Friday, 26 February 2016

Not quite fine.

Yesterday, I said to someone, quite without meaning to: ‘Be careful. I’m still fragile.’
            The words flew out, beyond my volition. This is not the kind of thing I usually say.
            There was a look of astonishment.
            ‘But you seem so fine,' the someone said.
            I screwed up my face a little bit.
            I said: ‘I put on a very good front.’
Because that is what you do. That is what you do if you are me and you are British and you don’t make a fuss and you don’t want to be a bore. You put on a good front.
Sometimes the front is true. I can laugh belly laughs now, and mean them. When I find something really funny, I double over and shout with mirth. I can smile and listen hard and take things in. My brain is working again, which it was not in the beginning.
I am waving now, not drowning.
I take pleasure where pleasure lives. My heart feels love. I look at the stars and think of all humans being made of stardust.
I write words and think thoughts and watch the 3.30 at Huntingdon.

But I’m not fine. I have glimpses of fineness, moments of fineness, sudden remembrances of what fine was like. I know it is there, waiting for me. There is a road to travel before I get there. The woods are lovely, dark and deep, and I have miles to go before I sleep. 

I won’t be fine for a while yet. 

Oddly, I have sort of made my peace with that.

Thursday, 25 February 2016

Work and thoughts and better angels.

Sunshine and snow this morning. Horses and dogs in dazzling form, enjoying the light after a winter of dreich and rain.

Then it was work, work, work, work. It was words, words, words, thirteen hundred of the little darlings.

Also: thinking, thinking, thinking.

My brain scoots off on twenty-seven tangents and I have to corral it gently. I am afraid to say that sometimes I have thoughts which I think rather brilliant. (This is most unBritish and entirely indefensible.) I think: I must write that one down and share it with you. The Dear Readers will like that, I think. Then, when I get to my desk, the dazzling thought has entirely evaporated, leaving not a trace behind. Can’t have been that clever, I tell myself, grumpily.

I took a moment out of this maelstrom of working and writing and thinking to watch a race at Huntingdon. A very tough mare called Emily Gray was up against a Willie Mullins hotpot, who went off at long odds-on. But Emily Gray knows nothing of betting or mighty yards that drive all before them. She did not know that she was giving away weight to the favourite. All she knows is that when someone asks her a question, her answer is always yes. (I find this attitude in horses almost unbearably moving.) It looked as if she was going to get beat, as the Mullins mare ranged up alongside her, going the better of the two. But little Emily Gray turned her head and eyeballed her rival, said no, not today, you are damn well not going to get past. She threw every inch of her brave, fighting heart into it, and scrapped like a tiger to the line.

They once said of Mill Reef: he was something to brighten a morning. That little mare was something to brighten an afternoon.

My own sweet mare brightened my own morning. When I am with her, I manage to switch off my brain for the only hour of the day. It’s all heart and soul and feeling. We went into the woods and looked at the trees and the shadows and the mysterious places. We did a little dance. When a mere human is at one with all that great, grand thoroughbred power, there is no feeling like it in the world. She is so much finer than I; I aspire to her ravishing authenticity. Her mind is not cluttered with all the absurd thoughts and frets and desires that live in my mazy mind. There is a great purity to her. Sometimes I stand and gaze at her in awe and wonder. She has the astonishing talent of making me, for a short time every day, my best self. When I am with her, I feel the wings of my better angels flapping.

And now I must fall back to earth and go and get my poor bashed old car back from the garage. Every time I go there, which is quite a lot, they give me a look. The car is full of hay and rugs and horse feed. Its wheel arches are clogged with clots of Scottish earth from where I have driven across fields and run down muddy tracks and breasted potholes and skidded on the soft ground. It was once quite a nice car, the looks say, and then the insane horse lady got a hold of it. The better angels, defeated and chastened, flap off to the far horizon, knowing when they are beaten.

PS. As I finished this, I suddenly thought I should look up the better angels. It’s a phrase I use all the time, in writing and in speech, and I wondered where it came from. It turns out it is from Barnaby Rudge, a book I have never read. The whole passage is worth quoting, because it is magnificent.

‘The thoughts of worldly men are for ever regulated by a moral law of gravitation, which, like the physical one, holds them down to earth. The bright glory of day, and the silent wonders of a starlit night, appeal to their minds in vain. There are no signs in the sun, or in the moon, or in the stars, for their reading. They are like some wise men, who, learning to know each planet by its Latin name, have quite forgotten such small heavenly constellations as Charity, Forbearance, Universal Love, and Mercy, although they shine by night and day so brightly that the blind may see them; and who, looking upward at the spangled sky, see nothing there but the reflection of their own great wisdom and book-learning.
It is curious to imagine these people of the world, busy in thought, turning their eyes towards the countless spheres that shine above us, and making them reflect the only images their minds contain. The man who lives but in the breath of princes has nothing in his sight but stars for courtiers' breasts. The envious man beholds his neighbours' honours even in the sky; to the money-hoarder, and the mass of worldly folk, the whole great universe above glitters with sterling coin--fresh from the mint--stamped with the sovereign's head--coming always between them and heaven, turn where they may. So do the shadows of our own desires stand between us and our better angels, and thus their brightness is eclipsed.’

Isn’t it brilliant? Chance is such a funny thing. I might have gone my whole life without knowing that passage. But for some reason, because the thoughts I believed so clever had fled from my mind, I decided to write about my sweet mare, and she led me to dear old Dickens, and now I know something I would not have known. That is my happy moment of the day.

Wednesday, 24 February 2016

The ordinary and the extraordinary.

