From chaperoning the Sultan of Brunei’s daughters in swinging Knightsbridge to selling candles for Pasykaf on the streets of Konia – THEO PANAYIDES meets an outgoing woman with an independent streak who is, however, not keen on the modern penchant of oversharing
There’s a certain manner to Maxine O’Daly, hard to pin down yet ineffably evoking an English person of the post-war generation. Partly, of course, the manner is synonymous with manners, thus for instance the polite way she says “I don’t know if these names mean anything to you” while running through the places of her childhood – Cosham, Lyndhurst, the New Forest – on a Skype call from her house in Konia. Even the fact that she’s carefully applied lipstick and makeup – determined to look her best, even on Skype – speaks to a similar impulse, an insistence on being correct even when it’s not strictly necessary.
Understatement is a big part of the manner. When it comes to the coronavirus, “everybody’s been sensible,” says Maxine with great approval, and it’s clear that ‘sensible’ is among the highest compliments in her vocabulary. At one point she talks of her late husband Eddie, who died two years ago this month. “Extraordinary man,” she says simply – and one senses the great caldera of unspoken feeling behind that brief description.
The manner dates from a time when not everything could be spoken about in public. Sometimes the reticence was officially imposed, sometimes it was just ‘the done thing’. “You know, you had a code where you didn’t talk about things very much”. Her dad, for instance, was an army man (both her parents were actually involved with Special Forces after the war), and “half the time, I don’t think even Mum knew – he’d suddenly say he had to be in so-and-so, and that was it and it was never really discussed”. Her first employer, at the age of 18 or so, was Sir Dennis White, a former colonial administrator who was the Brunei government agent in London. “A lot of his work was to do with Brunei and Sarawak,” she recalls, “and things that were going on in that part of the world which I can’t talk about even now.”
So it was almost a motif in her early life? The world of things better left unspoken?
“Well, I don’t want to sound too silly about the whole thing,” she replies airily – but yes, that’s the way of the world. “It goes on today. Some things remain a secret, and that’s the way it is. It has to be.”
Even when the Official Secrets Act isn’t involved, Maxine doesn’t seem too keen on the modern penchant for oversharing, quite the reverse. In fact, I suspect she’d be happier if we talked about the various good causes to which she devotes her time – above all Pasykaf (the Association of Cancer Patients and Friends) and the Cancer Patients’ Support Group – and kept the actual details of her life out of it. Nonetheless, the two are connected – if only because she herself has lost two partners to that awful disease, Eddie a couple of years ago and her first partner John in the 90s (they were together for about 20 years, but never married). ‘What was your experience when John died?’ I ask, interrupting her account of the work at Pasykaf, and she seems a little startled: “Oh, you’re changing things entirely now!”.
Surely one informs the other, though? Was it very traumatic?
“Well…” she replies rather vaguely, “I think it was pretty traumatic at the time. Bereavement is. And I’ve since trained further in bereavement,” she goes on, deflecting attention – as she’s wont to do – from herself to others. The trainers here in Cyprus were part of the Samaritans, as she was in the UK, “so we spoke the same language. And they’re a fantastic group of people, as you’re probably aware.”
She was never really part of the care industry during her working life; that aspect came with retirement. “When you retire, you look around into ‘What can I do to help others?’. And this happened to be around,” she explains, as if it were the most natural thing in the world. It helped that she retired rather young (she and Eddie came to Cyprus in 1997), though it’s not clear precisely how young. “You don’t ask a lady things like that!” she yelps with a merry laugh when I enquire about her age – though one of her earliest memories is accompanying her mother to a displaced persons’ camp after the war, so do the math, as they say. Her mum did a lot of charity work, and was also (as already mentioned) involved with Special Forces at one point; her dad followed up his army career with a stint at carpet company Cyril Lord, then the whole family upped and left for South Africa when Maxine was about 20. Then there was her grandpa, a rather stern industrialist who lived in a grand, spooky-looking stately home called Wymering Manor, near Portsmouth. It seems to have been both a very respectable middle-class family – the kind that sent Maxine and her sister Penny to a good, church-run boarding school where the houses were named after archangels – and a slightly unconventional one.
She herself has an independent streak, though that too may belong in the subset of things we don’t really talk about. She did Business Studies, but also Dance and Drama. She accompanied the Sultan of Brunei’s harem on shopping trips to Harrods, and thrived on the adventure. She remained with a man for many years without being married (which must’ve seemed slightly unconventional back then), rebuffing his proposals and consciously deciding not to have children. “I didn’t particularly want to,” she replies, turning vague again, “and we were coasting along quite happily at the time.”
South Africa in the early 70s was a shock – she spent five years there, working in hotels and getting her start in the hospitality industry – not just because of apartheid and ‘No Blacks’ signs on park benches, but also because “it didn’t allow hot pants or miniskirts or anything like that”, a far cry from Swinging London. Maxine liked to have fun, loved (and still loves) music and jazz; her most cherished memory from those years is perhaps of flouting apartheid at District Six, a buzzy Cape Town club (designated as being for blacks) that played jazz and South African music. Years later, she returned to the country – she and Eddie bought a house, splitting their time between Paphos and Cape Town – and taught belly-dancing at the local gym. But that’s another story.
Clearly, it’s impossible to fit a whole life in a couple of paragraphs. Still, a pattern emerges. Maxine O’Daly comes across as a doer – a gregarious fun-loving type, a people person, her life shaped by often-impulsive action. She got on the S.S. Randfontein and sailed to South Africa, at an age when some girls (at least in the 60s) might be thinking about finding a husband. Years later, she was visiting friends in Marlborough in Wiltshire, liked the area and applied for a job at Inglewood Health Hydro (a kind of hotel/health club) – and ended up staying for 15 years, finally becoming General Manager. It’s not a surprise that she also elected to heal the most painful part of her life – the death of her partner – through action and doing. Especially when it probably belongs in the category of stuff you don’t really talk about.
About 11 years ago, after she and Eddie had relocated from Pissouri to Paphos, she answered an ad by Pasykaf (one of our premier cancer charities, founded in 1986) and was trained to work alongside their nurses, doing practical work. “It could just be talking to someone who’s lonely, or back from treatment and feeling ill,” she explains – or perhaps doing a patient’s shopping, or taking them to appointments. “It’s not employment, because we don’t get paid. We’re befrienders.” She also sits on helplines, and did a good deal of fundraising (though she’s now retired from that part) – and she also goes “hospital visiting”, albeit not for Pasykaf but her church group, the church being St. Stephen’s in Tala. “We ask the senior nurse if we can go into the wards,” explains Maxine. “We don’t preach, or anything like that, we just ask them if there’s anything they need.” She does that about once a week (or did, pre-Covid), helping everyone from lonely locals to tourists who’ve had an accident and missed their flight home.
Why does she do it? What does she get from all this do-gooding?
“Oh, I don’t know,” she replies, vague and airy again. “I think I’ve always – you know, loved the caring aspect.” Maxine shrugs lightly. “I don’t know, there’s just something in me that does it. Why, I don’t know. You can call it God’s will.”
Has it helped with her own pain?
“I think it has. Through my work, yeah. Very much so.”
Alas, the pain has redoubled in the past two years, Eddie’s death leaving her bereft all over again. “There was a fantastic man,” she muses. “And I’d been fundraising with him, and he was such a fabulous support and we’d had a great marriage… He tried very hard to stay alive, and wanted to, but sadly that wasn’t to be.” Her life has shrunk a little since, and become a little flatter. She’s stopped fundraising, as already mentioned, and also retired from ‘Breast of Friends’, the women’s support group she co-founded five years ago. (She’s now an honorary member.) It does get lonely, she admits, especially at night – and also now with the virus, curbing the social life that’s always been essential to this outgoing woman.
Paphos helps, in this regard. It’s a bit of a bubble, I note, life in Paphos (especially expat life), but Maxine is emphatic: “I love Paphos! Many, many friends here!”. A few are Cypriots, her house in Konia being right in the middle of the village; she doesn’t speak Greek, but the neighbours are “tremendously kind” and she’s also close to her hairdresser’s family in Geroskipou. “They were very kind to me the first Christmas and New Year’s I had on my own, they invited me. And I was quite a sad person… They were so wonderful, they really were.” Above all, however, it’s the friendships formed with fellow expats that keep her going, and the village-like nature of the local community. The names roll off her tongue like prayers on a rosary – the Zingers singing group who’ve been so supportive with fundraising, Stage 1 Theatre where she and Eddie were members for 18 years, the Anglican Church of Paphos that was such a comfort in her time of grief. Rock FM and the Paphos Post, and the various local businesses who’ve donated over the years. Everyone in Paphos knows Maxine O’Daly.
There is indeed a manner about her, the occasional reserve (and self-deprecation) of the English post-war generation – yet she’s never been reserved or inhibited, she’s always plunged in and got on with it. “You can’t distance yourself,” she affirms, with an inadvertent nod at social distancing. “Because this is life”.
Hospital visits, the sick and suffering, people trying hard to stay alive yet sadly failing; that’s life. Friends coming round, neighbours being kind, lively nights out with songs and dancing (Eddie was a great dancer), afternoon teas with girlfriends; that’s life too. It’s been an unusual 70-odd years, from chaperoning the Sultan of Brunei’s daughters in swinging Knightsbridge to selling candles for Pasykaf on the streets of Konia – but then everybody’s life is a bit unusual, when you sit down and study it. Maxine has the last word: “If you can possibly support the Cancer Patients’ Support Group – even if it’s just a fiver here and there – please do! We need this to buy equipment for our nurses”. Now that’s just being sensible.
MAXINE O’DALY’S USEFUL NUMBERS
Cancer Patients Support Group helpline: 97 760989
The Zingers choir: Karen Roe: 99 370103
Breast of Friends, breast-cancer support group for women: Marilyn McMillan: 99 056769 and Sue Currie: 99 174188
3rd Fun Run/Walk, raising money for the Cancer Patients Support Group: Sue Cordrey: 97 638375