Posted by Tania Kindersley.
Warning, I am afraid, for length. And strong human emotion.
Today was the most extraordinary day. I woke still feeling ropey; stumped downstairs crossly; walked out not because I wanted to, but because I had to. It’s not fair on the dog, otherwise. The only thing that made me smile was that, as I furiously jammed my earphones in my ears, the Pigeon started jumping up and down on the spot and giving me her most eager and questing look. She knows the iPod means a walk. How clever she is, I thought, to know that. It’s not really that clever. It’s the simple correlation that many mammals work out. It’s Pavlov. It’s not remarkable, really. But just then, it felt like a sort of miracle of brilliance to me.
Stomp, stomp, stomp, I went, out into another bloody low grey day. But as I crossed the cattle grid and started to lose my crossness and actually see the trees and the moss and the old stumps which I love and the very last of the chanterelles, I looked up, and focussed my eyes, and saw the blue of the wooded hills to the south. They were blue as blue, deep with dimensions, a singing colour that defies words.
And for some reason, they made me think of the last of those funerals in May. In that strange three weeks, there was first my dad, then my dog, then my cousin, and then a friend. I wrote of her only very briefly, out of a sense of propriety; it was not my very own grief; that loss belonged to her family. There was a proper sense of not intruding. But I thought of her, most vividly, quite unexpectedly, today.
She was one of those people to whom one is connected through a hundred different threads. There were family connections; I was at school with her brother, whom I adored; there were many, many mutual friends. In our twenties, we spent glorious holidays together, in dusty old houses in Italy; there were long perfect summers and wild weekends in the house of one of my relations. The reason I thought of her today is that the last time I saw her was in Scotland, up on the Spey, at exactly this time of year, when the blue hills looked just as they did today.
Oh, I thought, suddenly, she should have been here to see this. It’s stupid and wrong and inexplicable that she is not. She was forty-two. I heard her laughter in my head, as true and filled with life as if she were here beside me. She was always laughing. She had a wonderful, antic, giggling laugh, that gurgled out from the back of her beautiful throat.
It was the most lovely meeting, that last Scottish encounter. It was quite unexpected; I drove up to Speyside, and there she was. We had not seen each other for ages, and we sat in a big, square room, looking out over the Cairngorms, with the Beloved Cousin, who was also there. Most of the party was out fishing, so the three of us could sit, and catch up. We talked and talked and talked; gossiping, laughing, remembering. We had so many stories and joys and sorrows and fuck-ups and absurdities in common, from that mutual past; it was as if we were re-running the film of our lives. It was one of the best mornings of my life, and such a simple thing: three women in a Scottish room.
I had to sit down on the bridge. Whack, whack, whack, it came, the sorrow and regret. Bloody hell, I thought, I hope a dog walker does not walk past now, to find me sitting on the stone parapet, weeping like a loon.
And, I thought, as I stood up, and and and, I think the swallows have gone. This seemed the final, crushing blow. I had thought they had departed last week, when my sister and I sat on the bench outside my house and talked of our father, in the low evening light. ‘Oh,’ I said, suddenly. ‘The swallows are usually here now. They must have gone to Africa.’ But then, the next day, I went out to the south meadow to see the sheep, and there they were. It was not just my swallows, but a whole gang of them, thirty or more. The ones from my mother’s shed must have come up to join them, and the ones who nest in the old palace that some long-dead eccentric built for his cows. The wind was blowing, and they were doing astounding acrobatics against it, swooping in twists and circles and looping loops. They were doing the very hard, athletic, low flying that always makes me think of Spitfires. They are mustering, I thought, ready to go. They are doing their last serious manoeuvres, getting their muscles up to scratch for the three thousand mile trek south.
This morning, I did not see them, and this, what with the friend remembering, seemed the last straw. I felt like a wailing child: but I wanted to say goodbye.
And then, like a miracle, as I trudged back to my front door, there they were, swinging low over the grass, their pale breasts flashing like a sign. Ah, I said, out loud, they are still here.
A little later, I decided to get the sadness behind me in the best way I know: the making of a chicken soup and a soda bread. I baked and cooked; I listened to the news from Libya; I came back slowly to the world.
Then a programme came on, after the news. It was one of those things that Radio Four does at lunchtime; they take a piece of music and people talk about it. My heart sank rather. Those programmes can be dull, worthy, schedule-fillers. I must finish this and get back to my work, I thought. Then my attention was riveted. First of all, the music itself was ravishing and haunting, written by an Estonian composer of whom I had never heard. Then, the steady Irish voice of a woman from Omagh came on. She was speaking of her daughter, who had loved this piece. I knew, before she said it, what was coming next. It was the day of the Omagh bomb. ‘She lost her life, and her friend too,’ said the mother. It was so matter of fact, so understated: not she was blown to smithereens, or murdered, or exploded. Just: she lost her life. They played this beautiful piece of classical music at her funeral, a glorious, simple combination of violin and piano. The mother remembered it. She remembered thinking that her daughter had made a good choice. But I can’t listen to it now, she said; nor can my sons.
So then I cried for that brave Irish woman too, and for my dad, for good measure. Get the damn tears out, I thought, because they don’t do you any good, stuffed down inside in your belly. Get them out in the air.
At the start of all this, I wrote that I wanted a manual. I still think that, sometimes. I said that I would probably have to write it myself. If I were, I would say that the one thing that has surprised me the most is that there is no gentle, sensible curve to grief. I did think it would fade and gentle with time. This is not the case. What does happen is that normality comes back, pleasure returns; one may laugh and joke and feel keenly the delight in things. A balance starts to emerge. But I would also say: watch out, for the four month mark. Just as you might be getting a little complacent, thinking you are past the white water, it will come and smash you. It does not diminish. If anything, it is stronger and harder now. I would say: don’t fight it. I would say: let it in.
I would say: don’t make any plans, for the four month mark, thinking you will be back to usual. In some ways, I wonder if nature is very clever. It is as if she knows that strength will have returned, by that time, which it does, and then you are, paradoxically, robust enough to take the real, shattering stuff, that comes up out of your feet, pins you against the wall, knocks the breath out of you. Just as you think you are fine, you find yourself fighting back tears in the Co-op, because a kind lady at the checkout asks you how you are, and you have no simple answer to that question.
In some ways, I feel that nature is paying me a compliment. She knows I am strong enough to survive. So now she is wheeling out the big guns.
So I go slowly. I always come back to that. Go slowly, go gently. Make the chicken soup, make the soda bread, watch for the swallows, laugh at the Pigeon’s funny little face, do work, consider the trees. That will do, for now.
Here is today’s walk:
Past the burn, which, despite the dour day, was still glittering with what light there was:
And the magnificent beech hedge:
These were the blue, remembered hills:
As I shook myself out of a sort of staring trance, I turned to find the Pidge looking back at me, as if to say: come on, we have places to be:
I am very busy, and have to get on:
Wild grasses, bending graciously in the breeze:
A festival of trees. Note the black Scottish summer sky, just above. And yet there were shafts of light, coming from somewhere:
The final chanterelles:
My favourite old fallen tree:
Pigeon drinking the burn:
The elegant sheep:
Then back inside, and baking. I did two kinds of soda bread; a neat, flat little loaf, and some rolls:
And then ate them with my chicken soup. Today’s version was an old-fashioned kind, with carrots, leeks, courgettes, and a scatter of sliced spinach leaves:
I know I am a bit nuts when it comes to chicken soup, but I really did feel life and strength flow back into me as I ate it.
More Pigeon beauty, because that too brings life and strength:
And the dear old hill, rather mauve today: