I write here a great deal about the Perspective Police. I invented the Perspective Police a few years ago, and was so proud of them that I even featured the entire brigade in Backwards. I love utility, and they are nothing if not utile. They are the ones who bash down the door when one is sliding into the slough of self-pity or melancholia, and remind one sternly of all the blessings and good fortunes. They are an excellent corrective and I am always glad when I hear them get their battering rams out.
Now that I volunteer at HorseBack UK, I get a visit from The Perspective Police pretty much every day. It’s as if they have moved from their headquarters in some distant place, and camped out in the garden.
But this morning, I heard something which went even beyond their remit. It was a story which ran so far past my imagination that I don’t have good words for it. I don’t really have any words for it, and words are my life and my love. All I thought, as I heard it, was that this should never, ever happen to a human being. It is too much for one heart and mind and body to bear.
And yet there was this gentleman, who, despite having been blown up three times, as he told me in a matter of fact voice, looked fit and strong and real. Part of the difficulty is the gap between his outward aspect and what has happened to him. I cannot tell you the details, but you may get some sense of it when I say that being blown up was the very least of it.
He tells his story with no mawkish self-regard, no grandstanding, no look at me. It just comes out, as we talk together in the shade of an ancient stand of oak trees, with the blue Scottish hills glimmering in the distance. His voice is quiet and even; he uses no long words, no cheap dramatics, no hyperbole. He is long past hyperbole.
One of the things I feel strongly, although I do not say this out loud, because I think it would sound stupid, is that I am overwhelmed by a keen sense of privilege that he would choose to tell it to me. It is the worst story I have ever heard, yet I am glad I know it.
I want to say something clever and wise, about all this. I want to slot it into some kind of good life lesson, weave it into a parable. I want to say something about collective psychology, and societal fears and guilts, about averting the eyes from the unimaginable, about the daily gift of being able to live a normal life, to sleep at night.
I want to say something about the unheralded gift of the things not seen. There are men and women out there who have witnessed things which no human eye should have to witness. And those pictures never go away, ever. They are seared into the brain, flashing and lurid and constant.
But my fingers stutter and stall over the keyboard, because it is here that language fails, and imagination fails, and even the human heart, in which I have such faith, fails. There is a ragged, humming disbelief that such people can go on putting one foot in front of the other, can get out of bed in the morning, can function at all in the world. And yet they do. They can stand, in a quiet corner of Scotland, and tell their story to an unknown woman, in words of such clarity and authenticity that it takes the breath away.
‘Sometimes it is easier to talk to a stranger,’ the gentleman says.
‘Yes,’ I say. ‘I understand that.’
At least here is something I can understand.
‘Well, everyone has a story,’ he says, drily, wryly, looking out to those indigo mountains, which were here before he and I were ever dreamt of, and shall be here for thousands of years after we have gone.
Not everyone, I think, has a story like that.
My sense of perspective has undergone a profound shift. I feel it physically, in my body, as if the very atoms that make up my corporeal self are moving around, reconfiguring themselves.
I shall carry his story with me now. It is stitched into my heart.
I shall think of that quiet gentleman. I shall think of his dignity and fortitude.
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning, I shall remember.
Afterwards, I went and stood with this person for a long time. She is very happy today, and she has taken on her calmest aspect, as if some deep stillness is at work in her. It is a profound, spreading authenticity, as if she is at one with her world, as if she is her most real, horsey self. It is another of those things which is hard to put into words, but it communicates itself like smoke across the species divide. It goes from one equine spirit to one human one, and brings back a sense of the simple fact of existence, of living and breathing and being alive in this precise moment. It anchors me back to the very earth on which I stand:
That is her daily gift, which she gives with simple generosity. When people ask -why the horse? – that is why.
And then I looked at these:
And I stared at the hill:
And I cannot tell you what I felt.