Sunshine, sweet ride, a lot of shovelling of shit. Excellent political discussion at breakfast. (The dear Stepfather and I cannot get enough of the Euro-argument.) Errands. Really good, pointful errands, clearing out stuff and taking it to the charity shop and things like that. I even tidied the kitchen and the office, which is a world record for me. Work, work, work, work, until my eyes crossed. Three thousand new words. My fingers would not stop typing.

I thought, quite a lot, about making every day count. Sometimes, a day just goes wonky. I can’t seem to save it. After lunch, I’m in damage limitation, merely hoping the next hours will pass fast so that I can go to sleep and wake up and get a new day. I’ll make something of that one, I think.

My days are very ordinary. I don’t save the world or meet the famous or run the government. There are few dramas, except the absurd ones of my own making, like when the tyre goes flat and I startle the neighbourhood by cussing like a fishwife. But ordinariness counts. Or at least, it counts to me. I read a book, think some thoughts, laugh at the dearness of my animals, see something adorable or moving or stimulating on the internet, feel some feelings, remember some memories, do some necessary jobs, look at some trees, gaze at the stars as I take the dogs for their last midnight outing. I chat some chat and write some emails and make some green soup. None of this really matters, but all of this really matters.

One of my errands was to the Co-Op, to get spinach and butter and bin bags. Oh, the glamour of my shopping list. Our Co-Op is a very small supermarket, down towards the river, more like a village shop than a faceless chain store. People tend to meet people they know in there and stop and chat. Everybody knows all the men and women at the check-outs. It is stitched into the heart of the community. At the Co-Op, they understand that I walk about with hay in my hair and, quite often, little smears of mud on my face, they know that I am nuts for my mare (‘How is your horse today?), a few of them know that my mother died. I know a bit about some of their own lives. With some of them, I even have little in-jokes. One of the ones I have a joke with is a gentleman of a certain age, late fifties perhaps, with glorious hippy hair and a San Francisco in the ‘70s beard. I saw him today and he did his usual gentle comedic shtick and we laughed about nothing much and talked of the sunshine which has come after the rain and said goodbye to each other with fondness.

I drove away thinking of that man. He does not just do this for me. He does it for everyone. As I left the shop, I heard him start up with the next person in line.

Working at the check-out in the Co-Op is never going to feature in any headline or aspirational article or magazine cover. There is no red carpet for the Co-Op workers. No hungry news hound is going to ask them what they think about world peace or Donald Trump. Yet, every day, that man makes the lives of many people a little bit brighter. He smiles his smiles and makes his jokes and beams goodness and friendliness from that crazy beard. Over a month, he must touch hundreds of people with his sparkling rays of sunshine.

I suddenly thought: that really counts. That means something. There will be no monument or awards ceremony or glittering prize for a man like that, but he makes a difference.

The ordinary, I thought, can be really rather extraordinary, if you just move your head and squint a little and look at it from the right direction.

Tuesday, 23 February 2016

In which a catastrophe turns out not to be a catastrophe.

One great ride, one sunny morning, one restorative breakfast, two acts of kindness, one thousand four hundred words of book, one near catastrophe.

Of course, it was not really a catastrophe. It just felt like a catastrophe.

One of the interesting things about grief is that at around the four month stage one can get a bit of a false dawn. I say one; I mean me. I remember this from my dad. First of all, people expect you to be all right by now. This is not because they are callous or unimaginative; it’s that they have their own lives to get on with. I try to live up to this expectation because I dread being a bore. Second of all, time is doing its work. There are spells of something almost like normality. I am no longer carrying around the huge bucket of sad water and slopping it about all over the place. The grief still comes from time to time and hurls me round the canvas like a crazy wrestler, but it is not wrangling with me all the time. I’m also in a stage where the sorrow comes out quick and naturally in bursts of tears and then I can move on from it. I think this is quite healthy and am secretly rather proud about it.

But this is where the danger comes. It’s easy to forget, at this stage, that something huge has happened. I’m so in love with stoicism and getting on that I tend to forget that I am still acutely vulnerable. I hate being vulnerable so I don’t like to think about it and am almost certainly in denial. I think I am back on some kind of even keel and then something so small that it can hardly be seen with the naked eye comes along and undoes me.

It was not a catastrophe. It was a flat tyre. For ten minutes, it felt like the end of everything.

It did not help that it was not a gentle, slow puncture, but one of those stupid operatic flats. One minute I was driving along, thinking of the twenty things I had to do today; the next, I was driving on the damn rim.

I heard the terrible noise, felt the wrench of the poor old car, managed to get it back to the drive, got out, saw the devastation, and shouted: ‘Fuck, fuck, fuck, fuck, fucking fuck.’ This slightly surprised two nice men who were planting a hedge next door.

I did not think: oh dear, a flat tyre, that is a bore, happens to everyone.
I thought: that’s it; I’m finished.
My inner drama queen, who had been at the crème de menthe (she has appalling taste in liquor), came out and did her cruellest, most lipsticky, told-you-so dance. ‘Can’t even keep your car running,’ she shouted. ‘Can’t go anywhere, never learnt to change a tyre, day ruined, work gone to hell, plans shot, organisational skills shown up for the shoddy pretence they are, no silver lining in sight. You are cooked, baby,’ she cried, doing a rather wonky arabesque.
‘If only,’ she added cruelly, ‘you had learned to be one of the Organised People.’

It took quite a lot of stern effort to pull myself back together. I called the dear Stepfather, who came and collected me for breakfast and let me vent my spleen. I called the garage and the AA. I went home and wrote a lot of words and then the enchanting AA man arrived and did his work in the flash of an eye and got me back on the road. I love the AA men. They are so nice and non-judgemental.

