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Up there with Love Actually? Finding Henry Applebee

The Lockdown Lowdown - families, friends and a sprinkle of love!

If you’re like me, you might only read a novel on holiday by the pool. The lockdown has slowed everything down and somehow the sun also chose now as it’s time to shine. So while I’m working hours as normal (many many fewer Emergency patients!) my spare time has allowed some of the holiday chill to seep in. And I’ve loved it! The tension in my neck and back I thought was just me has gone - and I’ll be changing to make sure it doesn’t come back!

What have you & yours allowed in to this newfound precious time? Will it stay if lockdown ends?

So to Mr Henry Applebee! Nearly every version of happy / unhappy family is there. Redemption/ hurt / bliss / nostalgia are there - so many snippets that relate to my Solution Focused Therapy work. All highs and lows are there on the paper.

Find the ebook here

I should say at the outset that Love Actually is my (and it turns out many many people’s) favourite movie (never mind favourite Christmas movie). To even be in that space, this would need to be special. It may not yet be critically acclaimed (Love Actually certainly wasn’t and now people flock to watch it with a live orchestra every Christmas). Critics, pah!

The book came to me rather than I sought it out. Kindle tries to work out what I might like from what I’ve chosen and how I’ve reviewed other books. Top tip - leave reviews! The rich words from fellow readers is what sells the book - the dust sheet blurb is almost dead. Most patients I see wouldn’t even know what that was! (J)FYI it’s the inside cover of a hardback loose cover that describes the author and the précis of the tome in your hand.

So how much background before we can dive into their lives?

We hear about the two main protagonists before they get on the train, and how an incident brings them together. They sit together for the hours from Kings Cross to Edinburgh Waverley and a third crucial character joins them. The whole premise of these interlocking stories as part of the same story would never happen IRL and I don’t think that matters.

The gist of the book is that a retired French master at a private school (now 85) met the love of his life 48hrs before he was demobbed (left the army) in 1948. He had never been great with the girls (his brother Devlin had been the charmer) and met and fell in love with someone beautiful who shared his passions in that precious 48hrs.We got to experience some Blackpool institutions then and across the years. They were clearly meant to be and declared that to each other. Henry left promising to write straight away. It was perfect, she’d left him with her silver butterfly hair-clip, a napkin with her lipstick and perfume on it and her address.

It is the tiny bits of how they came together in a special slightly isolated place, and the tiny details of why they were is well-matched that brings the love story alive. It’s often the quirky bits of them that intertwine and gel. I loved that sense of however quirky or different any of us are, there is that one perfect potentially equally quirky jigsaw piece out there for each of us. And that we are most likely to meet our jigsaw piece in those places of our passions or quirks - so we should embrace them! that’s where our tribe thrive!


A boorish fellow soldier knows the name of his girl (Francine), describes her bedroom and then describes her as a whore. Francine had whispered that she knew him as Henry left from the train station.

Henry felt like a fool, was angry, hurt and embarrassed. His only experience of true love and it was fake. He burnt her address and kept the other objects. Soon after he regretted this and tried to contact her to no avail. He continued to try for the next decades and only had a first name. (He later got her surname from the hotel where she’d been a waitress).

What he didn’t know was that the other soldier had briefly dated Francine’s flatmate, and that Francine had become pregnant during that perfect 48hrs. Despite her devastation at being abandoned she fought to keep the baby (a monumental struggle in those times). Henry and Francine had visited the original meeting place within 2 weeks of each other on their 20 year anniversary. So near and so far. Even when things almost become perfect there is hope. The world spins constantly and anything and everything can change (just look at COVID!). In that constant change lies infinite possibility - even when it might seem quite the opposite.

Linus their son longed to find his father, and had a good life with Francine and her new husband (wonderfully named Bill Bliss). He had a younger sister Eva Marie who took drugs at uni and like many (many) parents, they drove straight up to see her when admitted to hospital and tragically were killed en route. Linus lost some of the chances to find his father. Eva Marie finds her mother’s only historical diary from 1948 and reads enough to know that clues to Linus’s father are hidden there. In a hotheaded argument between Linus and Eva Marie the diary is thrown into the cold North Sea along with all of its secrets.

So what happens to these characters?

Francine and Bill unfortunately are gone. Eva Marie cleans her life up ad writes a debut novel based on her mother’s stories of that time (her mother had told her the stories sans identifying details when Eva Marie was 16). She cleaned up her life when Linus paid for her therapy and kept tabs on her - in his deep hurt he still loved his step-sister. Only when he knew she had recovered did he step back out of her life. It’s that deep practical love alongside that deep hurt which I found deeply moving. Families are complex. And they do unexpected (and sometimes hidden things) even in deep hurt for those who deep deep down they always love.

