Saturday, 31 October 2015

Just one.

I missed my mum a lot today. The racing was on, and in the old days the telephone would have rung just after Don Cossack, one of the most ravishing horses in training, romped home at Down Royal. ‘Wasn’t he grand?’ she would have said. ‘Did you see that?’

This morning, I cancelled her Racing Post. It is ordered every Saturday, and I take it to her and stay to drink coffee and talk about the day’s runners. That routine is no more. I found the whole thing almost more heart-breaking than anything else.

I wanted to tell the ladies in the shop, who are kind and funny and know me well. But I could not get the words out. They knew. ‘Just one next week?’ they said, in sympathy.

‘Just one,’ I said.


Today’s picture:

My mother, looking serene, and me, looking very grumpy indeed. I did get quite cross with the grown-ups, because at that stage I was convinced I was twenty-one and did not understand why I could not stay up for dinner or go to night-clubs. (It was the seventies; everyone went to night-clubs.) Poor Mum, what she had to put up with.

31 Oct 1 1865x2243

Friday, 30 October 2015

This is not a funeral.

Today, I said goodbye to my mother.

In a last act of dazzling brilliance, she left instructions that she did not want a funeral. No fuss, she said. So we gave her no fuss.

She would be taken to Moray for cremation, which is what she asked for. My stepfather and step-sister were to go with her. I would stay at home. The mortal remains are gone and mean nothing to me; I did not want to see them burnt. She exists now safely in my heart and that is where I keep her.

All the same, I wanted her to have good flowers, so I did them last night and watched over them until the early hours in a strange sort of vigil. This morning, I took them up to the florist, because I needed more eucalyptus. You can never have too much eucalyptus. The ladies in the florist were perfect. They know a lot of death; I have sometimes been in there happily chatting when the undertaker arrived to collect the wreaths. They knew precisely what to say and they said it and I thanked them.

I delivered the flowers to my mother’s house. I had to take some photographs before they went in, partly because I was swanking at my own brilliance, and partly to show the brothers and sister. I laid them on the ground and was contorting myself to get the best angle when the farmer drove by on his tractor. I adore the farmer. I like to think he sees me as a true countrywoman, a woman of the earth. I talk to him about sheep and weather and dogs. His surprised face when he saw me dancing about a huge floral arrangement with my camera made me laugh and laugh. So when I delivered my rather melancholy burden, I was not weeping but laughing.

The Stepfather, absurdly elegant in a suit of midnight blue, looked faintly surprised but took it on the chin. We looked at each other, a vast ocean of unspoken emotion between us. We did not need to put it into words.

My sister had requested that we pick some flowers from Mum’s garden to put in the coffin, so my step-sister and I did that, finding the last of the white roses, some fragrant rosemary, some delicate marjoram and some shiny green mint. My step-sister made them into a pretty bunch, tied with a white ribbon. They were enchanting.

Then, even though it was only eleven-thirty in the morning, we made cocktails. We drank some very special Scottish botanical gin with blueberries in. (It comes from a small family distillery and on their website they suggested blueberries and we are very suggestible at the moment. It was so delicious that I almost fell over.)

I saw them off and went home and watched the racing for a bit and then I went down to the field to get on my red mare. She was sleeping when I arrived, but kindly rose to her feet and moseyed over to greet me, even though this was not riding time at all. I had set an alarm in my pocket and my plan was to be in the saddle at the moment my mother was cremated.

It was a fucking awesome plan.

(So sorry. Grief makes me very sweary. Also: there is absolutely no edit button.)

The sun, which had not been forecast, had fought its way through the early rain and cloud, and was dancing and dazzling, gentling the good land, lighting the bright autumn leaves so that they glowed with life and promise.

My alarm went off. Stanley loped up the field. The red mare stood very, very still. She had taken me up to the far woods, and I looked into their dim mystery and said goodbye.

I said: ‘You are not gone. You are in the woods, and the wind, and the sky, and the earth. You are in my heart and my mind. I carry you on, safe, free from pain, all suffering fallen from you.’

The mare fell to grazing and I let her. Stanley stood like a statue, scanning the horizon.

Then I sang a song. I sang What Have They Done to my Song, Ma? Because that was her favourite song when I was six years old and I remember it blasting through the house and everyone singing along.

Then I said some Yeats. I spoke the words into the limpid air.

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,

And nodding by the fire, take down this book,

And slowly read, and dream of the soft look

Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep;

How many loved your moments of glad grace,

And loved your beauty with love false or true,

But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,

And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,

Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled

And paced upon the mountains overhead

And hid his face amid a crowd of stars.

It wasn’t entirely appropriate, but it’s the only poem I know effortlessly by heart, and Yeats is my old, old friend.

And then I picked up the mare and sent her into her fine, rolling canter. My mother never could believe that I rode her in a rope halter, that she would come to a dead stop from voice only, that she could carry herself like a dressage diva on a loose rein. ‘Do your brilliant canter for Mum,’ I said. And she did. Stanley loped along beside us, his eyes amber in the sun.

Then we stopped and looked through the trees to the south. The mare was very, very still, peace rising from her like a benediction.

Not really goodbye, I said to my mother. You can stay with me now. You can ride with me every morning. Now you are free.

And then I looked at the Scottish light and watched the three mares happily eat their hay and went back to my house and gazed at the hill and felt grateful.

It was a bloody marvellous funeral. I cried, I laughed, I rode, I sang.

I think she would have loved it.


Today’s pictures:

I’m too tired now for captions. You know what they are about. They are the story of this most shimmering day.

30 Oct 1 5184x3456

30 Oct 1 5184x3456-001

30 Oct 2 5184x3456

30 Oct 3 5184x3456

30 Oct 4 5184x3456

30 Oct 5 5184x3456

30 Oct 6 3456x5184

30 Oct 6 3456x5184-001

30 Oct 9 5177x3036

30 Oct 9 5184x3077

30 Oct 10 5184x3456

30 Oct 11 5184x3456

30 Oct 12 4943x2527

30 Oct 12 5184x3456

30 Oct 14 5184x3456

30 Oct 15 5184x3456






As I finish this, I suddenly realise what it was about. It was love and trees. Almost every day I come back to love and trees. Without even thinking about it, without even meaning to, I gave her love and trees. She would have liked that.

Thursday, 29 October 2015

My mission, should I choose to accept it.

Well, the Be Happy For Mum plan didn’t go all that badly, in the end. I thought that it might be the most shaming disaster. I thought that everyone might shout through the ether Oh for goodness’ sake, just be bloody sad and get it over with. (I suspect that was a bit of Freudian projection, and in fact was the voice of my critical self, who is a terrible old vampish harridan and has always had too much gin.) In actual fact, on the Facebook, on the blog, kind people, some known well to me, some complete strangers, all rose up in glory and said generous and funny and wise things, which touched and amazed my bashed heart.

Here is what I learnt, because I must always learn something. All these years on, and I am still a girly swot at heart.

There is one place that the sadness really and truly does go completely away and that is on the back of my thoroughbred mare. I always knew that she did have super-powers. I just did not quite know how powerful they were. Being with her is cheering and soothing, but it’s on her back, when I feel her power under me and the peace that she carries in her flowing from her mighty body into my puny one, that everything falls into a stunning equilibrium. All the bad and sad things just fall away and I am free. I don’t know how this happens, but it does. She is a miracle horse and that’s the end of it.

The joys are there, if you look for them. They don’t banish the sorrow, but they go in tandem with them, like a pair of slightly grumpy and ill-matched carriage horses, the kind that the Queen would not use for state occasions. I’m going to go on driving my wonky carriage, and one day, those two ponies will learn to trot along together.

My stabs at normality are quite funny. I’m a little off kilter. Everything I say is a crotchet off-beat. My laughter is a bit too loud. My walk is a bit ragged. My clothes are frankly peculiar. My hair is a bit bonkers. My attempts to make sense don’t quite make sense.

Laughter still exists though, and it is as healing as tears. I have a new theory that grief is like a trapped energy and has to be let go, in great gusts. It needs to be released from the actual body. Shouty tears can do this, but so can shouty laughter. The Beloved Stepfather made me laugh at breakfast so much that I couldn’t speak for four minutes. It was one of those comical stories so recondite and absurd and almost tragic that only he and I (and my mother had she been here) could get it. That made it even more intense. Once he had told me the absurd thing, and I started laughing helplessly, he started laughing too, the first proper laugh he has done since it happened. It was naughty schoolboy laughter, because it was the kind of thing that was really quite sad in some ways, but we couldn’t help it, it tickled us to death. That laughter opened the door and let some of that captured energy out.

I have to keep reminding myself to let my shoulders go. I have another theory, you will be amazed to hear, that people trap their emotions in different parts of their bodies. Some people get headaches, or stomach cramps. I get the shoulders up around my ears. Every half an hour, I have to say: get those damn shoulders down.

Talking out loud is oddly helpful. I’ve always been prone to this, and it’s getting worse as I get older. Lately, I find myself in the Co-op saying, at shamingly high volume: ‘Now, what have I forgotten?’ Since Saturday, I have been walking round the house saying ‘Oh,’ and ‘Ah,’ and ‘Oof,’ and ‘What next?’ I say: ‘Oh, Mum,’ with a dying fall. I expect soon I shall move on to: ‘Steady the buffs.’

I like having a mission, and I’m going to keep on my mission of hunting for beauty, squinting for the good, searching for the consolations. My old friend The Horseman, who is a man of great matter-of-factness, not a sentimental bone in his body, but a man of oak, the sort of man on whom you can really rely when the chips are down, wrote me a brilliant, pithy message. It said: ‘Live hard in respect for those who can’t.’ That is my mission.

