I went on a trip to Sri Lanka, one week of sightseeing followed by a week in a luxurious hotel, with a large garden with a gate straight onto the beach. One day I decided to swim in the sea instead of the pool, and went through the little gate onto the sands and had a swim. As I sat on the sands afterwards, a Sri Lankan boy, speaking good English and sitting near me, got into conversation. After a while he said: "What do you enjoy drinking here?" "I am a bit disappointed" I said "When I am in India I enjoy the tea they make flavoured with ginger, and I haven't found it here." "I would love to give you some ginger tea--come with me just behind the beach".
I was in a bathing costume with a towel, in bare feet. That is all! But I imagined there must be a cafe just behind the beach. It was hard to walk on the burning sands, but I followed him. And there, behind the beach, was no cafe, but a jewellery shop. The biggest export from Sri Lanka, after tea, is jewellery. The boy worked for the shop and was on the beach drumming up custom. "I'm not going in there," I said, "I only want a cup of tea". At the entrance he introduced me to the Boss; "I am not buying", I told him, "I only want a cup of tea". "You are most welcome...of course you needn't buy, but we would be happy to give you a cup of ginger tea!"
They sat me at the counter, and brought me the ginger tea. On the counter was a mirror. I was sipping my tea when the Boss came up behind me, and (me in my bathing costume) put round my neck a necklace of diamonds and saphires which I saw in the mirror. It was a beautiful design, the richness of the sapphires nestling next to the sparkle of the diamonds. I caught my breath. Though I have never bought myself anything expensive, I had to buy it, while weakly averting "I only came in for a cup of tea"!! It is the only real jewellery I have ever bought! Plus the ear-rings to match, of course. I did have my bag with me with my Visa card, and the Boss phoned England to check whether my credit was good! I had only seen the necklace while wearing my bathing suit, and I had to buy a dress with a low neck to show it off!! It is stunning!
In 1968 I co-starred with Judi Dench in CABARET at the Palace Theatre. Judi is a remarkable person, as loveable offstage as she is brilliant on. We had a lot in common--we both come from Yorkshire, my father was a dentist and hers was a doctor, and we both had a brother called Geoffrey. (Hers is spelled Jeffrey.) Soon after we closed, she went to Israel on behalf of some charity, and she contacted by brother and his family who lived in Jerusalem, and went to visit them. My young nephew of 12, Meir, asked Judi if she could take back to England some small presents for me, to which request she willingly agreed. But then she lost them! All through the years I only had to ask "Where are my presents?" and we collapsed in laughter. Many years later I took my nephew, by now in his 40s, backstage to see Judi, and he marched into the dressing room demanding "What have you done with my presents???" How we laughed. We only worked together again once more. In "The Last of the Blonde Bombshells" she is gathering together a wartime girls band...I was the one in the hospital with Alzheimers!
I was married in December 1970 in Israel, aged 45. A month later, encouraged by my new husband Peter Frye, I had (as I had always wanted) plastic surgery. A new nose, some plastic to push my chin foreward, and a facelift, as my neck had gone to pot! The surgeon was called Sasha Chait--he was from Vienna, and he was brilliant. He said to me with his thick Viennese accent; "Sometmes my English is worse, and sometimes it is worser!"
As soon as the bandages came off, I went to visit my aunt Mona who was staying in a hotel on the edge of the Dead Sea. I went by bus, and had to change at Beer Sheva. It was the day the bandages came off, and I had a false fall of hair down my back. Sitting out in the sun in a cafe waiting for the second bus, some boys in their 20s came up and flirted with me, trying to "pick me up"....."Oh, this is good!" I thought. Then another bus and I arrived at the hotel. Mona and I sat down in the dining room for meal. She had been at the hotel for 2 weeks before my arrival, and she was surprised when the waiter, who had served her the whole time politely but disinsterestedly, was suddenly bringing us extra treats and hovering over us to see what else we wanted! Smiling at me adoringly! After dinner there was dancing, and a tall, handsome Ethiopian asked me to dance...he was part of the Ethiopian diplomatic corps. "Oh" he whispered in my ear on the dance floor, "I would like to take you back to Ethiopia on a slow boat"!!! I phoned Peter that he had better come and join us as soon as possible!
My best friend Helen's Dad was in the RAF during the war, and he was very proud of it. He always lived in Wimbledon, and was a great fan of the tennis. He had a good friend who was an Umpire, and used to get tickets for him to see the matches.
He had been a widower for many years when he died, aged 87. He had told Helen many times that he wished his ashes to be scattered at the All England Tennis club, which is where the annual tournament takes place. He had lived in Bexhill at the end of his life, where he had an RAF funeral, with his cap on the coffin, draped in the RAF flag, and Helen had kept his ashes on top of the ardrobe in her bedroom for a year, wondering how she could carry out his wish to have his ashes scattered at the Tennis Courts.
I live next door to the Tennis Courts. Helen and I have managed to get tickets to go to the tournament every year. The year after Helen's Dad died, I was lucky enough to get extra tickets and went during the first week. I did a recce, to find the best place to scatter the ashes. They had just created a lovely pond with water-lilies at the top of a long flight of steps, and next to it was a pergola with a long bench. When I first saw it, it was empty, and I thought that it would be the perfect spot to scatter the ashes, overlooking all the courts. But how to get the ashes past the Security Inspection at the entrance to the grounds!