Linus lives in London doing well for many years (in fact he and Henry are in London for the same 2 decades with no knowledge of the other). This is one of those classic if only, then…. moments. Things would have been different, this beautiful story would never have been possible. Sometimes we miss opportunities to have that seemingly perfect life. There will be other chances. They might even be more special. I guess in a way, it’s never (ever) too late.

Linus then moves to near Mumbles in South Wales and opens a holistic book shop with his wife Estelle - aptly named Bliss books after his adoptive father. They have a wonderful life with the shop, the beaches and great friends and have 2 children, Ariel (a wonderfully ethereal name and often asked if the name is from soap powder or Disney) and Isaac. Ariel is sensitive and warm and she makes a cutting remark to her mum as a young child about her mum putting the business before the family. It’s out of character and leaves a real scar on both of them.

Estelle dies of cancer when Ariel is 17. It is as tragic as we might expect. Her dying scenes are realistic - trying to protect children from what is true horror. She leaves an envelope for Ariel to deliver in person to someone called Eva Marie Hope in Edinburgh. It takes Ariel a year to be ready to do this and that feels real. It was one of Estelle’s dying wishes, and Ariel would have been floored by the loss and for some time not ready. In an otherwise unlikely plot this stood out as real and true. After a huge hurt or bereavement it does take time. Even in hurtful arguments often we wait until we are a bit calmer to respond, and often if we’d waited even longer we might be less ready to react than resolve the situation.

In that holiday resort, Frank an Elvis impersonator (a bona fide American who takes the job very seriously) provides the spark and support that Ariel seeks to develop while renting their attic room. He tells her how it’s great to be unique when school-kids call her a weirdo. He acts like a supportive uncle and Ariel is massively fond of him. Frank is with Cynthia who is impossibly glamorous and entices Frank to London leaving Ariel with a big hole in her life. Often that person who sees our best qualities and our possibilities is not part of the immediate family - somehow that one or more step removed allows that helicopter view that we trust - unlike family who often say placating things to support us. We can depend strongly on these semi-outsiders and often given more weight to their views than those closest to us.

So, following the story of Henry and Francine in real-time alongside the trip to Edinburgh in real-time how does it all come together?

Henry keeps secret his plan. His daughter-in-law has read a story in a discarded newspaper about a book launch in Edinburgh with an Eva Marie Hope who credits her book to stories from her mother Francine Keeley. Henry goes to speak to Eva Marie and he (and we) can barely breathe thinking he and Francine might be reunited.

Ariel misses her planned train (tube line has an incident - so realistic, we’ve all been there!). She grabs a coffee before the next one and sees 85 year old Henry with a gush of a nosebleed standing by his battered suitcase n the concourse. Everyone else wizzes past oblivious (or uncaring). She helps him and they bond by an artistic description of the mix of blood and spilled coffee on the concourse floor. Henry’s daughter-in-law had cried off the trip as her twins had chickenpox and Ariel becomes the grateful beneficiary of her first class ticket. The book doesn’t dwell on any reaction of Henry to her pulling out of this trip he’s waited a lifetime for, and invested everything in. Henry is portrayed as a bit physically vulnerable and this loss would have been huge. There’s often plans made between family or friends where the plan is everything to some involved and almost disposable to others. Being let down in those situations can be as deep a hurt as any. Sometimes this is around a party where people call off at the last minute or an important meal. If you’re hugely invested in it and others aren’t that really can affect trust. They don’t mean any harm, it’s just not their priority.

So fortuitously they sit together!

Enter Travis the American jazz sax player who sits in the seats opposite with his battered sax with its case covered in stickers from its widespread travels. After some chat and a little flirt Ariel and Travis start to gel. He too as an outsider gives her confidence to be her (and he’s just met her!). He provides some of that support she’d had from Frank in the past - and as it turns out Frank is his uncle and he’d supported Travis in his music career where Travis’s father pushed him into law school. Frank has invited Travis to watch him play in a gig in Edinburgh. As it happens , Frank’s impersonation gigs had dropped off and while clearly talented, he had struggled to find work. This was to be his first gig in some time. Frank’s agent appears to share breakfast and break to him that the gig has been cancelled (for someone else known to the venue owner as well). Frank is devastated and crumples. He is ashamed and it is painfully acute as Travis is en route already and texts to say how much he’s looking forward to it. We’ve all had times when we’ve been disappointed beyond anything we could imagine. Sometimes we can be ashamed too when things don’t work out. When we’ve really built something up or really looked forward to something, that loss can be a physical pain. We can literally physically crumple. In that moment it is everything, beyond everything even. And yet, sometimes these episodes can be a door to something else….

