As the irrational anger stage flickers in and out like a faulty electrical current, there is also a flat stoicism. Get on, do life, don’t make a fuss. Mum left quite strict instructions that she did not want a fuss. (She meant with funeral arrangements and such, but I am taking her words to a wider stage.) So I am goodly not making one.
Quite a lot of people do not know. That’s always the odd thing when someone you love very much dies. The damn world goes on, and ordinary people go on doing ordinary things, and other humans talk to you just as if everything is rational and explicable, just as if there has not been a tear in the space-time continuum. That can cause little spurts of wild rage. Don’t you know what happened? one wants to shout, unfairly. Can’t you tell that there’s a reason my hair is bonkers and I’m wearing my maddest hat and I’m the colour of parchment? At the same time, the stoical, getting on with it self is almost glad, because one can talk of something other than death. The ordinary is soothing, and yet infuriating. It’s all very confusing.
Then there are the unexpected things that tear through the resolute, storm the defences, and break the siege. Today, it was the enchanting gentleman who helped create my mother’s garden. She made such a beautiful garden, and this fine man, who once farmed sheep and knows the land and loves it as I do, put into action all her dreams and ideas. He is a real man of the earth, and a proper human being.
I wanted to thank him.
‘She loved this garden so much, and you worked so hard, and I know how much that meant to her,’ I said, as we looked out through the mist and dreich.
The garden is a little sad at the moment, as it always is at this time of year, but the last of the white roses still lift their brave heads. The garden is in mourning too. As I thanked the kind man, my voice broke and I had to walk away. I did not need to explain. He knew.
The people who know, in every sense of the word, are the finest balm. A very old friend, someone I have known and loved since I was nineteen years old, writes all the way from India. He lost his mother last year, so he knows. Oh, he knows. And he knows me, even though we have gone into very different lives and only lay eyes on each other every year or so. The friendship, dug deep in our formative years, endures time and distance. His words are so perfect, so shimmering with love and truth, so brave and human and funny and dear, that I want to send him flowers.
Another beloved friend, who has also lost both his parents, writes: ‘It is as if a great oak has disappeared from your personal landscape.’ How clever he is, I think. How glorious that he knew the very sentence to write, the one that would make most sense to my addled mind and my battered heart. That is just it. A great oak has gone.
I always mourn fallen trees. We lose some each year in the winter storms. Only yesterday, I saw my neighbour chopping up a chestnut which fell to the first October gale, and felt a sharp melancholy. I always think of downed trees as mighty fallen giants, slain on some mythical battlefield.
Oaks are not common in this part of Scotland, but we have some magnificent ones. There are a few down by the red mare’s field, and a lovely plantation at the end of my mother’s garden. When my brother-in-law’s own mother was very young, she was instructed by stern forestry officials to cut the buggers down. She must be sensible, and plant commercial forestry, like all canny Scots do. She defied the stern men, most of whom were twice her age, and kept her oaks, and they live on, a great memorial to her.
In my world, everything comes back to love and trees.
I must find some pictures of trees, I thought, as I finished writing this. But I’ve never been good at taking photographs of trees. I have snapped away at my favourite beauties, only to look at the results with a dying fall. Something about the flat dimensions of a photograph robs them of their majesty; they look oddly bathetic. Then, like a present or a shooting star or a ray of sunshine after the rain, I saw that I had captured the trees. There they were, staunchly in the background, as I had been taking a picture of Stanley the Dog, or my lovely mares, or the dear old sheep whom I adore so much. They were not centre stage, but they were there. These are the trees who people my days and never fail to make me count every damn blessing I have. Not everyone gets to see such beautiful trees. I do not take that good fortune for granted.
That is one of the old oaks, in the background:
A little rowan I planted in my own garden:
The woods I see every day:
The hill that brought me to Scotland (I fell in love with it as you fall in love with a person, and never went south again), with its fine fringe of trees:
The ones that keep the sheep sheltered from the wind:
One of my favourite mixtures of old planting and new planting:
More sheep, because you can never have too many sheep:
The avenue that leads to my mother’s house:
And her roses: