College in Africa, based in Ghana. The countries plight he described is that it puts no value on its resources, allows the Chinese to cut down the trees, for export. ‘Indeed they export coconuts and import coconut oil from South Africa’, he explained.

Ann, who now lives in Salisbury, near the Cathedral she first worked back in the 1970s. Happy to be there, releasing funds from her London home to give to her children. One was there, who I did not speak with. Anne’s silver hair, strong face and holding of conversation. She was not curious of others lives, content with her own.

After a drink by the river in Goring – manicured grass, huge cars in the car park, farrow and ball paint, designer club writing, we collapsed back at the place with no H, and noticed that it also missed the O too. the RSE and JOCKEY.

Bletchly on the way back. I think of Wanda who worked there, and Jane Spence’s mother. Two thirds of the 8,000 work force were women. The Park and extraordinary mix of style building was owned and designed by Sir Herbert Samuel Leon, a stockbroker, who’s widow died in 1937. The Ministry, keen for secrecy, got a private person to buy it with Ministry funds. Its attraction was Bletchley’s geographical centrality, in between Oxford and Cambridge, major recruiting grounds of bright nerds. Denniston, the first in command, recognised the centrality of intelligence and electromechanical cipher machines, employed Turing and the rest, who broke first the German Enigma and Lorenz ciphers.

The place now with recent face life is extremely popular, full, and full of entertainment. Most interesting for me was Hut 12, ‘Never Alone’ exhibition which asks What happens when everything is connected? How many of us accept Terms and Conditions without reading the print, accept all cookies, allow ‘them’ to monitor every part of your day? The exhibition explores objects that relate to tracking, surveillance and smart homes, the question of what freedom we are prepared to sacrifice for safety or comfort.

The journey back through endless pasts. Croxton, and Chris Curry, passed Stuart Orrs home, now inhabbited by another, drive past Sally Stockly corner (where she died in a road accident), passed where Bob was once buried in a wicker coffin.

Michael rests while I type this outside 22 Station Road, a home I have not found a love for. Feelings of emptiness and sadness that I shall not hug or be hugged by Ushi again, regret at not seeing her for far too long.

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