The sun is dazzling over Scotland this morning. I sit inside, and write an obituary.
It is such a strange thing to have to do. I have never done it before. It’s one of the hardest bits of writing I’ve ever tackled, because one must do justice to greatness, pay right tribute, think of the feelings of all the friends and family.
What I really wanted to say was: another of The Good Men has gone.
Paul Burns was a much-loved member of the HorseBack UK family, and he had died after an accident. It was sudden and unexpected and seemed quite impossible; he was one of the most vivid men I ever met. Because I do the HorseBack Facebook page, I wrote something for him, feeling as always in the face of inexplicable loss the paltriness of mere words.
The news came at 9.51pm last night. There was that moment of black, blank shock. I could feel my brain saying: this does not compute. I could practically sense the neurones and synapses frazzling and twisting. I think about death every bloody day; I am in the middle of a mortality storm. But not this; not this man. I thought, furiously: this man had no bloody legs but he was more alive than anyone I ever met. The fact of him not existing in the world any more did not make the smallest piece of sense.
After a moment, I started thinking of it in writing, as I always do. Write it down, write it down, goes the voice in my head. At once, I heard the sentence: I lost a friend tonight. This was curious, because I did not know him all that well; I had only met him this year. I knew very little of his life. But I worked with him and always looked forward to his visits. I really liked him. He made me laugh. He interested me. I admired him. He was thoughtful and gentle and courageous and kind. He was one of those rare people who have the ability to make everything seem a little brighter, a little better, a little more possible.
I cried for the loss and the irony. There was a soldier who survived being blown up by an IRA bomb. That was how he lost his legs. And he dies in an ordinary accident. It seemed too pointless and cruel. He had so much to give. He inspired everyone who met him.
I did the thing I did after Dad. I had to get out and walk. It was almost ten but still light as day. I walked down to the field, over the burn, where a low mist was hovering, like something out of a film. I cried out loud, as the dog walked by my side. I had to get to my horse.
I got to the paddock, and whistled. All three horses turned, looked, raised their heads, and then cantered towards me in slow motion. I’m not sure I ever saw anything like it. It was a damn film. I went to Red and leaned on her. I actually said, out loud: ‘I know I am never supposed to bring you my stuff, but tonight I can’t help it.’ She breathed and nodded. ‘A good man died,’ I said.
And here was the perfect thing. She suddenly decided she did not want to be in a Disney movie. I don’t know what it was. Perhaps she really does not like it when I cry. Perhaps she had a fly. There was noise coming from the west, a dog barking, someone shouting; perhaps she had been disturbed by that. But she did not drop her head on my chest as she so often does. She threw it up in the air and rolled her eye at me, and swished her tail, and walked away. There was not a drop of sentiment in her. She does not speak English; she did know I was speaking of the good man, even though the last time I saw him he had admired her and stroked her nose and called her beautiful. She is a horse; she was just doing the things that horses do. It made me laugh, and shook me out of the emotional quicksand.
As this was happening, the dog went and had a damn good roll in some shit. That made me laugh even more. I thought: Paul knew horses and he knew dogs, and I suspect this moment would have made him laugh too. It was so much bathos. It was the exact right thing.
I walked away, shaking my head ruefully. And then I heard a rustle behind me, and the mare had dropped her head and forgotten her bad temper, and was following me. I stopped, to see if we just happened to be going in the same direction. I thought maybe she would just wander on past, oblivious to the sadness. But she stopped beside me and gave me her head, and forgot her grump and leaned her face into me and breathed through her velvet nostrils. I laughed again, a little ragged. I said, again out loud: ‘Thank you for that.’
We stood together for a moment and then I let her go. My problems are not her problems. And anyway, this thing is not my problem. It is a bigger sorrow. There will be family and old friends who will be missing this good man with a tearing grief.
I crossed back over the burn. The mist was rising. Two bats swooped out of the dusk. I passed the last place I saw Paul, only two weeks ago; he had been standing in the sunshine, just opposite my house. He was waving goodbye to the amazing young people of Banchory Academy, after their five days crossing Scotland together. He was so moved by them, had become so attached to them, so admired them, that there were tears in his eyes. He looked down, gave a twisted smile, as if mocking himself a little for letting emotion get the better of him.
He said, and I remember this like it was yesterday: ‘It’s so hard to say goodbye.’