Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Playing the widow card

One often-cited cliché is that a major crisis in your life really shows you who your friends are. Cliché it may be, but it is true nonetheless. The support I have received from friends and family over the past few months has been the one positive aspect of the whole goddamn business.

But if I can allow myself just one teensy little whinge: I wish people wouldn't send me 'funnies' about death and bereavement. They just aren't. Funny, that is.
Until I was sent this link. Apart from making me laugh a lot, it also put into words something I have been conscious of, but until then had not been able to put into words, namely 'Playing the widow card'.

Today I shamelessly played the card not once, but twice. It wasn't one of those dips on the rollercoaster, it was simply an NFI day. I know that the world won't come to an end because I didn't go to a certain meeting and forgot to write up some minutes as I had promised, but I still feel ever so slightly naughty for doing it.
What the heck. Perhaps I just need a bit more practice!

Tuesday, 24 February 2009

Clearing the decks

When we moved to this house, it was still packed to the gunwales with the previous owner's crap. The sale had been a particularly emotional affair. My father and R's uncle both died within two days of us exchanging contracts, and the evil witch from whom we bought the house had not actually moved out on the day of completion, leaving us temporarily homeless. Even when we finally got rid of her, we were left with literally tons of junk to remove. It took us a few weeks to clear the house, grounds and barns, but it was a very cathartic process - every yard of ground or floor space gained was a small triumph. We also had some monumental bonfires, and would stand around watching the flames, beer in hand and congratulate ourselves on the day's hard-won results.

Having spent so much time clearing the place, we were very conscious of not wanting to clutter it up again and, for a year or so at least, the accusation of 'being like Barbara' was sufficient to prevent most unconsidered purchases. As the years passed, though, the memory became less acute, and more 'stuff' accumulated. The curse of having lots of space is that the tendency is to fill it up, thus rendering the space unusable.

This was very much evident in the barn. What used to be space for keeping animals is now full of junk. I can't even blame R for much of it, but what it all has in common is that it needs to go before the barn can be used again for its intended purpose. My dear friend C has been helping me to clear it. Over the course of two afternoons we have mostly emptied the two loose boxes, arguing and negotiating over what was to be kept, thrown away, freecycled or possibly even sold. As we slowly worked our way through the accretions, it became evident that a choice would have to be made between a bonfire and a second trip to the tip.
Naturally the bonfire won!

Sunday, 22 February 2009


I promised myself that I wouldn't become obsessed with milestones; those 'significant' dates liberally scattered throughout the year, designed - or so it seems - to trip up the unwary just when they think they are managing to cope with their loss.

Take Christmas, for example. I have never been big on Christmas. Some years we spent it with family, some with friends and a very few on our own. All were pleasant in their own way; the only thing they had in common is that we were together.

Last year, that just wouldn't be possible as himself had taken up residence underground. I tried to tell everyone that I just wanted to ignore the whole business, but it became clear very early on that this wouldn't be allowed. Matters were further complicated in that I had arranged to buy the turkey from a friend, and the plan was for me to cook it at home on Christmas morning, then pack the whole roast bird into my car and drive it to my sister's house 45 miles away. This isn't quite as crazy as it sounds. I telephoned to say that I was leaving, giving her just the right amount of time to prepare and cook the roast potatoes. It also ensured that the bird had a long and flavour-enhancing rest - an hour really isn't too long to rest a 16 lb turkey. Trust me on this!

This weekend wasn't a milestone as such. I was driving to visit R's family in Norfolk. What made it significant was that the last time we planned to visit was the day that R's heart stopped working. He went into VF at around 5.30 in the morning. Once the ambulance had carted him off to hospital I experienced a period of zen-like calm. I showered, fed the dog, fed the animals, rang brother-in-law to explain the situation, tried to ring my sister, only to remember that they weren't due to get back from holiday until that evening. Then I packed the dog in the car, along with lead and water for him, remembered to take some change for car parking and drove the 35 miles to the hospital without endangering other road users (fortunately there were few at that hour in the morning).

So the auguries weren't good for my drive over to Norfolk. I was half an hour late leaving home, missed several junctions, resulting in lengthy detours. By the time I reached Norfolk, I was a wee bit frazzled and more an hour behind schedule. At which point it all started to go horribly wrong. I tried to ring to explain the situation, only to find that R's phone would no longer work. I then got lost and stopped to consult the map.
The map that was still in the other car at home.
The best solution I could devise was to circumnavigate Norwich until I saw a town name that I recognised. Incredibly this worked, and I finally turned up almost two hours late to be greeted with relief by R's rather worried family.

I am happy to say that the rest of the weekend was notable only in that it was pleasant and uneventful. The journey home was at least two hours faster and I have now exorcised one of the demons sitting on my shoulder.

Wednesday, 18 February 2009

Also-ran soup

Not exactly prize-winning specimens, but 2008 was such an awful year for growing that I am grateful to be able to scrounge anything home-grown at the moment. All of the bigger onions have long since been eaten, but these tiddlers have the benefit of seeming to store better and being much less prone to neck rot. As for the parsnips, what can I say? They need sunshine to grow, and there was precious little of that last year.

Peel, chop and into the pan along with some chopped garlic, chilli and ginger. Throw in some spices - mustard seeds, cardamom, fenugreek and turmeric - and a bay leaf, sweat gently for a few minutes then add water and simmer until the veggies are soft. A little chicken stock wouldn't go amiss, but it really isn't essential as there is so much flavour from the vegetables and spices. A brief application of the hand blender, adding a little more water if it is too thick, check the seasoning and that's it. Serve sprinkled with chopped coriander and a slice or two of homemade oaty bread.

A frugal widow's lunch if ever I saw one!

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Before and ...

When I mentioned the half-finished house, it wasn't too much of an exaggeration. This was an ongoing project; we gutted the blockwork extension back in February 2006, and R spent most of his spare time until his death putting it back together.

Quite why it took two and a half years to replace some plasterboard and bung in a bit of insulation may be explained by R's top ten rules for wiring:
  1. If there is a simple and obvious way to do it, devise something much more complicated yourself.
  2. You can't have too many sockets.
  3. CAT5 may have been superseded in the domestic setting by wireless technology, but we may as well put it in as well.
  4. Even though I'm not actually going to put a socket here, it might be a good idea to run the cable anyway, just in case.
  5. Never go more than two yards in any direction without installing a light fitting.
  6. I know we don't want an alarm system, but I think I should put in the window contacts and wiring in case a future house buyer wants them.
  7. That Occam really had no idea what he was talking about.
  8. So what if nobody uses radial circuits in this country, ring mains are so old hat.
  9. Two types of smoke alarm have got to be better than one.
  10. Hey, I think another socket in that corner might be a good idea.
When he died leaving two unwired consumer units, unplumbed bathroom, half a staircase and many more exciting deficits, it was all I could do to go into that part of the house. I would look at the waterfall of cables descending from the ceiling, sigh to myself and go out again. Then my two knights in shining armour came along and things have started to move again. T, my brother-in-law, has practically taken up residence and is doing all the outstanding building work, while A is working on the wiring. With the job title of 'forensic electrician' he has the task of divining exactly what R had in mind on the basis of my very shaky recollection and a few scribbled-on scraps of paper. Last week we hit a couple of seemingly insurmountable problems, but I'm hoping that they may have been solved today.

A near meltdown on my part because I couldn't find some paperwork that the accountant had asked for led to frantic clearing of R's desk. This is a job I had been skirting around for months, and it was becoming harder and harder to even go into his office. Two boxes of paper for recycling later, I still hadn't found the missing bank statements, but did serendipitously stumble upon a notebook with a set of wiring diagrams that may, just may cast a little light on our darkness and avoid having to channel into my freshly-painted plaster. I should find out tomorrow.

Monday, 16 February 2009

It's too early

This was the veg garden last week.

R made those beds for me. It was February when we started the project. We had the bright idea of hiring a mini-digger and cleared all the turf and topsoil from the entire area to a depth of about 6 inches. He then built the beds, designing them so I could easily negotiate them with a wheelbarrow, but ensuring they were narrow enough to allow me to weed easily. Brilliant idea!

Then he moved on to the next project. Leaving me to barrow every ounce of topsoil back into the beds. Do you know how much soil a 20' x 3' x 8" raised bed holds?
Me neither. But it is a lot.

The snow has now thawed, but it is still far too early to sow anything outside. I dug up some parsnips, Jerusalem artichokes and the last of the carrots. 2008 was an appalling year for growing, but I had covered my maincrop carrots with fleece in an effort to counteract the root fly. It was largely successful, but the carrots were very much on the small side. Still there were enough to store on trays for another day.

Digging up the last roots triggers sowing time for me. It is a visceral thing - with the lengthening of the days, my thoughts inevitably turn to the new year's crops. By now, I have ordered my seeds and tubers for the new year. For years, this period has been a time of frustration. You can only spend so many weekends washing pots in anticipation of sowing. But now, after so many years without, I have a greenhouse, which means I can allow myself a little premature sowing frenzy. The heated propagator on my windowsill now contains: spring cabbage 'Hispi', cutting celery, lettuce 'Freckles', 'Chartwell', 'Nymans' and 'Salad Bowl Mixed'. I also sowed a tub of carrots 'Early Nantes' and a length of guttering with peas 'Twinkle'.

It was a roots sort of day, so supper this evening consisted of leg steak of Evil Ram (Hebridean x Black Welsh Mountain) with a large portion of herb-roasted roots. This was not terribly photogenic, but tasted much better than it looked.

Sunday, 8 February 2009

What now?

Just over 6 months ago on 2nd August 2008, the love of my life died for the first time when a wiring fault sent his heart into ventricular fibrillation. Although the paramedics did manage to re-establish a rhythm, it had taken them over half an hour to arrive, with the result that he was left irremediably brain-damaged.

The next two days were spent in the safe, warm, hopeful cocoon of ICU. For the first 24 hours, he was kept on ice (literally), allowing us to believe he could still recover. As he slowly warmed up, the myoclonic jerks began, indicating the extent of the damage. Then we were taken into another room for 'that' conversation. And so began the 10 agonising hours waiting for his otherwise strong, healthy body to finally shut down, watching the countdown of his life in the numbers on the machine that goes beep.

With his second death, my life as I knew it ended as well.

45 years old, I was left with a half-finished house on a Welsh hilltop, a mini-smallholding, one dog, 7 sheep, 8 chickens, 14 ducks and 9 quail.
Over the next few months, those animals were my lifeline, my reason to get up every morning. They gave structure to an otherwise empty day. Get up, let the birds out, feed them, feed the sheep, feed the dog. Sit on the sofa and cry. Look at some photos and cry some more. Walk around the house and try to find him. Fail. Cry. Then feed the sheep again, feed the birds, walk the dog, feed him. Shut up the birds. Cry some more, drink too much and go to bed.


As the fog of bereavement gradually dissipates, I realise that part of the glue that held our lives together for 26 years was food. Choosing food, shopping for, cooking and eating it. Food was the reason we ended up on our hilltop. Here we learned how to grow it, raise it and, yes, kill it for ourselves. In the first few weeks after R's death, it was all I could do to swallow enough to keep body and soul together, but the appetite has gradually returned, to the extent that I can look to the future. I don't know if I can manage to carry on with what we started together, but it seems only right that I should try.