Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Running out of words

Have slightly run out of words today. I never run out of words.

Last night, the Pigeon and I sat on the sofa together, watching old episodes of the West Wing. Even the brilliance of Aaron Sorkin could not stop my mind from wandering. I suddenly decided that I must write down every single moment of these last days. I must record the soft, downy feel of her fur, the teddy bear grumble she makes when she shifts position, the gracious line of silver about her mouth, the way she puts her muzzle on my leg and gazes up into my eyes.

I actually rushed to the computer at half-past nine and started to do this. Then my fingers stopped moving. I don’t need to write it, I thought; I should just live it.

Everyone is lovely. All the extended family, the Beloved Cousin, the Horse Talker, the Dear Readers. I get incredibly touching messages on Twitter. There is the sweetness of the nearest and dearest, and the kindness of strangers. I move between pretty stoical and intensely sad. In a slightly nuts way, I keep the sadness from the dog. For her, I am bonny and blithe.

She chased her stick this morning. This is my absolute bellwether. She is a bit off her food, and she gives me those heartbreaking searching glances, as if she knows something is not right and she needs me to tell her what it is. But when I pick up the stick, her eyes brighten, and she bounces up and down, and she does her canine grin, and I can catch a glimpse of that antic youth, when she used to swim across the burn and jump over three foot fences and run at thirty miles an hour. (I once timed her and the Duchess up the drive, and they hit a top speed of 34 mph. I was so proud. They were my own little Frankels.)

The mare has her own sweetness. I am spending all my time with the dog, so I just rush up to the field for the most basic feed and groom and checking of legs. Also: for five minutes of intense love. Normally, Red can get quite grumpy if she is not having her due duchessy share of attention. Now, she seems calm and understanding. She puts her head on my shoulder and I stroke the velvet coat on her neck, growing furry now the cold weather is setting in. It is the softest, most comforting thing in the world. All her summer hardness falls away, and there is something yielding and gloriously tactile about her.

She blows down her nose and nods her head and I give her a kiss and run back to my dog.


Today’s pictures:

Some autumn leaf action:

30 Oct 1

31 Oct 1

31 Oct 2

31 Oct 3

31 Oct 5

31 Oct 6

31 Oct 6-001

Have not had time to take horse pictures lately, so here are a couple from our glorious snow day:

31 Oct 10-001

That little pony is a great comfort too. She is so downy and furry now that all I do is hug her. She puts up with it with very good grace. She is another one who grows more beloved every day, and she has a good line in comic turns too, so she makes us all laugh.

Red, inspecting her view:

31 Oct 9

The Pigeon, this morning:

31 Oct 10

31 Oct 12

31 Oct 14

31 Oct 15

What I find hard to comprehend is that someone who looks like that can be coming to the end. I suppose it is good that she is not deaf and blind and hardly able to walk. I know the vet is right. That bloody ear will get her. I am not clinging to false hope. She is on four different drugs and all they can do is hold the inevitable at bay for a little while. At least her final days are not a mess of pain and incontinence and other horrors. It just seems wrong, somehow, that one failing part of the body can overcome all the rest, which is still so filled with life.

The hill:

31 Oct 20

Tuesday, 30 October 2012

HorseBack, dogs, love, perspective, and a remarkable gentleman

Author’s note: this is stupidly long. And this is the edited version. You might like to sit down with a nice biscuit.


Today was a HorseBack UK day. I almost called to cancel, because I’ve now got the clock ticking down, and every minute with the old dog is precious. But it’s important that the Mother and Stepfather get some time with her too, and she adores them, so she would spend the morning there.

It was a good decision. First of all, they are really nice people who know all about animals, and the love. Second of all, it’s a place of profound authenticity. I remember this when I was grieving my dad; I craved authenticity like a drug. I can’t really explain it. There’s a crashing feeling of: there is life, love, death, and, in my case, trees, and everything else is bullshit. I can’t be doing with the bullshit when life gets this real.

Third of all, there are horses; fourth of all, there are hills. We drove up to look at the winter quarters, where the herd shall go in a week or two. The road runs through thick Scottish woods and then breaks out at the top of a rise, and you turn in, and suddenly all the mountains open like a book, rolling in high blue waves, so beautiful and majestic it makes me catch my breath. It was that with which I fell in love when I first came here; it was why I threw everything up in the south and made the whimsical move north.

Back at headquarters, one of the volunteers, whom I had not met before, approached me. The way this operation works is very clever. There are specific courses for wounded servicemen and women, which are important in themselves, but almost more important is the voluntary programme. Those wounded in war, with scars internal or external, come back to this extraordinary place, with its beauty and its peace, and do all kinds of work, with the horses, on the buildings, and find a safe place, where they do not have to explain themselves. It is the most potent therapeutic tool, and brilliantly organic and real.

Anyway, one of these fellows came up to me and said: ‘You’re the blogging lady, aren’t you?’

‘I am,’ I said.

He looked rather grave, and I had a sudden terror that he was going to say, oh please don’t write that, or don’t use this word, or just: you’ve got it all wrong. Every time I sit down to write about all this, I have a keen sense of responsibility. These are people who have experienced things I can hardly stretch my brain to imagine. I am acutely aware of the spaces of my ignorance. It is a delicate subject, and one to which I must do justice. More than in any other area of my writing life, I feel it is vital not to get it wrong.

In fact, the grave look was because he was filled with seriousness of purpose. He had embarked on a fund-raising exercise, and now was the moment he was to present the cheque. He was giving something back, for all that HorseBack had given him. He wanted me to record it.

I felt stupidly, absurdly humbled. Also: honoured. I damn well was the blogging lady, and I was going to be able to show the lovely virtuous circle that exists in this place.

The gentleman told me, with the ready honesty that I find everywhere here, of his history. He served in the first Gulf War and in Northern Ireland. He had PTSD, which suddenly morphed itself into acute agoraphobia.

‘I did not go outside for six years,’ he said.

I’m getting reasonably good at this now. I do not exclaim, or say oh no poor you, or put on the pity face. I sense, without having to be told, that the pity face is the last thing any of them want. Although pity can come from the good human emotion of sympathy, it can also be patronising and distancing. Now, when people say things like this to me, I nod, seriously, and take it on the chin, and listen, and let them tell me their story.

Six years inside is a long time. Now, this gentleman was lifting his eyes to the distant hills, at home in his surroundings. Now, he was working with horses, which he had no experience of until he came here.

‘I could hardly lift my head up,’ he said. ‘The horses taught me to raise my head.’

I nodded, on easier ground now. I know horses.

‘Yes,’ I said, ‘because you have to.’

‘Because you have to,’ he said.

You know what I said yesterday about the Perspective Police sending me a note? This was the note. My heart will break, but hearts mend. Perspective does not lessen grief, but it bloody well makes me realise all the good fortune I have, and reminds me not to throw out babies with bathwater. It restores sanity. Everything will not end. 

The cheque presentation was lovely. The amazing fund-raising gentleman said to me, out of the corner of his mouth, as we all went into the office: ‘Sometimes I’m not very good at talking to one person, let alone a whole room.’ But his short speech was gracious and fluent and perfect. ‘The first thing I felt when I left,’ he said, ‘was that I had to give something back.’ And so he did, over eight hundred whole pounds, which means a huge amount to this organisation.

The boss stood up to take the cheque. ‘It’s not often I’m lost for words,’ he said truthfully. There was a pause, whilst he found some good ones. At the end, he looked at the gathered veterans and said: ‘It’s a real privilege to work with you guys.’ Right on the money. Everyone clapped and I quite wanted to whoop and holler, but I restrained myself. I took some pictures instead.

There is a slight hippy dippy idea that the universe sends you the things you need, when you need them. I’m not quite sure about that, but Jung had a similar idea, which he called synchronicity, and the Buddhists go there too. There might just be a grain of rational truth in it. I don’t know who sends what: universe, fate, give it the name you like. But I got sent something really good. If it had not been for the mare, I might never have discovered HorseBack, and it is the absolute definition of a one true thing, and it really is a privilege to work with those guys, just like the man said.

I got home to my Pigeon. She was a bit dopey and wobbly after her anaesthetic yesterday. She gave me the Disney eyes and I fed her treats and stroked her and made encouraging noises and told her she was a very marvellous creature indeed. The Playwright called, with jokes and words of wisdom and the exact right combination of understanding and encouragement. Also, there was a call from one of the very old friends who has known the Pidge since the very day she arrived in our lives, a small bundle of black fur. The old friend is the mother of my goddaughter M. ‘The Pigeon is M’s favourite dog in the whole world,’ said the old friend. ‘Even more of a favourite than our own dog.’ She laughed. She sent love.

And talking of love, the thing that never fails to astonish me is the kindness and love sent by the Dear Readers. You did this after the old Duchess went, and you do it again now. It touches and cheers me more than perhaps you know. If it had not been a HorseBack day, this entire post would have been devoted to the miraculous nature of the Dear Readers. Who knew so much generosity of spirit and cleverness and kindness was out there, on the wilder shores of the world wide web? 

After Frankel won the Lockinge, Tom Queally said: ‘He belongs to racing now.’ In my fanciful mind, I think: the Pigeon belongs to the internet. I did not expect to have a dog who was beloved from the Antipodes to America, but it turns out that is what I do have. That’s a lot of love. Thank you for it.

The old lady is chasing rabbits in her sleep now. I take this as a GOOD SIGN. We’ll bugger on for a few days yet, I think.


Today’s pictures:

The happy HorseBack horses:

30 Oct 6

30 Oct 7

30 Oct 7-001

30 Oct 8

The view from the top of the hill:

30 Oct 10

30 Oct 11

30 Oct 13

The cheque presentation:

30 Oct 24-008

30 Oct 22

My sweet girls:

30 Oct 29-008

30 Oct 30

The Pigeon, after I brought her home from the vet last night, swaddled in blankets:

30 Oct 31-008

Monday, 29 October 2012

The saddest day

This is the one I knew I would one day have to write, but hoped, with all the wild magical thinking at my disposal, that I might somehow avoid.

There is no good way to say it, so I’m just going to do it fast.

The Pigeon is going to have to be put down.

I stare at that bald sentence on the screen; my fingers stop, unsure which key to press next; my heart hammers in my chest. It is all stupid and wrong and bad. This life should not stop. All lives stop, but there is a rage in me against the dying of the light.

She developed an ear infection a while ago. Tumours were mentioned. Then it seemed it was just an infection after all. Then a huge polyp was found and removed. It was malignant but slow-growing and seemed not to have gone into the lymph nodes. There was hope, which is why I did not write about it. I was in high denial. Of course she would be fine. My vet is the best in the world. She is so bright and bonny and brave and strong. Her nose was wet, she was romping about, she was not shaking her head or scratching at the ear, she was eating, she was chasing her ball. (When she stops chasing the ball, we are in world of trouble.)

Then the thing exploded into a ghastly horror show of pus and brown ooze, despite antibiotics, and I rushed up to the vet today, and he told me, in his kind, direct way, that we are into the last days. They could do a dramatic procedure and take half her ear out, but the outcome of that is not guaranteed, and I can’t do it to such an old lady.

I left her there, in the tender care of this brilliant veterinarian, who has known her since she was a puppy. They are cleaning out the poor ear and putting her on very strong drugs. I go back to get her at five. She will stay with me for as long as I can keep her comfortable. It may be three days, it may be three weeks. And then the decision must be made.

I am forty-five years old. Despite a strong streak of flakiness and goofiness and moments of rank idiocy, I am a grown-up, or as close as I shall ever get. In my more self-regarding moments, I like to think of myself as an independent female. I’ve seen a bit of life. But this, this, reduces me to a state of helpless childishness. I am swamped by streaming, hopeless tears.

I used to be ashamed of such uncontrolled displays of emotion; when I wept for the Duchess there was a part of me that said it was unseemly, that I should have more gumption and stoicism and stiff upper lip, because it was only a dog, because there were worse things happening in Chad.

In those dark days, my sister said a wise thing. She said: ‘love is love.’ What she meant was: there’s no such thing as only a dog. It doesn’t matter if it is a canine or a human who has your heart, that heart will break, just the same.

My heart is breaking.