The sun came back out and gentled the bleak winter land. There was a silver lining, after all. I had to clear out the boot so the AA man could get to the spare tyre. My car boot is worse than my cupboard of doom. But I found several pleasing items that I thought I had lost: a pair of Converse sneakers, two thermoses, a rather muddy and dog-eared copy of Virginia Woolf’s The Crowded Dance of Modern Life.

It was not a catastrophe, after all.

Go slowly, I tell myself. If this were Edwardian England, you would not even be in lavender yet, but still in deepest black. It’s allowed to miss your mother and feel that crack in your heart and sometimes be overset by small things. You are not superhuman, but very, very human. This is what happens. Just keep looking for the light, I tell myself. Because there is light. There is always light.

Friday, 19 February 2016

In which I get a stern reminder never to take any single thing for granted.

This morning, I woke up and stretched. I got up, dressed, put on my socks, brushed my hair, and went downstairs. I took the dogs out and I made breakfast. My mind was full of all the things I had to do that day.
            There was some particularly horrid admin which I had been dreading and putting off, so I just did it. The absurdly nice lady at Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs was so kind and charming that I felt better about being such a flake. She did not seem to hold it against me and I thanked her for that. (She appeared to find this quite amusing.)
            I went down to the horses, checked them over, mixed their feed, hefted down the hay that they need at this time of year, cleaned the water trough, picked up some dung, and took the red mare up to the shed to saddle up. We had a great, very physical ride, working both our bodies, picking up speed in the cold air, stopping on a dime, moving in and out of different gaits and over and across different ground. All our senses were heightened and engaged.
            I settled her back in her field and went to do my own work. I made some coffee and started typing fast and hard.

Why do I tell you this? Why do I record these mundane details of the most ordinary life?

Because, somewhere in all that, I met a young man who can do none of those things. One random accident, and that’s all she wrote. He can do no single, usual, daily, taken-for-granted task without help.

I tell you this, because somewhere in there I fell into the abyss. The weather turned sour and bitter and I came across a card from my mother with her writing on it sending me love and that made me cry. I felt stupid about the hopelessness of my administrative skills. I had a slight misunderstanding with someone, which pierced my thin skin. I worried about my good brown mare, who is going to have to have an operation for her sarcoid. Darwin the Dog had an accident and there was shit on the floor. I felt that however hard I worked and however fast I typed, it would never be enough. I felt furious and revolting, as dour and doleful as that dirty sky outside my window.

It’s just a mood, I told myself, sternly. Not every day can be sunshine and tap dancing. I began the long, intricate process of talking myself down from the ceiling.

And then I thought of that young man. However crappy my day is, and sometimes I have crappy days just like the entire human race, I can walk down to a green field, and stroke the kind face of my dear mare, and swing my leg over her mighty back and feel her power under me and sit deep in the saddle as she stretches out under me, strong and true and brave. I can put on my own socks. I don’t know how the mind of a person confined to a motorised chair works, and would not presume to guess, but I kept thinking: they must dream of being able to put on socks. Forget riding a thoroughbred, the dull act of pulling on a sock might seem like the ascent of Everest for someone who cannot move their own body.

I don’t know why fate deals one card to one human and one to another. The whole shooting match seems so monstrously random and unfair that my puny human brain can hardly comprehend it. As usual in these moments, I cling on to the very small, the very immediate, the closely understandable. I understand that I can never, should never, must never, ever, take anything for granted. I pay lip service to this idea, but I quite often forget about it.

There was birdsong today, as the avian chorus starts to rev up in preparation for spring. Yesterday, I heard the first woodpecker, growling in the woods like an old bullfrog. The resentful wind might be blowing in from the north, but yesterday there was sun, and tomorrow there might be again. 

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Sunshine and Britishness

It really was the International Space Station and not the six o’clock to Stavanger. I looked it up. Aberdeen, 5.46pm. Too thrilling.

Today, the sun shone all day out of a sapphire blue sky. I had a mighty ride on the red mare, and, fired with triumph, came inside and wrote 3930 words of my new project. This is absurd and should not be allowed, since the quality tends to tail off with the quantity. Trollope used to write five hundred words and then go and invent the pillar box. Still, it was quite something and I felt pleased and proud.

There was something absolutely vital and I’m sure riveting about this day that I had to tell you and now I have completely forgotten it. This is a slight pity, since I was hoping to give you something really juicy today. I feel the blogs have been slightly workaday and blah lately. I wanted to hit you with the wonder, but it’s run for the border and there is nothing I can do about that.

I am working so hard that I don’t really know what is going on in the world. I turn the wireless on for brief moments and hear snatches about the Supreme Court justices and President Obama, and the European wranglings, and Boris Johnson seen coming in and out of Number Ten wearing an interesting hat. I see both sides of Europe and find it impossible to make up my mind. I love the dream of unity and the freedom of trade and movement; I hate the democratic deficit, the awful Brussels gravy train, and the bonkers fish quotas.

I did see that Emma Thompson got into trouble for saying something about poor old Blighty being cold and gloomy and filled with cake (I think that was what it was) and that she felt European, not British. I thought about that for quite a long time. I don’t feel European at all. When I was younger, I wished I did. I thought the Italians and the French were so much more glamorous and sophisticated and intellectual than the British. Now I cast yearning eyes at the Scandis with their civilised social contract. But whatever I might wish or think, I am British to the backbone. All my cultural references, societal attitudes and turns of phrase are so British that they are almost a caricature. I am Marmite and Dad’s Army and The Beano and Nancy Mitford and high tea and the 3.30 at Huntingdon and Radio Four and our own dear Queen. I go to the shop and talk to the ladies about the weather. When asked how I am, I say: ‘Not too bad.’ I have absolutely no idea how to accessorise and cannot make head nor tail of philosophy.

I know that patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel, but I love these windy islands with every beat of my bashed old heart. I have a deep and enduring faith in the Ordinary Decent Britons who inhabit them. I know one should really be a citizen of the world, but I have British written through me like Brighton through a stick of rock. 

Wednesday, 17 February 2016

In which I wave at the sky.

Out in the clear evening, the owls were hooting and the gloaming was gloaming and the moon was gleaming and the horses were dreaming. A man on the wireless said something about waving to the International Space Station. I fed the horses and watched the dogs having a rumble. Then, up in the limpid indigo sky, there was a great object lit up like a Christmas tree, sailing overhead like a stately galleon.

I waved.

Could that really be the International Space Station? Can it be over my very field?

I think it might have been a very slow aeroplane, although there was no sound. But, for a magical moment, in my own mazy mind, it really was that great piece of technology from which humans can look down and see the curvature of the earth. I felt very magical, even though the whole thing is to do with science and empiricism.

A lot of work today: book work, HorseBack work, field work. I cleaned the water trough, a perfectly terrifying job, and shifted piles of dung. I am a creature of the earth now; I can hardly remember the days when my clothes and hands and nails were clean. I’m one of the dirty people. Oddly, I’m quite proud of this, although I do sometimes feel a pang when I see women in the chemist who do not have smears of mud all over their trousers and whose hair does not contain small pieces of hay.

A friend sends me a message from the south. Can I come for a party? I don’t know how to reply. I can’t go anywhere, because I’ve got books to write and animals to look after and family obligations and no spare cash for the journey. This sounds so tragic and mimsy that I hardly dare admit it. I’m going to miss all the fiftieth birthdays, which does make me a little melancholy, but I chose a job with an unreliable income stream and that is the price I have to pay.

Actually, it’s not just the vast expense. I find the logistics of leaving home and the long journey and the packing and the planning overwhelming. I lose days beforehand, getting ready, and days afterwards, settling back into my routine. This is a sad reflection of advancing age. I need steadiness and quiet in order to think and write. I need the room of my own.

The incredibly lucky thing is that it is such a nice room. It’s a bit muddly, but it’s got books and pictures and photographs and dogs in it. It has a fine selection of hats. It has a view. Some people never have a nice room in their whole lives. I don’t take that room for granted, not for a single minute. 

Monday, 15 February 2016

The sweetness.

Was having a fairly gnarly, cross Monday, grumpily bashing out 1349 words and feeling as if my head was filled with mud.

Then the family came to the field, and everything was all right, because this happened -

Sunday, 14 February 2016

My funny valentines.

I was thinking about romantic love and why I don’t believe in romantic love and why I was never any good at romantic love and how Valentine’s Day means about as much to me as a Crown Green Bowls Day when I heard a voice on the wireless.

It was a young man with a good voice. I did not catch his name. He was on Desert Island Discs and I was thinking about twenty other things and let him go on in the background, heard, but not heard. He was talking about the explorer who died recently in the Antarctic, heartbreakingly close to his goal. ‘Henry was a good friend of mine,’ he said, in his good voice. (It was calm, and decisive, and somehow holding a secret note of merriness in it, although he was talking of rather a lot of serious subjects.) ‘He had a pair of my skis with him, and my jacket.’
            Kirsty Young was astounded. ‘He had your skis and your jacket?’ she said, her voice rising with incredulity.
I must put that in a book, I thought.

I walked straight out of the kitchen to the computer, thinking of the book I would put it in. The dying man, so near his life’s dream, with his younger compadre’s coat. What would the book be? I cast around for it, it was on the tip of my tongue, but then it went away again. Never mind, I thought, strictly. I’ll put this haunting fact into a file of things I want to put in books. It would be like F Scott Fitz at the end of The Last Tycoon. It would be like ‘don’t wake the Tarkington ghosts’.

Last week, I wanted to put the thing about the whales dying into a book. Huge, helpless whales were washing up on the east coast of Britain, hopelessly lost, foundered and fatally off course. Humans could do nothing for them. Nobody really knew why they were washing up on the beaches in such numbers. That is a thing for a book, I thought. I’ll write a book about someone who is worried about the whales.

Everything in my life goes into the file marked: write it down, write it down. I sometimes think I should get better at simply living. I perhaps should have stayed and listened to the end of that man with the good voice, so that I could find out who he was and hear more of his fascinating story. But I was too busy typing.

This morning I got up early and made the house ready for guests. I bought flowers and tidied up and made potato cakes and chocolate fridge cake and hot chocolate for the children. Then they had to cancel. I took some of the flowers and the potato cakes and the delicious chocolate mess (for that is what it is) to the dear Stepfather, because it is his first Valentine’s Day without my mother. She used to beckon me aside secretly and get me to go to the village to buy him a special card every year. She would whisper the instructions in high conspiracy so he would not hear.

After all that rushing about, I went down to the horses in the field. They were dreaming in the bright snow. I took their rugs off to let them get the sun on their backs and gentled them and fed them and made sure they were happy.

Valentine’s Day means nothing to me and then, suddenly, in that quiet field, it meant everything because of that loving husband being without his wife. I fell to my knees in the soft snow and let out a shout of grief and missing and regret.

The crying comes in different ways. Sometimes it is a couple of solitary, silent tears which slide easily from my eyes; sometimes it is a storm, like those winds on the north ridge of Everest which strip sense and thought from vulnerable humans. This was a storm. Out it howled, the sadness, into the clean Scottish air. The horses, who are used to this, carried on eating. The red mare looked over for a moment and lipped the top of my head and blinked her eyes and returned to her food.

