Something has happened every morning we’ve been here in this hotel so far. Shortly after waking up, Jae has chosen to show their affection for me…by way of a pillow fight. Not with actual pillows, however, but whatever they have on hand at the time, which can be anything from a pair of socks to a stuffed toy (yes, they brought Bear Bear from the recent Europapark holiday). Typically, I would be sitting here at the computer on the desk with my back to the two beds when I’d feel the thud of a projectile landing squarely on the back of my head. This is followed by the unmistaken chuckle of a mischievous teenager, subsequently followed by several more thuds in quick succession. Naturally, I would never allow such a challenge to go unanswered. Well, what’s a father to do? Fortunately, from my vantage point, I have better aim and stronger arms! The thing is, not only does Jae have the audacity to pick a fight with me like this in the first place, but they also have the nerve to insist I stop ducking out of the way so they can get a good shot in. Evidently the ‘game’ isn’t over until I’ve received at least a couple of direct hits to my noggin.

With routine the morning show of affection out of the way with, I went down to breakfast. Once again, nobody was manning the front desk to the restaurant, so I walked in and casually took a seat. Another free breakfast on the house, then.

The plans for this morning were to meet up with Leigh, a friend of mine from my marching band days. Leigh and I used to play the marimba together. In the case of the marimba that we were assigned to, it was such a large instrument that two of us played it at the same time side by side, so we were together a lot of the time. I just happened to come across a Facebook post from Leigh in my feed last week and I mentioned she hadn’t changed over the years. From that brief interaction eventually sprang the arrangement that we hook up for a catch-up during this trip. My involvement with marching bands stopped when I originally moved from the UK to The Netherlands, so I lost contact with most of the band members from that time. Leigh, on the other hand, continued her association with youth bands and the like even to this day. Alas, she was coming down with a cold and starting to feel unwell, so we agreed to meet up the next time we’re over here, which I’m hoping will be sometime later this year.

For the past 2-3 weeks, Jae has been anticipating getting their nails done from a previous promise of mine. They have waited patiently for the right opportunity and that was to finally arrive this morning. Although we weren’t meeting up with Leigh at Lakeside as originally planned, we still went into Lakeside, as RJ had mentioned earlier in the week that there’s an excellent place there that does nails. It was quite busy inside, but the staff ran the place with ruthless efficiency. I couldn’t help but get the sense that it was a money-making enterprise first and foremost, with the principal objective of the process in place designed to usher as many people through the stages as possible, thus maximising the business income stream.

Now, I don’t want to unnecessarily stereotype people. However, this is Essex, and it does have a reputation of sorts. Glamorous nails, fake eyelashes, and thick lips are not uncommon around these parts. One of the customers being worked on had exaggerated puffed up lips that were so clearly non-natural it was hard not to notice. My first thought was that she was in a car accident and had inadvertently wandered out of the ER in a daze not knowing where she was. Ordinarily, a child might stop and stare in fear at this woman, except, here in Essex, the children wouldn’t bat an eyelid given how common this phenomenon is. As someone who no longer lives here, I still find it striking to see women walking around with such obviously fake faces. I would have thought this to be the reserve of rich Californians or Hollywood porn stars or whatever, but not suburban Essex. Good luck to them, if it brings them happiness, I say, but I admit I struggle to see the appeal. I can only assume it is some sort of cultural thing that has developed over the many years since I left the UK way back in 1988.

Jae was part way through the seemingly overly complex and unnecessarily lengthy process of getting nail extensions put on. I mean, seriously, how hard can it be just to glue a few bits of plastic onto ten nails? One especially ruthlessly efficient staff member – I can only assume she was the proprietor – was ushering incoming women into seats and playing musical chairs with others as different members of staff were rotating through the different parts of the process. At one point, while I was sitting there minding my own business waiting for Jae to be finished, the woman tapped me on the shoulder and ‘invited me to leave’. I nearly fell off my chair at the audacity, but evidently, she wanted to make space for more incoming [paying] customers. I felt I was there legitimately, waiting for my daughter. Every fibre of my being wanted to turn around and tell her to ‘piss off’, but she was loud enough with her request that the entire group of 10 or so women getting their nails done, as well as a few others milling around the doorway, and all the staff, turned to look in my direction. In a split moment, it seemed like this was a battle of wills between me, the stereotypically difficult member of the public (yes, I know that’s hard to believe), and her, the ruthless businesswoman. I even locked eyes with the woman for what seemed like ten seconds – like a blinking contest to see who would crack first. I caught Jae’s eye and she mouthed for me to go and sit on a bench outside in the shopping centre. This could have gone either way, but I chose to not make a scene and embarrass Jae. It was so close to going the other way!

A short walk from where Jae got their nails done was a baby clothes stand, where RJ was working, so we wandered over to see her and say hello. RJ was going out tomorrow night, so I snuck her a couple of £10 notes as a bit of spending money for her. RJ is lovely.

After the requisite bit of additional mindless window shopping (such fun!), I took Jae over to Dad’s to drop them off. This evening was going to be devoted to ‘me time’ with a trip into London’s West End to watch Les Misérables. I’ve been mentally building to this ever since I conceived of the idea some days ago. I Stopped at ‘the big shops’ in Derwent Parade for a quick lunch before parking the car at Lakeside again, where I’d be able to walk into the Chafford Hundred train station to catch the train into London. While scoffing down some food, I called Richard and have since arranged to meet him on Sunday. That was the one last day for which we had nothing yet planned. Nature abhors a vacuum!