I have some experience of this. Last year, it was my father and my other dog, in quick succession. The heart broke. Slowly, carefully, I put the pieces back together. That is what we all do; it is part of the human condition. The pieces are glued into place, because you can’t just fall apart, you have to keep bashing on. Grief is part of life; it is the central part of love. The pieces go back, but what I have learnt is that the cracks remain. It shocked me sometimes how deep they were, how they could open up again at the smallest thing, presaging a storm of grief, no matter how much time has passed.

Love is love. It damn well should leave cracks. I started to see them as a sort of map, where I could trace the beloveds, and mark them well.

Now, that process starts all over again.

I want to say I don’t know what I shall do, but actually I do. Luckily, all the family were still gathered from the wedding. The Sister, the Brother-in-Law, both nieces, the Man in the Hat, folded themselves round me, as if forming a physical honour guard against the horrid reality, as if by their very presence they could hold my battered heart together. The Mother and the lovely Stepfather were as devastated as I. The Pigeon goes to them every morning, when I go up to do the horse; she has breakfast with them and lies on my mother’s bed for love. My poor mum is not very well herself; the Pidge is her best therapy dog.

So I have that. That is what I shall do. Keep myself in the stronghold of that extended family; work, grieve, put the pieces back together. I expect the perspective police might send me a note. I may read it. There shall be nights when I shall call on strong liquor.

The thing I find I can’t do, as I write these stuttering words, is talk about her. It’s too soon for that. Those Dear Readers come regularly to these pages, who are so fond of her, who leave such lovely comments about her, know well her sweetness, her funniness, her beauty, her grace. She has the kindest nature of any dog I ever met. She has ears as soft as velvet and eyes as bright as diamonds.

I had been thinking lately that I had not written much of her. I had gone off on long divagations about the mare, about my new equine life, about Frankel, about HorseBack, about almost anything, in fact, except the Pigeon. I only worked out recently why that was.

It was, I am ashamed to say, fear.

I knew that we were going into the twilight years, and the swooping bird of loss was hovering over my head. I could not write about her, because in some nutty way I thought that if I did it would be an admission of that brutal fact, and I wanted to pretend for a while longer. I would not record the final days because they were not going to be final. I would keep her going until she was seventeen and she would be a wonder dog and everyone would gasp in awe and disbelief.

Now I think to myself: you idiot. You should have written every single snuffle and wiggle and jump for joy; you should have put down each morning sweetness and evening dearness. Every day she had a good story, and I did not write it. Even though I know it is understandable, I am angry about that.

I don’t really know how to end this. All my writing training says there must be a good ending, a proper final sentence, something that sends the piece out with a bang, not a whimper. But there is no good ending. Words, the things by which I make my living, the entities which are my passion and delight, falter when it comes to loss and death and heartbreak. It’s why writing those awful condolence letters is so hard. What chance do feeble scratches have on a page, up against the mightiness and finality of death?

And yet, however paltry, however halting, however thin and unpoetical, those words are important. Even the short sympathy of saying sorry means something; the transmission of a kind thought, the literary equivalent of a bowed head.

All I know are words; all I have ever done in times of trouble is try to write it down. The words themselves may fall into platitude; they are small things; but they are all I have.

Shakespeare said:

'Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak
Whispers the o'er-fraught heart and bids it break.'

I have no good ending. The words I have left are the short bald ones. Love, loss, sad, bad, grief, end. I shall scrabble about in time, and find the better ones: courage, hope, light, life. I shall have my lovely old lady for a few more precious days. We shall, in the fleeting time left to us, summon the spirit of Churchill (Churchill and Shakespeare; my two stalwart fellows in times of travail), and keep buggering on.


29 October 1

Sunday, 28 October 2012

Sunday pictures

Incredibly lovely wedding weekend. Huge amounts of family love. Everything went like clockwork, and there were beaming faces of joy wherever you looked.

