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.