Sunday, 28 August 2016

The dance.



Across the way from me, a highland ball is going on. I hear the music, and I think: I’ll take the dogs out for a look.

I put my hat on. Obviously. This is no moment to forget one’s hat.

We stand quietly, secretly, in front the of the open French windows, watching the dancing. I can never remember the names of the dances, even though I know how to do some of them. This is the one where the gentleman, in very courtly fashion, introduces the lady to another gentleman, does a little bow, then turns and dances with the lady behind him.

Darwin and Stanley are bewitched.

I am bewitched.

There are the ones who have clearly been dancing these dances since they were old enough to walk. There are the ones who have been dancing together since they were five years old and know each other's every move. There are the ones who like to swagger and sway and showboat. There are the ones who are patently the Best in Show, but are so confident in their brilliance that they contain it, do no whirling or whooping, but simply live the dance. I think those are the ones I love the best.

And then there are the ones who have absolutely no idea what they are doing. They go the wrong way, hit the wrong beat, laugh all over their faces as they charge towards the wrong partner. I smile a twisted smile. I was once one of those, being gently and politely guided by the good dancers who knew what they were doing.

I was so lost in watching that I was caught by surprise when the music stopped and the crowd spilled out to embrace the cool night air.

Darwin the Dog went mad. HUMANS!!! IN KILTS!!! WHOM I HAVE NEVER MET BEFORE!!!!

I tried to calm him but that ship had sailed merrily out to sea.

The very lovely thing about the kind of people who go to highland dances is that they are dog people. They, like me, are stuck on Dog Island with no chance of a ferry home. They clustered around the beautiful boy and gentled him and kindly subdued his leaps of joy. ‘What is he?’ they said. ‘Is he a lurcher? Are you going to work him? Oh, how bonny he is.’

Stanley the Manly, who is not so certain of crowds, stood back, by my side, letting his compadre get the attention. Darwin the Dog danced into the spotlight, adoring every moment.

One fine man cast aside all thoughts of the party and hunkered down on his knees, talking to D the D as if he were a Best Beloved, stroking his head, admiring his athletic physique. That, I thought, is a proper person. 

‘He’s half Lab, half lurcher,’ I said, smiling and laughing, to two particularly charming gentlemen. They squared their shoulders and swished their kilts and grinned all over their happy faces. ‘Look at him,’ they said. ' All over the place. We know the feeling.' 

Darwin gazed up at them with slavish admiration. He knew a proper highland pair. 'He is an English dog,' I said. 'This is his first Scottish dance.'

One of the fine highland men clapped his friend on the shoulder, and gave him a look of ineffable fondness. ‘Tail up,' he said, 'just like you.’
 
Happy boys, I thought. Grand Scottish boys. ‘Ah,’ I said. ‘That’s friendship for you. You know how to pay a compliment. Tail up.’


And then we all laughed at each other in the black Scottish night and I tipped my hat to them and walked back home. 

People say, after all this time, because I am still, in their minds, a soft southern girl: what are you doing all the way up there? This is what I am doing.  

Friday, 26 August 2016

That is where they live.




Out of the wreckage, rising from the ashes, a new life emerges. 

It is a great change. For years, my day revolved around going down to my mother’s house to cook the breakfast for her and the dear Stepfather. Then, for many months, it was just breakfast for him. This was a new twist and a new job: to keep him going, to raise a smile on his bereaved face, to bring some sound and life to a house which seemed now so silent and empty. The feeling of absence in that house after she died was as palpable as weather.

This was the daily anchor in my existence. It was a deep habit, a customary pleasure, an instinctive routine.

I was very afraid, as the house was packed up and the day of departure drew near, that without that anchor I should simply float out to sea.

It turns out that, somewhere hidden deep in a dusty old locker, I did have another set of charts. I have plotted a new course, and the dear, leaky, battered old ship is sailing on.

I think of that great truth, which I know but do not always believe, about how the dreading of something is often worse than the thing itself.

I miss them. I miss them like rocks and stones and arrows to the heart. I miss that sweet start to the day. But missing, as I suppose I discovered with my dad, can be faced. I think you have to embrace it rather than fight it. It is, and there’s no point in pretending it isn’t. It’s a real run but can’t hide number.

So, yes, there is the missing. But, amazingly, there is also the living, the laughing, the working, the talking, the striving. There are the good canines and the good equines. There is the physical work, each morning, which I bless with all my heart. I am incurably lazy by nature, and the idea of going for a run or doing pilates or attending a gym makes me want to chew my own arm off. But if you have horses to care for and to ride, you have to get outside and get moving. You have to embrace the day.

There are the books to write, so that I can pay the hay bill. I appear to be writing three at the moment, which is really not what one should be doing, but fuck it. This week, I wrote eight thousand words. Not all of them were bad words. I did my HorseBack stuff, which gives me a small weekly glow of achievement. People on the internet were kind and funny. I quite often cheer myself up by posting pictures of the red mare doing wonderful things, and generous strangers are kind enough to celebrate her as if she were their own. I can’t tell you how much this makes me smile.

I took the little brown mare up to the vet for her sarcoid treatment, and as he got to work, he said something about Donald Trump, and we galloped off into a tremendous exploration of the curiosities and drama of the American political system. Last week, I lost my wallet. (It turned out to be in the top paddock. Darwin the Dog had taken it from the feed shed and tenderly placed it two fields away, by the mounting block. He is very busy like that.) The vet at once fished in his pocket and gave me a hundred quid, so I could put petrol in the car and get to the station to collect a friend and then buy that friend some food to eat. He not only gives micro-loans, but he can talk about one of my favourite subjects. So, I gave him his money back and we discussed the madness of The Donald and I thought: write this down, because all these good things add up.

The red mare, of course, was at her crest and peak of magnificence, but I write about her elsewhere now, so we don’t have to go into the weeds of the equine love. Yet love it was and love it is, of the purest and most galvanising kind. 

Darwin the Dog and Stanley the Man made Pearl the Postwoman laugh. Pearl is the nicest woman in Aberdeenshire, and she always gives the dogs a biscuit, and each morning we have a talk and a laugh and I feel grateful that it is she who brings my deliveries of Manuka honey for the brown mare’s wound and think how lucky I am to have that smiling face each day. She is one of those humans who makes you feel better about everything simply by her very presence.

A very old friend rang up. I had not spoken to him for months, but we picked up exactly where we left off, as if it had been five minutes. I felt the history and fondness between us run back and forth down the invisible telephone line, and I thought of how we first met when we were eighteen, and how dashing he looked in his rowing kit, and how all the girls used to make Chariots of Fire jokes as he ran through the quad on his way to the river. And here we are, fifty now, still talking, still making each other laugh, still tied together by many memories and profound affection, so that distance does not matter.

Write all this down, I think, so when you are old and grey and full of sleep and nodding by the fire, you can take down this book and slowly read.

There is the missing. But there is an awful lot of having, of filling, of living. The lost ones slide away, into their own twilight. I watch them go, and then I stretch out my hand and take them and stitch them into my heart. That is where they live now.


That is where they live.

Wednesday, 24 August 2016

The past.




The sun shines. People appear, from my past. Rather amazingly, they have business with HorseBack, so, five hundred miles away from the old Lambourn valley I am reunited with people who knew that place, who loved my father, who grew up with and loved all the people I grew up with and loved. 

I am so excited to see the people and so avid to catch up that I do my fatal thing of talking slightly too loudly and very, very fast. They, being kind and generous, smile at me and put up with it. I do sometimes wish though that I could be self-contained and talk at a reasonable volume. I fear that ship may have sailed.

We go for a walk in the gleaming sun. I take the red mare with us, because she loves a walk and I haven’t had time to ride her today, and insist on stopping so she can say hello to small children. She is like a politician: she has never met a baby she did not want to kiss.

The lovely people from my past ask all about the family. Don’t ask me questions, a faint voice in the dusty corridors of my mind says, because I will answer them. I do answer them. I race through the last thirty years of the mother, the brothers, the sister, touch on the nieces, get to the grandmother, almost go on to the great-aunts.

Then we move on to racing, because that is our love and our history and we all adore nothing in the world like the thoroughbred. So you may imagine that was a happy conversation.

At one point, we speak in low voices of the ones who did not make it. There is a sad litany of those, shining stars from our young days, whose light was extinguished cruelly and too soon. A parade of remembered faces runs before my eyes, a smiling array of fond humans who are no longer here. There is a small pause, in the bright air, as if we are doffing our hats to the Dear Departeds, and then we change the subject and speak of happier things.


I like the idea of not getting stuck in the past, of living in the moment, of not carrying around too much baggage like a poor old pit pony. But there was a lot of happiness and wonder in that past, and I like to remember it and to pay it tribute. It was enchanting to see these people for their own selves, but it was intensely sweet and touching for me because they both knew and adored my father, and as we talked of him and laughed about him it was as if he were with us, alive again, vivid and real in all his eccentric, funny, brave, colourful glory. There was nobody quite like him, and they brought him with them, all the way from the south.

Friday, 19 August 2016

That will do for me.




HorseBack ate my day. This is not a bad thing to chew up a day.

Every Friday, I sit down to edit the week’s HorseBack photographs and write suitable vignettes about them. I do a main blog and various other briefer snippets. I feel a huge responsibility as I do this, despite the fact that it is just for a little Facebook page which flies out into the vast spaces of the internet. Every single like or share or comment, every cheerful thumbs up – each one means a vast amount to me. The veterans whose experiences I am trying to illuminate have gone through things I cannot imagine and seen things no human eye should have to see. I have to put on my Best In Show hat for them. I grit my teeth and strain every sinew. There are some things in life that matter. This matters.

As I sit down, I think: today I will be efficient. I’ll get it done in an hour flat. The temporal angels laugh their heads off. Four hours later, I’m still sitting there, wrangling away. I feel glad that I have recorded the racing, because there is no way I can stop now, even to have a peek at the big race at York. Some of my best beloveds are running today, but dear Clever Cookie and sweet Easton Angel and dazzling Limato will have to wait.

Down in the field this morning, Darwin the Dog was chasing swallows. This feels to me like a vast metaphor for something, but I’m not quite sure what. There is my lovely thing, I think. Every day must have a lovely thing. If I can mark one lovely thing, then I shall keep on sailing over this sometimes stormy sea.

At this time of year, all the swallows stage a muster. They come from all over my little patch – from my own shed, from the garage outside what was once my mother’s house, from my sister’s old place, from down in the horses' field. In May, when they arrived, there was one pair who flew around the set-aside as I worked the mares. Now they have brought their friends down with them and fill the air, practising their serious flying for the long journey to Africa. They will leave soon, and that day of departure is always bitter-sweet for me. I love to think of them going to their balmy winter quarters, but I miss them sorely when they are gone. The sudden still where there was antic noise and motion has a melancholy note.

As the swallows flew, and Darwin danced, the three mares stood by their humans in the open field and went to sleep on their legs. We decided that they must have been up all night, partying. Three years ago, there was a techno techno rave up in the next field, and we went down in the dark to see what they were making of the flashing lights and thumping music. They seemed mildly amused. We’ve been making slightly tragic jokes about them having techno parties ever since.

My friend and I talked of cabbages and kings. Actually, we did not mention cabbages. We talked of the swallows, and the comical dozing mares, and Alfred Hitchcock, and Grace Kelly in High Society, and grammar, and the young people of today. The two thoroughbreds and the Paint slept through it all.

I felt a slight sense of shift this morning, a faint, glimmering sense of possibility and renewed hope. Someone quite unexpected paid me a quite unexpected compliment. It was brief, and low-key, and entirely heartfelt, and I took it away and gazed at it and treasured it and wore it like a medal on my chest. The man who paid it had absolutely no idea what he had just done, and I could not have explained it to him. But it was my own personal best, my Olympic gold, my mark of excellence.

What he said to me was: ‘That helped.’


I think: every day there must be one lovely thing. And every day, I would like to go to bed knowing that I have said a single sentence, or made a small action, or offered a piece of myself that helped. It’s odd how ambitions change with age. I used to want prizes and glory and the admiration of my peers. Now I want one lovely thing and a feeling of having been useful, even if that usefulness is so tiny that it can hardly be seen by the naked eye. That will do for me. 

Thursday, 18 August 2016

A new kind of people.



I couldn’t really write this week because I did not know what to say. You really can’t bore them with that, said the stern voices. So I did not bore them with that.

I’m not sure what the that was. It still feels very strange and not quite real. There has been a seismic change in my life, almost a defining change, and yet the sun still shines and the Ebor meeting goes on and Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro win the gold medal whilst I watch with tears in my eyes.

There are great prairies of the unknown. I canter around in them, a bit baffled, not quite sure of my sense of direction. When I have enough of those endless prairies, I read Trollope and watch the racing, to take my mind off the unmapped space.

There is a balance. I’m always looking for balance. You have to feel the thing. You have to look it in the whites of its eyes and mark it. You can’t pretend it is not there or stuff it down inside. But you can’t fall into a vortex of self-indulgence and wailing. You’ve got to crack on, said one of the veterans I have known the longest, as we leaned on the gate this morning and watched the HorseBack horses do their drill. The riders had a box-set of physical and mental injuries. But the sound, in that gentle Scottish morning, was the sound of laughter.

Those HorseBack horses set me to rights. A little while before, my own horses had set me to rights. The red mare did walk to canter to walk transitions, from voice, which were so lovely they made me cry. (We are inspired by the Olympics. Next week, we’ll revert to herding imaginary cows.) A lot of people don’t get horses in general, or the humans who love them. A lot of people don’t get me in particular, and the horses I love. I am used to this, although sometimes I yearn to be got.

I said something I thought was quite normal this morning, and the veteran I was talking to looked at me with an almost literary combination of wonder, amusement, fondness and a very, very slight tinge of sympathy, and raised his eyebrows and said: ‘You’re not quite right, are you?’ I shouted with laughter. I took this as a compliment. I spend half my life now with people who are not quite right, who have the voices of the post-traumatic stress howling in their head. I feel oddly at home with them, although mental illness used to scare the crap out of me. They are my people now, and I am their people. I always felt happiest with the ones who did not quite fit in. Convention alarms me, because I had no experience of it, growing up. It’s not something I know.


My own people have gone. This little corner of Scotland used to have my family in it: two nieces, one with her husband; my sister and my brother-in-law, my mother and my stepfather. The nieces and the sister have gone south, my mother died, my stepfather has returned to Gloucestershire, where he came from. It’s just me now, and the dogs and the mares. My abandonment issues are going nuts. So, I think, I have to make a new herd. There are my HorseBack people, and those good horses, who literally save lives. There is the extended family, with the great-nieces and nephew. There is my friend whose Paint mare shares our paddock, who said something so kind to me this morning that I practically fell over. Everybody needs their people. It feels as if mine are all gone, but they are not, in fact. I still have people, after all. They are just different people.

Monday, 8 August 2016

One lovely thing.

 
Dear Stepfather's family at the field this morning. Little brown mare on the right, Darwin the Dog in the middle, me on the far left with my mighty red mare.


The dear Stepfather came down to say goodbye to the horses, which was stupidly sad. I would often ride the red mare up to his front door and he would come out with perfectly cut-up pieces of apple for her. (She is very grand and does not like eating whole apples.) They had a whole little thing going on. ‘It’s been a pleasure to know you,’ he said, ‘and I’m sorry there will be no more apples.’ She nodded and blinked her eyes at him and he stroked her kind face.

I collected the very last of my mother’s things. A blanket, a log basket, some hats. The packers were in the house, very cheerful. Stanley the Dog had already bust in on them, giving them a little surprise. ‘He has never met a door he could not open,’ I said. I did not explain that he used to go and see my mum when he was in the mood. She would be watching television in her special chair and look down to see Stanley sitting quietly beside her. They had a thing going on, too.

Do one lovely thing, said a voice in my head. When there are sorrowful days, make sure you do one lovely thing. A gale had blown in out of the west and the Wellingtonias were swaying around like drunken sailors. I felt a slight Chicken Licken doubt. It would be quite bonkers at this stage if a tree fell on my head. Defying the elements, I got on my little brown mare, and we trotted off through the long grass. She didn’t care about the gales. She cruised through the weather as if she was on a mission. She was, without doubt, a lovely thing. She’s very sensitive and will pick up on my moods. If I carry tension, she starts revving her Ferrari engine. But today, despite the howling winds, despite my frame of mind, despite everything, she carried me with tenderness and grace.


One lovely thing. Every damn day. 

Sunday, 7 August 2016

Climbing the stairs.


As the long goodbye goes on and the day of the dear Stepfather’s departure draws near, I can put the good face on for about forty-five minutes. For half an hour, I’m breezing, on the bridle. For the next fifteen minutes, I’m under a strong drive, desperately hoping the winning post will come. After that, I’m blown. I’m like a suspect stayer, who is never going to get two miles, who gives all for a mile and six and then has no more.

So I go and sit very quietly in a silent room and recruit my resources. The silent room is very important. Some people find a quiet room a sad thing; I find solitude the most profound balm. I have to get everything sorted out in my head and I can’t do that when I am putting on the good face.

I’ll watch a bit of the dressage later, on the second day of the Olympic three-day-event. I will marvel at the honesty and willingness of the horses, those great equine athletes who carry their countries’ hopes on their brave backs. They have flown in from all around the world, faced all the heat and the atmosphere and the razzmatazz, will tomorrow go out over huge fences and up steep hills at a fast gallop, and today are asked to settle themselves and perform movements as precise and delicate as the ballet. I watch them giving their riders everything and I find it intensely moving. It’s the kind of thing that would have made my mother put that special look on her face and say, with a dying fall, ‘Oh, those horses.’

It’s an event which makes me think a lot about resolution and endurance, which are qualities I need just now. The man at the top of the leader board is a tall fellow, very dry and self-effacing. In every interview, he says: I’m very lucky. He means, I think, that he is lucky to have had the career he has had, to have had the mighty horses, the loyal support team, the strong and loving family. But a lot of people would say his luck ran out when he fell on his head nine months ago and was put in an induced coma. I would not have felt very lucky if I found, as he did, that I could not climb the stairs or see straight. I might have drawn stumps then, thinking I had had my luck and there was no more.

But great champions are made of steely stuff. They may, like this tall man, be true gentlemen, polite and sporting, but inside there is that absolute core of titanium, a secret unconquerable self, that competitor who never gives up. So William Fox-Pitt, who probably shouldn’t really be riding a horse at all, rode out into the gleaming Brazilian sunshine and outdazzled it, with a test of such ease and grace that it made me catch my breath. He can climb the stairs now, that is for sure.

I used to tell my mother that when I was face down in the dirt I would ask myself: ‘What would AP do?’ I would think of that other steely horseman, who never knew when he was beaten. ‘And what would AP do?’ she would say, with a quizzical smile on her face. ‘He would get right back up and ride another winner,’ I would tell her, with a smile of my own.

I like admiring people. I like looking up to the best, being inspired by them, hanging on their coat-tails, thinking if I could summon a tenth of their brilliance and resolution then I would be all right. Everyone needs someone to look up to. I’ll take Fox-Pitt for my inspiration this week, not just because he has quietly staged the sporting comeback of the year, but because he seems to manage to be a fierce competitor whilst also being a proper human being. If I feel a little melancholy, I will look up pictures of Charlotte Dujardin and Valegro, waiting in the wings for their moment in the sun, which will come later. She’s another champion who combines rock-hard dedication with smiling humanity, and she’s as goofily in love with her world-beating horse as I am with my dear red mare.


Look up, I think, and climb the stairs.

Friday, 5 August 2016

The Last Breakfast.




Today was the last breakfast I would make for the Dear Stepfather. I was looking forward to it and dreading it at the same time. His family come later to help him pack up and this was our final morning when it would be just the two of us. I used to make breakfast for him and my mother every day, and since she died I kept up the tradition. At first, we were very quiet, whacked about with grief, putting on our good brave faces, conversation sometimes a little stilted, running into the sands. I would quite often have to turn my face away, or stop half-way through a sentence, or leave the room on some pretext.

Then it got better. I rallied and made it my job to bring a smile to his face. If I could coax one true laugh out of him, my work would be done. We talked of politics, because we had always loved talking of politics. We had waded through the weeds of the Scottish independence vote and bashed through the tangled thickets of Brexit. I remember first hitting the bullseye of that proper laugh with a Donald Trump joke. I can’t recall what I said, but I remember the laugh. I have that one thing to thank the Donald for. (That was when he still seemed a joke, instead of a runaway train threatening Western civilisation.)

I loved those breakfasts. I’m going to miss them like the blazes. Nothing will ever be the same.

But today went wrong. The great-nieces pitched up to ride a little later than I had expected and we got lost in our lessons. Then HorseBack ate up a huge chunk of the morning. So in the end, I could only run in, make a fast omelette with herbs from the garden, the lovely sage and chives and parsley that my mother planted in elegant tubs, talk about logistics, and run out again. ‘Perhaps it is just as well,’ I said. ‘So we don’t get sentimental.’

And that was that.

I went home to edit the HorseBack pictures and write their blog for them. I thought it would take an hour, but it took four. It was good to do something which had nothing to do with me. I present HorseBack to the world, so people can know about the work that happens there, and the intense challenges our veterans face. I try to demystify Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and take the sting and stigma out of life-changing injury. I could not dwell on loss, because I had to step up for people who know losses and traumas that I can hardly imagine.

The thing will happen soon, and then it will be done. On Tuesday, the cars and moving vans will roll away, to the south, and there will be a final rupture and then a new beginning. I feel very raw and very vulnerable, but I believe in new starts and I must hold on to this one.

Yesterday, I made a last supper of Aberdeen Angus steak and new potatoes with mint and baby carrots and leeks in white sauce. The Dear Stepfather got out the very last bottle of the Cheval Blanc which my mother had cannily bought, with her elegant taste for proper wine. Life, says the Dear Stepfather, is too short to drink bad wine. This was very fine, an august, velvety claret, a knowing old wine, a wine for remembrance. The Stepfather told me stories of his great-grandfather and his grandfather in Canada. I love hearing about the ancestors. Last week he showed me his paternal great-grandfather’s medals from the Crimean War. There they were, two solid silver discs with Crimea and Sebastapol written on them, and the date, 1856. I stared at them in wonder, those little slivers of history, sitting quietly in a Scottish room.

So we drank the claret and ate the beef and talked of the past and touched on my mother and swerved away again, because the wound, which was healing, has become raw with this new parting.


Soon it will be done. And I have books to write, and the HorseBack work to do, and animals to look after and thoughts to think. But no more breakfast to make. 

Wednesday, 3 August 2016

Hats.




More last things. Today, it was hats. A top cupboard had been opened to reveal a hitherto unperceived collection.

The hats rescued me. I went in to breakfast this morning on a rising tide of tearfulness. As I left the field where I had been tending the horses, a line ran through my head. It said: I am heartbroken. This packing up, this end of my mother’s house, this four days until the dear Stepfather leaves forever is breaking my heart. I feel as filled with impossible emotion as I did in the first days after my mother’s death. It is as if it is happening all over again, and it was bad enough the first time. I don’t know if I have enough heart left to feel this for a second time.

Butch up, butch up, I told myself, hiding my face as I made the eggs. People go through worse things than this.

And then there were the hats. And they were beautiful and eccentric and funny and I thought one day, if I ever get south again, I’ll wear them to the races and think of Mum looking down on me with delight. And I did not want to cry.

Among her lovely hats was a very smart topper. It was the Stepfather’s top hat, a proper article in deep black, made by Mr Lock. Mr Lock, like Mr Kipling, makes exceedingly good hats. ‘I don’t want it,’ said the stepfather. ‘I’ll never wear it again.’ I felt an absurd jolt of happiness. ‘Can I have it?’ I said.

He said I could have it. I put it on. It looked splendid. ‘It’s a bit too big,’ said the Stepfather, doubtfully. I took it off and examined the little leather band inside the crown, which acts as a small, circular pocket. ‘I’ll stuff it,’ I said. And then I opened the band and there, inside, were some folded pieces of paper. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘You stuffed it.’

The folded papers were pages from a racecard. The Royal Hunt Cup, at the Royal Meeting, from many years ago. I loved that it was the Royal Hunt Cup, one of the most impossible to solve handicaps of the entire meeting. It was won a couple of years ago by a dear friend of mine. We used to go and watch Desert Orchid together, when we were blithe twenty-somethings. He always loved racing with a burning passion, and one day he threw up his respectable day job and took out a training licence. I saw him a few months after that glorious victory, with his dear old handicapper, Belgian Bill, and congratulated him with fervour. He smiled all over his dear face. ‘I’m living the dream,’ he said.

The Stepfather said: ‘I went last with your darling mother.’ I thought of them at that storied meeting. I thought of the memories my mother must have had, of the days when she used to go and watch Nijinksy and Mill Reef and the great Brigadier. She saw so many of the great ones, and she remembered them all and talked of them as if they were old friends. Horses like that do feel like old friends.


So, I did not cry, in the end. I’m carrying a lot of tears with me just now, but this morning they did not spill over. The hats saw to that. I went home and wrote three thousand words of book and took a deep breath. This will be over soon, and I can start again. 

Tuesday, 2 August 2016

The garden.




The gentleman who made my mother’s garden comes in, for the last time. There is a lot of last time, at the moment.

I make my stepfather his eggs and then he says he will go out and have a word. I think that I will leave them together for a while, so I sit and read the paper. Eventually, I get up to go and see them. I imagine them standing out in the garden that my mother invented and this kind gentleman made into a reality. I picture them gazing at the sweeps of lavender, the delicate white roses, the tumbling clematis, the great clumps of sage, the little patch where the vegetables were grown. I imagine them speaking words about my mother and the flowers she loved.

I go out into that beautiful garden, but they are not there.

Of course they are not there. They are men. They are doing what men do. They are in the shed, talking about tyre treads.

I find this so funny that I think it will save me. I am afraid that when I say goodbye to the good gentleman I will cry. I think the tyre treads will keep the tears at bay. He is a man of the north-east, quiet, practical, without sentiment. In this part of the world, the people do not do grand gestures, or gushing, or hyperbole, or high emotion. He used to work the land, and was a brilliant keeper of sheep. I have an inordinate respect for people who know livestock. I sometimes think that if I were at a dinner party with a high financier, a brain surgeon, a film director and a hill farmer, I would want to sit next to the hill farmer. This gentleman had to give up his adored sheep because his body failed him, but he was still strong enough to work in the garden, and he made my mother’s dreams come alive. Her body had failed entirely, so she could not dig or weed or prune, but she could dream. After she died, I managed to keep it together with pretty much everyone who offered kind condolences, but it was this man who made me cry because of what he did for her.

The gardening gentleman stopped talking about the tyres and looked round the shed, a little reflective. ‘Everyone moves on,’ he said. There was a wealth of meaning in those words. I thanked him for everything he had done. ‘I just kept it ticking over,’ he said. I smiled. ‘You did a little more than that,’ I said.

In the shed, there is one of those scratched and scuffed old tables, with drawers and cubby holes, where all the odds and ends are kept. There were some old, rusty implements, and various tubs and bottles, and some string. In the end, it was not the sweeps of lavender that finished me off, but the humble bottles and tubs. I thought of Mum, leafing through her catalogues, sending off for the parcels of necessary items, sometimes dispatching my stepfather to the shop with one of her neatly written lists, on very high days when her body was just about working getting into the car and being driven to the garden centre ten miles down the valley. Somehow, it was the very ordinary collection of fertilisers and soil improvers and magical stuff for the tomatoes which sent me over the edge, because they are not needed any more.


I said goodbye quickly and turned to go, before I made a fool of myself. ‘See you around the village,’ said the kind gentleman. ‘Oh yes,’ I said. ‘I do hope so.’

Sunday, 31 July 2016

The last things.




Another day, another breakfast with the dear Stepfather, another small pile on the table. The very last things are going from my mother’s house. I find this exceptionally melancholy and have to make a lot of antic jokes to cover up the fact. Everybody has to go through the things, I think. They are just things. But there is something about the final remnants of a life which is almost unbearable.

In the picture, you see my grandparents. They were such an odd couple. (At least I can say things like this now without my mum giving me a reproachful look. She knew they were quite odd, but staunchly never said so.) My grandmother was a mystery. She never stopped talking her whole life, and yet she never said anything which elucidated the mystery. My grandfather was a reinvention.

You see the monocle? He rarely took it off. I think he wore it in the bath. It was the emblem of his reinvention, the mark of the country squire into which he fashioned himself. Look at the tweeds, look at the pipe, look at the ugly pile behind him. Squire to the fingertips. But he was born in Wanstead Flats. (For those of you joining us from foreign stations, Wanstead Flats is a rather forlorn suburb of London. It was not, in 1888, where the landed gentry lived.) My grandfather never spoke of his family, but there was some thought that they were greengrocers. He became an actor, a standing dish in the West End, much loved and admired and famous for his comic timing. He took the money he earned and bought his tweeds and rented one country house after another and got a string of splendid hunters and stuck that monocle in his eye and became the gentleman he wanted himself to be. He was a gentleman at heart, but not the kind you could look up in Burke.

For all that he was a tremendous snob – not in the way of looking down on people but in the way of wanting so very dearly to be a posh cove – he was also tremendously brave. He joined the RAF in the First World War, and flew those terrifying aeroplanes that were practically made of paper. When the Second World War came, he was in a play in the West End. He asked his producer to let him out of his contract and went at once back to the Air Force and joined up again. To his chagrin, they said he was much too old to fly. (He was fifty at this time.) Instead, they put him in the control tower at RAF Benson. According to my mother, the young pilots adored his resonant actor’s voice, and felt comforted when they heard him calling them home.

Nobody knows to this day where my grandmother came from. She insisted she was descended from Danish princes and American robber barons. But she lived in a world entirely of her own. She talked and talked and talked and, for all those words, the mystery remained. I rather like the idea of the Danish princes. When I was young and foolish, I thought I was Hamlet, so it felt excessively appropriate. I think those dear old Danes lived in her imagination, actual only to her.

So there they are, those two made-up people, in their curious, dated clothes, leaning on their garden fence, looking curiously real and curiously unreal. I look at them, with quizzical fondness, and wonder: who were you?


The funny thing is that one of the very few facts I know about them for sure is that they loved horses. My mother inherited this love, married a man who had that love, and they both passed it on to me. That fire burns strong in my heart to this day, as I go down to the field and murmur private words into the dear ears of my thoroughbred mares. So something survives, and that something is very real indeed. It’s a pretty fine inheritance. I'll take it every day and twice on Sundays.

Friday, 29 July 2016

Rays of light.




Up and down and round the houses I go. Existential complications swarm at me like angry bees. But there are sudden, dazzling shafts of light. I go up to HorseBack to watch a man in a motorised wheelchair work a horse. There is nothing to bring one to a sense of perspective like seeing someone who has been paralysed at a young age rising above that catastrophic injury.

What was interesting about this particular man is that he was not doing any sort of gung-ho, watch me overcome schtick. He had a job, and he was going out to do it. He was matter of fact, low-key, and quite reticent. As I watched him work, I could see why he had been so brilliant at the rugby which eventually felled him. He was utterly focused, concentrating always on the next step, on what he could improve, on what he could learn better. You can’t not notice that someone is in a chair, but as he bonded with his horse, that chair faded into the background and the human spirit revealed itself. I became fascinated with him and impressed by him not because he was a man in a chair, but because he was a man with a mission.

