Thursday, 31 December 2015

Reasons to be cheerful.



I cried today. Not for my own sorrow, but because I heard a gentleman from Syria on the wireless. One of the BBC’s foreign correspondents had known him and his family quite well and was catching up on their story, on what had happened to them because of the war. (I think this was it; I came in half way through in one of those serendipitous moments when I just happen to be in the kitchen and I happen to press the button for Radio Four and there is all humanity, speaking to me.) This man had been driven from his home town, although some of his family and friends still seemed to be there – ‘Ah, they are bombing now, can you hear?’ said one of them when the journalist rang up. ‘Should you not hide?’ said the journalist. ‘No, no,’ said the crackling voice, cheerfully, ‘we are used to it.’

The gentleman who had been driven from his town said, at the very end of the programme, to this gentle man from the BBC: one day we shall go back there, God willing, and we shall play some football. It seemed he had run some kind of football club and he had kept a diary of all their fixtures and who had won and who had scored, and it was this diary he wanted to find, to show his friend from the Beeb.

So, I cried. Because there was all human life: hope, courage, love, loss, fear (I shall show you fear in a handful of dust), humour, grace under pressure, an amazing and dauntless optimism. Will that man ever go back to his town? Perhaps not. But he has faith; he believes. Across a long cultural divide, those human hearts are just the same as this human heart. There is the hope for better things.

Sometimes I don’t know what to do with the world. There are all the private griefs, but there are the great global griefs too. How does one carry those? Empathy is sometimes the very devil. My sister can’t listen to the news any more, it makes her too sad. I listen to it, furiously, thinking that if they can go through it – those refugees, those victims of war, those women in the Congo – then I can damn well listen to it. Sometimes I laugh a twisted laugh, thinking that if those women of the Congo knew that there was one middle-aged, middle-class female standing in the middle of a muddy field worrying about them they would not really feel that much better about things.

Down in the village, everyone is talking about the floods. There is a dauntless Blitz spirit in the shop and everyone is wishing everyone a happy new year. They are pumping out the Co-Op with fire trucks and there are police cars flashing past, packed with serious officers. At my field, the water is subsiding and the mares are as poised and composed as if they were going to a diplomatic cocktail party, just as if they had not spent yesterday afternoon walking through water up to their hocks as we led them to the higher ground. 

I’d had a sudden moment of doubt as I left them in their flooded field, as the gloaming fell and the night rolled in, and had told the red mare sternly that it was her job to look after them. She takes her responsibilities very seriously, and she did look after them, and they are entirely unruffled. 

There are rumours of tragic sheep which I don’t want to think about. (My neighbour, a man of the land, is steely. ‘They were warned,’ he said. ‘Everyone knew to move their livestock.’) That’s very north-eastern. There is a streak of granite in the people here, just like the stone that runs through this part of the country. It took me a while to get used to when I first arrived, with my soft southern ways, but now I love it and admire it.

My gumboots will never be dry again. I’ve tried everything but the neoprene lining has soaked up the water like a sponge and there is a terrible squelching when I put them back on. I am resigned to wet feet and soggy socks. The dogs think the whole thing is hysterical and gambol through the water with their heads held high. I make soup and feel passionately grateful that my house is dry and the power is on.


I feel equally grateful that my village is here and my house is safe and I don’t have to shout down a crackling line to a journalist about the bombs. I don’t really do New Year resolutions, but I think that every day of 2016 I am going to make a list of my good fortune. Reasons to be cheerful, one two three. 

Thursday, 24 December 2015

Everybody knows.


In a small village like mine, everybody knows.

The posties know. ‘You’ll be wanting to get this Christmas over then,’ said Pearl the Postwoman this morning, giving Stanley the Manly his customary Bonio. (She really is one of the nicest women in the world and a brilliant postal operative to boot.)

The window-cleaners know. ‘I’m so sorry to hear about your mum,’ said the head window-cleaner, with great gentleness, after he polished up my windows.

The lady in the chemist knows. ‘You have a good Christmas now,’ she said, with a speaking look. She lost her own mother in the spring, so she too will have a first Christmas without a mum.

The ladies in the shop know. They give me the kind smiles of understanding as I buy the traditional bottle of Madeira for the gravy.

All the florists know, because I have been in that shop buying funeral flowers and wake flowers. Today, I wanted to get the dear Stepfather a little bunch of eucalyptus and a little bunch of red tulips. The top florist, making these up into enchanting bouquets (very plain, tied up with elegant stone-coloured string; none of your fancy ribbons or vulgar sparkly yuletide nonsense), said: ‘It will be hard for you, this year.’

The Rotary Club does not know, and I put on my best jolly smile for them as they pack up my shopping in the Co-op, which they do every year to raise money for good causes. I make little Christmas jokes with the gentlemen and wish them a happy day.

The knowing is rather lovely. Nobody makes a song and dance about it. The grief is accepted and acknowledged and treated with gentle respect. It is all very elegant and very touching.

The rain lashes down and then the sun comes out, that thick amber winter light which is like the light of old Italy.

I’m not going to do a big Christmas lunch. Last year, I cooked lunch for my mother and stepfather because the rest of the family had gone south. It was very fine and very lovely and the next day Mum and I had a grand time watching the King George. I can’t go into that house tomorrow, in all the jollity, knowing she is not there. I said at breakfast this morning, to the extended family: ‘I know my limitations.’

They understand and they don’t understand. Most people think that to refuse Christmas lunch is a sad thing. To me, it is a vast relief. I go for a special festive dinner tonight and then tomorrow I have silence and space.

I decided to make the day a useful one. I’m going to man my HorseBack Facebook page all day, because there are veterans for whom this time of year is not like a John Lewis ad. I’m going to put up lots of pictures and invite them to use the comments section if they need to talk and make a safe space which is not all about mandated merriment. That feels about right to me. I think my mother would approve of that.

