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...

Back to work.

Monday, 6 July 2009


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.