Like any violent storm, the thing passed on, and I was myself again. I’ve got a free day with a tidy house and vast amounts to eat, and I’m going to watch the racing from Exeter and read a book.

It turns out that my Valentine’s Day is rather lovely. When I say I don’t believe in romantic love, I am not being jaded and cynical. It was never my pot of mustard, but I know that other people do it well and make it work. What I really mean is that I think it is oversold. It is marketed, especially to women, as the mountain peak, the key to bliss, the meaning of life. I believe in all the other loves, the ones that don’t get the press.

I believe in the love of friends and family, the love of beloved creatures, the love of place, the love of the earth, the love of beauty, the love of the written word, the love of the stars and the trees and the moss and the green, green fields. I shall feel love when I watch the grand old chasers this afternoon, galloping through the west country mud. I feel love when I watch my dear old dog play with his new puppy friend in the snow. My heart lifts and sings when I am with my red mare, who is the love of my life. None of these will send me flowers, but that’s all right, because I bought my own, a little pot of delicate tulips. But I don’t need flowers, because I have all that other love, the love that lasts a lifetime, the love that keeps my creaking old ship sailing on.

Friday, 12 February 2016

A sweet dog story.

The temperature drops and the snow comes in. It’s light gentle snow, although the air is hard and frigid. The dogs find the whole thing enchanting; the horses are stoical and hunkered down for the duration.
This morning, a very sweet thing happened.
            Each day, I go to my stepfather’s house and make him breakfast. We have excellent eggs. Today, it was a mushroom omelette. I take Darwin the Dog and Stan the Man and they have their breakfast there too.
            This morning, as I arrived, I saw a father and daughter walking their dog near the house. I waited for a bit in the car, as Darwin is incurably friendly and cannot help rushing over to any new human he sees and I did not want him capering about the place. But the daughter was very, very tiny and walked very, very slowly and I realised it would be ages before they were out of sight.
            So I decided to wrangle D the D in through the front door, not giving him a chance to escape. Stanley, sight-dog that he is, had spotted the party and instead of charging on ahead of me and opening the door, leapt out of the car and tore off after the little group, barking with excitement. He loves making friends too, but he can’t help being noisy about it. I know that he is racing off to play, but if I were a person out for a quiet walk and saw this barking hound roaring down the drive I would be a little daunted.
            I got Darwin in and rushed back, shouting for Stanley, who was by now happily sniffing the nice little spaniel and seemed not to be causing too much trouble. He cantered back, looking very pleased with himself, and I put him in the house and went back to lock the car.
            I looked down the drive at the tall figure and the tiny figure and the capering dog. I knew what they must be thinking. Stupid woman, can’t control her dogs, bellowing like a fishwife. I felt rather ashamed. I should have had both canines on leads and I didn’t. The child was very, very young, and I feared she might be scarred for life.
            I was about to slink back into the house in shame when I changed my mind.
            I ran down the drive and caught up with the little group. ‘I’m so sorry,’ I said. ‘I do hope your daughter was not frightened. I do apologise.’
            The man nodded and smiled, entirely unfazed. His small girl, huddled up against the weather in a thick coat and bobble hat, looked up quizzically. ‘Oh,’ the father said. ‘Don’t worry. She’s used to dogs.’
            I explained about Stanley and how he was still a bit insecure from being a rescue and that although he wanted to be friends he could not help the barking thing. I apologised again.
            The father smiled and nodded and said more nice things.
            Then, down the avenue, hurtling like a bullet, came Stan the Man. He can famously open any door and he was clearly tired of waiting for me and had come to see what I was doing. ‘Oh,’ I said, in embarrassment. ‘Here he is.’
            There was no barking this time, just a lot of dancing and tail-wagging. I explained to the little girl about the escape artist. ‘He can open doors,’ I told her. ‘So he’s come to find us.’
            She looked at me, her eyes round and curious. ‘Big dog,’ she said. ‘With his paws.’
            ‘Yes,’ I said, pleased she got it. ‘He opens doors with those naughty paws.’
            Then we talked about the snow and about dogs in general and all was merry as a marriage bell.
            I loved about twenty things about that moment. I loved the little girl and her staunch bravery and her questing mind. I loved the kind father with his sanguine view of the world. I loved their excellent snow outfits. I loved that Stanley came back and showed them his best and kindest side. I loved that I made the decision to catch them up and apologise instead of hiding in the house, muttering like Muttley, convinced they thought me risible and hopeless.

            It was a tiny story, and a rather profound one at the same time. This will be the kind of story I shall be very, very glad that I wrote down. It’s the kind of story I like to remember.

Thursday, 11 February 2016


I stand in the kitchen, doing the washing up and listening to quiet voices talking about the life of Rumi and wondering what is the best way to economise on Fairy Liquid. (Buy in bulk? Amazon Prime? A trip to Costco?)

Outside, the sky is doleful and drab. 

I keep thinking: this is what forty-nine looks like.

I think: I shall never see Kathmandu. I’ve never especially wanted to see Kathmandu and the thought of intrepid travel has always filled me with a slight dread. But still, I know now that I shall never see it. I find this faintly demoralising, although the stern KBO part of me squares its shoulders and says really, worse things happen at sea. I know a man who until two years ago had never been south of Stonehaven.

