The expatriate rings. We have known each other for so long that we have no need to spell things out; we barely need to talk in complete sentences. There is no call for long explanations; a lovely, staccato shorthand exists between us. A single word in a certain tone of voice can say more than eighteen paragraphs.
Early in the conversation, one of us says, I forget which, ‘Oh, all the learning we still have to do.’
The other echoes, with a dying fall: ‘All that damn life learning.’
I think what we mean by this is that we have got to the age when, according to the book, we should know an awful lot. We should be certain and capable. Instead, back back back we both trot, to the drawing board, to keep learning the lessons, to remember the ones we already learned but carelessly forgot.
‘Do you think,’ I say, tentative and musing, ‘that there are people who just barrel through life?’
I hear her smiling down the long-distance line.
‘Some people might barrel a bit more than we do,’ she says. ‘But you know, everyone’s got something.’
I think this is a fairly profound truth. Everyone does have something. Even those alphas - the bond traders or thoracic surgeons or university professors, the Nobel laureates and the corporate titans, the ones pronouncing on the wireless or writing with authority in the broadsheets, shining with sureness - even they must have something, when they wake at three in the morning, which is what F Scott Fitzgerald called the dark night of the soul. Otherwise why did they need to get so shiny and successful in the first place?
The Playwright calls, from a London street, sirens wailing in the background.
‘I’m just crossing a police line,’ he says. ‘Thank you, officer.’
He has a slightly different take on the matter.
He says: ‘Look how far we’ve come.’
He does not mean in terms of professional success or worldly accomplishment, which is what that phrase might ordinarily conjure. He means that even though we are both still packed with frailties and foibles and general moments of idiocy, we deal with the thorny patches better and more quickly and – this most crucially – more temperately than we would have done when we were young and callow and thought we knew everything.
It’s easy to forget, as one enters the searching halls of middle age, that for everything one does not know, there is a thing one does know.
Here is what I think, just now. Here is what I tell myself. Be brave, be kind, be funny, be vulnerable, be goofy, be true. There are people in the world who will never, ever get the point of your own idiosyncratic little star. My strong thought is: let them. Let them run free, not getting it. Give them the glorious liberty never to see the point. There are points in life it is worth trying to prove; there are some which can never be proved.
For some reason, as I slow down, trying to finish this new notion, I hear an old Scots voice in my head. It says: save your breath to cool your porridge. I think this is what old nursery nurses used to tell chatty children, in the days when children were seen and not heard. But now, I think, it can mean something slightly else. It can mean: don’t try to persuade the unpersuadable.
As I cast around for the good, final sentence, the little existential bow on the parcel, and come up blank, I suddenly think: but of course, you probably know all this already. I think even I might have known this already. Part of the reason for writing it down is that sometimes I need to be reminded.
As I type this, Stanley the Dog comes into the room and gazes at me with his steady amber eyes. Last night, I had a brief grief storm. I was watching, in my geekish way, a re-run of the Gold Cup, and they were showing Gold Cups past.
There was the mighty Arkle, the bonny Mill House, the doughty Desert Orchid blasting his way through the mud and murk. The beauty and the bravery of the horses, and the old racing history, made me think of my father, and I wept. Stanley came and positioned himself next to my left knee, sitting upright as a sentinel, as if on guard. It was absurdly touching. I suddenly realised he has not seen tears before. He arrived in November, and I have been busy and mostly happy since then. I might have thought that the sorrow could have disturbed him, but not at all. There he was, by my side, staunch as a very staunch thing.
The storm passed, as it always does. I felt clean and renewed. I thought of May Sarton, one of my very favourite writers, another solitary. She once wrote: ‘We have to dare to be ourselves, however frightening or strange that self may prove to be.’
Can’t have too many pictures of Gus the Foal, here with his lovely friend Awesome:
Myfanwy the Pony:
Autumn the Filly:
Stanley the Staunch:
This person is pretty staunch too. Sorrow holds no fears for her. She just stands with her head on my shoulder until the thing is finished:
Love that slightly wistful face. It’s actually her Where the bloody hell is my tea face.