"Hi, I just wanted to say thanks. I hope you're all right and feeling better. Things are pretty quiet here..."
It seemed to be coming from the next room - not the one from Henry Scott Holland's overused poem, but our dining room. My wife got up and tentatively walked towards the hall. The friend was now saying something ominous about meeting up soon.
As she slowly pushed the door open, there was a sudden scramble and one of our two new kittens jumped off the answerphone and ran for cover. Our friend's message ended and a new one from my mother began.
My wife felt a mixture of relief and sadness.
The kittens arrived on Saturday, delievered by an interesting woman who once educated Meryl Streep's children. Unlike our last cat, which was like an angelic Victorian consumptive, dying after only two months, these two brothers are reassuringly energetic. Whether they'll help my older son or not remains to be seen.
Cats, dead friends and old jobs were on my mind today, while I drove to Henley-on-Thames to deliver some books to a client. I had plenty of time to think, as the traffic was appalling and what should have been a three-hour round trip was nearer five.
I decided to make the journey worthwhile by adding a brief diversion to the Stanley Spencer Gallery in Cookham, 10 miles east of Henley. The gallery claims to be the "only gallery in Britain devoted exclusively to an artist in the village where he was born and spent his working life." And it's only five quid to get in.
I'm not quite sure what I think of Spencer's paintings, which seem to cover a spectrum from William Blake to Beryl Cook, via John Nash, but some of them have grown on me.
This is Spencer in 1914, before he saw active service in the First World War. His experiences in the army had a profound effect on his art: "my ideas were beginning to unfold in fine order when along comes the war and smashes everything."
this excellent website, Spencer was long regarded as a "provincial joke", but has been recently cited by some as the greatest British artist of the 20th century. I suspect that he was neither.
After visiting the gallery, I decided to have a stroll around Cookham. It was pleasant enough, with many quirky, interesting buildings, but like so many traditional English villages and towns, it has been ruined by a constant flow of heavy traffic. When I crossed the road, I took my life in my hands.
According to Wikipedia, "In 2002 Cookham was at the centre of a row over a description of the village's social profile as "somewhat spoiled by the gin and Jag brigade". Famous (i.e. minor celebrities in the UK) residents include Timmy Mallett, Ulrika Jonsson and jeweller Gerald Ratner.
Like a Ratner gold bracelet, Cookham looks like the real thing, but scratch beneath the olde worlde surface and Spencer's "suburb of heaven" is more like an extension of London. The number of BMWs speeding through the narrow streets suggest that it has become a dormitory town for the wealthy.
I wonder would what Stanley Spencer would make of it all.