Helen said, "Don't worry, leave it to me!". We always take a picnic to the tennis. Helen brings smoked salmon sandwiches and the drink, and I bring cherries. So Helen put the ashes into a large Fridge Container at the bottom of her bag. The Security man was thorough and searched the bag carefully, while we held our breath.but when he put his hand on the large Fridge Container containing the ashes, Helen said quckly "Oh, that is just more of the picnic..." and he let us through! When we looked up the long flight of steps, there were 7 policemen at the top, and the bench was filled with people. We were dismayed, but climbed the steps, past the policemen and the people sitting on the bench. Helen spotted that we could sit at the very end of the bench, next to a bed of shrubs. "Follow me" she said.
Helen had brought a table cloth, which had been embroidered by her mother. She gave it to me, and told me to shake it out, as if shaking off crumbs. So I shook out the tablecloth, while behind it Helen emptied the ashes onto the earth. She turned round, and beyond the courts in the distance she spotted the graceful spire of St Mary's Church. "Mum and Dad were married in that church" she said quietly. It was the perfect spot.
It was the day of the Womens Finals, and a band was playing on Henman Hill. Helen opened the half bottle of champagne she had brought to drink to Dad's memory, and at that moment the band struck up the famous RAF march. We gasped with amazement. Then Helen looked on the giant screen, it said the band was from Plymouth, where her Dad's grandparents lived, and where he went for all his holidays as a child.
Each year we take two roses from my rose garden, and place them on the spot where the ashes were scattered, and 2 years ago Helen noticed that a bush had grown on that very spot, and it was covered with the fragrant blossom of syringa. "That was the blossom my mother had in her wedding bouquet" she said.
Every year I have been on a great trip abroad with Helen--she is the perfect companion, delightful, enthusiastic and very funny. We have agreed that the greatest of these trips was a river cruise in Siberia, on the mighty Yenissei river, going North from Krasnoyarsk. The adventure started on the journey when we flew from Moscow to Krasnoyarsk on the airline "Air Kras" overnight! Air Kras?? It was better than we expected, to tell the truth.
Sleeping overnight on our boat, the Anton Chekov, we were flown next day to Irkutsk, the capital of Eastern Siberia, and taken to the amazing Lake Baikal, thought to be the world's oldest lake, some 30 million years old--it survived because the water is so clear. It is the world's deepest lake and contains 20% of the world's fresh water supplyl It is amazing, with stones, plants and fish found nowehre else in the world. After a day walking, driving and sailing on the lake, we were taken to a gorgeous corner of the lake in the woods where we were greeted with bread, salt, vodka and a blazing campfire, given delicious smoked Omul, also only found in Lake Baikal, to eat, accompanied by an accordianist serenading us as the sun went down
Next day we set sail in bright warm sunshine, our little band playing the theme from Shostakovitch's "Jazz Suite", known as the Mother's melody, because it was always played when the sailors left port with their mothers waving them goodbye. As our boat, bedecked with flags, sailed, there were crowds there waving to us.
There followed a wonderful experience, cruising up this famous river, always northwards, stopping at villages on the way, helicoptered to see a Gulag Camp and also to see the ethnic nomad Nents tribe who survive because of their reindeer to clothe them, feed them and transport them. And we were thrilled by the midnight sun--the sun is out all night.
Then came the evening when we were to cross the Arctic, or the Polar, Circle. There was a special celebration, with the crew performing. At a dramatic moment, in came Father Neptune, a member of the crew impressively robed, his face covered by a huge beard. Father Neptune had to give us permission to cross the Arctic Circle. A volunteer was asked for, to come from the passengers and be the bride of Father Neptune. Nobody volunteered. We were sitting at the front, and he marched over and took Helen by the hand. She was VERY reluctant, but she had no choice and had to go with him. They put a bridal veil on her hair and she sat beside Father Neptune. When she looked up at him, she melted. Afterwards she said to me: "Now I know why arranged marriages work"!! He danced with Helen for the rest of the evening.
We actually crossed the Arctic Circle at 1.45 in the morning. The weather had turned increasingly cold as we sailed North, and by now it was freezing. However, a few of us wrapped up warm and went out on deck--it was still light, of course. At the moment we crossed the Arctic Circle the crew came out on deck with trays full of glasses of champagne. Wrapped in our scarves and gloves, we toasted the Arctic Circle!
Next day Helen asked our guide if we could meet Father Neptune, her "husband", without the disguise. He turned out to be the Chief Engineer, and we were taken to the Engine Room. He was a tall, attractive, charming man with that beautiful deep Russian speaking voice and a mouth full of gold teeth. The conversation, of course, had to be through the interpretation of the Guide. Helen danced with him all that evening as well. (I danced with the delightful Restaurant Manager, and even got a round of applause).
We disembarked at a very Northern town above the Arctic circle called Dudinka. The day before we had been taken around the town, the least attractive place to live in the world. The cold is so fierce all year round, there is permafrost beneath the surface, so that no pipes or cables can be laid out of sight. So there are huge pipes strung in the air all round the town. We walked round the bleak department store and round streets full of crumbling apartment blocks.
We left the boat at 4.30 in the morning. Our band was playing, the Mongol youngsters, who had danced for us during the cruise, were there in their National Costume, and at the bottom of th ganglplank all the crew, including the kitchen staff, were there to wave us off. And there was Father Neptune, not in costume, whose name was Michael, Helen's "husband", who picked up our cases and carried them right into the coach before kissing our hands and saying goodbye! We will always treasure the memory of Father Neptune.