Thursday, 31 December 2015
Thursday, 24 December 2015
Wednesday, 23 December 2015
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:
Friday, 18 December 2015
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.
Thursday, 17 December 2015
Wednesday, 16 December 2015
Tuesday, 15 December 2015
Monday, 14 December 2015
Wednesday, 2 December 2015
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:
Wednesday, 25 November 2015
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.
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:
Saturday, 21 November 2015
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.
My own little shining star:
Stanley the very Manly:
Friday, 20 November 2015
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.
Far too dreich for the camera today. Here are some photographs of the sunshine instead:
Wednesday, 18 November 2015
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.
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:
Saturday, 14 November 2015
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.’
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.
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.)
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.
Friday, 13 November 2015
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:
(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:
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.