It’s a wrap……
I know that heat rises. Except in this old convent building it struggles to get beyond the first floor. It gets as far as the staff room below us and then more often than not it gives up the ghost at the bottom of the stairs to the school library. Apparently up here we’ve got the wall-to-wall books to keep us warm. So I’m glad of that heavy wrap I bought in India all those years ago. If only it would stay put on my shoulders without sliding half way down my back and sometimes even trailing on the floor. I don’t have the knack of swathing it about me with a practised flick the way I saw the Buddhist monks do in Dharamsala were I bought it. Up there in the foothills of the Himalayas, the evenings can close in with a surprising chill, and the monks all wear their wraps tucked snugly over their saffron robes; they don’t seem to have any trouble keeping them beautifully in place, so I think there’s an art to it; a zen if you like. You see them gliding passed the big prayer drums as they head for the sanctuary of the monastery, each in his own self-contained bubble. Serene. Resolved. Well-wrapped.
India. It seems a lifetime ago now.
It was just after the incident with my ‘Royal Knee’. I had come a cropper at the railway works in York where the Duke of York was performing his first official appointment in his new role as UK Trade Ambassador. That’s right, the Duke was about to reinvent himself from vacuous bon viveur to the champion of British industry in the international arena. The novelty of the idea had already attracted a lot of media attention, and as the press officer in charge, I was running with the usual pack; a TV crew and a three newspaper photographers; all half my age. We were lapping the outside of the works to meet the Duke as he exited on the other side with the management team, when I suddenly went face down in the dirt with an almighty thud. I tried that trick of springing back to your feet and making light of it, only to find that I had no spring. My spring was gone. I lay there for a few long moments snorting at the gravel and finally, with the help of the TV presenter, I made an undignified scramble to my feet. The palms of my hands were stinging and torn to shreds and blood was pumping out of one knee. “Blimey, I wish we’d got that on camera” grumbled the TV presenter who made a feeble attempt to brush me down before plunging off with the rest of his crew. Yeah right, I thought as my knee pulsed with pain and I dragged after them. In the end I was just glad that it hadn’t happened in front of the Duke as I know those telly types wouldn’t have thought twice about livening up all that flat footage of grey suits glad-handing each other. Me taking a nosedive at the Duke’s feet would have lent just the right touch of irony to the occasion. Me. The Fall Guy.
We got our photos and footage as the Duke squared his shoulders and tried to look purposeful and engaged. ‘Duke Means Business for Yorkshire Exports’ read the headlines the next day. Alas, for me, the agony wasn’t over. After the railway works there was a business lunch at York race course to be hobbled through manfully. Thrusting Yorkshire business meets the Duke. The key players, the decision-makers, the captains of industry, all circling tables of canapés and mineral water while talking very loud. But once the royal party and guests had finally gone, I locked myself into a cubicle of the women’s toilets on one of the now deserted floors at the race course, and allowed myself an unscheduled panic attack. Between gasping to breathe, I howled like a stricken animal and wept inconsolably. Delayed shock I suppose, along with the pain, humiliation and frustration.
The truth is I’d been thinking about jacking the job in for a while. This government press lark was a young person’s job. Running yourself ragged behind royals and ministers and random VIPs required stamina. You needed to be fleet of foot to keep up with the press pack and I was getting too old for all this frenzied dashing about. Either I needed to take up some high intensity fitness training or I should give it up. Give it up gracefully. Not by biting the dust in front of the TV cameras. Royal visits were the worst, and my fellow press officers all knew it and steered well clear. It was like a blood sport. The press turned into ravening hounds. They’d take your eye out for the right shots, and you were always caught between them and the scowling royal minders.
So I went to India with a hole in my knee. I remember trying to keep my leg straight on the 10-hour flight to Bombay. No easy trick in Economy I can tell you. It was a small, open wound and I tried not to think about getting infections with it while I was in India and far from the bosom of the NHS. Tried not to not think of hospitals and illness and who knew what horrors if I should really get sick. I arrived in India over-anxious and still limping painfully, yet even before I’d been seduced by the ineffable style of the Buddhist monks, I was ready to be transformed. I was ready to make peace with the world and with myself.