Last week, my beloved cousin came to stay. She and I have known each other since we were nineteen, and we’ve been through every emotional stretch: heartbreaks, deaths, funerals, failures, joys and delights. Her husband is the dazzling horseman who sold me both my mares, and he makes a joke about when I go to stay with them in the south: ‘you two start talking the moment you get out of the car, and you don’t stop until you are driving up the drive again.’ He’s right. We have never stopped talking for thirty years. It’s the best talk I ever knew.
I put her up on the red mare, and they fell in love with each other from the very first moment. Watching the two of them together made my heart sing. They really are my two favourite people in the world, and I wanted them so much to understand each other’s wonder, and so they did.
It’s a year and a half since my mother died, and in the last months I have congratulated myself for grieving Mum well. I went straight at it, not looking to right nor left. I knew at least this much about grief: you have to do it. You have to run at it. You can’t hide. I thought I had done that, but something odd has happened lately. I’m missing my mother so much I can’t breathe. I’m a huge believer in time, and I thought time had done its thing. The ache fades, normality returns, joy can again shine through. My mare gives me joy every morning, and I can make jokes, and I can smile. And then, just when I think it’s all over, it comes at me again.
The beloved cousin knows all about the death and the grief. I was with her through her mother, and her father, and her brother. She was with me through my dad, and it was to her house that I drove after my father’s funeral, as the bosky hedgerows bowed their heads in a brightly absurd spring afternoon.
Sitting with her in my quiet house, I thought how chipped around the edges we are, from life, from loss, and how we somehow got good at buggering on. If you have a friend like that, you can deal with anything.
All the same, I feel a fragility, which alarms me a little. I thought I could put my head down and charge on. I thought I only have sorrows to face which everyone faces. I thought I could forge on into a bright future, that I could make that future exist through will and stoicism and determination. I compare grief often to the sea. It is a thing of waves and storms and tides. The tides ebb, and flow. I had learned to sail over those big waves, and now they are bashing me a bit again.
Perhaps this is how it is for everyone who loses someone they love. The brightness falls, and rises, and falls again. All of which is a long way of saying: I miss my mother. I miss my father too. It’s Cheltenham this week and I think of them both, because this was their place. My father twice soared up that hill; his name is still carved on the silver trophies that will be presented this week. My mum watched him, and she knew the giants, talking in the stands with Fred Winter and Fulke Walwyn and Vincent O’Brien, dressed in her elegant coats and her chic hats, watching the bright stars with her focused race glasses. She was not merely a chic and soothing presence on the racecourse, she qualified the hunter chasers, going out in all weathers, a tiny human on vast, powerful, fit thoroughbreds, galloping and jumping flat out all day long. (Despite the fact that his father was the master of the Mid-Surrey Drag, my dad did not much like hunting, and was most happy when Mum would do the work.)
The legacy they gave me was a love for the thoroughbred and a fighting heart. They taught me good manners and if in doubt be kind and never, ever to give up. They taught me enthusiasm, and to laugh at myself, and always to be the person who bought the first round. They had gloriously glaring flaws, and you could write a book about their human frailties, but they left me with some tacit virtues that cannot be beaten.
As I write this, I think of the horses they loved. I think of the love they passed on to me. I think of the great blazing beauties out on the Cheltenham turf, and the sweet, gentle equine athletes in the stable where I grew up, and the kind, soft mares who now live in my Scottish field. I am a bit bent of out shape just now, for all that I put a good face on it. I am a little tired and bruised. I am more overcome with the missing than I would have thought. But my parents left me love – the example of love as much as the giving of love. And that, I think, will in the end pick me up and get me through.