Saturday, 5 December 2009

Flat-pack furniture

The Ikea Vika Artur. A useful piece of kit. It is so much easier for me to lug around the trestles and table top separately than as one whole unit.

They take just five minutes to assemble.

And 45 minutes to find where R had hidden the Allen key.

Sigh.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Two steps forward...

No sooner do I find my way back to the blog than British Telecom decides to pull the plug on me!

Yesterday afternoon my Internet connection just stopped working. The line itself was fine - I could get a dial tone - but the broadband had disappeared.

Here at the unfashionable end of the communication network this isn't an infrequent occurrence. My house happens to be right next to an exchange box, and often the problem is simply that an engineer working on it has thrown the wrong switch. On occasions, I have been able to rush outside and say something to the effect of, "Excuse me my good man, would you mind awfully giving me my broadband back", which generally has the desired effect.

Unfortunately I wasn't able to do this yesterday and as the job I am currently doing requires me to work on a remote server, and no Internet = no work, this could only mean one thing....
I would have to ring BT Customer Services.

Cue the Hammer House of Horror scream!

These phone calls go something like this:
Me: Hello, I think there is a fault on my line.
Customer Services: Oh I'm sorry to hear that, shall I test the line for you, Madam?
Me: You won't find a fault. I am ringing on the line. It is simply that my broadband has been switched off.
CS: I'll test it any way....[Tests line]... No Madam. Your line appears to be working fine.
Me: Yes, I know it's fine. But someone has switched off the broadband part.
CS: Oh, then you have come through to the wrong department, if it's a BT Broadband problem, you need to speak to them.
Me: No, I'm not a BT Broadband customer. You have just switched off the ADSL part of the service.
CS: If you're not a BT Broadband customer, then you really need to speak to your own Internet service provider.
Me: [Losing will to live] But the problem is with the line...

At one point in his career, R had worked on a help desk so he seemed to know the magic words or secret handshake that you need to move from the person in the call centre reading a script to the real techie person who can actually do something about your problem. Sadly he didn't get round to sharing it with me before he died, and I had a conversation along the lines of the one above last night.

By that time I was tired and exhausted from banging my head frustratedly against the wall and simply went to bed.

This morning I had a phone call from a neighbour who told me that everyone in the village had lost their broadband and that BT were working on it down at the exchange, but it would take another few hours to get it back.

So what did I do in those few hours?
I drove to Shrewsbury and bought myself a mobile dongle thingy so that next time it happens I can simply plug it in and keep working. So there, Mr BT. Who needs your silly part-time land line?

****

A propos of very little, as I was driving through town towards Shrewsbury this morning, I saw no few than 5 older gentlemen with large (natural) white bushy beards.
Do you think they might have been interviewing for a certain job...?

Tuesday, 1 December 2009

A new level

A couple of months ago I took what I thought was going to be a short blogging break.

There didn't seem to be a lot of point in announcing it as it was only supposed to be for a couple of weeks.
At the time I was rehearsing for a play - an 'entertainment' really - and assumed that I would get straight back to blogging when the rehearsals were over.

But something happened in the intervening period.
I don't know whether it was the intensity of the rehearsal process, or the fact that it allows you to make a fool of yourself in a safe environment, or just because it is darned good fun, but it was like a huge injection of life-giving vitamins.
I really rediscovered my 'normal'. The fun me, the person who gets involved because it is good to be out there with people.
I didn't realise how much I had missed her until I became reacquainted.

And my appreciation of R's death seems to have changed as well.
It seems weird to be saying after 15 months that I finally realise he is dead, but that is almost how it feels. I now know it in my heart as well as my head. It is bloody hard to type those words, but I know they are true.
This knowledge, this belief has opened up a door to another level. As in those old-fashioned platform games like Prince of Persia. A monumental leap to another rooftop has allowed me to escape some of the demons that have been dogging my tracks, leaving me lighter and able to run forward faster.
I don't know whether this is acceptance, or something close to it, but it does give a feeling of peace.

I still sigh and I still cry. I still have periods of total inertia when I can't get up from the sofa. I still talk to R in my head all day long. But I feel different.
I feel like me again. Not R's widow. Me.
My get up and go has come back from wherever it went. I'm starting to make plans again. I'm starting to think about what I want to do, rather than just getting through the days.

All this made me reluctant to come back to the blog. It felt as though it would break the spell somehow.
But a chance visit to the e-mail account that I use for my forays into the blogging world found an e-mail. A message from 2 months ago from someone who had visited this blog and had taken the time to write me a kind, generous and interesting reply. I felt a little shame-faced that this had gone unanswered for so long, and so dropped in here - only to find some more messages wondering where I was.

I am so sorry to have caused people to worry, however momentarily, so an update seemed in order. Now I have started to write again, I am remembering how good it made me feel to sort out issues in my head and transfer them to the screen. And my mind is full of things I want to say once more.
So I guess it looks as though I am back. For the next while at least.

Monday, 5 October 2009

A close shave

What a difference a day makes.
I finished the long horrid job yesterday evening and then rang my friend Natasha for a moan. She very kindly invited me over for lunch today for some TLC and to say hello to her pigs. So I had an early night and a bit of a lie-in this morning, and was feeling a lot sunnier than I have for days.


Tash keeps a Tamworth sow, who farrowed back around mid-Summer. Her piglets are now weaned, and the boys are whooping it up in the woods, while Mum and little girl are together in another field.

Moose doesn't quite know what to make of pigs. Most animals take off in the opposite direction or flap around satisfactorily when he applies the collie scare tactics.

Not pigs.

They come towards him and stare back - however much he bares his teeth and growls.


Or they will deliberately charge up and down the field so that Moose has to run alongside, on the other side of the electric fence to keep up.

So when Moose somehow - I've no idea how - found himself on the inside of the fence in the girls' field this afternoon, the little gilt wasn't at all bothered.
Mother, on the other hand, was not impressed with this at all and came charging over to see what was going on.
A breeding sow is a BIG girl - about 500 lbs worth - and absolutely not to be trifled with. Moose didn't hear her coming until she was about 10 feet away but, when he turned round to see this huge, rather cross pig bearing down on him, the look of sheer panic on his face was priceless.

Fortunately he took the sensible option and high-tailed it out of there as fast as his little legs would take him. Even more fortunately, the sow was no longer feeding the piglets as, if she had been in protective mother mode, I would probably be looking at another large vet bill right now!

Apart from that adventure, it has been a lovely day. I followed my visit with a long walk with Moose and a hot shower, so I am pleasantly tired right now - the righteous physical type of tired, not the cranky, whiny kind!
(My friend is also doing well, although he is having to stay in hospital for a few days for tests. Apparently he is very grumpy.)

Saturday, 3 October 2009

Just want to whine today

I've been trundling along in a state of low-level OKness for a couple of weeks.
Not good, not bad. Just OK.
I don't mind that. I can live with OK. Really I can.

But last night a friend was taken into hospital with a heart attack and I could feel the ground starting to give way again.
Fortunately it is looking now as though this was just a warning shot across his bows, and he is going to be alright, but the leaden lump is back in my stomach and I have been crying on and off all day.

Add to that the fact that it is Saturday and I have to work to get this horrible job finished, and it has given me a headache. The weather is cold, wet and windy and I have forgotten to order any heating oil, so I can't put the central heating on. Plus the electrician made a hole in my office ceiling to put in some lights and hasn't closed it up again yet, so I have gusts of wind blowing over me as I'm trying to work.

Then there is a bunch of forms I have to fill in for the solicitor to do with R's estate. I just hate, hate, hate doing this - it feels as though I am trying to turn R into money. I know it is stupid, and heaven knows I need to get this sorted, but every time I look at the forms I just start crying again.

I'm cold, tired, sad and lonely and missing him so much.
Today I don't want to do this coping business any more.
I just want to go to bed, pull the covers up over my head and stay there for a week.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Debriefing

It's a bit of a 'Carry On' word, but I don't mean that sort of debriefing. There is definitely none of that going on around here these days!

I mean the nightly download by telephone that was the highlight of my day for several years.

R worked in IT, for the last three years as a contractor. But whether permanent or freelance, the jobs all had one thing in common - they were too far away to commute. So, for much of the year, I would drive him to the train station in Shrewsbury at some unearthly hour on Monday morning and that would be the last I saw of him until Friday evening, when the glorious weekend would start.