I’m going to make a chicken for myself (that’s why there is Madeira still for the gravy) and play with my mares and my dogs and look up the form for the King George. It’s one of the best renewals for years, with almost every horse in with a fighting chance. They are all old friends, mighty warriors I have loved for a long time. I shall be quite torn by old loyalties and newer loves. I think in the end I shall go with Don Cossack, because I so adore his way of doing things. He is so laid back that even when he is running in a top class race he looks as if he is ambling out on a gentle Sunday ride. He lollops over his fences, usually quite far back, watching all the rushing ones up front with his wise old eyes. Then, as they all get to scrubbing away before him, he pricks his ears, engages turbo drive, and floats past them on a roar of acceleration and brilliance. He makes me laugh with love and joy. He’s a real old-fashioned sort, long and athletic with a straightforward, honest head and an intelligent outlook, nothing flashy about him except the sheen on his dark coat, the kind of horse my father would have adored.

It will be hard this year. But it will sort of be all right too. Loss is loss, and must be honoured.


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Apology

So sorry I've been off the blog for a few days. I'm a bit up and down and the whole Christmas thing is quite hard. I am, however, posting some pictures and thoughts on Facebook. Oddly, I find there is less pressure there. (The pressure all comes from the mazy corridors of my own mind. And is quite absurd.) Here, I have an ridiculous notion that I have to give you some decent prose and a sort of story and some kind of proper thought. The lovely thing about Facebook is that I can write two lines and put up a nice horse or dog picture and my work is done. So I'm putting up a link to that page until I'm back in the saddle again.

I miss my mother a lot. I'm finding the first Christmas without her hard. I know that many of you know exactly what this is like.

There was a very sweet moment on Tuesday when I took the presents up for my extended family - two grown-ups and four small children and one old friend who has been a part of our family for twenty years. The sun was shining and when I got there the oldest of the children was making gingerbread Christmas trees. For a moment, everything was better.

I even took a photograph of the package -




Link to the Facebook page is here:
https://www.facebook.com/photo.php?fbid=10153807114133210&set=a.487005103209.290563.615758209&type=3&theater&notif_t=like


Friday, 18 December 2015

Laughter.


Rode, made breakfast for the dear Stepfather, wrote 3,447 words, watched a couple of lovely races at Ascot, adored the dogs, adored the horses, made a few plans. Laughed and laughed, right from the belly, for the first time in a long time. 

It wasn’t that kind of sad laughter that you do after a loss, where all humour has a tinge of melancholy to it. It was pure, proper guffawing. 

I was sitting on the red mare at the time, and I found the thing so funny that I actually fell on her neck, unable to sit up straight. (She was practising for the Standing Still Olympics at the time and did not move a muscle, despite the rocking and rolling human on her back. She is such a shoo-in for Rio I would put your shirt on her.) 

It was something that the friend who shares my paddock said. It does not bear translation, so I won’t try to explain it. It was an in-joke about my sweet, funny mare, and nothing really tickles me more. She makes me laugh just being her own, dear self; when the brilliant human observation was added the whole thing was irresistible. 

The way always to make my father laugh the most was to tease him about some idiosyncrasy of his own. The more people told him stories about his own absurdities and catastrophes, the more he would laugh. His shoulders would hop up and down and he would gasp oh oh oh and he would start crying with mirth, so he had to take his specs off and mop his eyes. There was a story about a brown shoe in a shop in Wantage which his old friend Bill Payne used to recount, and, no matter how many times he told it, it made my father helpless with laughter. 

I inherited this from him. If you want me to weep with laughter, tell me about my own idiocies. (I can sometimes make myself laugh by telling some of them to myself.) Now I discover that my second funniest thing is a little tease of my mare. Even funnier was that as we shrieked and whooped about her own ridiculous quirk, she stood blinking at us, maintaining her dignity with as much aplomb as if she were an empress on a royal progress.

How lovely to think of all that laughter.

I start to remember this now, from after my dad died. The grief crashes in waves obliterating everything, so that all one can do is try to survive. Then, the crashes start to slow down, come farther apart. They can still slam one to the beach, knocking the breath from the body, but they are not now fatal. One is not drowning but waving. I am no longer clinging to the wreckage, but am swimming on my own. The sea is still stormy, but my arms and legs are working again. I don’t get cavalier about this. I remember that none of this can be rushed. Time is the only thing that works. Well, time and love and trees and soup and red mares and good friends and the kindness of strangers and the good old British Blitz spirit and a lot of protein and some stoicism and sharing with the group and writing it down and trying to get enough sleep and going gently and sometimes even just being a bit damn cussed.


Of all the loves, the one with that mighty red mare is the most profoundly consoling. All are vital to me, and all are healing, but she has the miraculous ability to banish sorrow entirely for the time I am on her back. It’s like she throws a switch. When I ride her, my poor singed emotions find their rest. So it is appropriate that she was the one who made all that glorious laughter. 

Thursday, 17 December 2015

The Book Like The Other




Something slightly strange has happened. I have written nine thousand words in two days.
The purists would furrow their brow at this. Normally, when you are writing at that rate, the words are rotten gimcrack things, no good to man nor beast. But the funny thing is that they are not that bad at all. At least they are words, shining happily at me from the screen.

The grief for my mother, although it is good, straightforward grief, not too twisted with regret or angst, and it has come out in great untrammelled gusts, has knocked me to the floor. I have been doing a lot of pretend work. (Must get on; must not make a fuss; have to pay for the hay.) This consisted of fairly pointless typing and a lot of bonkers new proposals and the fragmented beginnings of what were supposed to be dazzlingly brilliant ideas, but weren't. In the last two days, I received a blow, a rejection. We love your writing but this book is not quite right for us. Oh, the number of times I have heard that before. You would think that what with the sorrow and the missing of mum and the thin skin (I think the death of a beloved strips you of a layer of skin, leaving you scalded and defenceless) I would be on the floor, in the foetal position. Amazingly, not a bit of it.

I feel that I may sound a bit self-congratulatory – look at me, rising from the ashes like a buggery old phoenix – but I can’t take credit for it. It just happened. Instead of being knocked flat, I listened to the next sentence. We are however looking for a book like the other. The Book Like The Other happened to be right in my wheelhouse. In fact, there may be almost no other goofy, middle-aged lady writer in dear old Blighty more equipped to write The Book Like The Other. So I started writing it.

36 hours later, I have nine thousand words.

I’m not doing Christmas this year. (Don’t be doleful; it’s a free and liberating choice. Also: I have a plan. Also: lots of Buddhists and Muslims and Hindus and Sikhs and anarchists don’t do Christmas and are perfectly happy. Actually, I may be wrong about the anarchists. But I suspect they would find all that shopping irredeemably bourgeois.) So I’m going to write a new book instead. I admit that was not in the plan, but it damn well is now. Scribble, scribble, scribble, eh Mr Gibbon?

The other amazing thing is that Darwin the Dog has decided to support me in this faintly bonkers new strategy by turning into a saint overnight. I cannot tell you how good and easy he has been today. It has helped that I have discovered the power of the crate. I like to see animals running free and I rather resisted what I saw as a horrid little cage. He, it turns out, sees it as a reassuring little nest. I suspect it’s like swaddling a baby. Into it he goes, with his sheepskin rug and his toys and there is not a peep out of him. Every hour on the hour we go for pee time and play time and love time and then it’s into the heavenly nest and I go back to my crazed typing. Hurrah. Perhaps I will not after all go mad in the night and wake up to find that I believe I am Queen Marie of Roumania. (I’m also drinking a lot of special green drink with turmeric and spirulina, which I suspect helps. Although I slightly ruined this health regime by having a Scotch egg for my lunch. Perhaps this means I am going to wake up and find I believe I am at Abigail's Party.)


In other words: today is a much, much brighter day. Tomorrow might not be, but I cherish the brightness as it falls. 

Wednesday, 16 December 2015

I salute the puppy people.



To all the people who have ever trained a puppy, I take my hat off to you. I contemplate you with awe and wonder. I do not understand why they do not throw you parades.

Two ex-racing thoroughbred mares, popularly supposed to be the most demanding and complicated members of the equine world, are a piece of piss compared to a puppy. I can deal with my two dear old duchesses in the blink of an eye. They walk when I walk, stop when I stop, do not need to be tied up, understand the concept of personal space, know the difference between a click and a kiss, and generally are like having two ambassadresses to stay – manners are perfect, minds are sharp as razors, all protocols are understood. (The thoroughbred thing is nonsense of course, but only yesterday I saw a poor lady wailing on the internet about having an ex-racehorse she could not manage and all the kind commenters said, sagely, that they are not for everyone.)

The puppy is heaven. He is bright, affectionate, beautiful, funny and good-hearted. He is also, for a human who craves peace and solitude, hell. I use the word with love. He is antic, busy, into everything, fired with energy and zeal, and attempts to eat every single object in my office. Actually, hell is so unfair. The hell not him, but me.  Although I’ve read all those damn puppy books, I have not yet quite got the routine in place. I’m so used to the ease and quiet of Stan the Man and my sweet mares that these new demands of out time and play time and proofing the house are against all muscle memory. I have no rigour in place for it and must develop it fast. I feel worn out from missing my mother and all these new needs are quite wearing.


So I have to butch up and step up. Luckily, I love him so much I don’t know what my name is. (He has just, as I write these words, been slightly sick from drinking his water too fast. I patiently cleared it up, saying: ‘Don’t worry, it’s all right,’ in the gentle, slightly weary voice of a tired parent. That is what you do when you love someone.) I didn’t quite see this coming and I’m still bending my mind round the change in my circumstances. It’s a good change; he will be a fine dog and a merry companion. It’s a pointful thing; the new demands all have a good end. But, as so often, I do feel like a bit of a fool. Oh, of course I’ll get a puppy, at my age, with all my responsibilities and my weakness when it comes to order and time-management. Of course that is what I must do. So bloody sensible. Just what the doctor ordered. It is fortunate that I am not sensible, because otherwise I would not have done it, and I would have missed out on one of the great loves of my life. I’ve just got to get damn well organised. Which is an absurdly easy sentence to write and a really quite hard thing to do. Up up up to the plate I step; on on on I bugger. I may have to have a little wail from time to time, but the love makes it all worth it.


Tuesday, 15 December 2015

Charm


After my homage yesterday to those people who make life a little bit better, today I met someone who makes life a little bit worse. The person had no idea of my name; I may write this under a strict veil of anonymity, knowing it will go unseen. Although, I suddenly realise, this person could stand as an archetype for the kind of human who drains rather than radiates. so it’s almost not about that individual at all, but a type.

It was the classic thing of speaking always of the negative, rather than the positive. I know that some people find my Labrador-ish Pollyannaisms quite hard to take. I tend to jump up and wag my tail. I look so bloody hard on the bright side I’m developing a squint. But I really do believe that if someone is wearing a hideous hat, you should tell them how lovely their shoes are. Why not? What does it cost?

It was also a much more nuanced and fascinating tactic of denigrating a thing the person turned out not to be very good at. The human could not be at fault, therefore the exercise itself must be dull and pointless. There was a basic lack of good manners, which would have made my mother raise her eyebrow. But, I realised as I drove away, perhaps the most striking aspect was the entire lack of charm.

Charm has a bad reputation. It is often considered manipulative, gimcrack, bogus. It is the enemy of the authentic. Proper people don’t need charm; that is the province of the confidence tricksters and the serial adulterers and the sellers of impossible dreams. Yet most people try to have a little bit of charm. It’s quite rare to meet someone who has none at all. I think that, if it is used properly, it acts as the good grease that keeps the wheels of social intercourse going round.

Because I like it, I try to define it. It is more than politeness, although that is a part of it. It is a giving, an offering of self. It is the ability to listen, to regard the human with whom you are speaking as important and interesting and worth attention. It is an ease in the self, which makes room for others. It is self-effacing, not always having to be the best, the loudest, the biggest thing in the room. It is not always doing the tap dance, but letting others have a go.

My father was famous for his charm. His was the diametrical opposite of the charm school charm. He could never remember anyone’s name, for a start. He would not ask you about your sick uncle, your child prodigy, your new job, because even if you had told him about these things, he would have forgotten them. His charm came out in pure light. He would shuffle into a room in his little blue suit and illuminate it. I used to watch people’s faces break into involuntary smiles, just at the sight of him.

He had a sort of childlike delight in people, thought the best of them until they proved otherwise, laughed at their jokes, roared with merriment at his own, twinkled his old eyes with a glint of naughtiness, and generally left people feeling better than when he found them. His charm did not vary; it went up to a Spinal Tap eleven for a duke or a dustman.

There was something wonderfully hopeful about him, even though he had been literally and metaphorically battered by life. His body had been very broken (neck and back twice); his heart had been sorely, irredeemably grieved. But he gave the sense that he always had hope, even if that hope was mostly that his Saturday accumulator would come good.


After the charmless person, I met another human with that exact brand of easy charm. He made me feel interesting and bright, even though I was covered in mud and wearing a frankly peculiar hat. He had been publicly and gloriously successful in his career, and, like all people who are really, really good at something, he wore those glittering prizes lightly. I watched him with other people. I noticed that he made time for everyone, particularly the younger ones, the ones that someone with a sense of their own import might have overlooked. ‘Ah, yes,’ I thought, ‘you are the real article. You have the right stuff. You must make somebody’s life a little bit better every day.’

Today's pictures:





PS. The wonderful bit of software that is Live Writer is suddenly not working with Blogger, which is why the layout and pictures are so sub-standard. It's a tremendous bore and there is nothing I can do about it. Apologies. 

Monday, 14 December 2015

The kindness of strangers.


This is for Jill in the Aberdeen Sheriff Court. It is also for the staunch, stalwart man or woman who was driving a Royal Mail truck on the M6 between Brough and Carlisle at 5.45am yesterday.

Both these people, whose faces I shall never see, whose stories I shall never know, have made my life quite a lot better in the last 48 hours.

It started with the van.

I woke in the pitch dark to take Darwin the Dog on the second leg to his new home. I like to drive long before the crack of dawn, with no traffic and the World Service for company. The motorways get so full up and I’m not used to lots of lorries and I fear the endless jams and snarls. But what I often forget is that in the dead of winter it can be a bit hairy. I’d come down in the teeth of Storm Desmond. At one point, as the main road to Stirling was shut and the diversion through Bridge of Allen a car park, I went round by the Fintry hills, skirting landslides and aquaplaning as the road turned to river. At one point, I sincerely wondered whether I was going to make it. I envisionsed myself marooned on this blasted heath, and felt glad that I had bought two thermoses of soup and some nice cold chicken.

After that, I thougth going home would be a piece of cake.

Ha, ha, ha, ha, said the weather gods. They sent me some snow. (The poor people of Cumbria; thank goodness they are made of granite.) By the time I got up at 5am, to find the night receptionist beadily eyeing Christmas party revellers who were asking for another bottle of red wine, the snow was three inches deep on the car and frozen solid. It was minus 5. Darwin, being only a puppy and brought up in Gloucestershire, had never seen snow or minus 5, but was wonderfully sanguine. I gritted my teeth and defrosted the car, which took about fifteen minutes. I read a puppy book whilst I was waiting for the engine to warm up and the snow to melt off the windscreen.

‘Off we go,’ I said, cheerily, to the dog.

Ha, ha, ha, said the weather gods, throwing down some thick fog.

It will clear, I told myself, driving slowly out onto the lonely road. Ho, ho, ho, said the weather gods, who had clearly been at the red wine themselves. By the time I got to Shap, I was going at forty-five miles an hour, nose against the windscreen, literally navigating from one cat’s eye to the next. The lights did not seem to be working very well. I could not see a thing. I was again in doubt that I was going to make it. The puppy slept, blissfully. I started to think about contingency plans.

The road at Shap is very, very empty. There are no lights, no towns, no nothing. The hills of Cumbria fall away to either side of the motorway and there is nothing there but some incurious sheep. In fog, it’s like being cut from all moorings. I’m not sure I can actually do this, I thought.

And then, like a Deus ex Machina, a great red beast rolled up alongside, full of light and purpose. As it roared steadily past, I caught a glimpse of a crown and an ERII. The Queen, I thought madly. The Queen has come to rescue me. It was not in fact the Queen, but her representative on earth, the dear, dear old Royal Mail. It was a lovely, vast truck, sturdy as a pack horse, lit up like a Christmas tree. ‘Wait for me,’ I said, out loud.

I followed my saviour through the impenetrable greyness, its merry red lights glimmering ahead of me like a glorious pathfinder. Nothing bad can happen now, I thought. Now, I’m going to make it.

It got off at Carlisle and I waved it goodbye and said thank you. I picked up an Eddie Stobart lorry after that, the second most reliable outfit on the road, which got me through the next very dark patch in Lanarkshire, but the light was improving by then and my confidence was restored. It was the Royal Mail who had saved my life.

When I stopped for coffee I wrote the registration number down. PE63 MLF. I had a mad idea that I would send out my heartfelt thanks all over the social media and it would go viral and the life-saving driver might read it and know that she or he had saved the distrait female in the strange hat and the snow-covered Audi. Perhaps the Royal Mail would give them a prize for employee of the month. Their family and friends would josh them but be secretly rather proud. Or something. I wanted very much for that good Samaritan to know how much my heart lifted when I knew I was not alone on that terrifying road.

Back at home, the usual log-jam of admin put paid to such romantic notions. I had to get back to my desk and get on. The worst job was to pay a speeding ticket. I felt very, very stupid about this. I should not have been going at 80 miles an hour on the A90 and now I had to pay for it. I have not been in trouble with the police for years, and I felt as if I had been hauled up in front of the headmistress for mucking about in class. Get it over, I said to myself.

The vital piece of paper, the one with all the numbers and information on it, had gone. I spent an hour ransacking every single likely place, and the unlikely ones. I looked in washbags and under the seat of the car and in all my pockets in case I had scrumpled it up without thinking. Nothing. Darwin, bored, went to sleep. Now, not only would I have to pay the damn fine, I would have to ring someone up and tell them I had lost the piece of paper and feel like a double fool.

I got through to a lady called Jill at the Aberdeen Sheriff’s Court. I was all braced for unhelpfulness, derision, scolding or stone-walling. I imagined the most Jobsworth-ish of Jobsworths. I felt slightly sick.

Jill, it turned out, was the nicest woman in the entire officialdom of Scotland. She had a musical voice with a slight laugh in it, and nothing was too much trouble. The thing did not come up straight away, so she had to search through the system several times, which she did with high good humour. She then told me that I would not have to send her my driving licence, as the lost piece of paper had instructed, but could do it all on the telephone. The whole thing would take no more than five minutes. I had been dreading a visit to the post office in the snow or even a long drive to Aberdeen, but no, Jill would fix me up right and tight.

I thanked her over and over. I told her that I had felt stupid in about five different ways because of the idiot speeding and the foolish losing of the paper. She laughed, very kindly. ‘You are not the only person I will speak to today who will be in the same situation,’ she said.
‘Oh,’ I said, rather overcome. ‘That is kind and reassuring.’

Outside, the snow is white and thick and serene. Both dogs are fast asleep beside me. I think: perhaps every day I should find someone who has made my life a little bit better and write about that, like a kind of human gratitude list. There is always someone, on the radio, or in my family, or among my friends, or on the internet. Sometimes, it is the lady in the chemist; sometimes it is a complete stranger whose name I do not even know.


The fragility of grief persists. The tearing sorrow still comes in great waves, although the waves are getting further apart. But the thin skin, which I remember from my father, is still like paper. I discover that while this means I am easily wounded (a careless remark, a wrong tone) I am also very easily moved and touched and cheered by small acts of kindness. I believe tremendously in small acts of kindness, at all times. At the moment, they mean more to me than I can express.

Today's pictures:
The road home:














Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Apology.

So sorry there has been no blog for a few days. I have been seized with sadness and did not have the heart to burden you with it. It is a song that many of you have sung yourselves; you know the words.

These two very beautiful, very clever and very kind people have been keeping me going:

2 Dec 1 4638x2860

2 Dec 2 5184x3456

Wednesday, 25 November 2015

Stoicism is not enough.

Stoicism, it turns out, can only get you so far.

I think: did I know this, and forget it? Did wish-thinking take over, so that I dreamt up a luring fantasy that I could just stoic my way out of it? Or did I remember very well, but think I’d give it shot anyway?

I’m not giving up on stoicism. I love it. I do not like the things which stand in opposition to it. I do not like the weeping and wailing and look-at-me-ing. I do not admire grandstanding and drama queening and that nasty strain of competitive grief which is played so ruthlessly by the narcissist. I do not like ululation and holding up the bleeding hands and the playing of the victim.

Everybody has sorrow. Everybody’s heart breaks. Everybody loses someone they love.

There are two voices in my head. (Who am I fooling? There are twenty-seven voices in my head. Sometimes it gets very crowded in there.) But these two voices are speaking the loudest, just now, and they are both saying the same thing.

One says: your mum died. This is the voice which understands well that is an ocean of loss, a great, unmapped expanse of water, almost impossible to navigate. That voice knows that the rogue waves will leave me storm-tossed, and hurl me, breathless and hopeless, to the beach, only to suck me out to sea again. This voice says there is no point trying to fight it or neaten it or pretend that it’s only an ordinary thing which happens to everyone. It does happen to everyone, but at the moment it is happening to me. This voice says, kindly, gently, that I must keep sailing on until that great tempest blows itself out.

The other voice says: your mum died. No need to make a fuss, says that voice, a steely note in it. (This is the same voice that says, when I dress up for a party, well, no-one is going to be looking at you.) Get on, says that voice, and for God’s sake don’t be a bore. Sing another song boys, says this voice, who has been listening to Leonard Cohen, this one has grown old and bitter. This voice is quite useful, in a way. It is the voice which gets me to HorseBack to do my work there, and gets me out to the field to check the water trough and put out the hay, and drives me to make breakfast every morning for my dear stepfather and make bright conversation about world events to cheer him up and keep his mind off it. (As if I could keep his mind off it.)

Another wiser, saner voice speaks now. That voice says: they are both right, and you have to find the balance between the two. Find the balance. Stoicism is not enough, although it can be good and useful and keep one existing in the world. The wild stormy griefs must be let out, from time to time. Probably best if one does that in a nice, quiet, private place, so as not to startle the horses, but they must be given their moment.

Let it out, keep it in. It’s like a push-me-pull-you. Wallowing is no good; self-indulgence is no good; but the thing is real and true and must be felt. Find the balance.

I write all this because I burst into tears in front of the poor stepfather this morning. For all that I believe my job is to cheer him up and be my best self for him, I could not help it. Out they came, the streaming tears. Then I put on my ridiculous hat and made a joke about it. ‘No wonder I am crying,’ I said, a bit watery, ‘when I have a hat like this. It is a truly tragic hat. But it does keep the rain off.’

(I feel there is a life lesson in this, although I can’t quite put my finger on it. It really is a tragic hat, but it really does keep the rain off.)

And we laughed, and I went home to do my work, and said that I would see him in the morning.

 

Today’s pictures:

The rain stopped this morning, and the sun shone, and my sweet girls went out into the set-aside to have a little graze. They are so happy and so muddy and so woolly and so absolutely themselves, rooted in this good Scottish earth, shimmering with goodness and authenticity. They are my best consolation, because they are so beautiful and true:

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Saturday, 21 November 2015

Memories of Kauto.

The sun is shining and I’m determined to mine the beauty and the joy out of this day. I spent time with my sweet mares, drove round the Scottish hills to look at the snow, went to see the dear Stepfather, and then ran home to watch the racing. Many of my old friends are out today, and my heart is beating with love.

Four years ago today, I watched Kauto Star line up for the Betfair Chase. I was with the Beloved Cousin and her small children and my dear old dog, known on this blog as The Pigeon. The consensus on the day was that Kauto’s glory days were behind him. Some people were even quite cross that Paul Nicholls was running him.

I wrote about that day, and I’m reproducing it here because my memories of the bold and beautiful Kauto Star will never die. I’m thinking a lot about the people who are not here any more; that glorious horse is not here any more. I hope they are all running their race on some celestial track, with the emerald turf springy under their feet.

The story of a great race:

(There was a rather long introduction about having chard from the garden for lunch, and about my love for Master Minded, who was also running. Only then did I get to the main action, which is why the start sounds slightly abrupt.)

Kauto Star is eleven, which is old in racing years. Not geriatric, but a sure veteran. The young pretender, Long Run, had come last season and taken the Gold Cup. Worst of all, he had usurped Kauto Star’s crown in the race he had made his own, the King George at Kempton. Bear in mind Kauto is the only horse in history who had won that race four years in a row, the last time by over 30 lengths, against some of the best chasers in the country.

He is the mightiest and most beloved champion since Desert Orchid: first horse ever to win a Gold Cup, lose a Gold Cup, and come back to regain it; the first horse ever to win fourteen group one races. There was a time when he seemed almost unbeatable. In his early days, he used to put in terrifying mistakes, quite often over the last fence when it seemed as if he had everything sewn up; in his later years, he could put in exhibition rounds, making such mighty leaps that it seemed as if he had wings.

The thought was, though, that his great days were all behind him. People were muttering about retirement. Today, he was facing three tough miles, up against much younger horses, at least four of whom had big wins under their belts. He might fall, be pulled up, get tailed off; the talk was that if he did not run well today, he would be retired on the spot, and that is the last we would all see of him.

I’ll give my hero another chance, I thought. I’ll just put on a little twenty, I thought, mostly out of love. I was not sure he could do it. Long Run is a very, very good horse. I was acting on sentiment. Then I got a bit more forensic. Paul Nicholls had trained Kauto to the minute for this race; Long Run would be being saved for later in the season, and often does not run well first time out. I’ve always thought there is a little question mark over his jumping; he can go a bit flat and careless when the pressure is on.

I examined the form. There were definite drawbacks over another of the two main dangers. Damn it, I thought; this really could be Kauto’s moment. Five minutes before the race, I put on another twenty. Sod them all, I thought: my boy is not done yet.

I explained some of all this to the children. They got very excited. They watched the quick replays of his earlier triumphs that Channel Four was showing, and decided they loved him.

‘Come on Kauto,’ they said.

Off the horses went. Kauto Star was jumping very well, but almost stupidly well, standing off outside the wings. I was worried he would take too much out of himself.

The lovely Ruby Walsh, his regular jockey, took him to the lead, and kept him there. He can’t stay in front for three miles, I thought, not at his age. But he kept pinging his fences and was bowling along as if he did not have a care in the world. Ruby was so relaxed half the time he seemed to be riding with just one hand. It was delightful to see the two old pros in such perfect tune with each other.

‘Maybe he can do it,’ I said.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ cried the children.

‘No,’ I said. ‘He can’t do it. It’s too much to ask.’

But Long Run was making mistakes, and running a little ragged. Kauto was collected and foot perfect. He’ll fade, I thought. The younger fellas will come and pick him up.

Into the last four fences. I was on my feet. ‘Come on my son,’ I shouted.

‘Come on, Kauto,’ yelled the children.

The Pigeon was also on her feet, barking her head off, which is what she always does when I shout at the racing.

Three out. Kauto Star still in the lead, against all the odds. At this stage, I actually jumped onto an armchair and was bawling my head off. ‘Come on, you beauty,’ I yelled.

The Pigeon was jumping up and down on all fours.

‘Come on, come on,’ shouted the children.

The younger horses were gathering themselves for their final effort. Ruby still had not asked Kauto the question. ‘Oh, just steady,’ I shouted. ‘Just stand up.’

The great Ruby Walsh kept the old horse balanced and straight and steady, using only hands and heels, preserving all his energy for the final push. Everyone else was scrubbing away. I suddenly thought the mighty champion could do it.

Over the last, everything else faded away. Kauto was tired, but he’s not only a once in a generation talent, he’s got enormous courage. He does not give up. He just went on galloping to the line, brave and true, seven lengths in front.

The crowd went nuts. Paul Nicholls jumped in the air for joy. Ruby Walsh fell on the horse’s neck, hugging him. I was shouting and crying. The children were yelling yes, yes. The Beloved Cousin looked at me in amazement. ‘He looks as if he could go round again,’ she said.

The King was back in his castle. He walked back to the winning enclosure, his ears pricked, his head held high. The crowd gave him three cheers, twice. No one could quite believe it. It was one of the best things I ever saw in racing.

So, it went from an ordinary day to an extraordinary win from a most remarkable horse. I wish my dad had been here to see it.

 

Today’s pictures:

My own little shining star:

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Stanley the very Manly:

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Friday, 20 November 2015

Jane Austen and thoroughbreds.

This morning, the Stepfather and I, for the first time, carefully, delicately, tentatively, spoke about the nature of our grief. We obviously can’t come at it head on, because we are far too reticent for that. We are pretending normality, stepping very, very carefully. The main thing is that we must not make a fuss and frighten the horses.

‘It’s like a weight,’ he said. ‘An ache.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Always there.’

‘And then,’ he said ‘there are moments when I forget and it seems like nothing has happened and then I remember.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Just for a moment I think: oh, I must tell Mum that.’

Such bald little sentences; such a wealth of meaning.

My job, as I see it, is to go in every morning and make the eggs and lift his spirits, if I can. We both adore talking about international and domestic politics. We have discussed the buggery out of the soi-disant ISIS in the last few days. We do not confront the ghost in the room head first because we both know it is there and we are both hanging on and we don’t want to cry at the breakfast table.

‘Time,’ I said. ‘That is the only thing that works.’

Then we talked about Jane Austen for quite a long time and I made a little attempt at humour and he showed me a beautiful collection of her novels, bound in ravishing leather, and said he thought perhaps he should read one. (He collects books and makes jokes about never actually reading them.) ‘Which one should I choose?’ he said.

‘Oh,’ I said. ‘Well, Persuasion is my secret favourite, but for the full glory I would go for Pride and Prejudice. It’s so funny. It will cheer you.’

I opened the book. I must have read that first chapter ten times. I read it again, and there in the kitchen, with its great absence, I laughed out loud.

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘Pride and Prejudice. That will make you smile.’

Jane Austen never went anywhere and didn’t really meet many people and wrote in secret in the corner of a little room, hiding her work whenever anyone came in. Two hundred years later, a rather distrait middle-aged woman is recommending her work as a tonic for grief. That is immortality for you.

Later, someone else said: ‘You have to find a place to put them. You should be sad. Imagine if someone you loved died and you were not sad.’

‘Yes,’ I said. ‘It would be awful. I’m running at this thing, full blast. Sometimes I think, oh I wish it would stop, but I know I have to run into the storm. Otherwise it gets you later in awful twisted ways.’

In the field, I work the horses before the weather closes in. My new little mare, who has such kindness and sweetness, is still a mystery to me in many ways. I know exactly what my old red mare would think in any given situation, as much as a human can know. I understand her every look and her every twitch of the ear and her every shift of the body. We are old old compadres. With this new one, I’m still learning her and trying to read her and getting to understand her.

I was so cross and sad when I went down to the field this morning I did not want to work her, but then I felt that I should, so I made myself. She was bright and willing and clever and I felt ordinary human feelings, like interest and pride and concentration and affection and dedication, flow back into me. ‘Look what you did,’ I told her afterwards, running my hands over her sweet teddy-bear coat. (She is as furry as an Exmoor pony, all ready for the snow that is coming tonight.) I meant not just the cleverness of the work, but the miracle of her restorative powers.

I’ve been reading about Elizabeth I, but, inspired by my stepfather’s Austen collection, I’m going back to Emma today, for the eighth time. A nineteenth century novelist and two mighty thoroughbred mares, I think, these are my tonics. I was thinking I might go back and look at the classic books on grief, as if I were taking a course. I wonder if any of those books mention Jane Austen and ex-racehorses. I suspect not. They are the headline acts; they would be in my first chapter; they are my life-rafts on a stormy sea.

 

Today’s pictures:

Far too dreich for the camera today. Here are some photographs of the sunshine instead:

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Wednesday, 18 November 2015

Good parts, bad parts. Or stoicism and loss.

I’m back in the missing stage, today. Yesterday I was in the stripped of my skin stage. The day before I was in the baffled, hit a brick wall stage. Today, all I can think is: I miss you. Oh, I miss you.

It was every day, you see. I saw my mother ever day. That’s part of the problem. It’s the good part and the bad part. The good part is that we saw each other each morning as I went in to make the breakfast. On Saturdays, I collected her Racing Post from the shop and delivered it and stayed to talk about the day’s runners. (‘Oh, Ruby,’ she would say, a wistful, maternal note in her voice, as if these were not tough men at the top of their profession. ‘Oh, AP.’) On Sundays, we all had a lie-in and I would just get a telephone call if Hurricane Fly or Annie Power had done something marvellous at Punchestown.

That’s all good part. The bad part is that this means there is a vast daily rupture; a daily absence; a daily reminder. The lovely Stepfather and I eat our eggs and doggedly talk of the news. We speak of Paris and fundamentalism and tolerance and intolerance and the lessons of history, and we pretend that there is not a great, gaping hole in the house. We do a lot of speaking. The one thing we do not say is: ‘Oh, how we miss her.’

I write about my mother and father as if they were paragons. They were not. They were as complex and flawed as all human beings. They were both dazzlingly brilliant parents and occasionally absolutely useless parents. There were times when they drove me mad, and times when I drove them mad, mostly through my shocking stubbornness.

But the interesting thing about death (at least, it is fascinating to me) is that almost at the very moment of passing from the mortal realm to whatever lies beyond all those flaws and frailties and maddening bits are burnt away, as if in some grand Phoenix-like fire. And from the ashes rise all the glorious parts, the good bits, the moments of glad grace, the idiosyncratic talents, the laughter, the kindness, the sheer otherness. (They were both quite unusual, in their different ways. I only realise this when I tell someone a story which I think perfectly normal, and see the arched eyebrows and look of astonishment.)

I like that part. I like remembering them in their glory days; I carry their very finest selves with me, locked into my heart.

I got used to being without my father. It took about two years. I still think of him every day and sometimes miss him so much that I can’t breathe, but mostly I think of him with a great, spreading fondness and keen pride and a lot of wry laughter. I’ll get used to this too, although I think it’s going to be harder and longer, because of the every day aspect. A huge chunk of the cliff of my life has crumbled into the sea and I have to make a new path.

The Stepfather, who is a gentleman of the old school, as my brother said at the wake ‘the greatest gentleman in Britain’, said a very kind thing yesterday. We were talking about stoicism. Mum had it; he has it; it is one of the virtues that is still stitched into the culture of this dear old island race. I admire it more and more as I get older. ‘I think you are very stoical,’ he said, nodding his wise head.

I felt as if someone had given me a medal. When I was young, I wanted to be charming, brilliant, eccentric, talented. I wanted glittering prizes. Now, I want to be steady and stoical.

It doesn’t mean that emotions are not felt, or honoured, but that one does not make a three act opera of them. One may stare them in the whites of their eyes, but not wallow in them. It’s a very, very fine line to walk. Sometimes I feel that even writing this is a bit of a tap dance. Look at me, with my grieving. On the other hand, sorrow must have words, and this is as good a place to put them as any. I put them here, and people may read them and understand them, or they may pass on, and I don’t have to bore poor real-world humans and frighten the horses in the street.

Also, I want to remember. When the missing stage has faded, shrunk back to its proper place, become gentled with time, I shall take down this book and slowly read. I find it curiously soothing to know that it shall all be there, waiting for me.

 

Today’s pictures:

The remarkable thing is that the one place I don’t have to be at all stoical is down in my enchanted field. The mares are so funny, affectionate, clever and beautiful, so authentic and present and real, so honest and absolutely themselves, that merely standing next to them banishes all sorrow. It is really quite odd. It’s my daily rest, my morning holiday from wearing emotion. I can’t quite work out what it is - their sheer loveliness, the purity of them, their own complete lack of sentimentality, their faintly flinty life must go on aspect. Or perhaps all of those things. Whatever it is, I am more grateful for it than I can say.

It’s gloomy today, so these pictures are from a couple of days ago, when it was sunny:

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Saturday, 14 November 2015

Farewell.

I laughed. I cried. I absolutely refused to wear black. I wore a mad dress covered in butterflies, and my mother’s pearls.

There was a lot of loveliness, a lot of sweetness, a lot of love and a lot of sadness.

My stepfather gave a speech so heartfelt it left the room silent. My brother gave a speech so funny and dazzling and brilliant that it left the room rocking with laughter and remembrance. My sister ran through the speech with him after breakfast, and gave him the tune to sing it with.

I made about eighty-seven cheese puffs, and they ate them all.

All the people who had looked after her in her later years were there. They gave her so much.

One very kind woman said: ‘I wish I had known your mother before she was ill.’

‘Oh,’ I said, ‘she was so beautiful. She looked like Grace Kelly. She was tiny, but she was tough. She used to ride out my father’s great big steeplechasers, the huge horses who came over from Ireland. She could not hold one side of them, but she rode them. Seventeen hands and feet like soup plates, she used to say.’

A thoughtful gentleman said: ‘I have had a lot of bereavements. I don’t think they are gone. I think they are in the next room.’

Then he laughed. Because we are British, and we must laugh at wakes. ‘I’m not sure that is strictly true,’ he said.

‘Well,’ I said. ‘It’s a lovely idea.’

There was a pause. I wondered whether I should say what I wanted to say. It might be too solemn. I said it anyway. ‘I think,’ I said, ‘they are in the wind, in the hills, in the woods.’

He nodded.

That was the end of that conversation. He looked around. I think perhaps he wondered whether there was another cheese puff.

The children ran around. The youngest of the great-nieces was wearing a coat which my mother bought for my sister from The White House in 1960. It was put away in tissue paper until I was old enough to wear it. Somehow, it has survived, elegant and pristine, and now it has gone through the great-nieces until it found the littlest one, who wears it with an air.

I played hide and seek with the great-nephew, who was alarmingly good at the game and wished it could have gone on all day.

The children were asked this morning where they thought Granny M had gone. ‘Heaven,’ they chorused, dutifully. Then with a look of mischief, and also in chorus: ‘Where she gets to do exactly what she wants.’

We sent her off well. We remembered her well. We raised a glass and laughed a laugh. I am very sad, and very happy. And very tired.

 

Today’s pictures:

This shot is of the older brother, the sister and me, after the wake. The younger brother is not in the photograph because he lives in Bali, where, apparently, he has been making special whale sounds in honour of Mum. (Don’t ask. Really. We don’t. But the old lady would be laughing her head off at the thought of it.)

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Oh, and I can’t resist this picture too. It is of me and my mother, very soon after I was born. All our photographs were burnt in a fire when I was fifteen. (Everything went: books, furniture, pictures, all the memories and mementoes of childhood.) Somehow, this photograph survived, and a few years ago I had it framed and gave it to Mum. She hung it by her bed, and this is where I photographed it this morning, before the people came.

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Friday, 13 November 2015

Horses and flowers.

Got the horses all rugged up yesterday for Storm Abigail, and then came down this morning to find this enchanting scene – sunshine and happy faces:

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(We were very lucky with the storm. It roared in from the west, glanced at us for a moment, and then veered quickly north, to go and do its mischief in Orkney and Shetland. Poor things; they got the brunt of it.)

Then did the flowers for my mother’s wake. We are calling it a gathering, because wake is too gloomy. I’ve also cooked about eighty-seven cheese bloody puffs, along with salmon mousse, yellow pepper soup (to be had in shot glasses), smoked mackerel pâté, a spicy tomato salsa, and some feta cheese thing which will go on little rounds of baguette toast. I’m quite tired. But the flowers came out beautifully, and I’m pleased about that:

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I keep meaning to say thank you thank you thank you, to all the Dear Readers who have left such enchanting messages. So many of you have visited this foreign country, and your words of generosity and understanding fly through the ether to lift my battered heart. The heart is very, very bashed. But it’s going to be sunny tomorrow, and we shall remember the old lady well, and on on on I bugger, because the only thing to do is to keep buggering on. It is the greatest catchphrase of this funny old island race, and I cling to it like a drowning woman in a stormy sea.

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