Harriet is my first cousin. When I was a teenager and she a toddler I became her mother’s au pair for a while. They lived in London. I would take Harriet in her pram to Kensington Gardens, then hold her hand while we fed the ducks. I got into a little bit of trouble later. Harriet was not really supposed to get out of the pram.
Years later, when Harriet was about twenty she came to stay with me and Ranjit in our tea estate bungalow in Assam. A bit of road gave way as we drove back from a dinner party and the car slipped over onto its side, leaving Ranjit at the bottom, Harriet in the middle and me on top. I managed to get out and pull Harriet after me. Ranjit joined us and, in the pitch pitch dark, we began to walk along a road where we knew for sure were wild bears. They, apparently, are the only wild animal that attacks even when not threatened. Harriet’s joints bend backwards, so Ranjit and I held her hands on either side. Every rock, every bush looked like a bear. Ranjit and me trembled with terror, while Harriet said that she was utterly thrilled with this exciting experience. During her stay a war between China and India became a strong possibility and because we were near the border a UK representative came offering Harriet an emergency flight out of the country. ‘Only if my cousins are rescued too,’ said Harriet. We were residents so that was impossible. Harriet refused to go. Instead, she told the man, ‘I would like to be taken to the border to rescue children.” Harriet is four feet high, but all the same is a person of such courage and determination that she probably could have done it.
Now Harriet is about sixty and is in hospital having endured her fourth major operation in a year. She has had her spine enlarged to give space for a compressed spinal nerve, she has had both her knees reconstructed, her leg broke spontaneously a day or two after she was discharged from her last operation and back in hospital she broke her leg again. She has to take massive amounts of painkillers, and cannot get through a night without them.
She is Britain’s leading restorer of china. She can take a heap of tiny china fragments and restore the piece so that you would never know it had been broken. She is good with horses and even trained ponies for Prince Phillip. She used to drive in trap races and win. Her six foot boyfriend took her to look after the horses when he toured the Himalayas.
When she leaves hospital she will return to her home, a converted hayloft out in the countryside. She says she will be fine because she has lots of friends who are always coming round to see her.
Morgan, the protagonist in Cobwebwalking, the first novel of mine to be published, was based on Harriet. Morgan thought she was a magic person till she found out the truth about herself. I think that Harriet is still a magic person, although she knows the truth.