Monday, 19 February 2018

This and That


As I’ve said before, I now accept more or less every invitation extended, in fact I appreciate it when people include me. We always went to every social occasion as a couple, so being invited on my own is flattering and heart warming. I assumed that Beloved was the attraction, and that I simply came as the lesser part of the package.
Not so? Maybe.

However, I tend to gravitate towards widows more than couples in my own invitations. In the olden days I never saw widows as ‘widows’, just as women on their own. There is always a slight feeling of unease when it comes to couples; even the most friendly ones. Is it perhaps that the new widow reminds them that it could happen to them too and they’d rather not face up to the possibility? Is it that we’d rather push the thought away as far as possible? After all, as my son said “it really doesn’t bear thinking about.” Beloved and I thought about it a lot during the last couple of years but it still didn’t feel ‘real’; not until it happened.

Being with other widows is easy. Of course, we talk mainly about the person we lost, and how we lost them. Perhaps we repeat ourselves at each meeting, that doesn’t seem to matter. We go into detail about the final illness, what the doctors said, what the children did or said, how shattered we felt, how grief is all pervading and how hard it is to pick up the threads of life afterwards. We all share that knowledge and understand. Spending time with other widows is easy and healing.


The other day I came home after a lovely long and chatty lunch with one of these widows. I was feeling relaxed and, after chewing the fat for several hours, I was ready to sit quietly and put my feet up back home. Before I reached the front door I was stopped in my tracks by a tremendous din outside the gate into the castle grounds. Those of you who pay attention to such matters know that my hedged boundary marches with an open expanse of greensward which is used by dog walkers and tourists visiting the castle. I rushed to the gate, the row really was fearful, with screaming and shouting and high pitched dog yelping. Lorna’s greyhound was attacking a smaller dog as well as Robert, its owner, both of them howling in pain and anger. Lorna was some distance away, but a friend walking with her was nearer my gate; looking down on the fracas I saw the greyhound turn away from Robert and his dog and run back to Lorna. Everybody was shouting by now, me included. As the greyhound reached Lorna she began to beat him with the doubled lead, viciously, with all her strength. Now the greyhound howled too. Seeing the carnage I screeched for Lorna to stop, which was the signal for her friend to screech at me. I couldn’t make out much of what she said but “you don’t know what happened, mind your own business” came across loud and clear. Lorna was still beating her greyhound and I was frantic to make her stop but Lorna’s friend screeched all the louder the more I tried to bring Lorna to her senses. Nobody paid any attention to anybody, all was uproar and noise. Perhaps it’s a good thing that there’s a steep bank between my gate and the path below where all this was happening otherwise I’d have rushed down and beaten Lorna with her own dog lead. And might have been had up for assault and battery myself.

By now Robert had picked himself up, gathered his badly bleeding dog, examined his own thigh which showed a deep bite and, cursing Lorna and swearing to involve the police he went off.  Apparently, this was the second time the greyhound had attacked Robert’s dog. This story was quickly all over Valley’s End, with everybody taking Robert’s side.

Lorna is a mad woman, everybody says so. In the evening she came ringing my doorbell, ostensibly “to apologise for her friend screeching obscenities at me” but really to convince me that she ‘has never beaten a dog before’  - not true acc. to consensus around the village - and that Robert only got bitten because he came between his dog and the greyhound. Some excuse! The greyhound is out of order and needs muzzling and training, not beating. According to Lorna he ‘fully understands that he has done wrong and equally understands that’s why I beat him” .  Did I say she is generally considered to be mad? When I remonstrated with her, pointing out that animals do not reason, she calmly said 'we must agree to disagree’.

The greyhound is still roaming unmuzzled, Robert’s and his dog’s wounds are healing, incurring hefty vet’s bills and some painful treatment for Robert, and the police have indeed been involved. Robert is grateful ‘for all the support he has received in Valley’s End’ and Lorna is licking her wounds, still promising to all who want to listen that she will do everything to keep her dog under control. So far nothing has happened. The next fracas is only just around the corner with everybody saying “what if it's a child being attacked next time?”.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

It’s Official, I’m Old

Opening the five-bar gate from the field into the castle ground to take Millie for a much truncated walk on one of these very cold afternoons we’ve been having recently I heard what sounded like a whole school class of small children, all chattering at the tops of their voices. I was wondering what the teacher could be thinking of to bring them out into the bitter wind of the shelterless castle grounds on such a day. Small children without diligent supervision are notorious for leaving their coats unbuttoned and losing gloves and hats.

I slid the gate catch back into its groove, turned round and started the climb up the hill, Millie preceding me at her very sedate pace. At the same time the ‘school class’ appeared on the path at right angles above me, i.e., one mum holding the hand of a very small child, one small and very lively spaniel, and a curly-haired, blond cherub bombing along ahead, perhaps between three and four years old. It was he who was making the racket. His treble pierced my eardrums. He saw Millie and a high-pitched squeal greeted her dignified presence.

“O look Mum, another dog. It must be really old. And there’s a lady with him. She's really old too.” That was me assessed, judged and dismissed, all in the space of seconds. The castle called. But did he have to be quite as sharp-eyed as he was? After all, I was wrapped in a Michelin man coat and furred hood and almost invisible.

Mum turned and giggled with embarrassment.

Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom and truth.

Thursday, 1 February 2018


How do you read? Not so much which kind of books - although that comes into it - but how deeply and with how much concentration do you read? At a recent supper party there were nine of us (me making the odd number) and the talk turned to books when I casually mentioned, that when I passed his house, I frequently saw one of the guests sitting in his window seat reading, usually in the morning. I was absolutely not making a value judgement, the man is retired and he can please himself what he does and when he does it. So books it was. The fellow guest, call him Roger for now, said that he enjoyed leisurely mornings after walking his dogs and reading was his preferred occupation. As it is mine.

“What is it you read”, someone asked. "Any favourite authors? What are you currently reading?”
The sort of questions anyone asks when it comes to discussing books.

“I hardly know,” Roger said. "I just read and read, very fast, one book down and another started. I really am a very fast reader. Ask me what I’ve read and I find it hard to tell you.” I know from discussing books with Roger’s wife that both of them tend to go for thrillers, fantasy and blockbusters. Roger is an intelligent man, has successfully held down an important and well-paid job in business, and is an active member of the Valley’s End community. 

Everyone at the table tried to keep a straight face as Roger was digging himself deeper and deeper into his reading matter hole. I saw an embarrassed smirk appear on the face of his table neighbour who is a writer herself. His wife, sitting opposite me, was trying to shush him, obviously feeling that he was showing a side of himself that didn’t reflect well on them. Roger plowed merrily on, oblivious of the reaction around the table.

When Roger stopped to draw breath, the host’s son, who had cooked us an excellent meal providing equally good and plentiful wine, (possibly partly the reason for Roger’s lack of inhibition and poor self-awareness) intervened by saying “I am a very slow reader, very slow indeed. I even leave gaps between books. Mind you, I usually remember what I’ve read; titles, authors, content, message, if there is one, and the impression the book has left on me. But, as I said, I am very slow about it."

Lucky you, I thought. Although by no means a Roger type of reader, I frequently forget the names of authors, titles of books, although I can usually put a story to the memory of a book. Since Beloved’s death I have been an avid reader, even more so than previously, going for slighter and lighter stories rather than sad and tragic ones, and yes, I have, at times, been reading the comfortable kind of thriller which demands little attention. The only thing I insist on is that the writing is good and the editing has been done carefully. And I can foresee a time when more nourishing fare will be on the reading menu again. In fact, my diet is already becoming more substantial.

What’s the point of reading like Roger? Surely even a rubbishy novel has to offer more than instant gratification, a mere way of passing the time? Too many writers produce the same story over and over again, no wonder the people who read them can’t keep track. I went into a bookshop the other day, the first time since I have had the cataracts removed from both eyes, just “to have a look”. I was planning to get rid of some books, not buy more, but, alas, that’s easier said than done; I bought a small pile, not a blockbuster among them. The gift of renewed eyesight is just too precious to waste it.

By the way, I was also going to express my appreciation of my hosts at this dinner: they asked me on my own and did not feel it necessary to provide me with a table partner. Thanks very much!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Yet More Rumaninations

An old acquaintance's funeral was held today and although I promised the person who told me of the death that I would present myself punctually at 2pm at St George’s I failed miserably to keep my promise. At 96 the friend was old indeed, his wife died several years ago and he had been in a nursing home for some time. I have yet to formulate a reasonably valid excuse; suffice it to say that it’s been a cold and miserably wet day, with snow and rain, the church itself is bitterly cold, there are always people in the congregation who are nursing winter chills and flu, apt to pass them on, funerals rarely do the deceased justice, and they are no longer on my list of must-attend occasions, particularly the formulaic Church dos, except in the case of people who matter to me. Call me what you like, weak-kneed, lazy, mean, selfish, all of those could apply.

Nowadays I find it hard to force myself to do things I don’t want to do. Perhaps I don’t try very hard? And I really, truly, definitely, do not mind if nobody comes to my funeral, which is going to be a very basic, simple and quiet affair.

In Victorian times things were very different; they shrouded grief in elaborate and complex rituals.

The depth of the band on a man’s hat and  the width of a black border on a piece of writing paper indicated to the world the precise stage that mourning had reached. Whether this made sorrow any easier to bear is debatable. Perhaps all that can be said of these fashions in mourning is that their intricacy kept people occupied when they most needed to be and provided an elaborate facade behind which to conceal their sorrow.” (Debrett’s Etiquette)

Lately I have started to think of the future. It’s still very hazy and rather than making plans for what I might want to do, I have clearer ideas on what I certainly don’t want to happen: having lost the most important person in my life I do not want to replace him; there will never be an unconditionally welcoming space within friendly arms again, all I can hope for is a companionable hug from a male or female friend to say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. There are advantages to living on one’s own, i.e. without a co-habitee, house sharer or lodger. We cannot know what the future holds but I prefer not to have my space invaded, I prefer to be without a dependent being, or someone who tries to look into my mind and soul. I do not want to be disturbed or disarranged, and I do not want to be a caregiver again. I have brought up two children, taken care of my parents in their final years in different ways and looked after and cared for Beloved’s every need in his last year. I tell myself that I would love to be able to take care of him still, but I am not sure how keen I would be as his illness and confusion progressed into total disability. As it would have done had he lived. I miss him dreadfully, but maybe ten months later I see him more as the man he was before he fell ill.

Today I can make up my mind about what I want to do and when and how and why I want to do it. I don’t need to make compromises, I can arrange every day as I want it. Not an unalloyed pleasure, of course, it is a privilege which could easily bring loneliness and boredom and a descent into self-absorption. One can have too much of a good thing, as they say. I expect with time will come a way of finding activities that will fill the empty space.

I am not done with mourning. Strangely, grieving for Beloved has stirred up the pain of old losses. I find myself missing my parents all over again, thinking of them and their way of departing this world; I am even mourning the loss of my home country, something I have only ever done in the shape of temporary Heimweh. (Home sickness is not entirely the same) I also mourn the loss of my daughter who is alive and well, but lost to me all the same. I mourn my callow youth, the loss of friends here and in the old country and I mourn opportunities I missed and roads I have not taken.

Perhaps, with grief not as deadening and all-encompassing as it was, with finally accepting Beloved’s death and learning to come to terms with it, a period of calm reflection will bring relief and renewed hope for a bearable future. Darkest winter must turn to spring eventually.

Wednesday, 17 January 2018

More Ruminations

Goodness gracious, how lovely to see so many of you return to this tardy blog; it made me feel all warm and wanted. Thank you so much. I shall pick myself up and start visiting and commenting too; what a community we are!

One thing I’m glad about is that I stayed in our house, now just mine. At first I felt that I should move as soon as possible, telling myself that the house is too big, the garden is too big, it’s too empty, too lonely, too isolated. When your partner or anyone else you love dearly falls terminally ill and dies you feel helpless, hopeless. There is nothing you can do to regain control. So you grab at anything that makes you feel in control; moving home being one such undertaking. Rearrange the externals and you’re back in charge. Except you’re not. Less than ever, because now you have upped anchor and lost everything that gives you a grounding, the comfort of the familiar. In my case common sense prevailed, or perhaps it was just lethargy, cowardice, fear of the unknown. Anyway, I am still here and likely to stay here, who knows for how long. Somehow, Beloved is all around me, literally so, of course. I have made a small memorial garden for him with a bench, where I can sit and talk to him. It’s snowdrop time, his long drawn out dying time, has been since Christmas, when the first little bells poked their heads out of the muddy, at times snowy, then again frozen, ground. Once they have faded I shall dig up a clump and plant them in ‘his’ patch, awaiting all future anniversaries of his death.

The problem is that there is work to be done to the house, nothing major, just some painting and maybe rearranging rooms, deciding whether to live downstairs and upstairs or just downstairs, changing a downstairs room into a bedroom. This makes it sound rather grand but it isn’t, it’s just that the original owner of this house, who built it to suit her needs, more or less built two bungalows on top of each other, making it easy to divide the house.

So, what to do? When I asked a friend, idly speculating that perhaps I am too old to go in for great redecorating schemes - the usual thing: is it worth it? will I have the time to enjoy it? how long will I be able to stay? - he recalled an anecdote. ‘Two clergymen met. One of them was wearing a suit which had clearly seen better days, looking rather frayed round the edges. “Thing is, do I bother to buy a new one at my age,” the wearer asked his friend. “Buy a new suit?” his friend replied. “I don’t even buy green bananas.”

The story cheered me up no end. I used to tell Mum to go ahead and treat herself to anything she fancied, no matter how short the time to enjoy it. Now I myself am the kind of ditherer who can’t make up her mind because it might not be ‘cost-effective’. (Sorry about the word, I don’t really speak in such terms, just couldn’t think of anything more apt for our mercenary times.)

Talking of cheering myself up: I have seen a bereavement counsellor who let me talk for an hour, singing Beloved’s praises and going back over the wonderful thirty years we had together. Although close to tears at times it made me realise how very fortunate we were and what wonderful memories I  have. A whole treasure chest of them. I will see her again. Talking really is the best cure for me. My step-daughter recommended that I write to Beloved, a kind of daily diary, I may yet do that too, although I prefer to talk to him.

Another coping mechanism is increasing physical activity, releasing endorphins, happy hormones. "any of a group of hormones secreted within the brain and nervous system and having a number of physiological functions. They are peptides which activate the body's opiate receptors, causing an analgesic effect.” My doctor came up with that one when I consulted her about depression. So now I go to the gym and enjoy it greatly. I do exercises, pound (or rather went from shamble via amble to walk) the treadmill, cycle on a beautiful stand bike  and will be doing weights and other infernal machines by and by, as soon as my personal instructor gives the green light. I have to be careful because of the heart condition which is otherwise fully under control.

Eating chocolate and/or falling in love also produce endorphins; I’ve tried the chocolate cure with great enthusiasm but that had rather sad side effects for my hips. And unless you can show me a sweet kitten or puppy I shall probably never fall in love again.  

Monday, 15 January 2018


15th November to 15th January - a long break from blogging. Only five followers have decided that this blog isn’t worth following now, so thanks to all of you who have stayed. This whole following stuff is a bit silly, I suppose, but there you go, silly is as silly does. Or is that silly too?

The year wasn’t even 12 hours old before I had the first accident: I broke a glass and caused a long, thin cut in my hand which bled a bit but has healed nicely. At least it wasn’t a mirror; anticipating seven years bad luck on top of the disastrous 2017 might have caused me to swoon and thus made burying the shards underground, by moonlight, hard to do.

I don’t do resolutions, but I did, sort of, this year. I was planning to stop being obsessed with the news, to leave Brexit and Trump to get on with things and concentrate on more pleasant aspects. There aren’t any. Brexit is a catastrophe, getting more so by the week, because our government hasn’t the faintest idea how to go about saving our cake, never mind eating it too. And Trump? I thought if I can stop myself reading about him and he presses the nuclear button, at least I won’t know in advance that I am going to be annihilated. So far I haven’t had much luck, the stupidity and hatefulness of those lording it over us remains fascinating.

What a world we live in. Interesting times indeed.

How was your Christmas and New Year? Good? Glad to hear it. Contrary to expectations mine wasn’t too bad either. Friends rallied round and gave me meals, drinks and a cosy place by their fire. There were a few modest parties, some good conversations, good food, plenty of books, schlock TV
and candlelight. Christmas day was a delight. Dinner, decent wine, poetry and Paddington Bear, the same kind of Christmas Beloved and I used to have.

There was something else which was good. My son came some ten days before Christmas, just for an over-nighter with a sufficiency of hours on each of the two days either side for us to have a comfortable and unrushed visit. He comes to ‘do jobs’. This time I didn’t have much in the way of ‘jobs’, he fixed a sticking music cabinet drawer and maybe something else minor which I have forgotten. There was, however, a pile of Christmas cards ready for distribution and we walked around Valley’s End, my son holding Millie’s lead and me popping up lanes and into courtyards to push them into letterboxes, introducing him to villagers out on similar errands every few yards. The great thing about the visit was that we reconnected; I had ordered a Nordmann fir, the first Christmas tree for several years, which was still sitting outside, undressed and unloved. Together we brought it in and dressed it with all the old family baubles, some of them dating back to my childhood, with coloured lights and all the usual kind of kitsch decorations. We had a wonderful time, listening to ancient carols and plainchant, eating Stollen and spiced biscuits and having a turkey dinner by candlelight and incense sticks perfuming the air. We talked comfortably. I haven’t felt as close to him for many years.

Both of us felt good, both of us hoped that this might become our own, private, tradition. We might even use the same tree. I am going to ask gardener to pot it on into a bigger container in the spring and then it can come back in next year, a foot or so taller.

My darling Millie is getting old, thirteen next month, according to her inoculation record card. I had thought she was ‘only’ twelve. She is doddery on her hind legs and she had a cancer operation just before Christmas. The wound has healed well and the current cancer has been removed completely. Unfortunately it is one of those that recur. Dogs are wonderful, she never turned a hair. Surely it must’ve hurt? Just a bit? She went in in the morning and the vet said to come back for her before nightfall. At three they rang: could I come and collect her, she had woken from the anaesthetic and wanted to get out of her cage. “She would be better off recovering at home and not to worry if she didn’t want to eat.” The first thing she did when she came into the house was to stagger to her empty dish and beseech me with big brown eyes: “where’s my dinner, I haven’t had a single crumb since yesterday evening!” She is still happy and keen on her food, so maybe she has a while yet. It will be hard when I lose her too.

More ruminations to follow, so don’t bother commenting just yet. That is if there’s still somebody reading.

Wednesday, 15 November 2017

Our History In Photographs

“The single most important component of a camera is the twelve inches behind it.” – said Ansel Adams.
That’s were Beloved took up position.

He was an excellent photographer. He had kept photograph albums of his own work from the time before we were together, a round dozen of them, which I inherited. He took many more photographs in our thirty years together, those I am keeping for now. But the early ones I filleted, sorted the pictures according to subject and, where I recognised the person, passed them on. I have only two small piles of pictures left, mostly of former colleagues, musicians all, which I am going to send to the Royal Opera House for distribution. A rather larger pile is of landscapes, cityscapes, mountains, rivers, the ancient bricks and mortar of European towns, churches, cathedrals, castles, market squares, secret passages in backwater villages, balconies overflowing with geraniums in French and Italian cobbled streets. What to do with these? I have many more in the albums I am going to keep; while I am alive they shall help to remind me of holidays we took in our time together. But what about the others? What to do with them?

I am not as good a photographer as Beloved was, I shan’t feel obliged to keep my own photos when his are so much better. But I have ancient photographs from a time before I was born, pictures of figures in formal dress, people I can no longer place, if I ever could. From my parents I inherited a boxful of loose pictures as well as three albums, the last one of which is a chaos of unrelated images which, as a child, I glued in without order, with the subjects unnamed and long forgotten. There is no one left who could help me identify them. I’d love to know who the smartly dressed lady is, elegantly  and elaborately coiffeured, in a long, flowing skirt, a white frilled high necked blouse with sleeves puffed to the elbow and from there to the wrists tightly buttoned. She is standing upright next to a chair on which, standing stiffly to attention, is a small child in a dark dress with a white pinafore, white stockings and black, shiny shoes. A boy? A girl? I vaguely remember Mum saying : this is aunt somebody, but whose aunt, hers or her mother’s?

We take hundreds of photographs which we post on social media (or not) where they will be preserved for eternity. Or at least for as long as our current form of social media exists. Since I have uploaded my pictures on to a screen I no longer stick them into albums. I had a look the other day, it says there are 6.000 of them; I sincerely hope that most of them are doubles and trebles; I surely have not taken 6.000 images? What on earth for?

Since Beloved died I have hardly taken any, fewer than I can count on the fingers of one hand: one of the German Bundesadler (Federal Eagle) in the Consulate where I applied for my new passport, one of the instructions on the inside of the Aga door how to operate the cooker, (which didn’t come out readable), a couple of spring flower beds. No more.

Some time in 2016 I treated myself to a new camera, idiot-proof the salesman said; I must have given the impression of an accomplished photographer. I still haven’t learned how to use it to its full capacity, little effort on my part leading to little progress. There must be someone who will teach me. The University of the Third Age does a photography class but I think you need to know how to handle the mechanics at the very least.

Old photographs have something so sad about them, the subjects no longer exist, they have become mere ghosts of the past, our own past, or our families' past. Gathering dust at worst, stuck in forgotten old-fashioned albums at best, they slowly fade and with them fade our memories. Here are a few lines taken from Philip Larkin’s “Lines on a Young Lady’s Photograph Album”.

But o, photography! as no art is,
Faithful and disappointing! that records
Dull days as dull, and hold-it smiles as frauds,
. . . .

How overwhelmingly persuades
That this is a real girl in a real place,
In every sense empirically true!
. . . .

Or is it just the past? Those flowers, that gate,
These misty parks and motors, lacerate
Simply by being you; you
Contract my heart by looking out of date.