Yesterday, I decided I would take a day off from grief. I was going to have a happy day. I was perfectly prepared for failure (failure and I are old, old friends) but I thought it would be interesting to see whether through sheer force of will I could give my mind and body a rest.
The amazing thing was that it worked. Two of the great-nieces came to see the horses in the morning. There was a lot of sweetness and laughter. I worked the new mare on the ground and then walked in the rain with my sister and Stanley the Dog loped beside us. I saw the dear Stepfather and watched the racing. There was one little blip when the telephone went just after Bobs Worth won at Sandown. I thought for a second it was my mother. She always called when one of the horses she loved ran a huge race.
It was not her voice on the line. I won’t get that telephone call ever again.
Then I rallied and brushed myself up and put on a jewel and went out for dinner. I sat next to a gentleman I had never met before, a kind, intelligent man with an open face. We spoke of many things. Then he mentioned a name. The name was well known to me. It was the son of a man who once saved my father’s life. I said, quite calmly, ‘Well, you know, if it were not for your friend’s father, I would not exist.’
This sounds melodramatic, but it is true. On a drunken winter’s afternoon, in a house by the water’s edge, someone rashly bet that nobody could swim across the Thames. My father did not hesitate. He leapt into the icy water and made it to the other side. The fellow who made the bet bawled that it did not count unless Dad swam back again.
I looked at the kind gentleman. ‘Dad being Dad,’ I said, ‘he plunged back in and set off at once.’
Half way across, my father got cramp and started to sink. One man had the courage to swim across and rescue him. This man, whom I remember well, a smiling, sophisticated, charming fellow, was the parent of my dinner companion’s old friend. It was before I was born. So, without that brave swimmer, I would not be typing these words.
The dining companion seemed to take this on the chin. I quietly marvelled at the odd strands which can connect complete strangers. Then we changed the subject and talked of the financial crash. ‘Iceland,’ I said. ‘A whole country was wiped out. All those fishermen who became hedge fund managers.’
The most odd thing was that on the stroke of midnight, as if I were Cinderella, the melancholy returned. It had been waiting for me, in the wings. My experiment worked. I could take a day off. The force of will could be employed. But it was only a delaying tactic.
It’s good to have a rest. It’s good to know that one can find laughter and interest among the wreckage. The thing I understand most of all is that time will come along and do its thing. What time does is allow one to remember the Dear Departed with smiles instead of tears.
Tonight, I cooked my stepfather a lovely soup, an invention of my own which was a riff on Vichyssoise. (Cauliflower and watercress instead of leek.) We talked of many, many things. We spoke of Evelyn Waugh and Nancy Mitford and Diana Cooper; we discussed Winston Churchill’s odd attitude to money; we talked of the Remembrance Day service and how the British do that kind of ceremony so very well. We did not talk of my mother. At the end, we looked at each other, and it was all there. We did not need the words. We are buggering on, and we do not make a three act opera of it.
Yesterday, I had a day off. Today, I had a day on. Sorrow and I are known companions, and grief walks beside me like an old hound. Yes, I say, I know you. There is no trick to it, no secret, no brilliant strategy. I think one has to let it in and not fight it.
Today, the nation stopped at eleven o’clock to remember all those massed ranks of the Dear Departed. I always watch that great ceremony at the Cenotaph, but this time I could not do it. I got on my fine red mare and walked her gently into the middle of our Scottish field and held my own private two minute’s silence. I heard the distant chimes of the church bells and bowed my head. She stood like a statue. I was never so glad in my life that I taught her to be still.
Today, the hundreds and thousands and millions of war dead were held in the collective memory. I thought of them, those lost who fell in numbers I can hardly imagine. And afterwards, I thought of my mother and missed my mother and mourned my mother.
I will find a safe place to put her. That is another thing that takes time. I found it for my father, and now I shall find it for her. The safe place is in that good corner of the heart where the dead still live.
From her eightieth birthday party, last year: