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?"

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...

Wednesday, 20 May 2009

Losing sight of him

It has been a hectic couple of weeks with too much work and not enough sleep, which probably goes some way to explaining why I have been feeling so maudlin. One of the joys of being a freelance is that you have to take the work when it comes, which can make it hard to plan and means that anything non-urgent sometimes has to be put on the back burner for a while.

When I started back to work in late January, the assignments initially came in very slowly, amounting to at most a couple of days every week. I felt I could more or less keep on top of everything else I needed to do. But now I have to factor in a full week of desk time, I have been feeling totally overwhelmed. Keeping all the plates spinning has been mentally and physically exhausting, and has left very little time over to grieve and to think about R.

So it has been a few weeks since I last visited his grave. When I arrived this morning I could see that a lot had changed. The daffodils had long since been replaced by bluebells, and even those were on the wane. The grass in the field was growing in earnest and the wild flowers were really starting to put on a show.

It was beautiful. Just as I imagined it would look when he was buried.

What I hadn't taken into account, however, was how difficult it would be to find his grave. With the grass grown up, his stone marker had entirely disappeared.

For some reason, this sent me into a right old tizzy. It wasn't good enough just to be near him, I needed to stand in my usual spot beside his marker. So I stumbled around the hillside for several minutes working myself up into a panic. Even as I was doing it, I was trying to tell myself to not to be so daft and to calm down - he hadn't gone anywhere - but it didn't work. With relief I eventually found the plot corner marker and was able to pace my way to his grave from it.

There, hidden in the long grass, was his little stone with the number on it. The sense of peace was almost overwhelming and I felt all the panic, tiredness and worries of the previous weeks evaporate in the weak sunshine. I off-loaded everything that was on my mind, enjoyed the view for a while and then left, ready to face the world and all it could throw at me once more.

Even Moose behaved himself this time!

Sunday, 17 May 2009


There is nothing unusual about flashbacks after trauma. In the early days mine came thick and fast, several times every hour. Sometimes so frequently that they left me breathless.

Gradually, as the months have passed, the frequency has reduced, if not their power to take my breath away. Now they are familiar visitors, though. I know what to expect from them. Trying to stop them running their course doesn't work. They will have their way. I just close my eyes for a couple of seconds, brace my body as though for a physical impact and let it run.

Last night was different though.

R died for the first time in bed. It was 5.30 in the morning. He woke me to say that he couldn't find a pulse. Half asleep, I told him not to be stupid, and reached over to feel his wrist. I couldn't find one either, at which point I woke right up. I said something inane about making him go to the doctor when we came back from our weekend away, then suddenly his entire body broke out into a sweat.

His last words to me were "I'm going". Not very profound, but true nonetheless. Then he started gasping for air and turned blue, which finally galvanized me into action. I called 999, got him out of bed and onto the floor and started CPR. And continued for 35 minutes until the ambulance arrived - at which point the nightmare really began.

That's what goes through my head every time I have a flashback. I can hear the fear in his voice, the horrible rasping sound of a pair of healthy lungs trying to keep a body alive when the blood has stopped pumping round, and once again know the flaccid feel of a lifeless face and mouth that is nothing like the dummy used for CPR practice. It is a real treat for all the senses.

So why was last night so different?

Because I felt it was happening to me this time. And I knew that there was no one there to help, to call the ambulance, to let my family know.

And that scared me so much.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

The Widow's Cookbook #2

After R died, some online friends had a collection so that I could buy bulbs to plant at his grave. In the event, they sent so much money that I could probably have covered the entire burial field with daffodils, so I spent a lot of it buying plants to create a small memorial garden in front of our house.

As I was putting in these plants one afternoon, a neighbour stopped by for a chat, and I explained what I was doing. "That's a lovely hydrangea," she said. "Did R like them very much?" "Ummm." I replied. "Actually, he hated them with a vengeance and always pulled a face when I suggested planting one in the past. So I thought I'd take advantage of the fact that he isn't here to argue to have one at last."
At which point she gave me a rather odd look and went on her way.

I have been taking a similar approach to my food lately, and have been eating things that don't bring back memories.
R was wonderfully non-picky about eating, and would happily tuck into most of my culinary efforts. But he wasn't at all keen on risotto, accusing it of being nothing more than a savoury rice pudding. And not in a good way, either. So I rarely bothered making them. I mean, who wants to spend 30 minutes stirring if there isn't going to be fulsome praise at the end of it?

