Posted by Tania Kindersley.
In the last two days, I have had lunch with two of the oldest and dearest friends. I want to write more about that, partly because I find friendship fascinating, and it is still the poor relation, in the pantheon of loves, crowded out by the febrile drama of romantic love, and the stirring play of family love. Sometimes I think it is my most important. I am going to do that tomorrow, because it is getting late, and there is something else I have to recount.
But the one thing I will say is: the absolute miracle of 26 years. The ties of affection and history and memory and shared stories pull so tight that you can not see someone for months, or, in today’s case, two years, and you pick up exactly where you left off.
Today, I started talking before I even got out of the car, and was still talking three hours later as I pulled out of the drive to leave. I was as excited as if it were Christmas morning. I think it because I regard those friendships as a deep gift, and discovering they are as box-fresh as ever, despite time and distance, is as much of a thrill as finding the present you most wanted under the tree.
I’m putting off this friendship story until tomorrow, because there was something else I did today.
I went to visit my father’s grave.
It was the first time I had been back to the churchyard since his funeral in May. I had debated whether to do it or not, but it was the most beautiful day, and the road to my friend ran right past my old village, and the cross country route from my cousin’s house is the road of my childhood, filled with landmarks and memories. The stars seemed aligned; I like to think my empirical mind does not have room for fates and signs, but it did feel a bit like a sign. So I took it.
It’s the drive through the prettiest parts of Gloucestershire, skirting Wiltshire and South Oxfordshire, and moving into West Berkshire. It’s a country of rolling downland, and ancient copses, and lost flint villages, and folded hills, and sudden architectural gems. You go right past Ashdown House, one of the most glittering houses in the south of England.
I thought, as I drove, of the country in which I grew up. It was wide green downs, where the larks sang on the wing, with prehistoric barrows, chalk horses carved into the green hills, the lovely Wayland’s Smithy, where my brother used to run with our lurcher.
The funny thing was that this very morning, on Twitter, the trainer Jamie Osborne, whom I knew well in my teens and twenties, had posted a picture of his string of horses up on the gallops in Upper Lambourn. I had looked at it and thought: that is my childhood in one picture. Then, at eleven o’clock, I was guiding the car into the narrow lanes of Upper Lambourn itself.
I drove past the yard where I lived when I was eleven, with my first stepfather. I went past the stables of the trainers of my youth: Doug Marks, Fred Winter, Paul Cole, Charlie Brooks. I traced the road where I would peddle my bicycle down to the village on the Wednesdays when the mobile library would be parked up, and I was in a fever to change my books.
Coming down into Lambourn, I passed the church where we went to Midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, snaked between the two pubs where the lads from rival stables used to come out on a Saturday night and have ritual punch-ups, saw the white shop of the dear old saddler, Mr Wicks, where we went to buy tack, amazingly still there after thirty-five years.
On the left was The Lamb, the pub where, famously, no one ever drank, and then, up on its rise, the yard of the great Barry Hills, whose lovely Durtal I remember as the star filly of my childhood.
There was The Plough, the pub where I used to go as a teenager with a gang of raw assistant trainers. They were funny and wild and shy; sometimes I see them now on the television, all grown up, trainers themselves, leading in a classic winner at Newmarket or Epsom.
I drove by the ford at Eastbury, where we used to take my pony Seamus to teach him to get over his fear of water. (It was my mother’s brilliant idea, and it worked like a dream.) On the right was the stable of the lovely trainer Bill Payne, whose wife was my godmother.
Further up, there was the little house where Jeffrey Bernard lived for a while, in his pomp. He used to send himself a postcard every day, so the postman would have to drive up the steep dirt drive, and could then give Jeff a lift back to the pub. (He either could not drive, or was banned, or, in those days, could just not afford a car.) I was little, I did not know who he was; I just loved him. It was only much later that I realised that this funny, kind, swaying man who came to our house was a bit of a Fleet Street and Soho legend, who would be played by Peter O’Toole in the West End play, Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell.
Then I took the old, familiar turn into the village, left at the war memorial, and drove up to the church. Last time I was there, I was dressed in funeral clothes, tight with new grief, nodding with faint unreality at people I had not seen for years, my Yeats poem clutched in my hand.
The place was deserted, and very still and peaceful. I put on my gumboots and let The Pigeon out of the back of the motor. ‘Come on,’ I said, out loud. ‘Let’s go and see the auld fella.’
I don’t know what I thought would happen. Would there be sudden tears, the ripping off of the new scab of tearing regret, a vivid sense of the man himself, a terrible sense of what was lost?
In the end, it was wonderfully, beautifully, ordinary. There is no headstone yet. There is just a bit of rough, slightly raised sod, covered in ragged new grass, in a very small rectangle. It looked too small to contain a person.
He was not there. Of course he was not. It’s just a physical place, with some bones in it. He lives in the hearts and memories of those who loved him.
I knelt, and laid my hand on the grass. ‘You silly old fellow, ‘ I said.
My father was a champion, a Corinthian in his youth, a man who changed the chemistry of any room into which he walked. But he was also like me: filled with flaws and foibles and follies. So when I say silly, I mean it with all the ineffable fondness of which family ties are made.
Then a slightly odd thing happened. The Pigeon came and lay down beside him. She had been lying all morning, in the car; she could not be tired. But she stayed there for a while, and would not be moved.
It’s just coincidence of course; the new grass was probably vastly comfortable for her to rest her old legs. But it reminded me of that lovely bit at the end of the film of Out of Africa, one of my favourites, where Meryl Streep, playing Karen Blixen, says that someone wrote to her to say that two lions had been seen lying on the grave of her great love, Denys Finch Hatton. It’s one of those random associations; my dog is no lion, East Garston is not Africa, my dad was no Finch Hatton, although they shared some character traits. But it made me smile.
I stood up straight. The sun broke through the venerable yew trees. I said: ‘Come on Pidge, let us go and see the living.’
As we left, the church clock struck the half hour. I smiled. I got on the road, and went to see my old, old friend.
There are a lot of pictures today, not so much because I am waxing sentimental, although I do like the idea of a visual record of this day, but because this is one of the most beautiful graveyards I ever saw. It's not just because Dad is there, it's because of the aesthetics, too.
Walking in, this is what we saw:
The very ordinary burial place, for a rather extraordinary man:
But there was a lovely spider's web, glittering with dew:
The Pigeon, lying at his side:
Of course the irony is, and the thing that would have made him laugh, is that he never really liked dogs, much.
The view out over the fields and trees from his grave:
And this was when I turned to leave, and the old girl would not be moved:
She does look a bit like a lion here, if I can say that without sounding too fanciful:
And, what we saw on the way out:
The clock striking the half hour:
The final sight:
I hope this was not TOO MUCH. I am aware that I sometimes skirt the wilder shores of self-indulgence. For which I beg your forgiveness.
But there it was, this thing that I wanted to mark. When I returned to the house, in the November dark, the Beloved Cousin was at the door, with her two girls. The middle cousin, aged nine, hurled herself into my arms as if I had been away on a great expedition. She was the very embodiment of life going on. Which is exactly what it does.
Oh, and since I'm on the subject, I suddenly realise I never gave you that Yeats poem I read at the funeral. It is one of his loveliest, and I just got through it before my voice broke.
At Galway Races:
There where the course is,
Delight makes all of the one mind,
The riders upon the galloping horses,
The crowd that closes in behind:
We, too, had good attendance once,
Hearers and hearteners of the work;
Aye, horsemen for companions,
Before the merchant and the clerk
Breathed on the world with timid breath.
Sing on: somewhere at some new moon,
We'll learn that sleeping is not death,
Hearing the whole earth change its tune,
Its flesh being wild, and it again
Crying aloud as the racecourse is,
And we find hearteners among men
That ride upon horses.