I think of old travels. Should I write about those? Should I remember those? For some reason a picture flashes into my head of my friend Pete the screenwriter in a hotel room in Galle with very high ceilings. It was a pink room, or apricot perhaps. I had come from three weeks in India where I was the only Western human to put on weight, and was feeling rather hot and buxom. Pete had a very cool, delicate best beloved at that time. She was called Veronica and she was dark and beautiful and tiny and incredibly nice. Did we call her Ron? I can’t remember. I think we might have done, in a slightly ironic way. I think also that we ran into each other by complete chance.

I remember that hotel. It had probably not been refurbished since 1930 and felt like a lost age. There were acres and acres of polished wooden floors and very high ceilings. I think I drank a great deal of iced beer.

I did run around quite a lot when I was young. I have been south of Stonehaven. I think: I shall be like a camel and live off my hump.
After all this nonsense, I got on with the day. Horses, dogs, political breakfast discussion with the Stepfather, 1249 words of book. I even ran some errands and got some boring jobs done and managed a couple of logistical matters of shattering dullness.

Out in the world, scientists are beside themselves because they have discovered gravitational waves. (I think that is what they are called. My internet is still running like a drunken snail so I can’t look it up. Or, I could look it up, but it would take half an hour. Oh, oh, oh, how I miss celerity. I know I should ring BT Internet but I’ll get a huge amount of fudge and waffle and nothing will be resolved. Broadband in my part of Scotland has just ground to a halt and that’s all she wrote.) I love few things more than very excited scientists coming on the wireless sounding like children at Christmas. The markets are wobbling and Sir Bernard Thing and the man from Google are refusing to apologise for anything or to explain anything or to act like rational humans in any obvious way. 

My day is finished now and I’m going to turn off the news and read a book. 

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

The pendulum swings.

The internet has been on and off for the last few days. Sometimes it flashes a furious amber at me and goes off altogether. Sometimes it moves at a surly and glacial pace. In these times, one can go onto it, but it’s like driving along with a slow puncture, so there is no point. All the flashing, glancing pleasure of online is lost. I miss the political reports from New Hampshire where people are feeling the Bern; I miss the baby pandas; I miss the bulletins from my friends about their dogs and horses and families and lives. I realise how much I love these little ticker-tape updates – somebody has gone to Edinburgh with her daughter, someone has been to Hampton Court Palace, somebody else is doing something fascinating with poetry. I like the little triumphs, the flushes of pride when a child does something small but marvellous, the comedic rue when the dog snaffles the Sunday joint.

In real life, I read books instead. That is the good side of the internet being off; it gives me much more time and attention span to read. I’m reading a book about the evolution of the horse. I’m becoming slightly obsessed with the dawn horses, those funny little scampering creatures who look absolutely nothing like the grand thoroughbred I ride every day. The dawn horses. It’s the best name for a thing ever.

Darwin the Dog is increasing in cleverness and now can do sit, wait, and lie down. I am especially pleased about lie down. The sun came out for two whole days and everyone in the village talked about it. ‘It does cheer you up,’ said the kind man in the chemist. I’m wrangling with my work, trying to get all my ideas in a row. The stepfather and I discuss Europe every morning over breakfast, and, this morning, the fundamentals of political thought. We like that kind of conversation although the dogs get so bored their ears practically fall off.

I miss my mother about twelve times a day. I get a sudden reminder, and then a shot of intense sorrow and regret. I’m trying not to have the regret, because it’s such a pointless emotion, but it pierces me like an arrow. I saw her every day, but I wish I had talked to her more, listened to her more, asked her more. And now it is too late. I find this almost unbearable.

The days have moments of high normality. This morning, I cantered my red mare up the hill and looked at the mountains. Everything was usual and peaceful and fine. I do my work and make a green soup and listen to Radio Four and walk the dogs and all that is usual and fine. And then I get whacked round the head with the missing and the yearning and nothing is normal or fine at all. It’s like having an internal pendulum, swinging between the two states of ordinary life and extraordinary loss. I don’t want to be this person, the person who writes about grief, which is odd and foolish since I greatly admire people who can put sorrow into words. But still, I don’t want to be that person. Yet I have to write it down because it is my reality and words are the things that stop it overwhelming me.

This evening, in the gloaming, under a shining sliver of crescent moon, I stood in the field and told my mare a story. She loves the sound of the human voice, and so instead of just talking nonsense to her I told her an actual story, as one might tell a child a fairy-tale at bedtime. She listened gently, resting her head on my shoulder, and then she let out a very long sigh. I could not quite tell whether it was in sympathy, or acute boredom. I laughed a bit and stood with her some more. Her world is so steady, so sane, so immediate, so authentic. It brings me peace. 

Friday, 5 February 2016

An ordinary day.

One ride on one thoroughbred, two walks with two dogs, some fairly blah weather, a quick bit of HorseBack work  and one thousand three hundred and forty-nine words of book. (I have started yet another secret project.)

It was not really a memorable day, not one for the ages. I did not think deep thoughts or cook anything delicious or even really contemplate the trees. I got the things done that needed to be done in a rather workaday fashion and felt vaguely resentful about the gloomy old drizzle. It was the kind of day when I saw the mud, not the field.

I’m only writing this down because I’ve got the stupid idea in my  head that the last year of my forties must be catalogued in full. (Why? Why? I don’t exactly think that the University of Texas is going to be ringing up for my papers; they are far too busy gazing with love at their collection of Evelyn Waugh’s letters.)

So, that was my day. It was not a good day, or a bad day. It was just – a day.

At which point the cheerleader voices in my head start shouting but you did some work, and you rode a horse, and you still have your opposable thumbs and the ability to type. And, say the slightly sterner voices: you can move around under your own steam, you are not living in a theocracy, and you have clean running water coming out of the taps. And you have a brain to think with and eyes to see and Scotland just outside your window. So what if it was a bit blah and Stanley the Manly ate half a pat of butter and the weather is rotten? There may not have been pom-poms and marching bands, but you got some things done and tomorrow you will get some more things done and not every 24 hours is going to win a prize.

