Monthly Archives: May 2016

The beauty of hindsight

The churchyard may not be the best place for it, but Amelie and I jump up and down and hug each other anyway, right in the midst of the funereal crowd. I’ve just filed past an open coffin for the very first time in my small, sheltered life, and emerged from the church to a message from the letting agent. The paperwork’s all gone through. They’ve accepted my unconventional financial status, and they want me to sign the lease as soon as I’m able. Even Joe, whose birth father’s final farewell we’ve been attending, joins the celebration of my first step to freedom. Later he’ll write in the house warming card from all my colleagues. Home is where the heart is, and your heart’s been here for some time. I’m coming home to the city I love at last.

A week on, and I don’t feel quite so confident. I push the key into the lock of the peeling brown front door and turn it. Nothing happens.

It’s the wrong key! This isn’t my house at all.

Have you tried turning it the other way?

It hasn’t even entered my head. I’ve lived more than twenty-six years in the same house. Is there more than one way to turn a front door key? Apparently there is. Moments later my prosaic daughter and I are standing in the middle of the narrow lounge. It smells of stale curry. It looks naked, and about as vulnerable as I feel right now. We unpack the brand new kettle from its Tesco bag, fill it and make tea.

I’ve always been good at making tea. It’s a Pavlovian response. Give me an existential crisis and the first thing I’ll do is put on the kettle. In my twenty-six-year former home, it was a full-blown ritual involving a proper pot and exactly the right amount of tea. You can’t beat a ritual for creating order when everything’s falling apart round your ears. These days I’m happy with mugs and teabags. On a good day, I might even stretch to coffee.

I admire the black, Edwardian fireplace. It was almost completely concealed by a huge sofa when I came to view the house, but this and the pine stairs were the things that sold the place to me. It’s probably as well I don’t know now quite how much tea I’m going to be making over the next few years. The mugs we’re drinking from are the cheapest Tesco had to offer. I have two green camping chairs and I feel like a princess. I’m starting from scratch in the heart of the city, which is no mean feat for a fifty-two-year-old woman who’s lived most of her life in semi-rural Wiltshire. Soon my husband’s going to start bombarding me with letters – up to four a day, until he meets someone else. Then, while he’s still in full flood, I’m going to happen across Charlie who’ll blow my fragile security to kingdom come. All that’s brooding on the horizon for now. At this very moment I’m more bothered by the fact that I don’t own a decent potato peeler. A few weeks down the line and I’ll be called ‘shallow’ for just this, by the man who never peeled a potato in the thirty-two years we lived together.

The first night in the city. I got married when I was nineteen, and I’ve never lived alone in my life. The cacophony of sirens and the passing express trains that rattle the cooker are no substitutes for the dog dreaming of rabbits, children waking from nightmares or a teenager stumbling in at one in the morning to tell you they’ve won a telly in the works’ Christmas raffle. My twenty-six-year home always teemed with life – cats, dogs, neighbours, children, friends – as well as the family, of course. I’m not used to my own company, and I’m not sure I like it. It would be so easy to go back, if it wasn’t midnight. If I could put all the grief behind me. If I hadn’t burned my boats. In the clear light of morning it’ll look different of course, but right now I’d give my eye teeth for the smallest familiar sound or smell.

I close the front door behind the man from Telewest and switch on the telly my daughter and son-in-law have given me. Ah, Telewest, you were so much better than Virgin Media. For the first time ever, the remote is under my control, but before I’ve flipped the channel I realise my son-in-law’s actually on the screen. He’s washing Roman pottery behind Tony Robinson on Time Team. You couldn’t write life. It’s my first glimpse of the synchronicity in all this. Life’s way to tell me whatever the future, there’s no going back to the past. It’s broken and buried, and unlike the pots, it’s best left where it is.

The first few months in my little house pass in a bubble. It’s as if nothing can touch me. I grow potatoes in the rock-hard soil of the tiny back yard. I watch rubbish on telly and find myself looking forward to long evenings in my own company. I borrow the neighbours’ cat and she sleeps on my bed when they’re out. I eat poached eggs every night and lose two stone. Is that a new diet book, still waiting to be written? Thus I start to believe it must’ve been entirely his fault the marriage didn’t work.

What I can’t yet know is I’m about to lose the job that brought me here, or that the loss will start the chain that leads to Charlie. I’ll think I’m doing fine by then. A man the one thing lacking in my life. The missing piece to make my world complete. How immature and selfish will I be to place that expectation on another?  He’ll not be mature enough, no more will I. Nor will either be sufficiently unselfish to avoid dependence on the other. It’s a meeting that will half destroy the both of us. An unmitigated co-dependent nightmare. But this too will one day be a step on in the story, and time will come I’ll learn how to be glad.

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The interplay of light and shade

There’s a lark somewhere. I can hear her singing her tiny heart to shards, and I sweep the cirrus sky for the speck that will show me where she is. Hovering on the wind high above her nest, she’s invisible to my naked eye. And now I think of you. I was walking this very path, my heart in tatters, numbed by the senselessness. I wanted to write a poem to speak to your short and magical life. It seemed that first line came from nowhere.

It’s hard to believe that was almost four years ago. Years when the sun has continued to rise and set, the new leaves have burst yellow on the oaks every spring and the bluebells have nodded oblivious in their shade. Years when I’ve caught glimpses of you everywhere, yet known you’re no more visible to me than the lark. Years when others I’ve loved have left too, each departure opening the wound afresh, yet each of their leavings was more timely than your own.

I grumble at the excess light in the photo I’ve just taken. It’s my own fault. I got the settings wrong, and I’ve bleached out all the texture in the sky. I’m an apprentice photographer these days, fascinated by the interplay of light and shade. Too much of either and the shot will be out of balance, its subtle beauty lost. Darkness, I’ve discovered, matters just as much as light and often more. Without it, all you have is a blank page.

I grew up in horror of darkness. My parents left a light on at night in deference to my fear. It was a big concession from two people who’d lived through the blackout of the war. Darkness, like sex, was a subject much avoided during my childhood. I learned to sing of light from my first day in Sunday School. Take my little light round the world, I’m gonna let it shine … The shadows at the heart of the Christian message were often glossed over. A mystery too deep for a child. Nonetheless, Good Friday drew me like a moth, its love and cruelty beautiful and unbearable all at once. Love to the loveless shown … See, from his head, his hands, his feet, sorrow and love flow mingling down … I learned the beauty of the shadows long before I began to cry myself to sleep from the pain.

My mother lost her father a few weeks before my second birthday. At first she didn’t believe me when I told her years later I could remember him. He was dying of lung cancer. I can still see the room they took me to. I described it to her, and she had to admit I was telling the truth. My father’s mother died when I was five, so by the time my mother lost her best friend I was no stranger to grief. I was six years old, going on seven. I heard the phone ring before I’d even finished getting dressed. I heard my mother’s howl of anguish. My father came into my room a few minutes later. I was knotting my green-striped school tie in front of the dressing table mirror, as if it were any normal morning. I thought for a moment.

That means I’m never going to see her again, doesn’t it?

There’s no need for you to worry about that.

His words told me he thought me too young to grasp the concept of death. Years later I came to see he was afraid I did understand, and he didn’t want to deal with it. My mother’s grief, on the other hand, overwhelmed the household. It was a darkness of tears so deep it left no room for smaller mourning. Her friend had died of a heart attack we were told. It had come out of the blue, although she was barely thirty. It was a long time before it dawned on me that the true tale may have been a deal darker.

Embracing darkness doesn’t come easy. In a world obsessed with image, grief and shame are private matters, unless they’re plastered across the front page of a tabloid newspaper. It seems we love nothing better than the spectacle of other people’s pain and humiliation. Perhaps the vicarious suffering of a celebrity funeral, or the self-righteous glow of watching another’s fall from grace help us to hold our own shadows at arm’s length. Bad things are not supposed to happen in our well-manicured universe, so we make believe they don’t. At least not to us. Then the ultimate sin becomes to be caught in a moment of weakness.

It’s a glorious spring afternoon. I’ve been granted a couple of hours’ freedom and I’ve spent them in the bluebell wood. The wood has become my safe place during the dark days and I emerge into the sunlight like an owl at noon. I’m walking back to Mrs P’s, ready to serve afternoon tea, and reflecting that all the beauty I’ve imbibed over the past few months has done nothing to shift the knot of fear in my gut. I’m outside Sister Rose’s house, one of my many temporary refuges on this terrifying pilgrimage, when the light dawns. I’ve walked away from Charlie five times in the last two years. I’ve fled half way across England to escape. Nothing in my life is as it would have been if I hadn’t met him, and dozens of other people have been impacted by my choices, but I’m still trying to pretend none of this ever happened. I want to hold light without the darkness. I don’t want to admit my own shadow side. Not even to myself. Especially not to myself. I’m so afraid people will hate me for my darkness I’ve completely forgotten that those I love have seen me at my worst, and not one of them has turned their back. I’m the one who’s scared of my own shadow.

I’ve lived most of my life in mortal terror of upsetting people. What will people think? I grew up with these words ringing in my ears, the acid test of good or bad behaviour. The worst thing I could ever do was to offend someone, or to let them down. But in truth it’s impossible to please everyone. It was trying to please Charlie got me into this mess in the first place. You can’t be an angel all the time, sometimes you’re going to get it wrong, and the world won’t end as a result. My path takes a new twist at last.

The lark stops singing and plummets from the wide light of the Hertfordshire sky to the shade of her nest in the undergrowth. She’s safe there. Too much light is a dangerous thing when you’re tiny and vulnerable. I take one last photo of the shadows on the footpath and turn for home. Not my own, but yet another temporary pillow on the journey. I remember you used to talk about living life in colour, and I understand a little better now. Colour and light shift from white to black and back through the whole spectrum of the rainbow. Everything belongs. And light without darkness is nothing at all.

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