I think this weekly separation prepared me a lot for what I am living through now. I didn't suffer too badly from the empty bed syndrome in the early days, as I was used to him being away.

During the week, there are moments when I am able to almost pretend that none of it has happened and that it is just a normal day. My logical brain knows full well that this is simply denial, but it is nice to pretend for a few minutes. And it does make the weekends doubly hard and lonely. I still get that dull, sicky lurch in my stomach on Friday evenings when it hits me yet again that I don't need to get the car out and drive to the station. It doesn't matter if I cook a panful of chicken wings or tomatoey rabbit stew - his favourite Friday night foods - he won't be coming back to enjoy them with me.

No, during the week, life trundles along to a large extent just as it always did. Obviously there is a lot more crying than there used to be, but I now do my work, look after the animals, potter in the garden and meet up with friends locally as before. What is missing, though, what has left the great big gaping hole, is that I don't get my evening phone call.

During the day we would email or IM each other, but it wasn't the same as hearing his voice. The evening call was carved in stone. Even if one of us was going out, there would be a quick hello. Mostly we just told each other all the inconsequential things had happened during the day or I tried to talk him out of buying the latest 'bargain' he'd found on the work intranet. Or we would plan the weekend. Or just say 'I love you'.

This morning my iron caught fire. No actual flames, but lots and lots of acrid black smoke poured from its innards. No one was hurt, but it was very dramatic. And I would have looked forward to telling him about it this evening.

And now I can't.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Ten years on

A little under 10 years ago, our friend Tim died.

He was just 36, fit and healthy and simply dropped dead while out mountain-biking with some friends. He left behind a wife and twin 6 year-olds.

I will never forget how we learned of his death. We had just returned from one of our European road trips. As neither of us had a mobile at that time, we had been incommunicado for the week. We walked cheerfully into R's parents' kitchen, gifts in hand, all smiles and wanting to talk about our holiday. His Mum had a very serious look on her face and just said, "Tim's dead".

I remember vividly that feeling of confusion. It didn't make any sense. There had to be a mistake somewhere.
We had both lost grandparents and older family friends, but people our age didn't just die like that. We were young. We had a whole future ahead of us.
It was wrong. So wrong.

Tim's widow, Ali, was incredible. Less than a year later, she stood in for him as Best Man at R's brother's wedding. In a strange twist of fate, R was also asked in to stand in as the Father of the Bride. It was a very bittersweet day. I remember thinking how brave Ali was as she stood up and gave her speech. Now I know that it has nothing to do with bravery - just a deep-down need to do him proud combined with clenched muscles and feelings, fending off the emotions long enough to get through it. And a whole lot of tears in the privacy of her own room afterwards.

I've just had a letter from Ali. She is planning to mark the 10th anniversary of Tim's death with a small get-together, and is asking for friends' memories of him to include in a book she is planning to make with the children for them to keep.

Somehow this reassures me.
Even though I know that my own memories of Tim are still very much alive, and I think about him often, I have an irrational fear of R being left behind by the world and forgotten. A few years back, Ali found a new love to share her life with and we were all very pleased for her as she is the sort of person who has lots of love to give. But her gesture shows to me that whatever happens, whatever future paths our lives may take, our lost loves always stay with us.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Home again


I guess that is another milestone ticked off. I survived a holiday without him. And for the first time in over a year, I even put on a couple of pounds!


My friend Jane has very severe arthritis, and finds it difficult to spend long periods on her feet, so she and her husband tended to stay at the apartment in the mornings. As I am a bit of a fidget and don't really do sitting around doing nothing, it meant I had a lot of time on my own. This was actually a good thing. I got to do a lot of thinking and wear myself out, pounding the streets and climbing the hills of the little mediaeval town or walking for miles along the river bank.

I had a major wobble on the first day.
Dinan is a town R and I had visited several times. Indeed it was the place we bought our engagement present for Jane and Keith.
On the first morning, I went out to buy breakfast as the other two were still in bed. I was fine until I turned a corner and started walking up into the town. I had such a sense of him walking beside me, it almost took my breath away. I remembered so vividly every shop front, the windows we looked in, where we held hands, the conversation we had.

My feelings of anger at the unfairness of it all were so overwhelming that I did something that I very rarely do - I went into a church and sat down for a while. Normally I get my comfort from nature, from climbing a hill hard and fast so that the ache in my legs matches the ache in my heart or from sitting quietly by a river and watching the fish jump to catch flies on the water's surface.
But that day, the peace inside the ancient building was just what I needed. The beauty of the stained-glass windows and sheer majesty of the high vaulted ceiling served their purpose and put me back into my place in the great scheme of things!


The rest of the week passed without major mishap.
There were many moments of sadness that he wasn't there, but Jane, in particular, is very good at making me articulate my feelings, and I think I was able to work through with her some things that have been holding me down.

The sun shone. We went sightseeing. We drank some very good wine and sat and talked. We ate rather too much of a lot of excellent food.
I didn't quite have oysters every day, but they were so good that I probably could have done. And choucroûte de la mer was a revelation; with its buttery sauce and choice pieces of fish it surprised even those in the party who were convinced that they didn't like sauerkraut!

If I had been able to bring the dog, I would have been so tempted to stay on for another week.
Just being away from home has allowed me to think through a lot of issues that have been bothering me. I have been able to release my lingering resentment from being let down badly by some friends, and I have rationally drawn up a mental list of commitments I need to let go so that I can concentrate on what is really important.


Moose does actually have a passport so he can travel out of the country, but on this occasion it wasn't possible to take him. Although I knew he was in good hands, I was starting to feel edgy not having him there with me so I had to go back, even though it would have been possible to stay on alone. And picking him up first from the friend who looked after him made going back to the empty house a little more bearable for once.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Nervous and excited

I'm off to Brittany on my holidays this evening!
Some good friends have been nagging me to go away with them all year and I finally gave in and agreed. Now the moment has come around, I am really looking forward to it. We have booked a lovely little apartment in Dinan, a small mediaeval town not far from the sea. It is still warm at this time of year. The seafood and game seasons have started, so this will be a great time to be eating out in France. I am looking forward to simply relaxing and just clearing my mind of a lot of the issues that have been bothering me lately.

It's the first time I've been away for more than a weekend since R died and I am racking my brains trying to think of all the things that were his job to sort out before we went.
But I know that the animal-sitter is booked, I have my passport, credit cards and clean underwear, so anything else is just details.

Now if only the weather forecast didn't predict howling gales at roughly the moment we drive onto the ferry!

Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Mice - 1, J - 0

One of the disadvantages of living in an older house is that there are lots of holes. Lots and lots of little holes.

Mostly this is fine. Old houses were built to breathe, rather than being sealed and impermeable like new-builds. But it does occasionally mean that what is outside can get in without too much of a fight.

Last night I heard rustling at one of the larger holes. This particular hole is an intentional one that will soon have a pipe running through it, so it has been blocked up temporarily. But not well enough, it seems.

Once I had calmed down enough to tell myself that mad axe murderers don't normally squeeze through three-inch gaps, I worked out that it must be a mouse.

Now, mice don't scare me at all. Indeed I quite like them .... outside.
They can steal my strawberries and nibble on broadbeans in the garden if they like. But I don't want them in my pasta!

Something Had To Be Done.
So, grumbling to myself that this really isn't my job and if someone hadn't decided to drop dead suddenly, the hole would have been filled months ago, I dug out the box of traps, duly baited one (peanut butter) and set it last night.

I just checked it this morning, with much trepidation as I hate emptying the traps. And there it was - sprung and empty.

Somewhere in the house there is a very contented, well-fed mouse, thumbing its whiskery little nose at me.

This means war!

Monday, 24 August 2009

Finding my own style

All my life I have been the sort of person who "makes things".
I am definitely no artist, but I do enjoy fiddling about with fabric and yarn and playing with colours and shapes. In the past, there was always a bag with some project or other beside the sofa, ready to pick up instead of a book or in place of turning on the TV.

When R died, that desire to create seemed to die with him.

I decided very early on that I would cut up all his plaid shirts and turn them into comfort quilts and cushions for myself, friends and family. I even got as far as dissecting a couple of really tatty shirts, cutting off and saving the buttons and deciding which parts were reusable.

Then I stalled.