But, and here I think is the important thing, I’m not going to scold myself when I can’t do that. There will be days when it’s not possible. It’s a good goal, and a fine thought. I keep it in the front of my mind, like a shining amulet. The good old Horseman. He was there when my dad died, and when my dog died (he found me in streaming tears on his drive and staunchly faced them without fear) and now he has sent me a line to live by.

Rather to my astonishment, I have achieved quite a lot this week. I have written words, and done good work for HorseBack, and made soup, and worked my new mare, and ridden my old mare in glorious cowgirl canters on a loose rein, and even arranged some flowers. There are roses on my desk. There are never roses on my desk. They were on special offer and I thought, bugger it, I must have roses. They feel sweetly symbolic and I look at them now as I write and think: yes, yes, the small things. I live now in the world of the small things, so that the big thing does not overwhelm me, so that I do not drown.


Today’s pictures:

The roses:

29 Oct 1 3456x4513

I found this wonderful picture of my mother this morning. I remember that fur hat so well. I was very small when she had it, and I used to whip it off her head and hold it and stroke it as if it were a small bear. I can feel it now:

29 Oct 3 1508x1510

And this picture was in the same book. It is my sister, on her side-saddle champion. This says a lot about my mother. It was she who taught us to ride these ponies, who schooled them and groomed them and taught us sternly to look after them. If we were to have the great fortune to have such glorious animals, we had to be responsible for them. We were never allowed to come in at the end of the day until our ponies were happy and settled with their bran mashes. She would get up at three in the morning to drive us to distant shows – to the Three Counties, and Builth Wells, and Windsor, and Peterborough – and she would make us the best bacon sandwiches in the world to sustain us for the road:

29 Oct 5 1823x2174

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

A radical thought.

This morning, in the bath, I had a radical thought. What if I was happy, for my mother’s sake?

Here is the ludicrous thing about death. A person you love dies. You cry a lot. You feel wretched. Your throat aches with unexpressed words, trapped memories, tangled regrets. You wash your hair twice because you have no idea whether you did it the first time. You have a bit of trouble behaving in a rational manner in the Co-op. You have no idea what you are supposed to do next. You go to bed at seven because you are so tired you don’t know what your name is. You keep getting wild flashes of the person, some happy, some sad, all lacerating. You have to tell people, which can go either way. You are out of step with the rest of the world, even though, paradoxically, death is the one certainty which knits all human hearts together. You make stupid amounts of soup, so that your kitchen becomes like some kind of industrial production line. You are a little lost, entirely bashed, and very, very sad.

No person you have ever loved would want you to feel any of those feelings.

I don’t have a heaven or an afterlife, although I am occasionally tempted by reincarnation and I do make jokes about the ghostly sound of my father’s laughter from the Great Betting Shop in the Sky. But if there existed a cloud on which my mother was now sitting, she would not be looking down and shouting, ‘Oh, bloody hell, go on, more weeping.’ I really don’t think that is what she would be saying.

I talk a lot about grief marking the space left behind, honouring the dead, but now I’m not sure. I know it has to be done, and you have to get the damn thing out or it will twist itself up and trap you into fatal tendencies like not eating or not sleeping or shouting at random people.

But what is it for?

Not the dead person, who wants only your well-being. I adore my nieces. If I said one word which caused them dismay, let alone pain, I would castigate myself for days. If, when I died, they felt horrid grief and if I had any consciousness left to see that horrid grief, I would be furious with myself. (Perhaps no cloud must be a good thing then, so the poor Dear Departeds, many of whom were rather jolly themselves and loved a party, don’t have to look down and see the weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth.)

None of it makes any sense. Humans – poets and novelists and playwrights and philosophers and shrinks – try to make sense of it because it so universally is. Even the most devout, who really do believe in choirs of angels and a Better Place, cry like anything when the beloveds go.

If I were the dead, I should be so cross. Have a lovely time, I should be bawling, from my wobbly cloud; have some gin, ride a horse, have a huge punt on the 3.30 at Fakenham; go dancing with your best friend; walk in the rain; read some Scott Fitzgerald; eat a peach. Make more soup if you must, I would be yelling, but perhaps some without tears in it.

So, here is my radical thought. Today, I’m going to be happy for my mum.

It won’t work all day, because I’m not buggery Superwoman, but I’m going to give it a shot. I’m going to dig out the little happy moments like a truffle hound. Instead of looking at Stanley and thinking, miserably, Oh, you loved her so much, I shall think of how happy his eager face is and how he is living entirely in the moment. It is a very good moment, because some of the rats have come back to the feed shed, so he is once more in his Steve McQueen Great Escape incarnation, and nothing makes him happier than tunnelling under the feed shed.

He did lay by her side every morning for the last few weeks, as if he knew she was failing, but that does not have to be a sad thing but a happy thing, a really wonderful thing which should make me smile with delight at his fine, devoted, doggy heart.

I’m going to ride my horse for her, because she was proud of what I did with that mare. I’m not going to look at the new mare as I did last night and say Oh, how I wish she had met you. I’m going to laugh like a drain at the thought that although my mother adored thoroughbreds, she did not in fact want me to get another one. (‘What is this Scout?’ Said in a Lady Bracknell voice.) She really longed for me to buy a little Welsh pony for the great-nephews and great-nieces. ‘A little Section A. Just imagine.’

I’m going to write the most absurd gratitude list in the world. (In this spirit, I felt grateful this morning as I came down from my bedroom, because there were actual stairs, to get me from one floor to the other. There are people who don’t have stairs.) For one day, I’m going to peer through the literal and metaphorical dreich and see the damn beauty. I’m going to do it for Mum.


Today’s pictures:

Just one. This is the one I’m carrying in my head. My mother liked small, elegant, polite dogs. She had unbelievably chic whippets when I was a child, as dapper and dashing as old school Russian aristocrats. Stanley is the most muttish of lurchers – to go with his greyhound half there is anything from Staffie to Lab to Boxer to Australian Cattle Dog. He is antic, unpredictable and very busy. He likes leaping about. He can open every single door on the compound. (He once opened my car door when it was locked, and also amuses himself by turning on the hazard lights and switching on Radio Four when he is bored.) You would think my mother would be horrified. But they fell in love with each other on sight, and nothing after that could come between them.

That is a happy thought. This is a happy dog.

28 Oct 1 5184x3456

Tuesday, 27 October 2015

Love and trees.

As the irrational anger stage flickers in and out like a faulty electrical current, there is also a flat stoicism. Get on, do life, don’t make a fuss. Mum left quite strict instructions that she did not want a fuss. (She meant with funeral arrangements and such, but I am taking her words to a wider stage.) So I am goodly not making one.

Quite a lot of people do not know. That’s always the odd thing when someone you love very much dies. The damn world goes on, and ordinary people go on doing ordinary things, and other humans talk to you just as if everything is rational and explicable, just as if there has not been a tear in the space-time continuum. That can cause little spurts of wild rage. Don’t you know what happened? one wants to shout, unfairly. Can’t you tell that there’s a reason my hair is bonkers and I’m wearing my maddest hat and I’m the colour of parchment? At the same time, the stoical, getting on with it self is almost glad, because one can talk of something other than death. The ordinary is soothing, and yet infuriating. It’s all very confusing.

Then there are the unexpected things that tear through the resolute, storm the defences, and break the siege. Today, it was the enchanting gentleman who helped create my mother’s garden. She made such a beautiful garden, and this fine man, who once farmed sheep and knows the land and loves it as I do, put into action all her dreams and ideas. He is a real man of the earth, and a proper human being.

I wanted to thank him.

‘She loved this garden so much, and you worked so hard, and I know how much that meant to her,’ I said, as we looked out through the mist and dreich.

The garden is a little sad at the moment, as it always is at this time of year, but the last of the white roses still lift their brave heads. The garden is in mourning too. As I thanked the kind man, my voice broke and I had to walk away. I did not need to explain. He knew.

The people who know, in every sense of the word, are the finest balm. A very old friend, someone I have known and loved since I was nineteen years old, writes all the way from India. He lost his mother last year, so he knows. Oh, he knows. And he knows me, even though we have gone into very different lives and only lay eyes on each other every year or so. The friendship, dug deep in our formative years, endures time and distance. His words are so perfect, so shimmering with love and truth, so brave and human and funny and dear, that I want to send him flowers.

Another beloved friend, who has also lost both his parents, writes: ‘It is as if a great oak has disappeared from your personal landscape.’ How clever he is, I think. How glorious that he knew the very sentence to write, the one that would make most sense to my addled mind and my battered heart. That is just it. A great oak has gone.

I always mourn fallen trees. We lose some each year in the winter storms. Only yesterday, I saw my neighbour chopping up a chestnut which fell to the first October gale, and felt a sharp melancholy. I always think of downed trees as mighty fallen giants, slain on some mythical battlefield.

Oaks are not common in this part of Scotland, but we have some magnificent ones. There are a few down by the red mare’s field, and a lovely plantation at the end of my mother’s garden. When my brother-in-law’s own mother was very young, she was instructed by stern forestry officials to cut the buggers down. She must be sensible, and plant commercial forestry, like all canny Scots do. She defied the stern men, most of whom were twice her age, and kept her oaks, and they live on, a great memorial to her.

In my world, everything comes back to love and trees.


Today’s pictures:

I must find some pictures of trees, I thought, as I finished writing this. But I’ve never been good at taking photographs of trees. I have snapped away at my favourite beauties, only to look at the results with a dying fall. Something about the flat dimensions of a photograph robs them of their majesty; they look oddly bathetic. Then, like a present or a shooting star or a ray of sunshine after the rain, I saw that I had captured the trees. There they were, staunchly in the background, as I had been taking a picture of Stanley the Dog, or my lovely mares, or the dear old sheep whom I adore so much. They were not centre stage, but they were there. These are the trees who people my days and never fail to make me count every damn blessing I have. Not everyone gets to see such beautiful trees. I do not take that good fortune for granted.

That is one of the old oaks, in the background:

27 Oct 1 3685x2905

A little rowan I planted in my own garden:

27 Oct 2 5184x3456

The woods I see every day:

27 Oct 3 5163x2334

27 Oct 4 5184x3456

The hill that brought me to Scotland (I fell in love with it as you fall in love with a person, and never went south again), with its fine fringe of trees:

27 Oct 5 5184x3098

The ones that keep the sheep sheltered from the wind:

27 Oct 6 5077x1895

One of my favourite mixtures of old planting and new planting:

27 Oct 8 5184x3456

More sheep, because you can never have too many sheep:

27 Oct 9 5170x2513

The avenue that leads to my mother’s house:

27 Oct 10 5184x2712

And her roses:

27 Oct 12 5184x3456

Monday, 26 October 2015

Not not not the screw top.

Cremation people: I am sure you are good and thoughtful and kind to children and animals, but who had the meeting where it was decided that the default urn would have a screw top? No human should end up with a screw top.

And logistics people: who invented the form which asks Did the Deceased die from violence?

What the buggery bollocks were you all thinking?

I’m in the irrational anger stage. You may be able to tell.

I loathe the horrid questions and decisions and things to be done. My mother has gone. Her mortal remains mean nothing to me. She is locked now in my heart, and, in time, I shall commit her to the mountains, to Glen Muick, which is my cathedral. I’ll give her back to the earth and the land and the hills and the sky. That is my own private memorial. We shall also have a little family ceremony. But the forms, the questions, the decisions and indecisions mean nothing to me.

The poor undertaker came today, and had to try and understand when I said something of this to him. He had no language in which to reply. I could see his ordered brain searching around for an answer and coming up with: No Correct Response. He is trained in the ways of formality. There can be no you or me, only yourself and myself. I had stumped in from the horses in filthy muddy gumboots and taken them off at the door. He was immaculately dressed. I sat in front of him in odd socks, with my most battered hat on because I was having a rotten hair day.

Even my sister was slightly surprised by this. ‘What is with the hat?’ she said, before she could help herself.

‘I’m having a bad hair day,’ I said. ‘Even a bad hat is better than bad hair.’

The poor, poor undertaker. I don’t think they trained him, at undertaker school, to deal with a crazy woman in no shoes and a bonkers hat who does not care what it says on the nameplate of the coffin.

Then I went and watched a Marine work a thoroughbred, and sanity returned. The Marines really, really know about death. Especially when they have been blown up twice in Afghan. He had all the language I needed, the directness, the authenticity, the keen emotional intelligence, the absolute lack of fear in the face of mortality. For half an hour, I was soothed. I could speak words that made sense, and know I was not frightening anyone. It takes more than a distracted woman in a lunatic hat to strike fear into the heart of a hoofing Royal.

I made my sister Irish stew and we spoke of life and death and love and pain.

More kind words flew in, from all corners of the internet – email messages from old friends, lovely comments on the blog, sweet flutters of generosity on the Facebook.

On my Twitter feed, there is a young boy who recently did a charity walk for the Injured Jockeys’ Fund. I’d found him on my timeline and sent him many messages of congratulation and encouragement because I found what he was doing so inspiring. It was one of those rather touching, fleeting meetings of strangers, in the ether. This young man took the time to send words of kindness and condolence. I think he is ten. He may be eleven. Imagine doing that, at such an age.

The irrational anger will come. It’s a bit of a bastard, but death makes me cross. I have to let that one roll through me, until it is out the other side. To counter it, and balance it, I must pay attention to all the good things, however small. The stalwart friend who held my horse for the farrier this morning because I was late and had to dash off; that fine Marine; that dear young stranger on Twitter; the good companions, the ones who have been with me for over thirty years, who write to make sure I know they are thinking of me. The people who say: ‘Don’t worry, I’ll do that.’ (Almost the sweetest words in the English language at times like this.)

Put in the plus column the cooking gene, so that my kitchen is now filled with soup – beetroot soup, and cauliflower soup, and my own mysterious green soup. All the people who really get it. The people who are not scared of death and strong emotion, and can be easy with those hard masters. The good Scottish weather, forecast to be dour and cloudy, which changed its mind and sent me some gentle sun. The lovely mares, in their secret field. The thoughtful neighbour, who took the time to drop in a card. All the good things. There are so many good things.

I can’t quite forgive the screw top. I expect I shall learn to let it go. I don’t care about the name plate on the coffin, but I shall do some ravishing flowers, because I do funeral flowers like nobody’s business. The flowers should not really matter either, but they do. I’ll send the old lady off with the best damn arrangement. She shall not be insulted with maidenhair fern. I find a furious consolation in that thought.


Today’s pictures:

Are of the simple, beautiful things to which I cling:

26 Oct 1 3456x5184

26 Oct 2 5184x3456

26 Oct 3 5184x3456

26 Oct 5 5184x3456

26 Oct 6 5184x3456

Sunday, 25 October 2015

Showing up.

The Sister says: ‘Did you ever write that book about what to do when your dad and your dog die?’

My beautiful black dog died four years ago, on the night of my father’s funeral. I really, really wanted to read that book but it did not exist, so I said I would have to write it myself.

‘Well,’ I say, ‘yes, I did. It’s not called that any more. But I did write that book. It’s with the agent now.’

‘And what do you do?’ says the Sister. ‘And when your mum dies?’

‘I learnt what to do from the red mare,’ I say, not even bothering to explain this slightly odd conclusion. ‘She taught me about the ordinary virtues. For the ordinary griefs you need the ordinary virtues. Not brilliance or charm or charisma or talent, but reliability, consistency, kindness, firmness, fairness, steadiness. That’s how you train a horse, that’s why you can get on the red mare and canter about on a loose rein.’

She had just done that, in the open field. She had only ever sat on the mare once before. Red was so happy and relaxed that I had no qualms. I cantered her round the wide spaces of the set-aside first, to check that everything was all right. It was so all right that I threw my arms in the air and whooped into the low cloud and, under me, that mighty horse just kept on rolling, as collected and contained as the ambassadress to Paris. Then The Sister did it.

‘Look at you,’ I shouted. ‘Just look at the two of you.’

The Sister used to be a top show rider and side-saddle diva and some of that never quite goes away. Now she was riding the red mare cowgirl style. For half an hour, in that green field, everything was all right. There was no grief, only this horse, these humans, this landscape, this joy.

‘She learnt to do that,’ I say. ‘She did not just eat magic beans. I taught her to be relaxed and mentally balanced and to carry herself. And I did that by showing up, every day. That’s what you have to do. You have to show up. And maybe that’s what you have to do after there is death. Every day, you show up. And then it gets easier.’

This is my theory and I’m sticking to it. It’s not very clever, or sophisticated, or philosophical. Nobody will put it on a bumper sticker. It has no poetry in it. But it’s mine and I like it and it works, most of the time.

The Younger Brother says, sounding very sane and peaceful, which is not what he is famous for: ‘She is out of pain now. That’s what matters. Nothing can hurt her any more.’

‘And we,’ I say, knowing he will finish the sentence for me.

‘Keep buggering on,’ he cries.

On, on, on we bugger.

I think of the things in which I believe: the human heart, the kindness of strangers, love and trees, the small things. I think of my own private slogans: say the thing; KBO; stare at your demons in the whites of their eyes; be kind. I think of the things I adore: a funny dog, my sweet thoroughbred mares, the brave racing horses I watch every day, my family, this Scotland, these hills, my dear, dear friends. I think of the tender words which have been flying in from around the wilds of the internet and feel grateful for every one. Oh, yes – be grateful – that’s another of my rules to live by.

But perhaps most important of all: you have to show up. Not just sometimes, but every day, in the wind and the weather, through the fair and the foul, the thin and the very, very thick.

I think Mum would approve of that. As long as I said please and thank you.


Today’s pictures:

Are of the family, the last time we were all gathered together, this summer. We knew it would be the last time, and so it was:

25 Oct 1 5184x3456

25 Oct 2 5184x3456

25 Oct 4 5008x2344

And this clever, clever person, who can pull joy from sorrow with her bare hooves. I owe her so much, but never more than today:

25 Oct 6 3456x4843

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Lester’s boots. Or, love and grief.

This morning, at 7.30, my mother died.

She has been ill for a long time. I have not written about it, for two reasons. First of all, I did not want to be a bore. (I am British. Being a bore is almost my greatest fear, apart from going mad in the night and waking up in the belief that I am Queen Marie of Roumania.) Second of all, until the final days when she was too weak to look at the internet, she used to read this blog. It cheered her up. She liked hearing about the red mare and seeing the pictures. I did not want her to tune in and find me wailing about her horrid pain.

She was in horrid pain, mostly from osteoporosis, which is an absolute bastard. Eat your calcium, I want to shout at everyone. Don’t go on stupid diets; get those bones lovely and strong.

She bore it with great stoicism, until, in the end, it was too much for her, and she went gentle into that good night. It was very peaceful, and she held my stepfather’s hand as she slipped away.

I don’t have any regrets, because I have made her breakfast every morning for the last few years, and took in her Racing Post each Saturday, and talked of Golden Horn and Treve and all the horses she loved. Sometimes, after a great race, she would ring me up and say: ‘Are you crying?’ And I would say: ‘Weeping like a mad woman.’

I’m so glad she saw Frankel, whom she adored, and Kauto Star – ‘he has the look of eagles, just like Arkle’ – and Quevega and Annie Power, her two favourite mares. ‘Oh, Annie,’ she would say, with a dying fall, as the mighty athlete powered to another soaring victory. She loved Ruby Walsh and AP and Sir Henry Cecil, whom she knew from the old days in Newmarket. ‘Henry did love his roses.’

And I do have regrets, because however much you have done, and however much has been said – ‘I love you,’ I said yesterday, as I went out of the door to see to my own mares – there is always the wish for one more question, one more story, one more checking of the facts. She was my last archivist, and now she is gone. I wanted to ask her again about the time she saw Mill Reef, and how she and Dad went to Nijinsky’s Arc (Dad lost a fortune), and what it was really like when Arkle won the Gold Cup.

Most of all, I wanted to hear for one last time the story of Lester’s Boots.

This is a story that has gone into family folklore, but I can’t tell how much has been embroidered over the years. When my mother and father were young, they were very beautiful and rather glamorous, and, on the racecourse, they met all kinds of fascinating people. Just after Lawrence of Arabia came out, they went to Newbury with Peter O’Toole. (The bit I can’t remember is how or why. What were they doing with Lawrence?) Drinks were taken. As they went to the car park, they lost O’Toole, and turned round to find him weaving towards them, a look of devilment in his eye and a suspicious lump under his coat.

As they drove away, he sat up in the back seat, fumbled under his coat, and produced a pair of riding boots. ‘Lester’s boots!!!’ he proclaimed in triumph. He had liberated them from the weighing room, a crazy prize from the champion jockey.

My father was a very naughty man indeed and never met a rule he did not break, but he had a great respect for the sanctity of the weighing room, and was horrified. My mother instructed him to get up early the next morning, and drive back to Newbury, and return the boots.

Lester’s phlegmatic valet was unmoved. Apparently they were the oldest pair of boots and almost ready for retirement. Dad’s mad dash had been almost for nothing.

Mum used to laugh and laugh when she told this story. I don’t know why, of all the stories, this is the one I cherish most. I kept meaning to ask her to tell it again, so I could get all the details right, but I never did. I’m sad about that.

I’m sad that she did not meet Scout, my dear new mare, who stood by my side for ten minutes this morning, as if knowing I needed comfort. I had a wild plan to get the bed wheeled out to the front door with Mum in it, so I could bring the kind mare up the steps to say hello. Too late for that now.

I am making tomato soup for my dear, dear stepfather, because it is his favourite. ‘I must keep your strength up,’ I say, staunchly. We had breakfast together this morning, the house unbearably quiet as my mother’s spirit has gone from it. ‘It is so strange,’ we said to each other, over and over again. I had no idea how much she filled that house until she left it. She was still there, in the bedroom, but she was gone, and the absence was shocking.

I rang the Beloved Cousin first, because she is always my first call, and she is the wisest person I know. We were together for her parents’ deaths, and it was to her house I drove, in a lovely English spring, after my father’s funeral.

I spoke to my good sister, who is on her way north. We did not need to say much. We have been through this before. We know it all.

I talked to my cherished friend, The World Traveller, who said: ‘You will come here when you need to?’ I said: ‘Yes, because the only thing that makes death bearable is love.’ Then I made some mordant joke and we both laughed, and I said: ‘There it is. I’ve made my first death joke.’ (Did I mention that I am British? There must always be laughter and irony to go along with the tears. It’s our great cultural imperative.)

The Landlord called, to say that he would go and collect my sister from the airport. ‘You are so damn clever,’ I said. ‘That is what I need just now. Practical help.’ The practical is very important in grief, because one is all at sixes and sevens, and it’s hard enough to tie one’s shoelaces, let alone drive a motor car. That was a fine act of love, I thought. He is a proper human.

I went to the shop to get tomatoes for the soup. There was a new girl at the till, very friendly and jolly. ‘How are you today?’ she said.

I gave the standard answer. ‘Not too bad, thank you.’

In my head, I shouted: my mum died.

We talked about the weather, because that is what we do.

‘I hope you have a good day,’ she said, with a blinding smile.

MY MUM DIED, the voice in my head bawled.

I nodded quietly. ‘I shall,’ I said.

It poured with rain this morning. Now the sun is coming out, thick and yellow and ancient.

My mother was brave and beautiful. She had some sad times in her life, more than I would wish, but she found great joy in the last years with the husband she loved so much, and who adored her. She went the way she wanted to, quietly, and with dignity, at home. She dreaded the hospital and the tubes and the machines. We dreaded that for her. In the end, she took it into her own hands. She did this thing, in the way she wanted. It was an act of will. She had had enough, and so she went. She is at rest.

Why do I write this now? The imperative to get to the keyboard and type was mighty. Give sorrow words, Shakespeare said. Words are my love and my solace; words, I sometimes think, are all I have.

I wanted to mark it; I wanted to pay respect. I wanted also, in a very plain and authentic way, to share it. I know that, out there in the long prairies of the internet, there are many, many people who know this grief, who will nod their heads, and say: ‘Yes, yes, I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.’ (Actually, not that many people will say exactly that, but I always come back to TS, in the end.) What I mean is there is a communion in sorrow. We all have human hearts, and those human hearts creak and break and crack. And we all put them back together, with sellotape and binder twine and hope, and keep buggering on.

I miss my mum. I am passionately, profoundly glad that she is out of that wracking pain. But I miss her. Love is love.


This is my favourite picture of my mother, at the races, with my sister and the younger of my two brothers. Wasn’t she fine?

10th March Mum[15]-001

Friday, 23 October 2015

The good, the bad, and all the spaces in between.

Sometimes I do things so stupid and idiotic that I need new words for stupid and idiotic.

I think that words matter, so I try to say to myself ‘You did something idiotic’ rather than ‘You are an idiot’. But sometimes I am an idiot, and so it was this morning.

The folly usually arises from excitement. That is my Achilles’ heel. When I am excited about something, I forget everyone else. I bang on and wave my arms about and don’t pay attention to the things I should pay attention to. This is when disaster strikes. Then I feel like forty kinds of fool and going into a mad cringe of abasement and apology and remorse. I lash myself for my obtuseness, and have a twisted kind of esprit d’escalier. Why did I not think? Why did I not contain myself and think of others and act like a responsible adult?

Then, because of course I cannot let the thing be the thing, I have to parse it. My own feelings are not the point, I tell myself. When you do something stupid and wrong, you must think about the other person, and the repercussions, not your own sentiments of regret and angst. This is not my drama – look at me, feeling bad. The feeling bad has no utility. It does not undo the thing which should not have been done.

I think quite a lot about being wrong and how one should work to get good at it. On paper, my answer is lovely and clear. Admit the mistake, apologise for it, make no excuses, put right anything that can be put right, learn from it, and MOVE ON.

In life, it is not quite so easy. The on paper answer is good and true, but I’m still struggling a little to apply it. I’m not quite moving on. I would like to be more thoughtful, more steady, less impulsive. Not every damn thing is about me. Not everyone finds the things which I find so thrilling as delirious as I do.

That’s my plan for next week. To grow up. It’s a good plan. I’ll let you know how it goes.

In other, happier news, I have a new thoroughbred mare. I said to someone this morning: ‘I got a thoroughbred mare because I love nothing in the world more than a thoroughbred mare.’ The person looked at me and said, dry as a bone, ‘Yes, I think we’ve got that.’

She was a sprinter and then a top polo pony. She had to retire, and she has come to me to live a gentle life in Scotland. She is exceptionally beautiful, very kind, and unbelievably clever. I taught her some new things this morning which I thought would take a week to get right. She understood them in twenty minutes. I looked at her in awe and wonder.

The other life lesson, I think, as I type all this, is not to let the bad thing ruin the good thing. I always wonder why the bad is so often more powerful than the good. I think of it in quite bathetic ways – a bad smell always conquers a sweet scent, a mess is always much easier to create than order and tidiness. This morning, I did one really stupid thing, and one absolutely brilliant thing. I toot my own trumpet in a most un-British way, but let’s have the word with no bark on it: I worked that mare well. All the things I have learnt from my dear red mare, my finest professor, paid off, in spades. I have to look the wrong thing in the whites of its eyes, and get its measure, but I must not let it cloud the memory of that first day of work with my clever, gentle new girl. It’s a precious moment, and I want it to shine.

It’s good old life: there are good bits, and there are bad bits, and there are all the spaces in between. I suspect the secret to being an adult human is learning not to let the wrong parts bring you too low, and not to let the right parts take you too high. Balance in all things. Or something like that.


Today’s pictures:

The enchanting new mare. Although in the past I have, for some goofy reasons of privacy, given even the animals blog names, I really think there is no need for that now. Besides, she has a really good name. Her name is Scout. I’m not sure if it is in homage to To Kill a Mockingbird, but I’d like to think so:

23 Oct 1 5184x3456

The red mare, watching her new companion. She found the whole thing very exciting. They did live together in the south, in a big polo herd, but I can’t really tell whether they remember each other. After some initial hooleying about, they have settled very quickly, so perhaps there is a memory:

23 Oct 2 3087x2011

The first greeting:

23 Oct 3 1705x1910

Stan the Man was delighted by the whole business and ran around like a wild thing, elegantly ignored by the horses:

23 Oct 4 5170x2107

The road home on Tuesday:

23 Oct 6 5184x3084

A bit of autumn colour for you, from the garden:

23 Oct 5 5184x3456

23 Oct 8 5184x3456

23 Oct 8 5184x3456-001

And one more red mare, because I can’t resist. She was particularly adorable this morning, not minding at all that I spent all my time with the new mare. She went off and did her own thing and then came over to spend some time with me, giving me her head so I could scratch her sweet spots, a kind and dozy expression on her face, as if to say ‘I am still your best girl’. Which she is, because she taught me everything I know and I’ll never stop being grateful to her:

23 Oct F1 3456x5184


Blog Widget by LinkWithin