I, on the other hand, love risottos. I received a posh bag of arborio rice and bottle of truffle oil for my birthday, the freezer is full of good chicken stock and the garden is starting to produce at last. So the choice for supper tonight was made for me.

I am particularly proud of my baby leeks. In early Autumn last year I found a pot of plantlets that for some reason hadn't been planted out. I put them in the greenhouse when the tomato vines came out, not really expecting them to do much. But they have done me proud this year.

So, the chopped leeks are softened with a little olive oil, then in goes the rice. Stir round until everything is nice and shiny. Add a glass of dry white wine or the first ladleful of hot chicken stock if feeling abstemious. Stir until absorbed.

Keep adding stock and stirring until the rice is just al dente. Throw in some leftover chicken and add a last ladleful of stock. When this is almost absorbed and the risotto is looking beautifully creamy, season with salt and pepper and add a good handful of freshly-grated Parmesan. Serve with the salad you made while the rice was cooking (you did remember, didn't you?), top with some chopped parsley and a generous splash of truffle oil. If you didn't receive any truffle oil for your birthday (and I do recommend that you put it on your list) a knob of butter would be nice too.

Tastes wonderful, but darned difficult to photograph satisfactorily.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009


How can over nine months have passed since the day that changed my life?

It feels as though I am running at two speeds simultaneously.
On the outside, the seasons are passing as they always do. I am now working again, which gives a semblance of normality and structure to my previously free-form days. There is so much to do around the smallholding at this time of year that there is little time to stand and stare, let alone sit and cry. The race to get seeds into the propagator, potted on and planted out is a great distraction.

Alongside all this, I even seem to have acquired some semblance of a social life. Almost without realising it.

As R worked away so much over the last couple of years of his life, the people we got to know here were more 'my' friends than 'his' or 'ours'. I am often much more relaxed when I am with them than with our old friends; for the former, I don't come with the large R-shaped hole beside me, acting as a constant reminder of our mutual loss.

Nor did new friends made locally drop away once the initial shock faded. They have supported me because they care about me, rather than through some sense of duty towards R. (I am generalising, of course, some old friends have been absolute rocks). Somehow this makes it easier to go out and, yes, enjoy myself for an evening once in a while. It is also easier to snivel off home if it becomes too overwhelming and I have to get out fast.

Yes, on the outside, time is flying by.

Inside my head, though, time is moving infinitesimally slowly.
I still half-believe that I am going to wake up from this dream. That he is only in the next room and that it was his voice that I just heard. That his contract on the other side of the country will end next week and he will be home to stay for a while, perhaps even for a good long while given the current economic climate. That if I reach over in the bed at night he will be there, with his warm arms and eternally cold knees. That the conversations I have with him in my head are real and not just what I would want him to be saying to me right now. That he is coming back.

And the two times continue along their increasingly divergent paths.
How, I wonder, are they ever going to meet again?

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Decisions, decisions

Sometimes I am able to stand back and look with detachment and interest at the way that grief has played with my head.

In the first couple of weeks, when all I wanted to do was focus on R and try and make some sort of sense of the situation internally, there was the white noise. It filled my head, leaving little room for anything else. Light, music or other loud noise was an almost physically painful intrusion. I closed in on myself and allowed other people to lead me around, try to feed me and put me to bed like a small child.

Then came the fog. The blessed mind-numbing, anaesthetising fog. It allowed me to get through the funeral without shedding a single tear all day. It helped me to sort through all R's paperwork and talk to solicitors about intestacy without collapsing in a heap. I was a strange third person with the fog in my head. I could have perfectly jolly conversations with people when I should have been crying, and ran around maniacally doing rather odd things.

I miss the fog.
As it dissipated, the real pain began. Not the initial shocked pain, but the "this really is happening" pain. I imagine that anyone reading this will know all about that, so I don't need to describe it here.

Along with the pain came uncertainty, forgetfulness and dithering.
I have always been blessed with a good memory. Before, I never bothered much with diaries or lists. Now I tell everyone to make sure that I write dates or phone numbers or anything else I need to remember in my diary. If I don't write it down, I will forget it. It really is that simple.

Every morning and afternoon I check the diary. If it isn't ticked off that day, then it gets moved to the next. Otherwise forget it - because I do.
It took a while to get to this into my head, but I so hate the out-of-control feelings that go along with forgetting stuff that it is worth going against my natural inclinations.

So I now have remembering in the bag - the diary does it for me. The big thing that is now driving me mad is indecision.

Again, I used to have no problems deciding. If I want it, do it. If I don't, then don't do it. Simple.

Well, you would think so.
But I am finding it so difficult right now. My BIL keeps asking questions about the renovations. What sort of skirting board, radiator or varnish do I want? Hell, I don't know. Just go with what you think will be best. And I never knew just how many different types of light switch there were. Plain white, square edges, chamfered edges, brushed aluminium, white with coloured infill, nickel-plated, wood effect and pretend Bakelite.
I just want a bloody light switch.
Then there are the light fittings, paint colours, curtain fabrics. And this will soon be followed by carpet swatches and wood flooring samples. My head is full of choices. And I can't choose between them.

Then I need to sort out the cars. Yes cars. Why do I still have two? When you live 5 miles from the nearest garage, the logistics of servicing and MOTs are so complicated. Yet there are good reasons for having two cars - I need the 4x4 to pull the stock trailer, drive in snow, carry heavy things. On the other hand, I don't need a large estate car as well. But that means selling the one I have and buying a smaller car, and I have no interest in cars whatsoever. I don't want to think about them, and even if I do, I won't be able to decide.

R had no interest in cars either, so when we needed to buy a new one, we would goad each other into thinking about them for long enough to make a decision. Then we would go for one, possibly two test drives and that would be it. Done deal.

Without him, I can't summon up the enthusiasm. I just want the clouds to part, a large hand to come down from the clouds and point to a particular vehicle at a particular showroom, and a booming voice to say, "Buy this one".

But that isn't going to happen, is it?

Saturday, 2 May 2009

The Widow's Cookbook #1

For a pair of unashamed foodies, our knowledge of the world of fish was remarkably scant for a long time. We had a few standards that were trotted out every time – salmon fillet, various versions of white fish in a sauce, kippers for breakfast or perhaps kedgeree for Sunday brunch. But never anything very exciting or out of the ordinary.

Then we moved to Wales and found to our delight that our nearest town had a proper fishmonger. And a helpful and enthusiastic one at that. Over the years, he helped to extend our fishy education. Part of the Saturday morning ritual was to visit Derek the fishmonger to see what looked good. Always enthusiastic about his products, he was keen to teach us how to make the best of them. From him we learned how to fillet fish properly (both flat and round), dress crabs, shuck oysters, pot tiny brown shrimps. We learned what to do with samphire, the relative merits of brown and rainbow trout, not to ignore a fish just because we had never heard of it before and when which fish was in season and therefore at its best.

Derek’s shop was also the scene of one of my more dramatic meltdowns in the early days after R died. It was during the period of no appetite and I was following the sound advice of simply eating what I fancied, regardless of cost or whether it provided a balanced diet. That day, my fancy turned to crayfish tails.

I knew the moment I walked into the shop that he was going to ask where R was. But not even this foreknowledge could prevent the floodgates opening. The poor man sat me down and patted my hand for a while, but we were both very embarrassed afterwards.
Now we stick to safe topics like the weather or rugby, but he never fails to add a couple of extra prawns to my order or round my bill down to the nearest pound.

One discovery (or perhaps rediscovery) from Derek's shop was mackerel. Before, it mostly came in a tin and was covered with a dubious sauce. Then we found that it had a season, and that a mackerel freshly landed that morning, with plump body, shiny scales and bright eyes was both cheap and difficult to beat for flavour.

R’s favourite way to cook it was to dredge the fillets in seasoned oatmeal and then quickly pan-fry in butter until the topping was crispy. Served with new potatoes, broccoli from the garden and a generous spoonful of rhubarb or gooseberry chutney, it set me up perfectly for cleaning up the scene of devastation that I invariably found in the kitchen after he had cooked it!

For me it has to be devilled mackerel. Melt some butter and add to it some brown sugar, mustard powder, ground coriander, paprika, chilli powder, balsamic vinegar, S&P. Then slash the skin of the fish on both sides and slather on the buttery goodness. If the BBQ is fired up, cook the fish on there. If the weather is not so clement, line your grill pan with foil and grill for 3-4 minutes on each side.

That's all it takes for fishy perfection. And practically no washing up either.