Since it was going to be a lot of walking around in London, I tanked up on pain killers. Retrospectively, I’m so glad I did!

My train journey into London started at the Chafford Hundred train station, but so very nearly didn’t get off the ground. Although there were security and other staff there, the manned ticket office was, well, not manned. I had to contend with using one of the ticket machines. Fortunately, these are designed to be used by people as young as four. Unfortunately for me, there were no four-year-olds on hand to help me and I quickly reached an impasse. It looked like I had to type in the destination, but the idea was for me to travel around while in London, so I had no ‘destination’ that I could legitimately give it. A train was pulling in, which might have been the train I needed, but I was flustered and didn’t know how to operate the unyieldingly dumb machine before me. Fortunately, a lovely lady who was manning the turnstile booths came to my rescue. Instead of choosing a destination, I instead had to choose a type of travel card, which, now, makes a lot more sense.

With my ticket in hand, and now also a £21 sized hole in my wallet, I took a seat on the platform. The train that had arrived was apparently not the train I needed in the end, so I had a 10-minute wait to kill. From Chafford Hundred, my c2c train would whisk me into Fenchurch Street. I used to make this same journey daily, when I previously worked in London, so I was quite familiar with the route. From Fenchurch Street, it’s a short walk around the corner to the Tower Hill underground station. From there, a wonder of options are presented, as you’re then on ‘the tube’, with more potential connection options than the average Essex-girl’s brain stem. I rode the District Line to Embankment and then caught the Bakerloo Like to Piccadilly Circus, which is one of the more fun places to start from in London if it’s a sense of adventure you’re looking for. I emerged into the streets of the West End and my adventure was to start.

I was really excited about seeing my shows tonight and tomorrow afternoon. So much so that I wandered around the West end taking photos of the various theatres. I took in China Town, Carnaby street, Soho and even walked the length of Shaftesbury Avenue as well as Regent Street and Oxford Street. I popped in and out of several souvenir shops, trying to find a little something for various people, and even did my best to hunt down some Lego kits. Alas, the only places selling Lego were so busy that I had to queue halfway around the block or were otherwise ridiculously expensive. I’ll have to find another solution to that problem elsewhere.

While traipsing around Soho, I stumbled into a Wagamamas restaurant. When I worked in London many years ago, I used to enjoy their Chicken Katsu Curry, so I thought I’d try my luck at seeing if it was still as tasty as I recalled. When the food arrived at the table, it looked exactly as I remembered it, but I guess my tastebuds have changed over the years. It was tasty, but not as I remembered it.

I was still early for the performance at the Sondheim Theatre, but there was only so much milling around I could do in Soho, so I eventually took my place near the front of the queue of people also waiting to get into the theatre.

Once inside, I thought I’d treat myself to a glass of wine. It would be quite a few hours before I got back to the car later at night, so I figured I could risk a single glass. At an even £10 for a single glass [plastic cup], I very much got the sense I had been ripped off, which sort of made the experience complete in a way.

I paid something like £110 for my seat in the end. I was around halfway up the dress circle and just slightly off centre. The location couldn’t have been much better if I had the free run of the place. I had full view of the entire width and height of the stage and with no obstructions. Had I been clever enough to remember to bring my driving glasses with me, I would have been able to see the expressions on the performers faces. Instead, I just about managed to identify where the bodies were. Bloody old age is a drag.

The show itself was every bit as wonderful as I had anticipated it to be. I just loved it. Les Misérables is set against the backdrop of the French revolution. It tells the tale of a convict, Jean Valjean, who was punished disproportionately for a minor crime of necessity. He was subsequently pursued relentlessly by Inspector Javert. The storyline itself, for the uninitiated, can feel a little disjointed at times but the show is more about the music and the compelling story telling. Together, they evoke strong feelings, carrying you along with the characters on their journey. You can’t help but get swept up in the emotion of it all. I was practically in tears on a couple of occasions, such was the power of the story and the grandeur of the music. The entire performance was utterly sublime – and well deserving of the lengthy standing ovations from the entire packed house at the end.

During the interval, I managed to sneak a few message exchanges with Yasmin. Jae and I will be meeting up with her in London tomorrow for the afternoon.

Once the show was finished, and I had clapped my hands red raw, I stumbled out into the now night-time hustle and bustle of the West End. The place was alive and buzzing with activity. I would have enjoyed sticking around to soak up more of the thrilling atmosphere, but it was getting later already, and I needed to get a move on if I were to catch any of the last trains out of Fenchurch Street.

I retraced my route back through the underground to Fenchurch Street and managed to find the correct train for the forty-minute trip back to Chafford Hundred. I collected Jae from Dad’s, and we made our way back to the hotel.

After a much-needed shower, I barely had enough energy to write up the notes for my blog. My process is to recount what I did during the day by noting one-liners about what I did. This could result in 2-3 pages of thoughts and ideas in chronological order. Once I have those rough recollections in place, I then take each one-liner and re-write it in paragraph form. After that’s done, which usually takes an hour or two, I then proof-read it, making any final corrections or adjustments. I find a few photos that do the best job of representing the events of that day and then I post it to my website. A post on Facebook with a link to the blog is the last chore before I’m done.

For this particular blog entry, I’m almost a full day late, because I didn’t have time this morning to finish the entire thing. Now that I’m through here, I must turn my attention to today’s write-up as well. Hopefully, I can get the notes done before I go and collect Jae from Dad’s again.