Quite tired now after unaccustomed levels of social life (also: DANCING), so just a couple of Sunday pictures before normal service resumes tomorrow:

Red the Mare:

28 Oct 2

Pigeon does her famous blinky eyes:

28 Oct 1


28 Oct 3

Saturday, 27 October 2012

A wedding

So sorry for lack of blogging. There is a big family wedding here, and all the relations are arriving on the compound. There are great-nephews. Both nieces are here. The Man in the Hat arrived on Monday to do the technicals. (After working on the Olympics, he must find this like a walk in park, although there has been some head-banging over generators.) I was so excited by the return of the Man in the Hat I had him straight round to my house and poured bullshots down his throat. Then I had to tell him the whole story of the Horseshoe Bar in the Shelbourne on St Stephen’s Green, where The Younger Brother and I used to drink the best bullshots in the world, made from the bouillon off a side of beef that came out of the kitchen each morning. He listened politely. It’s always dangerous when I get onto my old Dublin days.

The really lovely thing, and the whole point of this dashing update is: the weather. I’ve been monitoring the weather closely all week, as I always do, because of the horses. Every day, the local Saturday forecast has been low cloud and rain, the dreichiest, dreariest forecast imaginable. The poor, poor bride, I kept thinking.

Then last night, snow fell out of the sky as if someone was emptying a celestial bucket, and this morning the sun came out, and instead of drear, we have A WINTER WONDERLAND. I can hardly believe it. I think of how happy all the southern visitors will be, as they see Scotland looking like something from a postcard.

The minor problem is that my only set of clothes which works for this weather is black. So I shall be the Bateman cartoon: the women who pitched up to a country wedding in deepest ebony.

But I really think that it is going to be a very joyful day. I used to be a bit cynical about weddings. Not any more. Now I am older and more bashed about, I think: any public of declaration of love must be a thing of beauty and a joy forever. And just picture a tall, willowy young beauty, in her long white dress, walking up to an old highland kirk in the snow. It is the stuff which dreams are made on.


Quick pictures of what it looked like this morning:

27 Oct 1

27 Oct 2

27 Oct 3

27 Oct 4

27 Oct 6

27 Oct 9


27 Oct 11-001

27 Oct 10

27 Oct 11


27 Oct 12

Thursday, 25 October 2012

Mostly pictures

1024 hard-written words today. Sometimes, when I am really motoring, I can do five hundred in an hour. Some days, I have to pull each phrase out of my head with tweezers.

The Younger Brother calls from Bali, where he lives. ‘We must pat each other on the back,’ he cries, for no special reason. ‘We must cheer everyone on.’ (This is the kind of thing he suddenly says, overcome with his own exuberance.)

He is so filled with optimistic certainty that I can practically see the pom-poms. I was feeling a bit grouchy; the weather had turned dour again, I have a dull head cold, the words were hard. Now, thanks to the unfeasibly happy voice of the Balinese Brother, I feel my spirits lift. I contemplate the miracles of the Skype.

Through my work storm, news from the outside world filters in. The economy seems to be recovering. Dear old Blighty is growing again. Ordinary Decent Britons know better to throw their hats in the air over one set of figures, but I can’t help but feel a small green shoot of hope. It’s so long since we had any good economic news.

A Republican politician has said something unspeakable about rape. This appears to be a pathological daily occurrence, so I’m not sure it counts as news. It never ceases to amaze me, though.

Donald Trump has done something idiotic and self-promoting, which is also too usual to be worthy of print. What should be news but is lost below the fold, because the papers are still obsessed with the Jimmy Savile scandal and bashing the BBC, is that two soldiers were shot to death in Afghanistan.

That’s the one that always stops me in my tracks. I don’t know what to say about that. It’s where words fail; even the language of Shakespeare and Milton is not good enough.

Here, in the far north, the trees are turning and the weather is coming in over the hills. There will be snow tomorrow. I feel the faintest flutter of apprehension at the arrival of the serious winter chill. It is time, I think, for stew.


Today’s pictures:

Autumn colours on the hills:

25 Oct 1

25 Oct 2

25 Oct 3

25 Oct 5

25 Oct 7

25 Oct 8

25 Oct 9

And in the garden:

25 Oct 10

25 Oct 12

The herd:

25 Oct 14-001

25 Oct 14-002

25 Oct 14

The impossible dignity of Miss Pidge:

25 Oct 15

25 Oct 16

The hill:

25 Oct 20


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