The Sister says: ‘Did you ever write that book about what to do when your dad and your dog die?’
My beautiful black dog died four years ago, on the night of my father’s funeral. I really, really wanted to read that book but it did not exist, so I said I would have to write it myself.
‘Well,’ I say, ‘yes, I did. It’s not called that any more. But I did write that book. It’s with the agent now.’
‘And what do you do?’ says the Sister. ‘And when your mum dies?’
‘I learnt what to do from the red mare,’ I say, not even bothering to explain this slightly odd conclusion. ‘She taught me about the ordinary virtues. For the ordinary griefs you need the ordinary virtues. Not brilliance or charm or charisma or talent, but reliability, consistency, kindness, firmness, fairness, steadiness. That’s how you train a horse, that’s why you can get on the red mare and canter about on a loose rein.’
She had just done that, in the open field. She had only ever sat on the mare once before. Red was so happy and relaxed that I had no qualms. I cantered her round the wide spaces of the set-aside first, to check that everything was all right. It was so all right that I threw my arms in the air and whooped into the low cloud and, under me, that mighty horse just kept on rolling, as collected and contained as the ambassadress to Paris. Then The Sister did it.
‘Look at you,’ I shouted. ‘Just look at the two of you.’
The Sister used to be a top show rider and side-saddle diva and some of that never quite goes away. Now she was riding the red mare cowgirl style. For half an hour, in that green field, everything was all right. There was no grief, only this horse, these humans, this landscape, this joy.
‘She learnt to do that,’ I say. ‘She did not just eat magic beans. I taught her to be relaxed and mentally balanced and to carry herself. And I did that by showing up, every day. That’s what you have to do. You have to show up. And maybe that’s what you have to do after there is death. Every day, you show up. And then it gets easier.’
This is my theory and I’m sticking to it. It’s not very clever, or sophisticated, or philosophical. Nobody will put it on a bumper sticker. It has no poetry in it. But it’s mine and I like it and it works, most of the time.
The Younger Brother says, sounding very sane and peaceful, which is not what he is famous for: ‘She is out of pain now. That’s what matters. Nothing can hurt her any more.’
‘And we,’ I say, knowing he will finish the sentence for me.
‘Keep buggering on,’ he cries.
On, on, on we bugger.
I think of the things in which I believe: the human heart, the kindness of strangers, love and trees, the small things. I think of my own private slogans: say the thing; KBO; stare at your demons in the whites of their eyes; be kind. I think of the things I adore: a funny dog, my sweet thoroughbred mares, the brave racing horses I watch every day, my family, this Scotland, these hills, my dear, dear friends. I think of the tender words which have been flying in from around the wilds of the internet and feel grateful for every one. Oh, yes – be grateful – that’s another of my rules to live by.
But perhaps most important of all: you have to show up. Not just sometimes, but every day, in the wind and the weather, through the fair and the foul, the thin and the very, very thick.
I think Mum would approve of that. As long as I said please and thank you.
Are of the family, the last time we were all gathered together, this summer. We knew it would be the last time, and so it was:
And this clever, clever person, who can pull joy from sorrow with her bare hooves. I owe her so much, but never more than today: