Thursday, 30 December 2010

A year in the death: December

I was a little worried that I wouldn't manage to visit R in December due to a combination of weather, work and guests. Fortunately the thaw set in with a vengeance a couple of days ago, and the snow disappeared almost as quickly as it arrived.

Having sailed through my first two Christmases alone, I expected to do the same this year, but it proved to be a long hard slog. It was difficult to derive any pleasure from the preparations - almost everything I did emphasised his absence. Not having him there to discuss the menu, share in the gift wrapping or even rush around getting the rooms ready seemed to suck out every last vestige of enjoyment from the process. It is many months since I was last so consistently weepy and for such a sustained period.

The inevitable meltdown came on the morning of Christmas Eve when I came to dress the turkeys that had been hanging in the porch for a few days and were thus semi-frozen. Standing there with my hand up the rear end of a frigid turkey in a chaotic kitchen and totally unprepared house proved just too much. An hour or so of railing at the gods about the bloody unfairness of it all, and how this wasn't my job and I should be happily faffing around with my lavender beeswax polish at this point helped a bit. That and a stiff talking-to.
I am thinking of having one of those posters made up with "Have a Good Cry and Carry On", as it seems to be my motto these days.

Once people started arriving it got better, even though R's absence from the room is still huge for everyone. Talking to his family on the 'phone on Christmas Day was difficult; all of us putting on our best jolly voices as we always do and pretending that nothing is amiss. But we all got through it - as we always do.

My no. 1 niece stopped on for a couple of days after the others had left.
Up to a month ago she had been living in Finland with her partner, but the relationship had gone pear-shaped and she has returned to the UK - and is currently both homeless and jobless as well. So she deserved a little TLC, and it was good to think and talk about someone else's misery for a change!


So I didn't get to visit R until today.
When I arrived at the field I wasn't alone. Had I turned up an hour beforehand there would have been a funeral in progress. Fortunately I missed that, but Eira and Ifor (the owners of the field) were about to start filling in the grave. The wooden frame holding the mound of slatey soil excavated from the ground brought back bitter memories of an August afternoon two years ago.
We had a little chat - about mutual friends, about the weather and about their young Collie who had had to have a leg amputated, but was still charging about like a mad thing on three legs - then they tactfully withdrew to give me some time alone.


It was a dull, damp, grey morning as I stood and told R how much I missed him. R's normal view had almost entirely been swallowed up by the fog, and Cefn-Bryntalch - the big house that was once the home of composer Peter Warlock - was barely visible. This was where he composed his haunting song cycle, The Curlew, a piece that suits my current mood very well.

It will be a few months before the curlews return, however. This morning I would have been satisfied with an elusive glimpse of the sun, but it was not to be. The wind farm that is normally all too present through the gap in the trees was nowhere to be seen either. With the fog pressing in on all sides and filling up the valley, it was as though this hillside was the only place left on earth.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Care and maintenance

My poor old walking boots have taken a bit of a hammering over the last few weeks. They are the only footwear that keep my feet warm enough in this weather, so they have been worn a lot. Salt, snow and grit aren't a great combination for the leather, however, so they were looking rather sad this evening.

R was very conscientious about looking after shoes and boots. Cleaning was usually a job for Sunday evening before he went off for the week. He had a vast array of cloths and brushes and pots of polish, and each had to be used in the correct order. I loved to see the shoes all neatly lined up on a sheet of newspaper, laces removed, waiting for their final buffing and shine.

On the morning of his funeral I totally fixated on the need to polish my boots. I spent about an hour sitting on the step with the little pot of parade ground gloss he always used to give shoes that extra-special shine. It was always the polish of choice for weddings, funerals and interviews, so how could I do anything else? People moved around me, chatting and getting ready, as I sat with my brush and duster. My SIL said a few months afterwards that she thought I was going to rub a hole in the leather. Mechanically brushing, buffing and polishing - over and over - proved to be an effective substitute for thinking that morning.

Walking boots required a different approach.
That was always done in front of the woodburner as the warmth from the fire helped the wax to sink in. As he rubbed the wax in with his fingers, he would explain why it was important, particularly in damp, muddy Wales. Wet boots would be brushed clean of mud, stuffed with newspaper and allowed to dry naturally. Then they received the Nikwax treatment.

R practically lived in his walking boots when he was at home, so they needed a lot of maintenance. After he died I couldn't bear to see his boots on the rack in the porch. Other shoes didn't bother me so much, but seeing his boots there was torture. So one morning, fairly early on, I took them to town with me and dropped them in the Salvation Army clothes collection bin as I couldn't stand to have them in the house any longer. None of his other clothes or shoes had that effect on me - just those boots.

So I know that he would be cross to know that I hadn't Nikwaxed my walking boots since he died. They have been neglected for nearly 2 and a half years. Definitely worthy of a disappointed look. When I got back from walking Moose this evening I finally noticed how sad they were looking. It was time.

I always feel very virtuous when carrying out this type of maintenance job. It is daft really. All it involves is rubbing in some wax, but it makes me feel like the latest in a long line of thrifty housewives, darning socks and applying their stitches in time. The scent of the wax is very strong and heady, and quickly fills the room. Not exactly pleasant, but again homely and upright. My fingers move in greasy circles, paying particular attention to the seams - just as it says on the tin. The parched leather drinks in the wax, deepening in colour as it does so.

It doesn't take long, certainly not long enough to justify avoiding the task for all this time. My comfy old boots now sit ready for use once more. Sure they are a little battered and worn - just like me - but they polish up OK and seem to still have a few miles left in them yet!

The view from my window



Hmm.
I think I need to do something about those gutters!

Friday, 17 December 2010

Slowing down

The last week has been quite a hectic one for this little homebody.

Last weekend I was in Liverpool visiting friends, then on Monday I finally forced myself to go to Shrewsbury to do my Christmas shopping. Wednesday saw me driving up to Manchester for a production of The Messiah at Bridgewater Hall. Unfortunately what was supposed to be a quick trip up there, followed by a leisurely supper and an evening of sublime music ended up being rather frantic. An accident on the M6 turned the normal hour and a half journey into one lasting four hours. When I finally arrived, Jane thrust an insulated coffee mug into one hand and a bowl of lasagna into the other and said I would have to eat them in the car on the way to the concert hall! We made it with literally two minutes to spare.
The music was worth it though, and the whole experience made me very grateful that we made it out of the city and away from the daily commute when we did.


Yesterday, however, everything came to a grinding halt.
I was supposed to be going down to Essex for Vera's funeral, to see R's family and to deliver Christmas presents, but the weather had different ideas. The snow forecast for Saturday arrived two days early and I found myself stuck on my hilltop again.

As a result I spent much of the day wandering around aimlessly, trying to focus on some housework - so that I could actually achieve something with the time. I have no idea why this always happens, but the sudden relaxation after frenetically running around trying to get things sorted always results in a more or less wasted day.
Possibly it is a small amount of guilt at not making the journey, even though I know it would have been rather foolish to go. R's Dad was relieved that I didn't as he would have worried about me the whole time, but it still felt wrong not to be there to say goodbye.


In the end I simply gave up and went out with Moose for a good long walk. The snow was fresh and still shallow enough to walk on comfortably. I love the leaden light created by weak winter sunshine fighting its way through snow-laden clouds. The complete lack of traffic allows the other sounds of the countryside to ring out clearly - hungry sheep in the fields waiting impatiently for the farmer to bring a new bale of haylage, startled black rooks rising as one from the white-shrouded depths of an oak tree, snow falling suddenly from an overhanging branch.


I am glad we went out yesterday as another foot of snow arrived overnight.
Feeding the animals was interesting as their bowls and waterers had completely disappeared. Everything - including me - was more than ready for their breakfast by the time I got round to them.

The snowplough has just been along the main road, so I now have the choice between digging out the Land Rover for a trip to the shops to pick up a few things, or staying inside in the warm and putting on the oven to do some baking.
At the moment the thought of the baking is winning!

Monday, 13 December 2010

The visit

I have just returned from a trip to the Hall at Abbey-Cwm-Hir, a restored Victorian Gothic Revival house.

I'm not sure why I agreed to go as visiting country houses really isn't my thing at all, but I guess I couldn't come up with a reason why not quickly enough. And it was a trip out with friends, which is generally a Good Thing. At this time of year, the tour centres on the fact that the house has 52 rooms, and each one is decorated for Christmas.

Well, I had probably had my fill of tweely-bedecked Christmas trees by about the 11th room, and we hadn't even left the first floor. The place was on the unacceptable side of lukewarm in most of the rooms as we padded around in our stockinged feet (shoes had to be left at the door because of the carpets), and the lady of the house flitted around behind the scenes in her bright red dress, never introducing herself to us, but constantly "there", glimpsed briefly and elusively going into another room at the end of a corridor or the top of a staircase. All very Daphne Du Maurier.

By the time we reached the frigid 'servants' quarters' at the top of the house, each room still decorated in its own Christmassy theme, it was all becoming very surreal.
I had hoped that the trip might help to bring on a little festive spirit, but it was rather counterproductive. When we left I swore that I didn't want to see another Christmas tree for as long as I lived!

This will be my third Christmas on my own.

The first one I planned simply to survive. In the end I found it very comforting to go through the ingrained rituals with my family around me. For R and I, it was never one of the 'big' things in our year. Mostly it involved frenetically driving all over the country visiting relatives, so we rarely spent it just the two of us. Of course his absence was huge that first Christmas, but it wasn't as bad as I thought it would be, and nowhere near as awful as most of the other 'firsts'.

Last year I actually enjoyed the holidays. The preparations were a great distraction. I had lists and timetables, and spent a week or so making beds, cleaning, baking and generally turning the house into a home for the season. My family were all on good form, and it was wonderful having us all together, eating, talking and playing silly games with the kids. The period afterwards was difficult for me when the snow came back and I was all alone for several days, but Christmas itself was an unexpected pleasure.

This year I seem to be struggling much more with it.
My family are coming here again, which is just how I want it, but I don't seem to be able to gear myself up to getting ready.
I can cope with the feasting part - I love that and always will. But thinking about and shopping for gifts feels like swimming through treacle. It doesn't help that I regard the whole gift-giving part of Christmas as a totally meaningless exercise for anyone over the age of about 18. Don't get me wrong - I love to give people gifts when I happen upon something that I know they will like, but desperately rushing around trying to find a present for someone who doesn't really want or need anything from me, and all for an artificial deadline, just sends my head into a spin.

It used to be so easy - I would hand the whole thing over to R, who loved shopping and could happily wander around for hours, if not days, looking for gifts. In contrast, I find it totally stressful, and really wish people would grow up and decide not to bother after all. Right now it is sucking out all the pleasure that I should be feeling at looking forward to the feasting and companionship which, for me as a non-religious person, are what Christmas is all about.
Oh well, it will all be over soon.

Sunday, 12 December 2010

Hurrah!

Success at last.

Several days of tapping, banging the jar on the worktop, levering and channelling of all my frustration came to naught, but then I remembered. Heat. That's what was needed. A little light expansion.

Half an hour seated on the radiator (the jar, that is, not me you understand) did the trick. And I am delighted to announce that ...
we now have pickles!

(The heater is also now in the house, although that did require some assistance).

Tuesday, 7 December 2010

Warming up

It feels as though I have spent the last week or so doing nothing but feed things and deliver water to replace the last lot of water that froze.
And trying to keep warm, of course.

It takes a few days to get habituated to the snow and develop a new routine.
It is the same every year. I always forget just how cold this house can be with its rubble-filled stone walls and undersized boiler, or at least until the wood stove and central heating have been going full-blast for a few hours and the benefits of the large thermal mass eventually start to make themselves felt. R had some incredibly unfeasible ideas about how to insulate the house, most of which were vetoed by me on the grounds of a) cost, b) loss of internal floor space or c) general bizarreness. On the other hand, when I think back to our first couple of winters here and how uncomfortable they were, I am very grateful for most of the improvements he did organise, like the beautiful new windows or the rather more prosaic repointing of the stonework so the walls no longer run with condensation in the cold weather.

But despite the improvements, it is still a cold house and I forget how many clothes I need to wear when the temperature drops below zero; for the first few days I am constantly cold with even more frigid feet. Then more and more garments are gradually added until I reach a balance between staving off hypothermia and actually being able to move.

Having reached this balance, it was a small surprise when the temperature rose drastically on Saturday and a short thaw set in.
That gave me an opportunity to get over to see my Mum and take her to do a bit of shopping. The negotiations of the Summer sadly came to nothing, and she has decided that she doesn't want to move for the time being. Which is entirely her decision, of course, but does make life difficult for both her and the rest of the family as she is now dependent on infrequent public transport after giving up her car earlier this year. It also doesn't help when she tells me that she fell over in the road while going to visit a friend a few days ago. Fortunately she got away with a sore wrist and bruised hip, but it could have been so much worse.
At what point do we take over the baton from our parents and start worrying about them, rather than the other way around?

The slightly warmer weather also allowed me to get a few jobs done outside on Sunday, like cleaning out the henhouses and sorting out the woodpile. I also needed to ear tag the two ram lambs prior to taking them to the You Know Where today. The lambs are still quite small, having only been born in June, so I decided to keep the ewe lambs until next spring. The boys had to go, however, as they were still intact and I am unable to keep them separate from the ewes. I want to give the ewes a rest next year and not put them to the ram again as they were still lactating up to a couple of months ago, and it doesn't seem fair to get them in lamb again so soon afterwards.

This is an ongoing problem I have with the male lambs.

***Look away now if you are at all squeamish***

It is not the first issue that comes to mind when you start keeping sheep, but eventually if you are going to have lambs, then at some point you have to think about castrating the rams! There are essentially three choices. Do it within the first week using a delightfully-named Elastrator, which applies a rubber band to the scrotum so that the testicles eventually wither away and drop off - just like the tail does if you decide to dock (which I don't, as I don't seem to have a lot of problems with flystrike up here). I haven't yet managed to use this device successfully, and R was never any help as all he would do was to hold the lambs with his eyes shut, refusing to look until it was all over! This year, faced with a wiggly ram lamb and no one to help, I completely chickened out and decided to worry about the problem later.

Or you can do the deed just before puberty using the rather mediaeval-sounding "irons", as my neighbour calls them. Only he only offered to show R how to do this and, as is probably obvious from the Elastrator fiasco, his heart wasn't exactly in it, and he never took the neighbour up on the offer. To tell the truth, I was quite relieved as I didn't fancy the idea much myself.

The third alternative is separation. When the lambs come off their mothers, move the boys to a separate field. Which I do not have. And my third little ewe is the result of the unnatural son-and-mother action that was the inevitable outcome of my abject failure to complete any of the above steps successfully!

So this year's ram lambs had to go, and two fewer mouths to feed will make my hay supply last a bit longer.

***It is safe to look again***

After I had finished all my outside chores, it was time to take Moose for a walk. He was in need of a good stretch of the legs, so we went up the road towards the moors, passing the Widow's House on the way. The poor little cottage looks even more desolate and lonely in the snow. Nothing has been done to it for a couple of years now, and I suspect it will just be left to rot. Which is so very sad.


The weekend was a pleasant respite from the cold, but the temperature has dropped ten degrees once more.
Back to chipping out blocks of ice from the water bowls and nursing my chilblains!

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

Here we go again

Well it looks as though the Grim Reaper is still dogging my tracks. R's brother rang me this evening to tell me that his Aunty Vera had died.

Now Vera wasn't a huggable sort of aunty at all. "Formidable" was probably the best word to describe her. A classic old-school army wife with a ramrod straight back and inability to suffer fools at all, let alone gladly. In the course of her life she moved house nearly 40 times and, even in her eighties she thought nothing of upping sticks and moving to new accommodation. At the age of 90, she had her driving license renewed.

I remember feeling rather daunted at the thought of meeting her for the first time. When the day finally came, I had a horrible bout of food poisoning after eating fried chicken at a party the night before. R had to stop the car a couple of times on our way to his parents' house so I could throw up, and I spent most of the afternoon with my head in a bucket! Strangely it proved to be an excellent ice-breaker and she never let me forget our first meeting.

As a woman who liked to be in control of her life, she seems to have been in charge at the leaving of it too. She had recently lost a lot of weight and was eventually taken into hospital because of stomach pains. The doctors suspected a hiatus hernia and wanted to do exploratory surgery. Vera told them in no uncertain terms that she had had enough and wasn't going to be "messed about with" by them! Within a few days she had said goodbye to all the people who were important to her and passed on in her own terms.
I cannot help but admire someone who is so uncompromising right to the last.

I was planning a trip down South to drop off Christmas presents, but it now looks as though I shall be combining it with a funeral. I'd better make sure I don't eat fried chicken the night before - just in case!

Tuesday, 30 November 2010

Logistics

Some days you just want someone to open the pickle jar.

Try as I might to ignore it, Christmas is fast approaching.
For the time being at least, it is easiest for my family to come to me. I have plenty of space, the all-important turkey is here and it means I don't have to arrange for someone to feed the animals while I am away (which is both difficult and expensive during the festive season). But it does mean that I need to warm up the back part of the house that isn't currently in use.

Sadly there is no chimney out there, so it isn't feasible to fit a woodburner. I have been looking at electric versions of my cast iron stove for some time now, but most have been too noisy, too tinny or just too not quite right. Then I discovered Broseley stoves which pushed all the right buttons for me - locally-made, proper cast iron stoves, rather than flimsy sheet metal and even the pretend coals aren't too tacky. Altogether really rather nice.
Unfortunately they were also rather outside my budget!

But last week I spotted one on EBay, advertised for pick-up only less than 15 miles from home. Well, it was just meant to be, and I won it for about a third of the normal cost.

I went to collect it yesterday and am absolutely delighted with my bargain. What I didn't take into account, however, was the fact that it weighs almost exactly the same as me. It went into the Land Rover fine with two of us to lift it.
Now I can't get it out!
All will be well once it is on the ground as it will go on the sack truck, but I'm afraid that it will land too heavily and break one of the cast iron legs if I try to get it out by myself. So it is stuck in the back of the Landy until I can enlist the assistance of some kind passing gentleman.

One will doubtless be along sooner or later, but it is infuriating having to wait. Had R been here it would be in the house, fitted and warming up the back room now as I type. It frustrates me so much being reliant on other people for stupid little things like this.

And no, I haven't got the pickle jar open yet either. Not even with the aid of my trusty Baby Boa. Grrr.

Sunday, 28 November 2010

Let it snow

I have had many occasions to smile at R's bulk-buying habits over the past couple of years, and not a few moments spent shaking my head in exasperation. Every once in a while, though, I have good reason to be thankful and feel that he is still looking after me.

This early spell of snow took me quite by surprise.
The weather forecast seemed to suggest that we were only due a light sprinkling. Well that may have been true down in the valley, but up here on my hilltop we had a proper snowfall and I really wasn't prepared for it. So my first job this morning was to rediscover the path from the house.


Fortunately R had been prepared, and I was pleased to unearth a bag of salt that he had stashed away for a moment such as this. (Buying salt had been on my "must get round to it soon" list, but I didn't expect to need it quite yet). I also found a couple of cans of windscreen deicer on a shelf which I suspect will be very useful tomorrow.


The snowfall is beautiful, but this is always a difficult time for farmers.
When the fields are white, most of the traffic on the road seems to be related to ferrying food around for sheep and cattle in one form or another.
This year was a bad one for hay and silage. It was so dry in late Spring and early Summer that the grass seemed to stop growing in the peak haying period. As a result, many farmers were only able to take a single crop from their fields, or at best a fairly meagre second crop later in the season. The price of hay seems to be nearly a third higher than it was this time last year.

For me, with my micro-flock of just 7 sheep, this isn't the end of the world. I can take the financial hit. The lamb in my freezer probably won't be cost-effective this year but I can cope with that - and it will still taste wonderful. For my friends who farm for real, having to buy in hay or silage can mean the difference between making a profit and making a loss.


My little Hebridean sheep are hardy souls. When the weather is bad they aren't too fussy about what they eat, unlike some of their more highly-bred cousins. But they do appear to have an aversion to eating food that is damp, whether that be hay or the concentrates that they also need when there is no grass. This means that I find myself taking food out to them three or four times a day in bad weather as they will simply ignore their pellets once they get wet and go soggy - even though they were tucking into them happily a couple of hours previously. Damp food means both hungry sheep and a waste of money.

As I said, this early snowfall took me by surprise, and I was down to my last bale of hay this morning. No problem, I thought. I'll take the Land Rover down to the feed store and pack it with enough hay to see me through this cold snap.

It was a great plan.
Unfortunately the Landy wouldn't start. It was turning over, but there wasn't enough charge - or it was too cold - to start.
I can just picture R, standing there with an exasperated grin on his face, wondering why on earth I didn't make sure the battery was fully charged when I learned that snow was coming.

Well I just didn't.
OK.
So it messed up my entire morning waiting for the battery to charge. At least I got my ironing done while I was waiting.

Friday, 26 November 2010

Fears

At this time of year it is difficult fitting everything in within the hours of daylight.
This isn't a new phenomenon; it has been the same ever since we moved here. If I don't feed the animals early enough before it gets dark, for example, the food lies around all night and encourages rats, which is never a good thing. This means that I really need to stop working at around 3.30 to do all my animal chores and give Moose his evening walk. It really messes up my working day, but even at his venerable age, the thought of having an underexercised collie in the house is still worse than actually wrapping up warm and going out!

That's the official timetable anyway.
Some days it doesn't quite work out like that, and the light is fading by the time Moose and I are ready. No matter. The roads are quiet here, so I don my reflective vest, put a torch in my pocket and set out regardless.

There are only a couple of street lights in the village, and none whatsoever after passing the village sign. There used to be more, but the Council switched two thirds of them off in a fit of money-saving zeal and it is so much more pleasant. I love walking in proper darkness without the sodium glow on the horizon.

This evening I was half-way around my usual circuit when I met an elderly gentleman I sometimes see, and stopped for a brief chat.
"Aren't you scared?" he asked, "Out here in the dark on your own."
I was puzzled.
It had never even occurred to me that I should be scared. I like the dark. I had a torch in my pocket and a rather protective medium-sized dog with me. There is very little traffic, and the thought of someone lying in wait behind a hedge in the frigid conditions on the off-chance that I might pass seems very unlikely.

I don't want to be scared about things like that.
There are plenty of things that I am nervous about now I am alone. I don't use the chainsaw when there is no one around after promising my family that I wouldn't. I'm not keen on heights, so ladders are best avoided where possible.
The thought of breaking an arm or leg is a constant worry as it would make my life well-nigh impossible.
I am totally paranoid about being tripped up by the dog on my way downstairs and breaking my neck.
And constantly at the back of my mind is the nagging fear that I will wake up dead one morning, just like R did, only there will be no one here to call for an ambulance.

But walking in the dark? No way.
I shall continue to enjoy that. Particularly on a cold, crisp, icy night like tonight when the starlight is almost dazzling and there is a nearly full moon to light my path.
That is a pleasure, not something to be feared.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

*&@£$%"+* foxes

Oh well. That's one fewer turkey to put to bed every night.

Bah.

Tuesday, 23 November 2010

It's raining men

From a few conversations I have had lately, the world seems to think it is time that I "move on".

At a meeting the other day, one elderly lady asked me if I had found myself a "little friend" yet. At first I thought she was asking if I had got another dog!
There was a time when I would have been shocked or upset or insulted by a question like that, but I am a lot more sanguine about it these days. People mean well.
I told her that I didn't think I was ready yet, and we talked a little about living alone. I explained that, although it had taken a long time to become comfortable with my own company, there are some benefits - the house is feeling a lot less cluttered, for example, and the kitchen table doesn't regularly disappear under a layer of detritus!

And I think that is where I am right now. Comfortable. In my life and in my own skin.

There are times when I would love to be sharing my life with someone again. Not because I need to - I am pretty self-sufficient these days - but the sharing part does appeal. Sharing meals, sharing moments, sharing a joke, sharing a bed, even sharing sadness. Living alone does tend to make one a little selfish, and that is not who I really am.

Every now and again I take the idea of looking for another partner out of its box, place it on the table and examine it well from all sides. So far the thought of dating again has appeared overwhelmingly awful, and the idea is carefully wrapped up again and returned to the box.

My friend Natasha decided the other day that she was going to act as my Official Matchmaker. Unfortunately (or should that be fortunately?) she was unable to come up with any eligible bachelors who weren't either under 25 or well past retirement age, which came as something of a relief!

And therein lies the rub.
For the past two and a bit years I have been surrounded by women.
Funny, smart, comforting, gentle, supportive and loving women. It was exactly what I needed - they have wrapped me in love and kindness, picked me up when I stumbled, handed me tissues on the bad days and laughed with me on the good ones. I wouldn't have got this far without them. But with very few exceptions, the only men I have spent any time with have been family members or the husbands of friends. The top of a hill in the back of beyond isn't the ideal place to start a new career as a single person.

So I had a bit of a shock yesterday evening.
I have mentioned before that I help to run a table tennis club. A couple of the older lads and our coach Brian have formed a team that plays in the local league. Last night Brian was unable to play so he asked me to stand in for him. I was a bit nervous, but that was at the thought of playing at a seriously competitive level, rather than in our little club. But when I walked through the door into the gym, it suddenly struck me that I was the only woman there - it was wall-to-wall men and really quite overwhelming! Had it not been for the fact that I had to drive the two teens home again afterwards, I would probably have turned tail and run.

Naturally once I had calmed down and started playing it was all fine, but it did bring home to me quite how out of practice I am at this being out in the world on my own business.
Oh, and I was roundly thrashed in every game I played. That is OK, though, as improving gives me a goal to work towards while the little box is still on the shelf. Displacement activity is the order of the day in this house.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

A year in the death: November

It has been an intense few days. For once not on my own account.

A good friend is possibly - probably (who knows?) - on the verge of leaving her husband. It isn't my story to tell, so I shall leave it at that, but she has been staying for a while in a little holiday cottage that just happens to be very near R's burial field. So I took the slight detour to go and say hello on my way home yesterday.

Talking to R at his grave still helps me to clear my head better than almost anything. The grass was too wet yesterday to sit down so I couldn't settle for a long chat, but a few minutes was long enough to off-load it all.

It was also an opportunity to look back at how far I have come.
A year ago I would have found this situation too difficult to cope with. There was a time when I simply couldn't bear to be in the same room as a bickering couple. Watching two people who are supposed to love one another causing pain instead was too unfair, too much to handle.

If I'm honest, it still hurts to see, but I can now look beyond the unpleasantness and be thankful to have had the life I did with R. We argued from time to time, of course we did, but rarely allowed the sun to go down on our anger. I cannot imagine how it feels to be trapped in a life with someone who makes me unhappy.

I guess even our relationships are subject to the entropy that rules the universe, and it takes both parties working hard to prevent them moving inexorably towards disorder.


This field where I come to think and talk also paints a picture of the changing seasons.

I can tell as I walk up the hill who has had a visitor recently. Some graves have a few flowers marking the spot, at others it is the beaten-down grass that reveals the footfall. It is also an automatic reaction to clear away any overgrown grass or fallen leaves from the stone marker, and it makes me a little sad to see that R's immediate neighbours have 'disappeared'.

The young trees that were little more than sticks in August 2008 are now healthy-looking saplings, and there are more chairs and benches around the periphery of the field, sponsored by families who want their loved one's name to be visible to the world as well as just a number.
It was a dull November afternoon yesterday, and I only had my phone with me so the pictures are not great.
I don't understand why, but I still feel a need to record the passage of time without R, and this place would appear to be the ideal place to do it.

November is perhaps an odd month to start, but I guess it is as good as any.

Thursday, 11 November 2010

Remembering

Aftermath

Have you forgotten yet?
For the world's events have rumbled on since those gagged days,
Like traffic checked while at the crossing of city-ways:
And the haunted gap in your mind has filled with thoughts that flow
Like clouds in the lit heaven of life; and you're a man reprieved to go,
Taking your peaceful share of Time, with joy to spare.
But the past is just the same - and War's a bloody game.
Have you forgotten yet?
Look down, and swear by the slain of the War that you'll never forget.

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz -
The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets?
Do you remember the rats; and the stench
Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench -
And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain?
Do you ever stop and ask, 'Is it all going to happen again?'

Do you remember that hour of din before the attack?
And the anger, the blind compassion that seized and shook you then
As you peered at the doomed and haggard faces of your men?
Do you remember the stretcher-cases lurching back
With dying eyes and lolling heads - those ashen-grey
Masks of the lads who once were keen and kind and gay?

Have you forgotten yet?
Look up, and swear by the green of the spring that you'll never forget.

Siegfried Sassoon

Monday, 1 November 2010

Weirdness

It is not for nothing that Wales is known as the Land of Song. I have probably done more singing in the past seven years than I did in the previous 40. It is just a part of life here, and there is none of the apologetic mumbling that you get at weddings and funerals dros y clawdd (across the dyke - my favourite way to say "in England" in Welsh). For a long time, I always carried a little piece of paper in my handbag with the words to the national anthem - to ensure that I never had a John Redwood moment!

I don't think it is just a rural thing either; certainly not if you have ever heard the rugby crowd singing at the Millennium Stadium. The eisteddfod tradition has a lot to do with it. Every school, even at the primary level competes in local and national eisteddfodau, so getting up on stage and singing, dancing or reciting is not a thing to be feared. Most people seem to be able to tell a few jokes, play an instrument, sing tidily or act on stage.

I love singing myself. I'll never make a soloist, but I can hold a tune and love being part of a bigger noise. And I quite enjoy being on stage and making a fool of myself, so I was rather pleased a few years back when I was asked to take part in our village's entry in a local "entertainment" competition. And rather more surprised when, a couple of years later, I found myself writing it as well.

For obvious reasons, I took some time out from this after R died. Then last year I had a small part which did me a lot of good at the time. This year, the writing baton somehow got handed back to me so, for the last couple of months, I have been totally absorbed with scripts, props, casting, rehearsals, finding suitable music and all the other minutiae of putting on a playlet. It is amazing how a 30-minute performance can totally take over your life - it is the ideal distraction for the widow with the slightly obsessive personality!

Well, we entered the competition. It wasn't a stellar performance, but we came joint second, which was probably a fair result. But as it always seems such a waste to put all that effort into just one night, we repeated the performance at our local village hall as a fundraiser for the church. And the winning team was asked to join us too.

"Where on earth is she going with all this?", I am sure you are thinking to yourself by now.

Well, all this goes some way to explaining how, yesterday evening, I found myself standing on stage introducing the Master of Ceremonies for the event - who was none other than the funeral director who buried R.
This situation was made all the more weird by the fact that he was wearing jeans and T-shirt, rather than his sombre funeral garb, sang in a rather excellent tenor voice and told a lot of slightly risqué jokes over the course of the evening. I am not sure what I expected a funeral director to do in his spare time, but it certainly wasn't this.

But it didn't end there. The other team performing this evening was led by the couple who own R's burial field. They are lovely people, and made sure I was OK, but it was all very peculiar, standing there having a post-performance glass of wine with them.

Oddly none of this was the least bit upsetting.

But it was very, very weird.

Negotiations

On Saturday morning I was rushing around getting ready to go over to see my Mum. Late as usual. There was a knock on the door. I opened it to a little Welshman with a broad grin on his face. He is the archetypal retired Welsh farmer; about my height, round, cheerful face, late 70s, walking stick, clean 3rd best suit and a flat cap.

He has been calling upon me about once a month since early Summer.

He stands on the doorstep and we talk about ducks. Specifically my ducks. The ever-growing flock of juvenile muscovies that clutter up the place like so many indolent teenagers in a shopping mall on a wet weekend. Occasionally he throws a few Welsh words at me to test my knowledge, but so far I have passed the test.

Mostly we talk about ducks.
He may have introduced himself the first time he appeared, but I don't recall, and it is equally probable that he didn't. I do remember, though, standing in the doorway with a fixed grin on my face, wondering why this man was talking to me about ducks. And could he please get to the point as I had work to do.
Eventually it percolated through that he might be interested in buying some - not that he ever said it in so many words.

At the time the only ducklings I had weren't feathered up, so they weren't ready to leave their mother. But in a roundabout way, he wondered what price I would sell them for if I were interested in selling. I suggested a figure and there was a sharp intake of breath, at which I felt compelled to explain how much it had cost them to feed them so far and how I would simply put them in the freezer if I couldn't find a buyer. This exchange was followed by a couple more minutes of pleasantries and then he left.

It is the Welsh way of negotiating and it drives me mad.
Don't mention a price. In fact don't even say that you are interested in buying in so many words while, at the same time, making it perfectly obvious that you are. Assume a slightly quizzical and expectant look. Then when the other person suggests a price, appear puzzled at the beginner's obvious miscalculation and then change the subject. At which point the poor person who didn't realise that they wanted to sell their ducks in the first place finds that they are completely on the back foot and start chuntering on, trying to defend their entirely reasonable price proposal.

Repeat at monthly intervals until the poor benighted duck owner, who knows deep down inside that she has too many beaks to feed and is almost certainly not going to be putting the excess, layabout drakes in the freezer any time soon, suggests a price that is way under the market value, but appears to be acceptable.

Shake hands on the deal and arrange to pick the birds up in a few days time. Go on your merry way, leaving the duck owner feeling ever so slightly steamrollered!

Friday, 29 October 2010

Misery memoirs

It's an odd thing.
The last couple of weeks have been great.
Buzzing.
I have been rushing around doing things that I love doing, with people whose company I enjoy. But I don't feel compelled to write about it.
Why is that?

I sometimes wonder how this blog makes me appear.
Yes, I have been through the trauma of R's death, and that was every bit as awful as you would imagine, and then some. But that has now been absorbed into me. It is as much a part of me as the fact that I have brown hair or love language or have to drink my morning coffee out of one particular cup.

But it is still so much easier to write about the bad times than the good.

The bad thoughts seem to tumble out of my head, through my fingers and onto the screen almost without thinking about them.
The good ones are much harder to write about without appearing smug or trite or irritatingly self-satisfied.

In my natural state I freely admit that I am one of life's Pollyannas. I like to see the best in people, and discover good things in bad situations. And it's true. Even in my darkest days it was still possible to smile at the absurdity of life or at little kindnesses shown to me. Or at the beauty of a sunset over the hills, or just the velvety ears of a dog who has stuck by my side through all of this crap.

I wish it was possible to simply will grief away.
Believe me, if it was, I would have done it. It is not for want of trying. Despite my monumental efforts to keep it in its box, it continues to seep into every corner of my life.

But that is not all that I am.
There are times that I feel there is a large "W" branded on my forehead, but deep down inside I know that it isn't really there. There is fun and laughter and song and dancing in my life too, along with all manner of other good things.

Perhaps it is time to start acknowledging those things and writing about them more, so I can start to believe they really exist, even without him.
There will still be bad days - I know and accept that - but maybe acknowledging the good things will allow me to truly absorb the fact that life can be good again. And indeed is.

Monday, 25 October 2010

Brrrrr

We had the first hard frost of the Winter this morning. All the animals' water bowls were frozen, but not the outside tap fortunately. But it is still jolly cold on the hands - time to call back those gloves and scarves from their Summer hideaways.

The sun has been shining all day, though, as a consolation prize. Crisp and cold is good. Let's hope it stays that way long enough for me to get the leaves raked up from the lawn and cleared from the gutters.

I am feeling a little more positive about Winter today.

The wood store is full, I remembered to have the oil tank filled. The garden is half-way to being shut down for the Winter; perhaps another couple of weekends will get it sorted so I can get off to a flying start next Spring. The freezers are full of food, the lambs are booked to go off next month which will leave me with the bare minimum of animals to look after and feed.

Apart from the turkeys, that is.


Every year about this time I wonder whatever possessed me to buy in turkey poults. Well for a start they are probably the only animals around here that actually turn a profit. But that profit comes at a price. Turkeys are quite the most brainless critters I have ever encountered. Their worried curate expression and gentle peeping noises go some way to making up for their lack intelligence. But only some way.

Every evening - and I mean every evening - from the day they arrive in August to the day we say goodbye in mid-December I have to physically pick them up from the fence where they have decided to roost and carry them to their shed for the night. It isn't so bad for the first couple of months while they are still small, but those birds are starting to get heavy now. Nor do they cooperate. Not one little bit.
The novelty of chasing around the paddock after renegade turkeys in the dark and bitter cold quickly wears off. Particularly after the fifth night in a row.

That is one job I shall be very happy to see the back of.

Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Harvesting

That's what they call it, isn't it?
It's a pretty euphemism for a not-so-pretty concept.

The subject has come up a few times lately, both online and in real life. It is another of those topics that I used to think was black and white, and now realise comes in a hundred shades of grey.

In one conversation I was on the receiving end of a little bit of stick (nothing too aggressive) for not letting the hospital take any of R's organs when he died. Back in my old life, I would probably have had the same attitude; he's dead, what does it matter? It was the living person who mattered, not the shell of his body.
R agreed. He carried a donor card (as do I) and indeed took it further to believe that organ donation should be a matter of routine, and each individual should have to opt out of it, rather than opting in.

But it really wasn't that simple.

When we had That Conversation with the doctors at the hospital, R's sister-in-law brought up the topic of organ donation. The doctor very gently explained to me what could be taken.
Corneas were mentioned, and the visceral nature of my response shocked me. They absolutely couldn't have his eyes. Not that. Anything but his eyes.
I don't know why. The words spilled out before I had thought about them.

Then the doctor explained that, to harvest the organs, he would have to be taken away before he had gone. And at that moment I knew I couldn't let it happen.

I could no more have let them take him away at that point than I could have sawn off my own foot. It wasn't so much the idea of taking parts of him away - that really wasn't important to me. I didn't see his body again after I left the hospital. Just didn't want to. But it was simply impossible to conceive of letting them take him away to die on his own on an operating table while the surgeon waited with knife poised. Had he gone as the result of an accident or after an operation, it would have been very different and I am pretty sure that I would have let them do it. If they could have let him go first and then taken his body it would have been alright too. But after two and a half days sitting beside him in Intensive Care, I had to see him through to the end of his journey.

The doctor was very good about it. In fact he looked quite relieved, and told me that he wouldn't have been able to agree to it either if he were in my position. It would be nice to think that R had helped someone else after he had gone, but it just wasn't possible for me.

Life (and death) really wasn't as simple as I had fondly imagined.

Saturday, 16 October 2010

Tonight

... supper consisted of coffee and chocolate.

This afternoon the pigs came back in boxes. My lovely friends Lynn and David picked them up from the butcher with their own pork, which saved me a trip and gave me the opportunity to sort out the freezer before it arrived.

The last time this happened was around three years ago.
The porkfest weekend was always one of the highlights of the year. The house would be buzzing with people. R would have a list of orders from colleagues at work. I would make up the brine for the bacon, we would chop and mince and season, and then make sausages. A lot of wine would be drunk, and lots of food eaten. It was a celebration of the end of a year of work, of the type that has been held at the end of the growing season all around the world since time immemorial.

This year is such a contrast.
The house was quiet as I weighed and labelled and rewrapped, although I did have a pleasant couple of hours as I drove around the area, delivering people's orders. The meat looks great - a lovely dark pink with just about the right amount of fat on it. After seven years of raising pigs, it looks as though I have finally got the feeding right. The recipients - particularly those who supplied me with buckets of apples - all appreciated their happy pork.

Then home to put the belly pork into the salt to turn it into streaky bacon and make a start on chopping and mincing the shoulder meat. Tomorrow I make chorizo. I also cheated this year and left the legs with the butcher to turn into gammon and ham - I just don't have the energy to do it myself, and he does a great job.

And at the end of all this, the last thing I want to eat is meat. I did buy some fish for supper, but I didn't really fancy that either - so chocolate and coffee it was. Tomorrow I can start eating properly again.

I still sometimes wonder what I am doing with all this. What is the point when it is just me here?
I have already decided not to get the ram in this year for my ewes. They were very late lambing and the lambs are not yet totally weaned, so it seems only fair to give them a rest. I shall no doubt regret this next year when there are no lambs bouncing around the field in the Spring. But perhaps there will be time and room for some more pigs.

I think, I hope this is just season-end melancholy. The greenhouse probably holds one last picking of tomatoes, and I have been digging over most of the vegetable beds before I cover them for the winter. There is the possibility of a frost tonight, so I shall probably have to bring in the shelling beans tomorrow as well.

As much as I kick against it, the year is closing itself down around me. Is there really any point in raging against the dying of the light?

Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Keep, throw, donate or recycle?

I have been doing quite a lot of clearing lately.

It is a slow process. Much slower than I expected it to be.

Everything has to be examined and smiled at, or a few tears shed. Every book has to be checked for train tickets or bits of paper with scribbled notes on used as bookmarks. Every item of clothing has to be held close, the memories remembered and a decision taken as to whether I can let it go yet. Every notebook has to be checked just in case it contains some of his writings or perhaps some important detail about the house.

I thought I would be good at this. I can throw out or donate my own belongings without a second thought. Yet William Morris' exhortation to "have nothing in your house that you do not know to use, or believe to be beautiful" doesn't really help when faced with a drawerful of what a friend of mine calls "kibble". Those little things that obviously once had some purpose and were put away because they might be needed again, but it is not entirely apparent why. I wish I were brave enough to just take a binbag and empty all that sort of stuff into it, but I'm not.
So the process continues at its own snail-like pace.

I did have to laugh at this, though.

At the bottom of a drawer I found a box containing every single expired credit card, library card, AA card (the Automobile Association, not the other one!) and assorted other cards covering a roughly ten-year period.

Why?
Can someone explain to me why a grown man, apparently in his right mind, would keep all this?
If I check on e-Bay will I find that a ten year-old expired Labour Party membership card will fetch a small fortune in the right circles? Was he planning a new career as a house-breaker and collecting a toolkit for opening locks? Did he actually use them for scraping ice off car windows?

And when you have explained that, perhaps you can give me some idea why he might have kept these as well!

Monday, 11 October 2010

How I hate this part


The pigs are loaded up in the trailer ready to go.
They followed the little trail of apples up the ramp with almost no fuss at all, which always makes me feel such a heel. Sometimes I wish deep down inside that they would do a Tamworth Two and make a bid for freedom.

My neighbour offered to take them to the abattoir for me with his pigs, but I always feel it is incumbent upon me to go with them on their last journey. I am sure it makes no difference to them whatsoever, but it feels like my last duty to these animals that have given me so much pleasure for the last few months.

All I have to do now is fill in the movement licence paperwork and write down my instructions about how I want them to come back.

I eat meat and have no guilt about that, and I know that my two porkers have had a good life - longer and much more natural than the vast percentage of the pigs raised in the UK and elsewhere. They have had the sun on their backs, a large patch of ground to excavate, a wide and varied diet and the ability to run up and down to their hearts' content. They had a good scratch behind the ears whenever I walked past.

They are also a pair of intact boars, and conditions here aren't suitable for overwintering pigs - I simply couldn't keep them even if I wanted to do so.

But I still feel like a total cad this morning.

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

No man is an Iland

...intire of itselfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

When I learned last week that my friend and colleague Heather had lost her beautiful partner Kate, I could feel a downward slide starting.

It is difficult to say whether this was a reopening of my own slowly-healing wounds or simply empathy. Perhaps the two are the same. Or perhaps it is a desire to take onto my own shoulders some of the shock and pain that I know she is feeling right now. Because I am stronger now and have a better idea of how to cope after travelling this path for a couple of years.

But that is not possible. This is a journey that we take on our own. People cheering from the sidelines help a lot. Of course they do. But the steps have to be walked nonetheless. Every one of them.

The funeral was this afternoon, and the morning got off to a very tearful start. I was very close to deciding not to go. The thought of travelling there and getting through the service on my own was almost too much.

Then the postman arrived, bringing with him a mysterious package from the other side of the world. Intrigued I opened it - and burst out laughing. A rather silly online conversation some weeks ago had resulted in delivery of a handmade felt squid! Don't ask - it doesn't make a lot more sense even if I explain it, but it couldn't have chosen a better day to arrive.

A stuffed cephalopod may not be everyone's idea of the perfect companion to a funeral, but come along he did - in my pocket - as a reminder that someone was looking out for me today. Thank you Sue from the bottom of my heart.

The service was short but poignant. K D Lang's version of Hallelujah was heartbreaking.
I couldn't face the crematorium, so went straight to the wake with a couple of translator friends. Despite the people around her, Heather looked so alone. I recognised that look on her face - jaw clenched with absolute determination not to cry. Because you know full well that if you start, the tears won't ever stop. But she made it, and she can take the first few steps into her new life knowing that she did Kate proud.

My journey home took me very close to R's burial field, so I popped in to say hello and show him my new red boots that I wore today as an antidote to all that grey and black.
I think he would have liked them.

Wednesday, 15 September 2010

Making lemonade

It was still too revolting to do anything outside yesterday evening, so I took myself off to the gym after wetly walking Moose.

Pounding away on the treadmill is not everyone's idea of fun (possibly not even my own), but it was dry and warm and I find I can zone out after a few minutes and let my thoughts wander. As I plodded on and turned redder and sweatier, I drew up a satisfyingly long mental list of projects for the winter months.

Displacement activity it surely is, but it works for me. Empty hours drag me down so I shall continue manically filling them for as long as I can or need to do it.

And at the end of it all I found that I had run my 5k in under 30 minutes for the first time ever. 29 minutes, 18 seconds to be precise. It is amazing what you can do with a bit of pent-up craziness inside your head!

That small triumph followed by an earlyish night with the first hot-water bottle of the season has gone some way towards restoring my equilibrium for now.

I still wish it would stop raining though.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Duvet days

Autumn has arrived.
It has been raining solidly for two days. 50 mm last night, apparently.
The rain hurls itself horizontally along the ridge from the West, battering the side of my house for days on end. The ground is already turning into quagmire and the pigs' run is starting to look like the Somme.

It is dark, cold and dank, and the thought of a whole Winter like this on my own is utterly depressing. I just want to go back to bed and sleep until Spring.

Monday, 13 September 2010

Anti-climax

I had decided it was time.
Time to take my superhero knickers out of the underwear drawer and go battle some demons.

The local First Responders group held its AGM and social evening on Friday, and I resolved to go. In previous years there has been a bit of business, followed by some wine, nibbles and chatting and then a session introducing newbies to the CPR dummies.

I figured I could manage the first two and would simply go home when the last bit started.
The business part of the meeting was boring. But that is fine - boring is good.

Standing around chatting was fine too, apart from one conversation I had with a man who kept on going on and on about how he had read on the Internet that the use of a defibrillator can cause blood clots. I just wanted to slap him hard around the face and scream, "But at least you would be still ALIVE, you moron!" What I actually did was to excuse myself, run to the loo and do some deep breathing for a few minutes.

It was nowhere near as satisfying.

After a couple of glasses of wine I was starting to feel quite relaxed, and was wondering if I could handle the Little Annie showdown after all. At which point I saw the training coordinator taking the bags with the dummies back out to his car. Apparently there was no one new there to sign up so they weren't going to bother.

I wasn't sure whether to feel relieved that I didn't have to face up to it or annoyed that I would have to work myself up to this point again. So I am now trying to decide whether to ask to bring one of the dummies home with me or whether it would freak me out totally having one in the house.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

Keeping on keeping on


I had to smile when I read about all the salsa-making and pickling going on over at Cicero Sings.

Here the crop of the moment is not tomatoes, but apples - several bagsworth scrumped from R's uncle's orchard last weekend - but the principle is the same.

Peel, chop, winnow out the bad ones, render down for freezing. Nothing goes to waste. I have a willing home for all the peels, cores and less than perfect fruit!

Every night I stand there for an hour or so and peel apples. The kitchen smells of them which is, generally speaking, a Good Thing.

And when this batch of apples are finished, it will be time to start on the courgettes. And then the tomatoes. Perhaps pickle some cucumbers. Then there will be the last of the plums. And yet more apples. Finally it will be time to bring in the beans for drying

Just as I did last year.

And the year before. And all the years before that.

It is just what I do at this time of year. I quite like the repetitive nature of the tasks, and it pleases me to see the shelves and freezer filling up. It is also the reward for all that frantic sowing and planting a few months ago.

But this year I have also spent a lot of time wondering exactly why I am doing it. In my current state of aimless bobbing (thank you Boo!) it sometimes seems rather pointless just for me.
R and I spent so much of our lives working towards the day when we could have our own place and raise our own food like this. And it was so much fun doing it together.
This year, on my own, it feels like much more of a chore, even though I know I will enjoy the end result.

There is also a feeling of, if I stop, what then?
I would then have to make a decision about my future. If I let the garden go, it will be a sign that I am not going to stay here. I would have to decide to make a new life in a different place. And that thought is just too scary to contemplate.

So I keep on doing it, because that is what I do.

Aloneness

Not so much loneliness.
That's not really what it is.

By most standards, I had a good weekend.
On Sunday morning I went to a local food fair, met some friends, had lunch and a lovely mooch around, bought some goodies and the sun shone.

But.
I miss having a hand to hold.
I miss going round the stalls tasting and comparing. Discussing which of half a dozen cheeses to buy. Arguing over the relative merits of the goodies on offer. Thinking about what would be nice to have for lunch the next day.
I am tired of having to carry all my own bags.
I hate feeling like the spectre at the feast when my friends are talking to each other.

And then I dashed home, wrote a card and went out again to a birthday party, complete with hog roast. I didn't know many people, but that's OK. It is a familiar feeling these days, and I am getting pretty good at making cheerful small talk with people. I didn't even burst into tears when someone said something nice about R. It was fun sitting around the fire chatting and eating, and I was surprised to find myself quite so reluctant to leave when I did.

But.
I miss having a hand to hold. A base to return to when the conversation runs out.
I miss physical contact full stop.
I hate that sore-jawed feeling that only comes from spending several hours nervously smiling.
I am so tired of being alone.

I am lucky. There are friends and family who love and care for me. I receive and accept invitations. I appear to be coping - I work, look after myself and pay bills. Most problems no longer seem insurmountable once I stop panicking about them. I am fit, healthy and solvent.

But.
I so miss having a hand to hold.

Sunday, 22 August 2010

Flowers

I have a confession to make.

I like flowers. And I like my house to be full of them.

It would be good to be able to say that, when I say flowers, I mean just locally-grown blooms. But although I am happy to fill the vases from what I can find in the garden or field, if I cannot forage enough for the house then I will buy them. And though it puts a huge dent in my environmental halo, I am not terribly fussy about discovering their origins. One year I shall finally get round to planting the cutting garden I have always wanted, but until then I shall have to live with the guilty conscience.

An old boss of mine who was very prone to temper tantrums would always buy me a bunch of flowers when he had been particularly obnoxious. These normally ended up in the bin on the way back from work or, if they did make it home, I never felt particularly well-disposed towards them as I felt I had 'earned' them

R never once bought me flowers as an apology. When he did bring them home - which he did often - it was just because. He had a favourite flower stall in St Ann's Square in Manchester where he would discuss the relative merits of the different blooms with the owner, and would come back with detailed instructions about how to prepare them for arranging.
I often received alstromerias simply because he was so proud he could remember the name! They make me smile now whenever I see them.

There have been a lot of flowers around the house since R's anniversary. They were looking distinctly shabby this morning, though, so it was time for a good sort and overhaul.
I once had a lesson in flower arranging for the craft section of the Duke of Edinburgh's Award thingy. It soon became evident that my talents lay elsewhere...

But with a bit of weeding out of the droopy blooms and judicious removal of crispy leaves, and by cutting the stems a little shorter and moving them to smaller containers with fresh water they can be eked out for a few more days. Which puts a smile on my face and goes some way towards rescuing my eco-credentials.

Saturday, 21 August 2010

A surprise visit

I, or rather R, had a lovely surprise visit yesterday. Martin, one of R's friends from university, said that he was coming up to put some flowers on his grave and would I like to meet up for lunch. We agreed to meet at the burial field, so I told him the number of R's grave in case he arrived there first.

As it happens, he got there about 10 minutes before I did, and I found him wandering around the field looking a little lost. He had been expecting a consecutively-organised grid system, which is a long way from being the case.

I have walked up that hill so many times now that I had forgotten quite how difficult it can be to track down R's grave. These days I can find the little 4-inch diameter stone marker in the middle of a 3-acre grassy field almost on auto-pilot. Head up the hill towards the telegraph pole, stop walking uphill when level with the corner marker then head towards the bench until the distant hills are visible through the gap in the trees. Turn ninety degrees, and if the telegraph pole at the bottom of the hill is straight ahead, X marks the spot. Or rather no. 63.


I guess it is just something that needs a little practice, and I have had plenty!

We sat there on the grass beside R's grave, in the sunshine, for a couple of hours. It seemed totally natural - two old friends getting together to catch up with all the news since they last met. We chatted, had lots of hugs and cried a little. We reminisced about the wild days of our youth, and laughed at some of his and R's misadventures. Moose wandered around the field sniffing at all the revolting things that dogs find interesting. We talked about R and even to him a bit. The swallows dived and weaved overhead. We placed the flowers on his grave, after divesting them of their plastic wrapper, elastic bands and sachet of plant food as everything has to be biodegradeable. We admired the view. Martin apologised for not having come back before now. But that was OK, he had rung and e-mailed and there were good reasons for not doing so. And I knew he had not forgotten.
That's what matters - not forgetting.

In the end we didn't get to have lunch. It didn't seem very important. A quick coffee and he had to be off again.

What was important is that he remembers.

Tuesday, 17 August 2010

On top of the world

In a small village the social calendar is characterised by its predictability. We don't like radical changes, and want to know by looking at the date what is coming up in the next couple of weeks.
So August might be a bad month for me, but the wheel keeps spinning and the regular events come inexorably round in their turn.

This Sunday was the date of the Summer walk. Last year it helped me a lot in getting through some of the bad days, so I was very much looking forward to this year's walk. And I wasn't disappointed.
The group was smaller than in previous years, but there were still several people who had left their 'other halves' at home, so I didn't feel like the odd one out for once.

We walked up to the moors to the Llyn Mawr nature reserve above the Carno valley, and then followed the path back past our local wind turbines. I rather like being up above the huge blades - it puts them in their place somewhat. Although we climbed somewhere between 400 and 500 feet, it was a long, gentle and easily-manageable gradient. The sun shone benevolently and the slight breeze prevented overheating, and an elusive glimpse of a hen harrier made the climb worthwhile.

The only thing that marred the day was the fact that I couldn't take Moose with me. He has had arthritis in his shoulder for a while now, which we have been managing with a glucosamine/chondroitin supplement and regular doses of an NSAID. Sadly about a month ago the stiffness I had started noticing in his back legs suddenly worsened almost overnight. They are sometimes so wobbly that he falls over, and he is having difficulties walking much more than a mile or so - and then only at a very slow pace.

He seems happy enough in himself though, and still charges around my paddock like a mad thing when the mood takes him, so I am hanging fire on asking for steroids for now. But it has not stopped me embarking on another of my internal debates, this time about the moral implications of hip replacement surgery for dogs. I am sure I will be revisiting this one in the near future!

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Spontaneity

When the phone rang early this afternoon it was my friend Jane in Manchester. "Come for dinner," she said. "My French friend Myriam is over with her partner, and we are having a proper English roast beef dinner to celebrate!"

Immediately my response was to trot out the usual litany of excuses. It is a nearly two-hour drive each way - I will spend more time in the car than I would with them. I'm tired, I've been working hard all week, there is too much to do tomorrow, I have a deadline to meet and don't know when it will be finished. Yadda, yadda, yadda.

Jane, who knows me far, far too well, simply replied that they would be eating at seven. I should think about it and give them a ring later to say what I had decided. At which I muttered something to the effect that I was unlikely to change my mind, and put the phone down. And grumpily went back to work.

As I finished up the job, proofread it and sent it off, one of those "Good J, Bad J" conversations played itself out in my head. What were the alternatives? A nice meal, a change of scenery and good company for the evening. Versus something to eat involving eggs and courgettes (again), an evening of CSI re-runs and my knitting. So what if you don't get back until one in the morning - you haven't got to bed before that for months now, you aren't suddenly going to change this evening. Stop thinking about this and JFDI.

It took a good couple of hours of batting this back and forth before I finally gave in and rang to ask them to set another place. The old J would have been in the car and off without a second thought. The new one, it seems, still needs a darned good talking-to before the message gets through, but at least she gets there in the end!

Wednesday, 11 August 2010

Progress

Remember this?
This is how the granny flat at the back of the house looked on the day R left it.

With the exception of the plastering (which I bartered for my old, decrepit Land Rover) and the electrics, most of the work was done by my BIL, who spent short blocks of time here working on it over a period of months. This was good in a lot of ways as it meant that I had an occasional house guest during a very dark time, and also that I did not get too overwhelmed with decision-making. On the down side progress was very slow and patchy, and he has now 'disappeared' on another job in the way that builders are wont to do, which means that downstairs still looks like a building site and the kitchen is still located in boxes in my spare bedroom.
And he won't be able to come back for at least a couple more months as my sister is threatening to pack up herself and the kids and come and live with me if he doesn't do some outstanding work on their house!

But upstairs is entirely finished, and I can come and admire his handiwork and the peaceful, uncluttered space and ignore the chaos below.

What a transformation.

R and I both always loved this room. It is light and airy in a way that the old part of the house isn't, and it has one of the few windows that actually look out over the garden. So five and a half years after he started pulling it apart, it is nice to be able to use it again.

I still need to make the blinds and lampshades, otherwise it is finished. But what it did need was a couple of pictures for the walls, and there was nothing suitable in the collection we had built up over the years.

So I had a little splurge.
I have admired Ann Lewis's work for a couple of years now, particularly her North Wales landscapes, and finally had the cash to treat myself to two of her linocuts.

The first is for R.
Daffodils and narcissi were his flowers. When they are in season, the house and garden are full of them, and I have planted a lot on his grave. This simple study makes me smile and think of him.


The second one epitomises much of what I love about Wales - the dramatic, harsh landscape, the rugged colours, the seemingly ever-present threat of snow (or certainly rain), low skies and challenging climbs. R's Mum used to come to Snowdonia to climb in her younger days and, although R did not take up the sport to the same extent, he had exactly the same attitude towards anything with a bit of gradient. He would be up it like a mountain goat, leaving me to puff along in his wake. It did wonders for the thigh muscles.


I hope he would approve of all my choices.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Things I have learned


That two years is no time at all. You don't forget, you don't stop loving, you don't stop wishing you could see him just once more to say goodbye properly.

That, despite the pain, sadness and the great gaping void his death created, it is still a billion times better to have had him in my life for all those years than to contemplate the thought of never having loved him.

That people really are important, and that I wouldn't have got through the last two years without the unwavering love and support I have received.

That I have some very good friends, and that these are not necessarily the people I would have listed before 5th August 2008. Some have dropped away, but others have stepped up to take their place. Some are here in my physical world and help with hugs, cake and practical work. Others are thousands of miles away and yet have been my unstinting cheerleaders on this journey, even though we have never met. I am grateful to every one.

That R really cannot be found in things. He is in my heart and always will be. Now I am starting to believe this it is becoming easier to divest myself of the 'stuff' that has been holding me down. It is a slow process, but it is ongoing and I feel much better for doing it.

That I will not explode in a puff of smoke if I ask for and receive help.

That I am probably a better and more humble person for having to do so.

That J, the person who disappeared almost without trace two years ago, has slowly been making her way back into my life. She is still rather battered and bruised, and has changed in many respects, but she has come back, and I do rather like her. It is good that she is home again.

And that, knowing all these things and with R in my heart, I am no longer afraid to move forward, to do things differently and to change my life radically if that is what I choose to do in the future. Life can be good if I allow it to be.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

The last drop

I may have mentioned R's bulk-buying habits once or twice.
There were few things he loved more than a bargain. Indeed I am still working my way through the pile of vacuum cleaner bags he bought over three years ago, and this is not by any means for want of vacuuming. By my reckoning it will probably be another year before I have to buy any more.

He took the same approach to his grooming products. He wasn't a man for aftershave or cologne, not even when he scrubbed up and put on a suit, but when he finally settled on a shower gel that suited him, he naturally ordered several bottles, rather than just one like a normal person!

For many, many months after he died, I mostly wore his jeans, T-shirts and sweaters. And used this shower gel daily. It gave me comfort to feel totally enveloped in things that felt, looked and smelled like him. The scent of the shower gel on my skin made him feel close by, perhaps just in the next room. Always out of sight, but within range of at least one of my senses.

I still do wear his Calvin Kleins, but now it is because I like them, rather than needing to do it. I carried on using the shower gel, but no longer every day - just when I felt a little down. But even R's stockpile had to run out eventually, and I think there is only enough left for one more use.

When it has gone, I don't think I shall buy any more.

Next week is the second anniversary of his death.
When I look back at the way I was this time last year, I can see how far I have come on this journey. I can still feel the madness building up in me as it always does at significant dates, but the intensity of feeling that so overwhelmed me last year is less ferocious this time around.

So it somehow seems right to let go of this crutch this week. It makes me feel like a small child preparing to ride her bicycle for the first time without stabilisers. I have come this far using it as an aid. Now it is time to let go and ride freely on my own. Even if I fall off a few times at first.