Wednesday, 26 October 2011

Say the thing

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I have an old godfather – I may write this freely as he does not have a computer, let alone read a blog – who is of a tremendous age. ‘The doctors ask me how old I am, and I say either eighty-six or eight-seven,' he says. 'Doesn't make much difference.'

I have been worried about him for a while, because his health has not been good. I had been meaning to write or ring, but had kept postponing on account of deadline madness, and then post-deadline crash. Finally, this morning, I picked up the telephone.

No answer. Terror gripped me. It was too late. I had not written the bloody letter to say what a marvellous, splendid godfather he had been to me, and how lucky I was to have him. I had not made the call (how could I not spare five minutes from my busy schedule?) to make some jokes and ask him how he was and offer any practical help he might need. I was useless and feckless and pointless.

I was absolutely certain that he was either in the grip of fatal illness or had been carried off altogether. (Actually, if he were to read this, I suspect he would not think it indelicate. He is straightforward and robust about death. ‘You’re coming south in November? Well, if I’m still alive, I’ll give you lunch.’) I felt a sudden acute despair.

The plumber, one of my favourite men in the world, had arrived to deal with a leak, and I was almost unable to smile at him for fear of breaking into tears. I thought of my dad, whose great friend the godfather was. I thought: I can’t lose another of the great old men. I suddenly could not bear it.

I left a few panicked messages with mutual friends. Then I tried to concentrate, rather fruitlessly, on work. At noon, the telephone rang. ‘Hello,’ said the godfather, in his formal, Brigade of Guards voice. ‘Who is this?’

He had done 1471, not recognised my mobile number, and was ringing back the mystery caller.

I burst into laughter of relief. ‘Oh,’ I said. ‘I’m so glad to hear your voice.’

He is not well. The doctors are prodding and poking. The food in the hospital he had been in was indescribable. But he is still sharp as a needle. He told me stories of my grandmother from the 1950s; one hellish boat trip in particular stood out in his memory. I have heard this story before, but always make him tell it, because it is so funny.

‘They made me sleep in a cupboard,’ he cried, in indignation. ‘With the fishing nets.’ My uncle was arrested by the Corsican police, who demanded vast sums of money to let him out (some bogus visa violation); my father was mostly drunk; my grandmother waxed lachrymose, as she was escaping from a dreadful third husband; and there was a near shipwreck. ‘We were drifting, drifting, towards the rocks, and no one did anything.’

After half an hour of anecdotes and occasional naughty asides (‘she really was the most dreadful woman I ever met,’ he said, of one of my old relations), I said: ‘Are you sure there is nothing I can do for you? You know, logistically?’ He has some writing to do, and finds it difficult now; I offered to come south and be his stenographer. But the old man is made of doughty stuff. He fought in the war. He is used to doing for himself; I think he prefers it that way. He graciously declined my faltering offer.

I put the telephone down. I said, out loud: ‘The godfather is alive’. It felt like a present, as unexpected as a shooting star in a clear midnight sky.

I know that, as the old gentleman himself says, he may not be here for very much longer. He is eighty-six or eighty-seven. Although I think of him as a national monument, someone who has always been there, since my earliest memory, I know that he cannot go on forever. But he is here for a while more, and I made that call, the one I would so have regretted not making, had it proved too late.

He said, at the very end: ‘Oh, I do feel cheered up now.’ My dad used to say that, in very much the same kind of telephone calls. I thought now, as I thought then: there is not much I can do, for the old people, but I can ring them and cheer them up a bit. It is not much, but it is not nothing. I am more passionately glad that I can say that I got through, and heard his ironical old voice coming down the line.

I know this. You all know this. And yet, sometimes one needs to be reminded. Make the call; write the letter; say the thing. I write that sentence not as admonition, but as a pour-memoire, for myself.

Sometimes, with the old people, I think: oh, they won’t want to talk to me now, or they will be tired, or feeling ill, or just creaking and cross. I think, perhaps it will be the most tremendous bore, having to chat. It isn’t. It’s important to call and make a joke and pay a compliment (‘you are a watchword for elegance,’ I told the godfather), and express the love. I almost missed the boat. I felt the bashing regret.

Make the call, I tell myself; write the letter. Say the thing.


Now for your pictures. The sun came out today, after four days of unremitting dreich. That felt like a present, too.

My little Japanese cherry is the reddest I ever saw it:

26 Oct 5

Moss on the wall:

26 Oct 6.ORF

The honeysuckle is still going:

26 Oct 7

The rosehips:

26 Oct 9

Beech avenue, dazzling in the sunshine:

26 Oct 10

Light on the hills:

26 Oct 11

The philadelphus is still green as green:

26 Oct 12

Cotinus, with lime tree in the background:

26 Oct 13

The view over my garden gate, to the blue hill beyond:

26 Oct 14

Someone was looking quite perfectly ravishing today:

26 Oct 15

Oh, my lovely Pigeon. She is a present too; so that's three in one day:

26 Oct 16

And the hill, having been quite invisible in the cloud, burst back into view in all her pomp:

26 Oct 18


  1. Wow. Beautiful. thank you and the pictures are so incredible. I am going to put your part of the world on my bucket list and I want to make it this time of year as well.

  2. Thank you. I am very pleased I was able to joke with Marie, tell her what she meant to me and that I would wear her pearls on my wedding day.

    I'm sad that others die so quickly I never got to say the thing. I think it means it needs to just be said if it is there to say. I'm telling people I love them a lot more these days.

    There is a song I've been thinking of a lot lately. It is by a band called the Flaming Lips and called "Do you realize?", it is very uplifting and also pretty much says "say the thing" and, well I'm hoping I can be better at it. Particularly in light if the last two years.

    Thank you so much.

  3. Your beautiful pictures made me gasp this morning. Gorgeous, gorgeous colours. Your Japanese cherry is exquisite. As is you-know-who. :)

    I am so happy you made contact with your godfather. They are precious, our old people. xx

  4. In the 1930s, there was, I believe, somewhere on the hill a bench that said something to the effect of "Pause and Rest." The 11th Marquis of Huntly would walk to the top of the hill, do just that, and return. Does it still exist?

  5. ‘Oh, I do feel cheered up now.’ I do, really. What a pleasure to hear your story and be introduced to your godfather, who sounds like a lovely person.

    Thanks so much for this post. This is one of the most important of reminders.

    And beautiful photos today! The colors are so vibrant and luminous, with that particular quality of light that seems to be specific to Scotland.

  6. You really do need a Reactions "box" with a big THANK YOU. Please.
    Thank you, thank YOU for this cosmic kick (reminder, in gentler terms).


  7. Yes it's easy to get bogged down with everyday stuff and forget about the things that really matter. Don't suppose you saw Fresh Meat last night, did you?

  8. Such kind and lovely comments; thank you.

    And specifically to answer Anon: don't know about bench, but love the thought; and That's Not My Age: did not see Fresh Meat, no.

  9. Reading this at my desk + find I have something in my eye. Really, really lovely. The small things do matter, so fiercely.

  10. I so love the way you write , your words , every single page hugging one of them resounds splendidily with me and brighten my day ....


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