I couldn't see in my head what I was going to do with them. The images just weren't there. And even though I would have still had the fabric, I was happier knowing that the shirts were safe in his wardrobe for me to see at any time, rather than cut up in a box.

And so that side of me was placed on hold while I concentrated on working, keeping the place going or simply breathing, depending on what sort of day it was.

But lately I find I am starting to have ideas floating around my head once again, and my hands are itching to do something that doesn't involve typing or getting dirt under my fingernails.

Some friends are due to have a baby soon, so I thought I would dust off the sewing machine and make a little cot quilt.


I have always been very much a traditional 'squares and triangles' sort of quilter, but I was surprised to see this one turn out a lot brighter, yet simpler than normal and with lots of blank space that called out for meandering quilting, rather than my usual straight lines. (And yes, it has finally occurred to me that a quilt with large white spaces probably isn't ideal for a small child, so I may have to go back to the drawing board for the baby!)

I've noticed this change of style and direction in other aspects of my life as well.
Take clothes, for example.

Various friends and my no. 1 niece have 'taken me in hand' lately. They have ignored my increasingly feeble protests and dragged me shopping for clothes. Partly because the weight that fell off when R died seems to have stayed off and I had very little that fitted me any more, and partly because my wardrobe was well overdue for an overhaul in any case.

And now, much to my surprise, I find myself with several skirts in my wardrobe, and a pair of shoes with heels, of all things. Just about everything we bought was feminine, rather than practical, which is a huge departure for me. I spent a couple of days wafting around the house, wondering who this girlie person was I occasionally caught sight of in the mirror. I also have to remind myself to wash my hands when I come inside from the garden, rather than wiping the mud off on my already-grubby jeans!

It seems to be happening to my decorating style as well.

Together, R and I tended towards the slightly-cluttered, comfortable country style of décor. Earth colours, natural textures and lots of wood. That sort of thing.

Now my extension is slowly coming to fruition, thanks to the work of my wonderful BIL. It has nearly reached the decorating stage (at least upstairs) and I find I am leaning totally towards sleek, clean, uncluttered lines, fresh Spring colours and bold big-pattern fabrics for the curtains. None of which I can imagine having if R were still here. When the furniture goes in, I plan to keep it as minimal as possible as I seem to need space and air much more than the cocooning comfort of the past.

When I look at these changes, I wonder if that was how I always was. Did our previous choices simply reflect the fact that everything was a compromise between the wants of two people, and was therefore never entirely satisfactory to either of us? Does this mean that now I can be entirely selfish and have exactly what I have always wanted? Or have I mentally drawn a line under the past and started moving in a different direction? Or perhaps the shock of R's death has awoken a part of me that I didn't know was there? I really don't know.

Of course, given the choice, I would turn the clock back in an instant. But I can't do that, and so it is interesting to watch myself in a detached sort of way and see the awakening of a new person. I wonder if the new one will be someone that the old person would still like when the metamorphosis is complete.

Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Let down and lifted up

I find that this new life is very much a balancing act. Even the tiniest weight on one side can totally destroy my equilibrium.

On the negative side of the scale, I have just been let down hugely by some friends. After being kept dangling for several months with one excuse after another, I was told this weekend that they just weren't going to be able to do what they had promised faithfully that they were going to do. And this was after I had offered them several opportunities to back out gracefully and had offered to pay for the work, rather than them doing it as a favour.
As a result, my renovations have essentially been held up needlessly for four months and I am back where I would have been if they hadn't offered to help in the first place. I feel disappointed in them and very let down.
Hey ho. I guess it gives me an opportunity to put my current zen-like mood to the test!

On the plus side, my wonderful BIL and another friend, Chris, came over at the weekend and fitted the new bathroom. As well as the pleasure of seeing a job well done, it was lovely to spend some time talking about R and looking at boxes of old photographs. We have all known each other since university - R and I got together in our first term, nearly 28 years ago - and these two friends were constant features in our life together.

Where did all those years go? How did we go from optimistic youth, via enthusiastic career-person through to contented middle-age without noticing the passage of time? It barely seems possible. Let alone to have it all end, in the blink of an eye, just over a year ago.
Yet end it did. But having these two strong pairs of arms there, ready to hold me up when I wobble, almost makes it bearable.

And then there were the others. Three other sets of friends just 'happened' to be passing through the area over the past few days.
If you knew where I live, you would understand that no one 'just passes through'. It isn't really on the way to anywhere. But however poorly disguised the excuses, the love behind it was appreciated in every case.

And all these warm positives have tipped the scale back to the optimistic spectrum, for a while at least.

Wednesday, 12 August 2009

The calm after the storm

That's how it feels now after all the emotion of the last couple of weeks.

I so hope I can keep this feeling with me for a while.
I like calm. It allows me to feel R's presence in my life rather than his loss. It means I can look after myself properly as I know he would want. It lets me concentrate on my work so I don't need to worry about not earning enough to pay the bills. It gives me time and headspace to think about the other people I love - the ones who are still here.

Calm doesn't mean that I am forgetting him. It doesn't mean that I no longer love him. That will never happen.

i carry your heart with me
(i carry it in my heart)
i am never without it
(anywhere i go you go, my dear; and whatever is done by only me is your doing, my darling)
i fear no fate
(for you are my fate, my sweet)
i want no world
(for beautiful you are my world, my true)
and you are whatever a moon has always meant
and whatever a sun will always sing is you
here is the deepest secret nobody knows
(here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud
and the sky of the sky of a tree called life; which grows
higher than soul can hope or mind can hide)
and this is the wonder that's keeping the stars apart
i carry your heart
(i carry it in my heart)

e.e. cummings

Tuesday, 11 August 2009

So that's that

A whole year has passed.
When it started, I couldn't imagine how I would make it to the next hour, let alone survive an entire year.
Yet here I am, at the start of a new year without R. I am now allowed to transition to half-mourning and start edging my black dresses with grey or mauve.

Marking the passing of time affected me much more than I imagined it would, so I am lucky in that I was able to take the last week off and be entirely self-indulgent.

Yes, there were many, many tears. My own mixed with those of his sister who came to share these few days with me.
But even the tears are starting to take on a healing quality. A safe means of relieving pressure or a way of resetting my mood when it sets off on a downward spiral. They are no longer an end in themselves or simply a way to block out the pain.

Yes, there was that gut-wrenching moment when I realised that, however well I may have survived and for all I may have achieved over the past year, I really wasn't going to get the prize I wanted.
He wasn't going to come back.
Not ever.

Yes, we talked and talked about the past, what we have lost and how much we miss him. But we also spent a lot of time with our eyes to the future - that place in which he is a memory, rather than a tangible part.

S now finds herself on the cusp of a new life as well; her daughter is about to start her second year at university, while her son has just done his GCSEs and will shortly be learning to drive. The children no longer need her detailed attention, and Mum's taxi will soon be in less constant demand. So she also is able to see the new broader horizon, full of possibilities for taking up new interests, changing job or moving house. We agreed that the thought of this open-ended future is scary and exhilarating at the same time, but we are both interested to see where it will take us.

And we worked off some of our emotions.
S is very much a city girl. She is normally immaculately dressed and beautifully made-up. After four days of weeding, digging, planting, chopping down trees, taking things to the tip and miles of walking, she was delighted one afternoon to look in the mirror and see her unbrushed hair, dirty face and muddy jeans and to feel those slightly aching and hitherto largely unused muscles. There is also something very satisfying about a celebratory meal at the end of a good day working outside.

With all this, in our own quiet way, we marked the passing of a life worth celebrating. I smiled as I opened the bottle of champagne. R always delighted in teaching young friends and family members how to do this, as he felt it was one of those life skills that everyone needs, like how to change a tyre or eat an oyster without pulling a face.
Or indeed how to fall asleep elegantly!

Monday, 3 August 2009

One down, one to go


Thank you to everyone who sent good wishes and positive thoughts for today. It feels good to have it behind me and indeed I can truly say I enjoyed it.

Mostly.

The day got off to a bad start when I went to let the birds out and found one of my ducklings dead having managed to strangle itself in a freak accident with the door of the duck house. Dealing with a little sad, cold body before breakfast was not what I had in mind at all.

Then there was a lot of wobbling as I was preparing to go out.
I realised I would need a rucksack and that nearly set me off, as R always carried everything when we went walking. I couldn't immediately put my hand on the little green day pack he always took with him, and tore the house apart finding it.

I can just picture him packing it on the kitchen table, listing out loud the things he would need and nagging me to get a spare pair of socks in case of blisters, a hat in case the sun came out and a decent waterproof in case it rained! I didn't have any chocolate to pack either, which made me sad. R would always have a bar of Fruit and Nut or something similar about his person when we went walking and, even though I would absolutely insist that I didn't need any chocolate before we left, he would produce it with a flourish half-way through the day. And I would always eat at least half of it, despite my earlier protestations!

The walk started well.
We met at the Community Centre which is actually a mile or so outside the village. There were about 20 walkers ranging from 11 to 71 in age, and at least 8 dogs which quickly formed a pack and rampaged up and down the line of people.

We had walked about a mile up onto the moor when I realised I couldn't see Moose. I walked to the front of the line and there was no sign of him, then I ran to the back. Still no dog.
I was starting to get a bit worried when a farmer drove past in his Landrover. We flagged him down and asked him if he had seen a collie on its own. He hadn't, but gave me a lift back to my car so I could go and look for him.
And there was Moose, sitting waiting for me outside the Community Centre with a look on his face as if to say, "What kept you?"

Relieved as I was to find him, this did of course mean that I had to run / yomp back nearly two miles to catch up with the other walkers. I'm not a happy runner in shorts and running shoes, so walking boots and rucksack were an unpropitious combination to say the least. By the time I reached them, my face must have resembled a particularly hot and bothered beetroot, and I was ready for my bar of chocolate which I did not have.

I'm happy to say that the rest of the day was uneventful and very enjoyable. The atmosphere was totally relaxed as we walked up onto the ridge, and I could move from one group to another for a chat without feeling at all lonely or out of place.

I really can't put into words how much this place has become a part of me. Walking along the ridge with the incredible views to either side I can give myself up to the beauty of the landscape. R taught me to love hills. This is ironic as he came from Essex which is one of the flattest counties in Britain. Wherever we went, if we were going for a walk, then we would have to go up. The hill was the challenge, and the view at the top the reward. When I'm up on the top of the world, which is how it felt today, I can believe he is with me. I know he would love to see the tougher, fitter person I have become since he died.

I missed him desperately today, but the place and the people helped me get through it. When we got back to the Community Centre, the non-walkers had fired up the barbies. I was hungry enough to eat a small sheep, so the lamb burgers went down very well indeed (this is Wales, after all!).

Friday, 31 July 2009

Marking the date

As I've mentioned before, R rather inconveniently left me with two anniversary dates - the one on which he effectively died and the other, 'official' date when the machines were switched off at the hospital.

The first was his niece's 18th birthday. The family were on holiday in Turkey at the time. (It would be nice to think that the Universe arranged it so that they could get home in time to be with him at the end, but then if it is so bloody clever or well-disposed towards me, it could just as easily have prevented him from dying altogether and wasting such a good life.)

So we pretend that it didn't really happen like that for his niece's sake.
In any case, Sunday is the day of our village Summer walk. We have two organised walks every year; the first on New Year's Day, which is about the best cure for the excesses of the night before I have ever tried! The other is supposed to be around Midsummer's Day, but as that generally coincides with silaging, it always ends up being in late July / early August.

R was still here for last year's Summer walk, and it was a beautiful day. We walked across a section of the moor that neither of us had visited before, the sun shone all afternoon and it was the last time he ever spoke to some of the people there.

So that is what I shall do on Sunday. It beats sitting at home feeling sorry for myself. And if I shed a few tears, I can always blame them on the onions I have been asked to prepare for the barbecue to be held at the village hall afterwards.

For the 'official' date, I really wasn't sure what to do. Several people offered to be with me. At first, they all received the same answer; if it will help them to be here, in the place he loved or at his graveside, then come. But don't come just to look after me.

As the day approaches, however, my resolve has weakened and I have gratefully accepted his sister's offer to come up and stay.

I feel we ought to mark the passing of the year in some way, but I really can't think what to do.
Today I was 'talking' online to a friend whose brother died two days before R, and she was having similar problems deciding what to do. As she put it, "He no doubt would have liked us to ride a chopper motorbike, naked, up Cardigan High Street, with a huge spliff on the go and 'Born to be Wild' blaring out...but I'm not sure that would be appropriate. So I might just light a candle in the polytunnel and contemplate summat or other."

That's really where I am too. I don't want to be where I am, so it doesn't quite seem right having any sort of celebration, but it also feels wrong to let the day go by unmarked.
Probably we will just raise a glass to him and laugh and cry in equal measure as I do on so many other days.

Sunday, 26 July 2009

Checking in

Not having a great week, but holding on by my fingertips. The Anniversary is looming, and I just don't seem to be able to stem the tide of tears.

So I go back to first principles which, for me, means rushing around doing stuff and being physically active to the point of exhaustion. I'm sure it's just displacement activity, but I know that if I'm knackered, I sleep.

And at least the grass looks good tonight, the compost bins are variously emptied, turned or refilled, the house is clean from top to bottom, all the ironing is done, the raspberries are harvested and in the freezer, the winter brassicas sown and the hens have nice clean houses to sleep in.
Phew! No wonder I'm pooped!

(And Mother Hens are very much appreciated around here).

Monday, 20 July 2009

Calmer skies


My melancholy mood loomed dark and dreich over my head for most of last week, just like the stormy skies. Whether it was caused by too much work, too little sleep or the disappearance of Summer, I can't really say. Whatever the reason, it wasn't going to shift of its own accord; it was one of those teary spells that I can only clear by sitting quietly beside R's grave for a while.

It wasn't until Saturday afternoon that I had time to go and, by then, the burial field was looking very lush and overgrown, and as in need of cutting as my own paddock. In the drizzle, the wind turbines on the opposite hill were totally obscured by the low cloud.

I noticed that R had two new neighbours, so I went over to say hello to them and introduce myself as I always do. It seems only polite, and I hope that anyone who spots R's little stone as they are walking past will do the same.

Then I settled down beside his grave for one of our rather one-sided chats. As it was R who did most of the talking in life, I prefer to think of these rather as me simply catching up.

I didn't stay for long as the rain started to worsen, and my shoes and skirt were quickly soaked through. Even Moose was less inclined to mooch around than he normally is and came and sat beside me with a big sigh, as if to ask why on earth I was sitting there in the pouring rain.

So the two soggy specimens slowly made their way back down the hill, thankful that there was unlikely to be anyone else out braving the elements to see the sorry sight.

Now the skies are clearer, my heart is calm again and I feel stronger to face the week ahead. No great revelations, just a gentle feeling of peace.

Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Missing him

Not in a dramatic, floods of tears sort of way tonight. More wistfully sad.

I had some friends to stay last night, passing through on their way to South Wales. It was lovely to have someone to fuss over and make comfortable, to cook for and share a meal. But it is such hard work being both host and hostess at the same time.

R was a wonderful host, and I think we made a good team. His smiley, welcoming front-of-house act allowed me to get into a flap in the kitchen without ruining the evening. Guests were always greeted with "Come in. Make yourself at home. Can I get you a drink? Tea? Coffee? Something stronger?", and he could put anyone at their ease.

I could really sense his presence with me throughout the short visit. His calming hand on my shoulder allowed me to enjoy my friends, rather than worrying about catering or bed linen or something daft like that.

But now they have gone, I have just been sitting outside for the last hour or so of sunlight and feel so sad. I no longer doubt that I can cope with this new life, even though it still trips me up occasionally, but I so, so want my old one back.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

The widow's house


Some days when the wind gets up and the sky comes down low and dark over the hills, I have what I call my Wuthering Heights moments. Instead of going straight on or turning left from my house, I turn right and walk up the road with the dog. After I have walked for a mile or so, the ground level has risen about two hundred feet and the patchwork of grazing and hayfields with their hedgerow sashing gives way to the broad-brush canvas of the moorlands. Here the scrubby trees bend with the prevailing wind and the lush green grass is largely replaced by coarse, inedible rushes.


Even after this short distance, the habitat is entirely different - for plants, animals and humans. My own house is almost exactly at the 1000 feet mark, but this is real hill country. Sheep live here for the Summer, but are brought back down to base for lambing. The moor rings with the haunting, bubbling cry of the curlew that spends the Summer months here as well, probing the boggy grass for food. The wind is ever-present and when it snows, which is a frequent event at this height, the white drifts rise in great banks against the side of the road.


Here there is an old, derelict cottage that for years I called the Widow's House. When we first lived here, it was almost entirely swallowed up by nettles and brambles, but a couple of years ago the landowner cleared the surrounding jungle and exposed the little building with a view to renovating it. He even gave it a new tin roof to keep out the elements.


The cottage comes with a couple of acres of surprisingly good grazing. In my eternal optimism about gardening I'm sure that, with some judicious planting of windbreak trees, the area in front of the house could be turned into a productive garden.
I always joked that, if anything ever happened to R, I would buy this house. Its tiny size is far more appropriate to one person living on her own than our own house is. Here I would keep a little flock of milking goats and would be known as the mad widow on the hill. (This is particularly odd as I've never had the urge to keep goats where I live now).

Sadly the owner failed to get planning permission to renovate it in the way he wanted, and he has done nothing more with the house. It looks as though it is going to be allowed to decay even further and end its days ignominiously as a sheep shelter.

So it looks as though I won't be buying it, after all.

Funny how life turns out.

Thursday, 9 July 2009

I can't get no...

... concentration.

I have a ton of work to finish by tomorrow evening and my mind is flitting all over the place like a hyperactive butterfly. It has been doing this all week and I would like it to stop. Please. Now!

I wonder if there is something I can eat to improve my ability to focus on the job at hand. Or some mental exercises. Perhaps I need to Google that...

No!
Back to work.

Monday, 6 July 2009

Hands


R had the most beautiful hands I have ever seen on a man. In a romantic novel, they would inevitably be described as 'sensitive'.

He had perfect long, thin pianist's fingers, very much like the cast of Chopin's hand in the picture.* This is ironic since I am the piano-player in the house and always struggle making big chords. (His own musical career lasted precisely one lesson and ended when he realised he was expected to practise!)

I loved those hands. Holding them, feeling their gentle touch on my skin or watching their dextrous movements as he wired up a light socket or typed on the keyboard. When my hand was in his I felt safe and protected. Hand in hand we could do anything we put our minds to.

One of the hardest parts of watching him die was seeing the way they changed. I don't know if it was the medication, the heat of the room or just his circulation shutting down, but after they unplugged all the life support machines, his hands swelled up. As the hours ticked away his fingers metamorphosed into grotesque sausages with taut, shiny skin and by the time he took his last breath they were someone else's entirely. Where did his beautiful hands go? Who had them?

After he had been laid out at the hospital, I took one look at his body and left the room. They had arranged him so that he was holding a fabric rose on his chest with those ugly new hands. I just wanted to scream that they weren't his and demand that they bring back the right ones. For the same reason I couldn't go to see him at the funeral home; I wanted to remember him as he really was, not in this travesty of a body.

I don't know why, but I have been thinking about his hands all day. Possibly because my own are rather grubby again after another weekend in the garden or perhaps just because it is so long since I last saw them.

I wish I had a cast of his hands like the one in the picture.

* Photograph taken from Wikimedia.

Friday, 3 July 2009

Little jewels


It has been a flat, dull day today. The weather has broken, taking away most of the sunshine and with it my sunny mood.

But the dog still has to be walked, whatever the weather.
Not in the mood for anything out of the ordinary, I headed out on our normal weekday walk.

Over the years, this route has been taken several times a week by either R or myself or, best of all, both of us together. Practically every inch of the three-mile circuit is familiar to me. I know the badgers' sett excavated beneath a hedge, the smell of which drives Moose wild, and the trees with nesting rooks that always mob the buzzards as they fly past. A few weeks ago we welcomed back the agile swifts to their precarious nest beside the church bell. I can quickly find the best stretches of sloes or blackberries, and know which bank will suddenly sprout chanterelles when the sun comes out after a day of rain.

This lane was where we talked. Really talked to one another. It was where we planned our big ideas, smiled at the goings-on in friends' lives and worked out any little differences we had between us. And about half-way round, there was a gate where we usually stopped and leaned upon it to admire the view and reflect on how lucky we were to live in this beautiful place. It was the last walk we ever had together.

Today as I walked up the hill I found a little patch of wild strawberries and couldn't resist picking some to bring home. In my old life, these first red berries would be a source of joy. The little bombs of flavour punch way above their weight. When fully ripe and after a couple of days of sunshine on the fruits, one tiny ball fills the mouth with essence of rosewater on top of the strawberry perfume.

R loved them and at this time of year never left the house without a bag in his pocket for collecting them. If he was working away, I would pick some so he could have them with vanilla icecream when he arrived home on a Friday night.
My hand smells sweetly of candyfloss after holding them. And it makes me think of him.

The lane is the perfect indicator for the passing of the seasons. The strawberries were preceded by the elderflowers and will give way to blackberries, blackberries to parasol mushrooms, and then to sloes. And so on until the new year starts the cycle again.

Another calendar.

Another way of ticking off the days and weeks and months without him.

Thursday, 2 July 2009

Thank goodness that's over for another year


"I hate @*#&%$ sheep".

This was R's frequently-uttered mantra. So frequently, in fact, that it was even mentioned in one of the eulogies at his funeral!

Over the years, our tiny flock has varied in size between two and seven. Before I started keeping sheep, I fondly imagined that you put them in a field, they eat grass and that's about it, perhaps with a bit of mollycoddling at lambing time.

How wrong I was.
You have to vaccinate them against myriad noxious diseases, trim their feet regularly to prevent foot rot, apply insecticide to stop flies laying eggs on them and the maggots eating them alive, administer anti-worm and fluke medicine and shear them once a year at the very least.

My two original ewes are Hebrideans. I bought them for several reasons. They are pretty sheep and extremely hardy, having evolved to withstand the wet and wind of a Scottish island. They aren't at all fussy about what they eat and don't need the lush grass that many of the lowland breeds require. They have single lambs and give birth easily outside (I have not yet had to intervene in a lambing). And finally they are small sheep with handy horns to grab hold of, making them relatively easy for one smallish person (i.e. me) to manoeuvre.

I didn't read the small print, though. In 5 point type, right at the bottom of the contract, it reads that they can be a bit 'flighty'.

Flighty? Ha!
These are the devil's own sheep. They can run like the wind, jump the sheep hurdles I bought to keep them penned up and spook as soon as they see another person enter the field with me.

Sometimes they will meekly follow me and the bucket of feed into the corral. Other times, nothing whatsoever will induce them to go in. On those occasions, R and I had a method of rounding them up involving a length of sheep netting which we would slowly wind up, gradually driving them into the pen. Unorthodox, but it worked.

Late yesterday afternoon I had the phone call from the shearer saying that he could do my girls that evening. All I had to do was to round them up for him, and he would take it from there.

Naturally the sheep were having none of it. Despite the fact that they desperately needed shearing to give them a break from the heat, they had no intention whatsoever of going into the pen. Two hours later, I had managed to catch one. The other two were standing 20 feet away, watching me with curiosity as I sat on the ground holding the bucket of feed, bawling my eyes out and shouting at R for not being there to help.

When the shearer arrived, I still only had the one captive, so I apologised and said I would understand if it wasn't worth his while to just shear one. I was fully expecting him to go on his way, but this wonderful man said he and his daughter would help to round them up. We eventually managed it, but it still took nearly an hour - he wasn't expecting them to jump quite as much as they do. He also gave me some useful suggestions about arranging the corral to make it easier to do next year, although he did say he might bring his dog with him, just in case!

The actual shearing took all of ten minutes.
And were they grateful? Well, what do you think?


Wednesday, 1 July 2009

Gratuitous cuteness

Muscovies don't seem to have grasped the concept of the appropriate family size!

But it always makes my day when they proudly emerge from their hiding place with ducklings in tow.

Monday, 29 June 2009

The little things

R had quite dark, olive skin. I was always envious of the way he turned deep brown as soon as the sun came out, seemingly without even removing his shirt.
In contrast I have the fair skin of the Celt, and generally turn a fetching shade of lobster when first exposed to the sun's rays.

But despite his dark colouring, it was always R who worried about burning, and he was forever nagging me to put on a sunhat.

If he were still here, he would have doubtless suggested that a strappy top wouldn't be ideal for sitting in the sun watching an outdoor performance for two and a half hours.

He certainly wouldn't have let me wait as long as I did before slapping on the factor 30.

He would most likely have also had a spare shirt, after-sun and bottles of water in his bag just in case I ignored the first two pieces of advice.

And I wouldn't now have bright red and very sore shoulders.

Sigh.

The elephant in the room

I guess it was going to happen to me sooner or later.

For quite a few years now, we have had a tradition of going to see the open-air performance of a Shakespeare play in Ludlow Castle as part of the Ludlow Festival each year. The size of the party has varied over the years, and in the early days it was quite a raucous affair with a Pimms-fuelled picnic in the Outer Bailey before the performance. As time has passed, the membership has changed and the picnic has become altogether more sober as friends started to have children.

It has always been one of the highlights of the Summer for me, and I was really looking forward to this year's performance (Romeo and Juliet). As it is my little sis who organises the tickets, the group often includes her friends and work colleagues, and on this occasion they made up the other 5 adults. I wasn't worried about this as I had met them quite a few times before. Also in the party were four 8 year-old and two 6 year-old boys!*

Saturday was another glorious day. Despite dire predictions of thunderstorms, there wasn't a hint of rain. The pre-performance picnic was excellent as always, with a score of dainty dishes to pass around and sample.

So where am I going with this post?
The conversation throughout the day was good. We talked about our work, houses, their children, my animals, Moose's operation, holidays, the economic downturn, Michael Jackson and everything else that people talk about.
But not one of these people as much as mentioned R.
They all knew him and had broken bread and shared wine with him.
Yet nothing. No expression of sorrow that he had died, no words of sympathy for me, no concern as to how I was managing, not even just a hug.
Nothing.

I was feeling good on Saturday, so this didn't upset me at all.
I was more bemused. I just found it difficult to understand how five different people could all fail to even acknowledge the fact that I had lost the most important person in my life. It was almost a John Cleesian "Don't mention the war" sort of moment.

I think possibly I have been very lucky and, right from the start, have been surrounded by people who cared for me and R and have allowed me to talk about him whenever I want. It makes me very sad when I read of people who don't have this support at the time they most need it.

And, of course, being the stroppy widow that I am, I saw no reason why I shouldn't witter on about R as I normally do, despite their obvious discomfiture!
As I said, it didn't spoil my day in the least, but even with the benefit of hindsight I still find it strange.

* The six little boys weren't very impressed with Shakespeare. They enjoyed the fights, but found the rest - especially the kissing - incredibly boring. Running wild on the castle ramparts, on the other hand, was regarded as a Very Good Thing!

Friday, 26 June 2009

Why can't all days be like this?

On Wednesday I took a little day trip.
Not far. Only to the coast near Aberystwyth.
I met up with some online friends from a (non grief-related) forum that I frequent, with a view to visiting a garden that was open under the National Gardens Scheme.

As so often before, it would have been easy to make my excuses and not go. I could have pleaded pressure of work - indeed I have had to work extra to make up for my day off.

But perhaps it was the sunshine, perhaps I just decided that I needed a treat. Or maybe it was the fact that the day before I had made a long-overdue visit to the hairdresser and was looking GOOD! (Hey. There's no one else here to say these things now, so I have to give my own compliments!). Whatever the reason, I waited for my car share to turn up and off we drove towards the coast.

And what a day it was. Our host's farm was a stone's throw from the sea, and the views were stunning. As we sat under a tree eating lunch, the conversation flowed easily and I realised that I wasn't wearing my usual fixed grin, willing myself to look as though as I was enjoying myself.
I was enjoying myself.

The rest of the day continued in the same vein. The garden we visited managed to be calm, informal, wacky, impressive and beautiful all at the same time. Even so, it didn't leave me with that feeling of inadequacy that many, more formal gardens seem to instill in me. The owners were gentle and welcoming, and I even negotiated the memorial to the daughter they lost in childhood without losing it.

We then returned to the farm for a joyful half hour bottle-feeding cade lambs, followed by tea and cake. Sitting there under the tree, it suddenly occurred to me that this unfamiliar, warm feeling I was experiencing wasn't solely due to the late afternoon sunshine - it was one of genuine happiness.

Yes, for the first time since R died, I can honestly say that I was feeling happy.

Even very recently I am pretty sure if I had found myself in a similar position, I would have automatically pulled back from the feeling. Whether this was because I would have felt guilty that he wasn't there to enjoy it with me or out of fear of allowing happiness in and thus running the risk of having it snatched away again, I don't know.

It's almost like starting a new relationship with myself (and I'm certainly nowhere near being able to start one with someone else). Risks have to be taken and you have to give yourself permission to be happy. I am starting to truly believe that enjoying myself doesn't mean that I have stopped loving R.

After so many months of willing myself to feel as little as possible in order to keep the pain at bay, this is another little breakthrough. I know that there are many, many more peaks and troughs still to negotiate, but I am starting to believe that I will get through this in one piece. However long it takes.

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Garden philosophy


Sowing seeds is an unspoken acknowledgement that there can be a future.


The emergence of the tiny seedlings a few days later is confirmation.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

It's like a jungle sometimes

The sun came out, so the winnowing had to wait!

I went outside with every intention of putting in the few last bedding plants, but then I wandered down to this corner of the vegetable garden to check the lie of the land. Most of it was in reasonable order, but down at the bottom end I practically needed a machete to get around.

As a wildlife habitat, it's great. As a productive vegetable garden, it's a disgrace.


On the left is my embarrassingly overgrown soft fruit bed, while the bed on the right is supposed to contain root veggies. Part of it does, but not so as you'd notice.

How on earth could I let it get into this state?

Well it's understandable really. For obvious reasons, the Autumn tidy-up just didn't happen, then Spring came along and I was simply distracted with everything else that needed to be done. Then we had several weeks of alternating rain and sunshine and the results were inevitable. A burgeoning crop of creeping buttercup!

Two hours and six wheelbarrow loads later, it is looking a little more respectable.


It's a start at least. Now I can dig over the rest of the bed and sow the rest of this Winter's root vegetables.

I'm not going to be winning that best-kept garden award any time soon, but at least I will be able to eat!



Saturday, 20 June 2009

Winnowing

It's a great word, isn't it?

In the early days I had lots of conflicting advice about what to do about R's stuff. Some said get rid of it quickly, others said don't make any hasty decisions. I suspect this had more to do with the advice-giver's own attitude towards clutter than any sound evidence-based research.

R's Mum had a serious shopping habit, and it really showed in their home. After she died, his Dad went through the house like a whirlwind. Just over 2 years later, it seems almost spartan. He has a few photographs and ornaments that bring back good memories for him and has bought a couple of new pictures that he loves, otherwise the walls and flat surfaces are nearly bare. I don't feel this has anything to do with not wanting to keep too many memories about him. I just think that after over 50 years of clutter he is enjoying the house as he likes it - neat and tidy!

R appeared to have inherited an attenuated form of the shopping gene, although the symptoms may have worsened as he got older. He was also a collector of Potentially Useful Things. His collection of useful bits of wood takes up serious real estate. If anyone ever needs a tyre valve cap, please let me know as I have a packet of 99. There were 100 but I have actually used one. As this is the first new valve cap I have ever required in my life, I calculate that, at this rate of use, I have enough to last me until the year 5908!

I would say that I lean more to the 'throw it out' side than the hoarding tendency, but even so I have found it harder than I imagined to rehome his belongings. It was actually easier in the early days. I looked at an object, and if it didn't make me think of R, then out it went. Simple!

Subsequent passes through the house have been harder, so I have to use different techniques. Take his clothes, for example. I simply took to wearing his jeans and T-shirts. I have also put most of his shirts to one side in order to make quilts and cushions from them this winter. That left quite a lot of things that I just couldn't decide upon, so I had to tackle these obliquely. Last week I had a great purge of my own wardrobe which, in the warped logic of the bereaved, gave me permission to look at his clothes with a harder eye.

Another example is the lean-to. This is an indoor-outdoor area at the back of our house. I have wanted to pull it down since the first day we arrived here, but it proved just too useful for storage and as a makeshift workshop to do that. As a result, it became the repository for everything that couldn't find a home elsewhere. It houses a large portion of his wood collection, not to mention a whole lot of tools and general 'stuff' that I know I will never use myself. It also contains the chest freezer, my potting bench and our bicycles, which I can only get to by climbing over a whole lot of other objects. So I have set myself the challenge of getting it cleared and sorted by the end of July.

