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: