I never know what to do when tragedy strikes, out in the world. My own world is very small, and, in some ways, very sheltered. When I go down to the field each morning to let the dogs play and to tend to the horses, it feels as if we are hidden from all the bad things and the mad things and the sad things. Nobody can see us there. We are sheltered by a high hill and stretches of dense woodland. I have a friend who shares the field with me. Her young daughter christened it The Magic Paddock, and there is something magical about it.
My house is small and sheltered too, but the world comes in there when I turn on the wireless or switch on the internet to hear the news. There, suddenly, in vivid colours, is that distant, outside world, with its living and dying, its tectonic shifts, its sudden political shocks.
As social media gallops and wheels in its wild, wide prairies of news, there can be almost an imperative to say something. Sometimes it feels as if everyone must react to everything, must have an opinion, must choose the right thing to say. I find the right thing to say almost impossible. Sometimes, I don’t say anything at all, because mere paltry human words in the face of unspeakable grief and loss and horror seem pointless and gimcrack. A huge thing has happened; why should anyone need to know what my own small feeling about it is? It can seem self-regarding, jumping on any passing bandwagon. Look at me, caring. On the other hand, to speak about ordinary things can seem callous and stupid. Can I really put up a picture of Stanley the Dog on Facebook when eighty-four people lie dead in the street?
But what word do you use for those eighty-four lost souls? Even the language of Shakespeare and Milton seems to come up short. It is shocking, and heartbreaking, and beyond human imagination. It is mad and wrong and lunatic. Yet every word one slaps on the horror seems too thin and small.
All the same, people will write the words, will stretch out uncertain fingers for the words, will try to make the nonsensical make sense with the words. Some good, wise people will use the right words, to reach out across oceans and incomprehensions, across time and distance, from one wounded heart to another. Some people will have the words, and will act as stalwarts, as witnesses, as consolers, if any consolation is to be found.
As I stood in that hidden, magical field this morning, with my little brown mare, who is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle animal I ever met, there were words in my ear. I was listening to a portable radio, and something rather extraordinary happened. It was Desert Island Discs, and Nicole Farhi was on. The programme had obviously been recorded some days before, and as she said, blithely and happily, that she grew up in Nice, I felt a visceral shock. She could speak of Nice with innocence, because she did not know what was to happen there. It was haunting and moving and added an extra twist to the tragedy. It somehow made it more touching that she was such a lovely woman, charming and engaged and thoughtful. She was all light and goodness, on such a dark day.
And then she chose Ne Me Quitte Pas by Jacques Brel for one of her records. I listened to that beloved singer of songs singing ‘don’t leave me’ in the quiet Scottish morning. The mare rested her sweet head against my shoulder. I thought of all those people, celebrating in their happy, peaceful streets, in the moments before tragedy struck. I thought of the ones who had left, against their will, torn violently from life and laughter by actions the human mind can barely understand.
It was a very strange moment. Listening to that most tender of voices was both lovely, and heart-rending. It is a time when words are not enough, and yet Brel had the right words. ‘I will make a kingdom where love will be king.’ If only it could be so. If only.