I shall start with that Useful Wood.
Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

The box

In a corner of my spare bedroom there is a plain pine box. It is very unassuming and measures perhaps 20 x 12 x 10 inches.

The box contains the book of condolence from R's funeral, the obituary that his Dad put in the paper in his home town and all the cards and letters I received after his death.
For a month or more these kept on arriving. It was difficult to take in that we even knew so many people, let alone people whose lives he had really touched.

It was my morning ritual. When the post landed on the doormat I would go downstairs and sort. Cards and handwritten letters in one pile; junk mail, bills and R's correspondence in the other.

Then I would take the handwritten ones and go to sit on the stairs and read them. I read every one, and dutifully placed the cards on any flat surface I could find. People wrote some beautiful and moving messages, telling me their funny memories of R and how much they loved him, ending with a few words of support for me too. They were all so kind, thoughtful and loving.

But I hated them.
Every single one of those words of comfort gave the knife another little twist. I had to sit down because I couldn't stand up as I read them.

My sister-in-law watched me go through this ritual one morning, sitting there with an arm across my stomach in a vain attempt to ward off the physical pain it caused. She was shocked.

Like anyone she always wrote a letter or card when she learned of a death, hoping that her words would give some comfort. Indeed I always did the same myself. But I couldn't explain, probably because I didn't understand, why I found them so agonising. Certainly I didn't think it would have been better if they hadn't been sent at all, and I felt bad for finding it so hard to accept all those individual acts of kindness.

In the end we concluded that my reaction was possibly not typical and that it was always better to send a letter than not. The recipient could decide what to do with it, and wouldn't simply feel abandoned by the world.

I left the cards up around the house for a couple of weeks after they stopped arriving. Then I gathered them all up without looking inside, put them in the box with a few other items and stashed the box in the spare room where I couldn't see it any more.

I know I could never throw away the contents, but I do wonder whether I will ever be able to read those cards again.

Sunday, 14 June 2009

Something had to give

In the early days, weeks and months, I don't think I stopped moving. Or at least when I did stop, it was only to cry. Otherwise I ran around doing stuff. Endless stuff. I cleaned the house like a madwoman, chopped down hedges, dug the garden, polished things (polished? Yes really!).

I wasn't working, as that would have required me to hold onto a thought for more than 30 seconds. But I played sports, sat on committees, forced myself to go out with friends, helped out other people. Anything that would keep me busy and stop me feeling. I was on the go from getting up through to the wee small hours of the morning, which meant that when I did go to bed I slept the sleep of the just. No sleepless nights for me, thank you very much.

And it worked. While I could keep it up, it really did work. But there comes a point when you are just too tired to keep going at the same frenetic rate. I think the thing that really shocked me about grieving was just how exhausting it could be.

I worked out in an idle moment that I have 6 strands to my life: work (the stuff that pays for everything else), the smallholding (which nourishes both body and soul), the house (and all the general day-to-day things), family and friends, all the other stuff and finally grieving. I found I could keep the whole shaky structure upright while I wasn't working. As soon as I had to factor in a whole day at my desk, it all went haywire. There just aren't enough hours left in the day to do it all.

For the last few months I have been trying desperately to keep all the balls in the air. I think it was that widow's curse - the grass - that finally convinced me that I couldn't do it all. Here there is 'my' grass and 'his' grass. My grass is largely eaten by sheep, pigs and poultry and turned into eggs and meat. It has to be cut once or perhaps twice a year to take a hay crop off it, and that's it. His grass, on the other hand, requires constant mowing with two different mowers to keep it looking good. R used to come home after a week of working away and would spend several hours mowing. All very dedicated, but while he was doing that, I would be cooking supper for him.

Mowing isn't a particularly onerous task, but when it is suddenly added to the ToDo list, it rapidly becomes a chore. And there is no one here to cook supper while I do it.

There was also a conversation I had with an old bachelor friend. He confirmed what I had been thinking, namely that two people are much more than the sum of their parts. It's not just the extra arm scenario, it is just that two people will egg each other to get things done or will put extra effort into something that one person on their own wouldn't do.

It was hard accepting that I couldn't continue to do everything, and it was certainly a lesson I was reluctant to learn, but now I have decided to jettison the non-essentials, I feel a lot better. My Welsh class is one example. The classes started in late September, about a month and a half after R died. Looking back I can see that it really was too soon. I don't think I actually retained anything from the class for months. Now it is just a source of stress. I never manage to do any homework, and I have been really struggling to keep up. When I finally admitted this to myself and gave myself permission to stop going and simply repeat the year next time around, it felt as though a weight had been lifted from my shoulders.

I am very stubborn by nature. I hate giving up on things, so it was with much reluctance that I made the necessary phone calls. I can't say that I actually feel happy about my decision to give up on these commitments, but I certainly feel relieved.

Sunday, 7 June 2009

Fragility


This last year has made me all too aware of the fragility of life.

When you see a strong, healthy and very fit person snatched away, seemingly for no reason, it makes the world a very scary place all of a sudden. One of the 'certainties' on which we had based our long-term plans was that R would probably outlive me by a decade or more. When he calculated what sort of pension provision he would need, his assumptions included the need to fund a long and active retirement. I, on the other hand, assumed that my pension needs would be much more modest.
Now? Who knows?
When your plans lie about your feet like so much broken glass, it seems foolish and hubristic to have made them in the first place.

I was also shocked to discover the fragility of the edifice that is the "new me" I had built up over the months. I was starting to feel positive more often than not and, even if I still did not particularly want the new future I could see ahead of me, at least I could see it and its many possibilities.

Nearly losing the dog seemed to erase that hard-won progress at one fell swoop.

Getting Moose was the catalyst for a series of events that radically changed our lives, and ultimately led to our move to Wales. Apart from the day-to-day joy he brings as a companion, he is such a strong link to R and a particularly happy period of our lives.
When I thought I was going to lose him as well, the strength of my reaction really shocked me. I felt the ground give way beneath my feet, and found myself sliding back down the big snake, if not to square 1 then at least to square 4 or 5. The lump of lead was back in my stomach and all the forward movement of the last couple of months was simply wiped out.

Is this always going to happen, I wonder? Or will there ever come a time when I will be able to apply the necessary perspective to an event like this without falling apart? I so crave those feelings of stability and certainty that used to characterise my life. Reassembling the shards of this delicate glass object every time it falls to the ground and shatters is physically and mentally exhausting. Surely this has to get better.

Thursday, 4 June 2009

Perhaps sometimes

... stories can have happy endings.

Moose is now 5 1/2 kilos lighter.
No, not pounds. Kilos!

He wobbled onto his feet when I went to see him, but is still very dopey, which is not surprising. But despite the drugs and the huge wound, he looks better and more like himself than he did yesterday when they had to give him a blood transfusion.

Assuming he recovers from the anaesthetic OK, we still have to wait for the biopsy result. The vet is cautiously optimistic, though; she said that if a tumour of that size were malignant, she would have expected it to have spread to other organs - which it hadn't appeared to have done.

I'm trying not to get my hopes up too far as there is still much that can go wrong. But if all goes well, I might even have him home tomorrow night.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Why now?


There are times that I feel there must be a big black arrow pointing at my head with a large sign saying "Feel free to crap on this person".

Today I found out the reason that Moose has been feeling under the weather lately is because he has a large tumour on his spleen. We won't know until tomorrow whether it can be operated on or whether it has spread to other organs. I desperately want to believe otherwise, but from what the vet has said already, the prognosis is not good at all.

I know he's only a dog, but the thought of losing my 2nd best friend as well is eating away at my heart right now. He came to me as a sad, scared rescue dog nine years ago, and has barely left my side since. His boundless enthusiasm, unlimited love and velvety ears helped to keep me going in the darkest moments after R died. The house feels very quiet and empty right now.

Please think positive thoughts that I'll be able to bring him home tomorrow and make him comfortable at least for a while longer.

Monday, 1 June 2009

The Widow's Cookbook #3


This will be the first year since we moved to Wales that we haven't had a couple of weaners to fatten.
With the exception of their final road trip, every aspect of keeping pigs is an absolute joy. Their infectious enthusiasm, playfulness and appetite for eating the most unlikely-looking food combinations are so endearing. I love how they throw their empty food bowls in the air for the sheer fun of doing it, the way they fall over in a heap of quivering ecstasy when you scratch behind their ears or rootle in their bowls looking for the best bits to eat first. I am sure the world would be a better place if everyone who fancied keeping pigs were able to do so.

I can't have any more yet because it takes one person with not much appetite a long, long time to eat half a pig. I have also lost my pork pusher - R used to sell it to his colleagues at work. I'm hoping they will still be interested if I go it alone next year.

In the past, when the pigs came back from the butcher as pork we always invited a few friends and made a weekend of it, making bacon, brawn (not for the faint-hearted!), pâté and sausages. Kilos and kilos of sausages.

The first day largely involved deboning, chopping and mincing. Then came the fun part, when each participant would run riot in my spice drawers. The mixes would be made up, a couple of small patties fried, solemnly tasted and critiqued. A little more chilli needed here, too much allspice there. Perhaps polenta would be a better filler, rather than breadcrumbs.

Only after the recipe had been tweaked to perfection would the sausages be made and the ingredients written down in our Book of All Things for the smallholding. We each had our favourites, but I have to say with all due modesty that my lemon, fennel and black pepper sausage is a culinary masterpiece!

Inevitably at the end of the day there would be a small amount of minced pork left over that was not enough to put into casings. By that time, the last thing that anyone wanted to eat was another sausage. Mr M, one of our regulars at the sausage weekend, devised a Chinese-inspired mix that we put into some bread dough and baked, and so was born the Welsh pork bun.

Today it was far too hot for bread, and I needed something a little healthier than the crisps and black coffee that had been sustaining me for most of the weekend. I found a small amount of minced pork in the freezer, and decided to make Mr M's recipe and serve it with lettuce wraps, which seemed a lot more summery:

Finely chop a clove of garlic, a few slices of ginger and a couple of spring onions. Fry quickly for about 30 seconds, then add the pork mince and brown over a high heat. Add 2 or 3 finely chopped mushrooms, followed by 1/2 tsp chilli bean sauce, about 3 Tbs Chinese rice wine and a good splosh of soy sauce. Turn the heat down and cook gently for about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add a little stock or water if it sticks. When cooked, stir in a small amount of sesame oil, then spoon onto large lettuce leaves and sprinkle with a little chopped spring onion and a few sesame seeds. Wrap up tightly and enjoy.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Me, me, me

Sometimes I get sick of thinking about myself all the time.
Every now and again I have days that show there can be an alternative to this obsessive solipsism.

Of late, my BIL has been staying for a couple of nights each week to get work done on the extension. This has been such a pleasant change. It means that I get to cook for someone else, make up a bed, vacuum up crumbs, wash towels and perform all the other little acts that mean there is another human being in the house.

BIL can be a grumpy old curmudgeon. He hogs the TV remote, leaves cups lying around the house, retunes all my radios and always seems to be in the bathroom when I want to use it. But it is so nice to have someone else to talk to at breakfast time.

Today a girlfriend came round to moan on my shoulder and to offload about her nightmare in-laws. She brought cake, we drank tea and together we put the world to rights for a couple of hours.
I don't know that I actually helped with her situation at all, but was good to think about someone else's troubles for once. To be just a friend, rather than a friend-in-need.

This evening I was in the garden planting up some herbs and making a long, long mental list of everything I need to do this weekend. A list that didn't include seeing other people on it. I was trying to be sanguine about it and just about succeeding when some neighbours popped their heads over the gate. "We are off down to the pub for a swift one before supper. Care to join us?"

Care?
I had changed my shoes, grabbed my purse and was out the door before they could draw breath!*
And for a short time we talked about all the things that people talk about down the pub. R had the odd mention in passing, but otherwise nothing about dead people at all. It feels slightly disloyal to say that felt good, but it did.

It has been a whole day of normal.
Not the old normal that had R in it. It's a new normal that allows me to feel like me again, rather than the strange, semi-detached widow creature who seems to dog my every step.
I like that me and hope she comes to visit again soon.

* I really am not quite the dipsomaniac that my recent posts might suggest. Honest!

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

R's legacy, part 2


When we were looking to move to Wales, we had a whole list of criteria that our prospective new home had to fulfil. In the event we fell in love with a house that met practically none of our requirements: it was too big, needed too much work, didn't have as much land as we wanted, was too far from a train station. In fact, it was wrong in almost every respect.

But it did have one significant thing in its favour; the house was within walking distance of a pub. This had been fairly close to, if not actually at the top of R's list of essential features. Several houses had been vetoed at the particulars stage because they failed to pass this hurdle, even though he was prepared to be flexible as to what constituted walking distance.

And a very nice pub it is too. The landlady is lovely, there is a real fire in the grate all winter and you receive a warm welcome whenever you visit. In a tiny village like this, it acts as a real centre of the community. The only problem was that we had failed to do one essential piece of research - check which beer it served.

And that turned out to be the brown electrofizz liquid that is a sorry imitation of the real thing. It was a big disappointment, and meant that we visited the place a lot less over the years than we had intended.

When R died, though, it was the obvious place to hold his wake. I left the catering details in the landlady's capable hands, but my one special request was that she get in a barrel of proper beer. Specifically Cambrian Gold from a local brewery as it was one of R's favourites.

It lasted approximately an hour!

He would have been delighted to know that we drank the pub dry, but even now I can hear him wondering out loud why on earth I hadn't ordered two barrels, or even three, just to be on the safe side.

So where does the legacy part come in?

Well, after that weekend, the landlady started to experiment by bringing in a guest real ale. Initially just for the Six Nations rugby tournament, but it proved so popular that she has continued ever since. Everyone I have spoken to attributes this change of heart to the success of R's wake. That, I know for sure, would have delighted him.

And his influence lives on.
This weekend, I was invited to a party. A real, proper party where the majority of the guest list isn't under the age of 8. One where I would only know about 10% of the people.

I was terrified.

I'm not such a shrinking violet and I have always enjoyed a good party. This would be the first without his reassuring presence in the next room, though. It would have been so much easier to make some excuse and avoid going, but it was something I felt I needed to do.

When I walked in, the host asked me what I would like to drink. I cast my eye over the offerings and my heart leaped to see that he had a barrel of Cambrian Gold - R's beer - on the table. From that moment onwards, I felt totally relaxed. It was almost as though he were there looking after me. If nothing else, it gave me a topic of conversation to use as an ice-breaker which, after all, is the hardest part of being at a party.

I don’t believe there is any sort of life after death, so I equally don’t believe in messages from beyond the grave, but that reminder of him was just what I needed to help me get through what I was expecting to be a difficult evening.

(I did, however, gratefully accept an offer of an early lift home).

Saturday, 23 May 2009

They flutter behind you

... your possible pasts.

Part of R's legacy was that he taught me to put the past where it belongs - behind me. That what has happened needn't have any bearing on the future - not if I put my mind to it. Forget what was, what might have been, and concentrate all my energy into what could be, what will be.

He felt life was too short to bear a grudge. It was his intention to live forever or die trying. And he had plans. Boy, did he have plans! He wanted to turn my paddock into a wind farm, build a micro brewery in the barn, watch a game at every 1st class cricket ground in the world, build a straw bale house complete with observatory and plant a forest of oak trees, to name but a few.

At times this could make him impossible to live with as his mind was constantly running ahead of itself. Mundane things like finishing what he had started often fell by the wayside. There were times that I had to stamp my foot a lot to prevent him knocking down another wall. As I walk around the house, I have to smile as I see one of his unfinished projects or throw away another folder of 'research' for yet another plan. Given free rein, he could probably have bankrupted us several times over with some of his crazier ideas. But if he had, he would just have given me one of his grins and said, "Something will turn up".

I can't therefore regret any of my possible pasts. How could I? The one I opted for was the one that had R in it. And that was good. So good.

But I do so resent losing my future.

One of the sights I find hardest to bear is that of an older couple in waterproofs and walking boots. That was how we saw ourselves in our retirement. He would drag me up hills at every possible opportunity, so it eventually became easier to get fit enough to keep up with him!

Now I feel cast adrift. There are so many possible futures.
For now I am concentrating on getting the house finished, but then? Who knows? Go back to university, perhaps, and do another degree. But in what? Sell the house and live off the proceeds for the rest of my life? Nah, I'd be bored. Do voluntary service somewhere? Move back to the city, get a 'proper' job and restart my career? Travel the world? Move to another country and start again?

They flutter before me...