So the three intertwined hurtle up to Edinburgh. There is an inevitable fault on the line to apply pressure on their timings. Ariel and Travis chat and discover that they know the same Frank. Ariel knows she’s meeting Eva Marie Hope the next day, Henry remains tight-lipped.

Henry reaches the book launch venue in the cold to find it’s a ticketed event. IRL I think a venue might let an 85 year old who travelled up specially from London in. It does however let us see his longing through the window and his determination to see it through. He comes back and talks to Eva Marie who quickly realises this must be her mother’s love and Linus’ father. Her husband has arranged a celebratory meal (which of course he would!) so the bigger chat is postponed until the next morning.

Meanwhile Travis arrives and is upset that the gig is off. He Frank and Ariel have dinner at a jazz joint and he nips out to make a call (oddly leaving his phone sticking out of his pocket). Ariel and Frank are delighted to catch up. As the music starts they announce that they will be joined by the famous American jazz musician FRANK not Travis. Frank puffs up, joy fills his whole being and he does one of the best sets of his life. Travis felt the hurt and did something practical (in secret) to help. This gives Frank some of the confidence he’d given Travis and Ariel over the years. We are all vulnerable at times, especially if something or someone we love slips away. Often it’s those who are always there for others that can struggle (hidden) the most themselves. For Travis, love wasn’t saying the right thing or trying to cheer him up, it was getting right to the heart of the hurt and turning it on his head. Solution- Focused Therapy often has this experience of seeing someone sit-up, puff up, make eye contact as you go through the session. I think I’ve become a little addicted to seeing that in people.

We know that Ariel will meet Eva Marie at her home the next day. Henry doesn’t. Ariel realises they are meeting the same woman.

So how are things wrapped up? It’s a book so it can be perfect!

Henry is directly asked by Eva Marie why he left her mother like that. Henry tells the story and every bit of his obvious love for Francine is there to see. The napkin, the hair clip and his airman’s hat that she wore briefly. I felt as if Francine would be in the shadows ready to come into focus and be reunited with Henry - the car crash she died in is revealed soon after. I wanted that fairytale end. Of course often there isn’t a fairytale end, sometimes the chances have passed. In this case there is a chance of something else - something different perhaps, and beautiful and fulfilling all the same.

Eva Marie feels his love of Francine and tells of his son Linus and Henry cries quietly realising what he’s missed. Henry gets to visit her grave and apologise directly to Francine. Expressing emotions like this even when it seems too late can help us to have closure even if it can’t change the situation.

Ariel then arrives to hear the whole story and the envelope is temporarily forgotten. She hears about Linus and Eva Marie and how they were close and then fell out. She hears that her mum Estelle had tried to keep a thread alive between Eva Marie and Linus’ family and had even met Ariel in London years before introduced as Mia so as not to alert Linus who had stayed at home.

The envelope contained a scrapbook of all of the memories of the family in photos and mementoes of their lives. They were little things collected by the children over the years which had no monetary cost and meant everything.

Right at the bottom of the envelope was a letter to Ariel which she secretes away to read alone later. It describes an incident where Ariel may have fainted in the heat in a tent as a young child and just how much Estelle loved her. Ariel felt guilty still for saying that Estelle had put the business ahead of the family - it was clear now that she hadn’t and just how much love Estelle had for them. In families parents can be working long hours or be exhausted afterwards or eat into family tie with work tasks. Often they do this to provide for the family they love so much. It can be hard for children seeing this to understand that as time and attention are what matter so much. Often they can’t see the deep love that that need to provide comes from.

The reunion restaurant scene in New York brings Travis and Frank’s family back together. It is also in my favourite restaurant in New York, Carmine’s. This was a chance find where it was the only place we could get in near Christmas one year. It serves amazing Italian food family style. I was hooked and it is so perfect for this meal.

Hurricane Sandy has struck near Travis’ parents’ home and they have been volunteering and loving it. Almost the complete antithesis of their previous lives. Frank’s agent had landed him an audition for a West End show about impersonators ageing - Frank is perfect and is glowing. Travis begins to feel accepted as his dad asks him to do some music volunteering and Travis feels validated , accepted and loved.

Everyone got their happy ending. Some bittersweet. Not so different to Love Actually after all.

The mistakes and misinterpretations are like those of any family. They could be any of us. We all know family members like each of these characters - don’t we just. I love this story not because it’s real, because it shows there is a good future possible for everyone even when you can’t turn the clock back and that people are really resilient and love within families and friends can endure almost anything. The future may not be the obvious and it might be most unexpected. It could be amazing!

I especially loved the book because I felt each of the characters and knew each of the settings - Mumbles, Swansea , Kings Cross, Edinburgh Old Town, Cramond, Arthur’s Seat, Carmine’s in NYC.

The phrase many many people is one of Colin Firth’s lines in Mamma Mia.

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