Those stern voices can be quite tiring sometimes, but they are almost always right.

Thursday, 4 February 2016

The trees.

Yesterday I came across a file called ‘Gathering information for my NEW PLAN.’
It contained one sentence. That sentence was: ‘Look up the precise meaning of attenuation.’

I have absolutely no memory of the NEW PLAN. I made it in January, so it’s not very old, and it also must be quite particularly thrilling, since I put it in capital letters and I rarely use capital letters. So it was a recent, wildly exciting PLAN which had something to do with attenuation.

Nope. Nothing.

Actually, I’m very glad I brought up attenuation. I have just gone and looked it up and it does not mean exactly what I thought it meant. I would have said lessening or thinning. In fact it means much more than that. A reduction in the force, value or effect; a reduction in the amplitude of a signal, electric current, or other oscillation; a reduction in the virulence of a pathogenic organism or vaccine. It can also mean the gradual loss in intensity of any kind of flux through a medium (I don’t think the kind that contacts the spirit world, although I’d pay money to see that). And in physics, apparently, there is the attenuation coefficient, which  is the basic quantity used in calculations of the penetration of materials by quantum particles or other energy beams. I absolutely did not know that.

So at least I learnt something today, even if I have absolutely no memory of the NEW PLAN.

The day dawned fine and hopeful, although the sky has now clouded over and is the colour of dashed dreams. But for the morning, I had brightness and lightness. I rode the brown mare and then went and looked at the trees. I’m always banging on about the trees. I pretty much think the meaning of life is love and trees. Today I stopped for a moment and really, really looked at them. One of my great sadnesses is that trees are very difficult to photograph. They look so magnificent in life and so paltry through a lens. The only way I can show their beauty is to zoom in very close on a tiny part of a tree, or take a distant view of the treeline. I tried this morning to capture a particularly magnificent Scots pine and it simply did not work. But in a way this had its marvellous effect because I had to photograph it with my eyes. So I put the camera down and looked and looked and looked. I can see it now, seared into my retinas. I cannot show it to you, but I have its elegance and grace in the privacy of my own head.

It made me realise that whilst I talk about the trees, sometimes that is lip service. Quite often I am in such a rush, my mazy mind filled with so many thoughts (and NEW PLANS, obviously), my to do list so winding and long that I do not stop and see. I run past the trees as if they were not there. I take the trees for granted. This is a shocking dereliction. My new NEW PLAN is never, ever again to walk past a tree with my eyes closed.

One of the trees, a dear gnarly old oak, had some of its branches torn away from the recent storms. The spiked stumps of shattered arms reached up to the sky. I stared at it for a while, thinking it was a bit of a parable or an emblem. It was middle age. By this stage in life, all humans have lost a few branches to the storms. But the tree is still there, still beautiful and useful, still meaning something, still giving pleasure. I like that idea.

After the horse and the trees and walking the dogs, I ran some errands in the village. I saw something as beautiful as that oak. There were two old people, probably in their eighties, man and wife, walking together very, very slowly. The slowness of the walk was because of some physical limitation – some lameness, perhaps the aftermath of some illness, some soreness in the limbs or the joints. They were helping each other, every inch of their bodies tuned to each other, tenderness in every step. I wondered how long they had been married. Fifty years or more, I guessed. There was something about the way they walked that suggested they knew each other very, very well, and had done for so long that they could not remember or imagine not knowing everything about each other. I stood still and watched them, entranced. They were so absorbed in each other that they did not cast me a glance, so I could observe without rudeness.

Since I have an Olympic medal in forgetting (oh, that poor, lost NEW PLAN) I shall not remember those people. I shall lose the memory of the awe and wonder I felt as I watched them. That is why I have written them down. Now they shall always exist, here on the page. In year, or maybe two, I’ll stumble upon these paragraphs and that couple will return to me, as vivid and moving as they were today under the gentle Scottish sky.

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

The good, the bad and the ugly.

Yesterday was so awful that I did not have the heart to write it down. I had the mean reds. The wind was blowing a hooley and the rain lashed with bitter viciousness and there was no good to be seen. I growled at the horses, shouted at the dogs, roared at myself, and believed that nothing would come to any good.

There is a rage in grief. I’m getting quite a lot of that now. There are sudden hurling outbursts of sheer fury, usually at inanimate objects – the fucking car that is always going wrong, the stupid cooker that is making horrid noises, the idiot internet which suddenly goes off for no reason. It is classic Object A, Object B. I am obviously really, really cross that my mum died. I’m taking out that fury on something, anything, but that awful fact.

I think I’m also cross because although I know this stuff takes a long time, the competitive, girly swot part of me wants to be able to do it in double quick time. Whenever I have a good day, I make a category error. The competitive swot thinks: ah, I’ve finished. The sane adult, who is very, very slow and takes ages to catch up, finally observes: it was just a good day. It doesn’t mean that your heart is mended or you are out of the woods.

Then I get cross because of the irrational part of myself which is indulging wrong beliefs and wish thinking. I know the woods are dark and deep; I know I have miles to go before I sleep. So why do I keep falling for the siren voices of wrongness?

Because I am a human being, is the maddening answer.

So, it’s up and down and round the houses. It’s the struggling part. The emotion is no longer pure, shooting out of one involuntarily. This is the messy bit, when one is trying to come to terms with reality (always a faint problem for me), getting it a bit right and getting it a bit wrong, catching a glimpse of the light, being hurled back into the darkness.

The irony is that lovely days are the enemy, in some days. I see them not for what they are, in themselves, but as misleading proofs.

It’s been rather a relief to realise all this. I can stop yelling at the dogs now (they just turn and give me yeah, whatever looks) and direct my rage at its correct target, which is the buggery bollocks of mortality and loss. I miss my mum, and sometimes that makes me cross.

In the green field on the hill, I have two dear remedies for all ills. When I go up to work the horses, all the mess and detritus and garbage falls away. This morning, I got onto my little brown mare. Even though she was a polo pony beyond compare, I’m starting her from scratch in the kind of cowboy horsemanship I like, very different from what she was used to. So we’ve been working on the ground a lot, just hanging out and getting to know each other, becoming friends. I’ve hardly ridden her at all, because I want to dig the foundations deep. I had not planned on riding her this morning, but she was in such a good mood that I hopped on, on a whim.

Usually, when I sit on her, I can feel her Ferrari engine revving under me at full velocity. This morning, there was the low purr of the Aston Martin. I felt amazed and delighted. We wandered about the pasture, like two old cowgirls in the green grass of Wyoming, doing some basic exercises. A lot of horses have a no in them. She was filled with yes.

You would like me to do this? Yes.
You want me to do that? Yes.
You think we should go there? Brilliant idea.

She is so kind and gentle and bright and bonny. By the end, I was riding with no irons and no reins. I taught her to stop from voice. (Yes.) I showed her how to back up with a quick signal from my feet which a great American horseman taught me. (Of course.) And then we stood in the sun and I leaned down and stroked and stroked and stroked her dear teddy bear neck and told her over and over how brilliant she was. She pricked her little ears and looked very pleased with herself.

This was a gift that came out of a clear blue sky, after 36 hours of crossness and sadness and general blah. Horses are supposed to get tense and twitchy if they sense darkness in their human. I try to leave all my baggage at the gate, but that old suitcase has been weighing me down. The little brown mare does not care. She is so mentally sturdy that she lets all the nonsense go by. And so she restores me, and the wings of my better angels begin to flap, and, in the end, I can give her what she deserves.

I always say that the best remedy for frailty is to confess it. The Dear Readers are wise, and know very well that every day can’t be Doris Day. Yet there is always an element of fear when I have a little wail, the fear of vulnerability that revelation brings. I can’t do jazz hands and step ball change at the moment. I’m getting through the days, trying to do my work and keep my spirits from flagging too much and meet all my responsibilities. Sometimes I feel defeated and overwhelmed. Sometimes I have to admit that. Then I take a deep breath and lift my head and decide that I shall just keep buggering on. I think that if there can be one moment of joy and delight in each day, however fleeting, all is not lost. Today, my small, sweet thoroughbred gave me a moment that felt like a miracle.

Monday, 1 February 2016

Write it down, write it down.

Write it down, write it down, say the voices in my head.
Which voices?
The ones which have suddenly decided that since I was forty-nine on Saturday, it is now my absolute duty to record every moment of the year before I am fifty.
I don’t really know why. Because it is a milestone; because life is whistling by my ears; because I am terrified that I shall get to that big age and say ‘Where did all the time go and why did I not do more with it and what is the point of it all anyway?’
If it is written down, at least I shall have 365 pages of something, that exist, like proofs that I was here. Or something.
I don’t really understand it, but those voices are very shouty, so even though I am tired and my brain has fizzled out like the kind of old wiring that electricians suck their teeth over, I’m writing it bloody well down.
There was sleet and a wild, biting wind. Despite this, I got on my horse first thing because I love her and I miss her and I’m fed up with letting the weather come between us. She was not especially impressed, particularly when we reached the top of the field and found horizontal sleety rain in our faces and a wind as bitter as Sarah Palin. (She really is very, very bitter. I know she thinks she is perky, but I sense bitterness.) Then the little brown mare came roaring up the slope as if to say what the hell are you two doing? so we all trundled back down together. I felt like something out of the Green Grass of Wyoming, riding one horse with one hand and herding another.
            Then it was work work work work. There was a small pause for dog dog, as Stan the Man and Darwin the Dog went outside in the weather and wrestled about like Alan Bates and Oliver Reed. (Sometimes I have to avert my eyes.) Then more work work work. Then a visit to the vet, which went completely awry when Stanley escaped the locked car, dashed across Station Square, let himself into the vet’s office and stared balefully at Darwin and me, waiting politely for the second puppy vaccination. Everyone thought it was hysterical.
            I braved the wind and fed the horses and then there was more work.
            All this mad activity is because I had another deadline. I’ve given up talking about deadlines, because this is now the fifth time I’ve reworked this book and I’ve started to believe it shall never be finished. The agent, who is discerning and brilliant, never lets me off the hook. So there has been restructuring, a change of emphasis, two complete re-writes, and I don’t really know how many polishes. I can’t see straight or focus my eyes or decide if it is any good or not.
            One day, if I am very lucky, it might be published by an actual publisher and go into an actual bookshop and be read by actual humans. Then I have to worry about whether anyone will buy it. But that is long in the future, and as I drove back from the shop tonight after doing some errands I thought: best hope is that it  might be quite good. I have got very slick at managing my ambitions.
            This is all quite dull, say the critical voices. Is this the best you can do for your last year in your forties? Could you not give it a bit of va va voom?
            No, I bloody well couldn’t. Some days have no voom. Some days are very ordinary and quite tiring and entirely pedestrian. I can’t do a tap dance to order.

            Today was just what it was. It was cold, and I got some stuff done. Some days, that has to be enough.


Blog Widget by LinkWithin