I slept badly, wracked with horse anxiety. In the morning, the Today programme told me that George Martin had died. I felt very melancholy. I remember years ago watching an interview with him and he was so self-deprecating and dry and witty and elegant. He made The Beatles, and now he was gone.
He was ninety and it sounded as if he died well. He had run his race, with great glory. It should not be so very sad, really, yet it was. There was another of the grand old gentleman, from that grand old generation that remembered the war and knew stoicism and could teach the rest of us young shavers a thing or two, gone. Every time a member of that generation goes, I feel bereft.
Then the Today Programme played A Day in the Life, and I cried.
That song was written partly for my uncle. ‘I read the news today, oh boy, about a lucky man who made the grade; he blew his mind out in a car, he didn’t notice that the lights had changed.’ Tara, my father’s half-brother by my grandmother’s second marriage was one of those impossible golden boys of the sixties. He was gentle and charming and funny and he knew everybody and then, at the age of 21, he was dead in a car crash.
On a chill December dawn, my father drove up the M4 to identify the body. I have often wondered about that black morning drive. Not long before she died, I asked my mother about it. ‘Bill Payne took him,’ she said. ‘He could not drive on his own.’
Bill Payne was one of my parents’ most stalwart friends. A trainer and true horseman, his roots deep in the country earth, he used to go up on the downs and pick dandelions for his racehorses because they were good for the blood. He was cheerful and bluff and no-nonsense and he trained good horses out of a tiny yard in Eastbury. He once saved my sister’s life, when she rushed through the hall and put her hand straight through a plate glass door and sliced open an artery. Bill Payne was the only person there who knew how to apply a tourniquet, without that, she would surely not have got to the hospital in time.
And then, as if that was not enough, he drove my father to see his brother’s body.
‘Your father was broken when he got back,’ my mother told me. ‘I just tried to be there for him, to help him. I held him and he cried and cried.’
She was heavily pregnant with me. I would be born six weeks later. Mum was heartbroken too. Tara was an urban boy to his fingertips, all Chelsea and nightclubs and glittering parties. But sometimes it must have got too much for him, because he would suddenly appear at our house in the Lambourn valley, often in the small hours, and Mum would get up and sit him down on the sofa and make him tea and let him talk.
My grandmother had lost her third child, and never really recovered. She was a tiny, bird-like woman, but she must have had a streak of steel in that tiny body, because she somehow survived those crushing griefs and lived until she was eighty. She used to make the driest, most ironic jokes, with deadpan timing, but she wore an air of melancholy like a Dior coat until the end of her life.
I was thinking of all this, in my sleep-deprived state, as I went down to the field to look at my poor wounded horses. The little brown mare is on the mend and bright as a button. She, too, has perfect comic timing, and even though I was feeling sad, she made me laugh. The red mare is still doleful and needy, and I had a sudden burst of tears, looking at her poor, sore leg. ‘I can’t lose you too,’ I said, out loud. (She’ll be fine, of course she will be fine, but I fear infection like the very devil.)
What with the lack of sleep and the maelstrom of emotion and the family memories, I thought the day was a write-off. I would have to cancel everything and put myself back to bed and make up the hours at the weekend.
Then I went to the dear Stepfather for breakfast. He wanted me to help him book an aeroplane ticket. He still find the internet and the computer baffling, but they are where I work every day, so I love amazing him by formatting a document in three minutes or solving some little software glitch in the flash of an eye. I was confident at least I could get him his ticket.
But British Airways were not going to let me have it easy. First of all, they tried to fob us off with a ticket which cost half the national debt. ‘Ha,’ I said. ‘I think we can do better than that.’
So I dug about and found the discounted seats. There were only five left and the clock was running, so when all those stupid extraneous screens came up – Do you want to register? Do you want to create an account? Do you want to rent a car? Do you want to take up our offer of a special credit card? – I started yelling, no, no, no, no, no. There was a degree of swearing. The dear Stepfather laughed and laughed.
And then – fatal moment – there was an error message. Contact your local representative, said the screen, cold and unfeeling.
So there was telephoning. There were forty-seven options, stupid modulated voices, plinky plonky music. I swore and swore. No, the booking did not exist, said an actual person. I stopped swearing, since my rule is that I am only allowed to be rude to automated systems. Transferring you to the sales department. Thank you so much.
Ah, said another idiotically cheerful computer voice, we are experiencing an unusually high volume of traffic. Fifteen minutes’ delay on the line.
Bugger, bugger, bugger, I bawled.
Back to the website. My blood was up. I would not be defeated. I typed and typed. I filled in all the asinine forms all over again.
THERE IS AN ERROR.
Swearing reached epic levels. If I was going down, I was going down cussing like a longshoreman.
One of the cheap seats had gone. There was a new, more expensive price. ‘The bastards,’ I shouted. ‘We should sue them for eight pounds and emotional distress.’
More typing. More forms. More pointless questions.
At last, at last, through sheer bloody-mindedness, cussedness, dander and straight rage, I got the adorable words: Your Booking Number Is...
I hurled my arms in the air and celebrated as if I was watching Desert Orchid win his Gold Cup all over again. I had got the dear good man his ticket. I had not given up.
This ridiculous episode saved my day. I did not write the day off. I came home and wrote actual words of book, 1796 of them.
I wrote this absurdly long blog. I am so shattered in the head that I have no idea why I am telling you all this, but I am past questioning. You are my dear readers, and you get all the stories, some of which make sense and some of which don’t. You are so kind and good and generous that I know you understand the flaky, goofy days and don’t hold them against me.
This day is not my best day. But it was saved, for all that.
A note on the photograph:
This was taken in Ireland. My father is on the right, his brother Garech next to him, and his brother Tara on the far left. You can see the fondness and affection and love lighting up my father's face. I remember that smile. I find it impossibly moving.