In quieter, less dramatic waters, the great-nieces came this morning to ride. The middle niece rode the red mare off the lead rope for the first time and they forged a glorious new partnership. The oldest niece zoomed round an obstacle course with a blazing smile on her face. The baby niece, four years old, had her first sit on the mare and decided that the broad, mighty thoroughbred back was the place she was going to stay. We had some difficulty in persuading her to get off.

I feel tremendous pride in my horse at times like this. I’ve taught her a lot of things. She did not get as relaxed and soft as she is by eating magic beans. But her tenderness and dearness with the children is really to do with her own kind heart. She recognises precious cargo when she sees it, and she carries it with gentleness and loving care.


Those were the shining lights, illuminating the darkness. I’m struggling with some stuff. It’s complicated, messy, grievous stuff and it makes my heart ache. But there are good humans and good dogs and good horses and the dear old trees and hills which lift that bashed heart. I have a sort of percentage rule. I accept that life contains frets and sorrows and blows. I don’t shut my eyes to those, but try to run towards them. But as long as I have a decent ratio of goodness and kindness and laughter and beauty to balance them out, then I’m all right. If the percentages work out at around the sixty-forty mark, I’m fine. When we dip below fifty-fifty, I have to concentrate. I have to dig for the daily beauty, the one true thing, the shy silver lining, the elusive shaft of light. Sometimes, I don’t have to dig so hard. Sometimes the sun comes out, all on its own.

Tuesday, 26 July 2016

A cloud over the sun.




A tangle of intractable complications and sadnesses has me in its web. I think I am being tremendously stoical and putting on a good front, because I believe in stoicism and good fronts. In the end, I stand in the green field and tell a friend. She listens for a long time and then smiles kindly and says: ‘I had guessed.’ That good front, I think, needs work.

The friend is wise and true. She is a brilliant person for sorrows because she does not put on the pity face, or do the special voice, or tell me to butch up, or offer solutions. She just lets me get it all off my chest and then says something sage and then says something that makes me laugh. I feel profoundly soothed.

The tangle will get tighter and sadder over the next few days and then will loosen, a little. It is not made up of single spies, but of battalions. I stare very hard at the things of beauty in my daily life; the dancing dogs, the dear mares, the kind friends, the tall trees, the words written on the page. I squint beadily for silver linings, and there aren’t many, just now.


I always feel affronted by the bracing people who tell one to cheer up. There are things in life about which it is correct to be sad. One is not carved of pitiless marble. I hate dwelling and self-indulgence; I try not to wallow. But sometimes sad things happen and they make the heart ache and there is absolutely no point in pretending that they do not. 

Friday, 22 July 2016

The art of stillness.




I write 2872 words. Bash, bash, bash go my fingers on the keyboard. I see to the horses and walk the dogs and make my stepfather his breakfast and we talk about the madness that is Donald Trump.

Yesterday, I sat for forty minutes and listened to one of the most interesting men I know. Usually, when I see him I am in a rush. I have to get back to my desk, I have many miles to go before I sleep. I put my head round his office door, wave at him manically, perhaps stop for a couple of minutes of chat, explain why I must fly. Yesterday, I had twenty-seven things to do, but I made myself sit down and not think about any of those things. He started talking and I thought: oh, this is the good stuff. I thought: bugger the world, I’m going to get off. I actually concentrated on stilling and softening and opening my body language, so that it said: I am here, I am present, I am not thinking about what I have got to do next. I am listening to you and that is all.

It was a rather magical forty minutes. It was very quiet in that room, and there was just the interesting man, and his stories of things that I shall never know and can hardly imagine, and his vast store of knowledge. He is a seeker of knowledge, and he shares it with easy generosity, never showing off or trying to make a point or intent on making himself look good. He does look good, but not because he tries to. This lovely knowledge poured out and I kept still and mostly silent and merely tried to absorb as much of it as I could. I love the interesting people. The interesting people make it all worth it.

Oddly enough, I’d had some interesting stuff from the vet, earlier in the day. I’d taken the mares up to have their teeth done. One of them needed a post-operative wound treating. There was a bit of bad news and some fairly intricate treatment. I like to watch the vet at work and I like listening to him. But I could not be still and present in that situation, because all the frets swarmed round me like flies. My poor little mare, with her wound, and the threat of her bloody buggery sarcoids coming back, haunts me. I feel a little helpless and hopeless. Her wound is my wound. So, in reaction, I do a lot of nervy talking. I am tense as a guitar string. I take in some of the interesting stuff, but I can’t sit there and let it flow over me like I do with my friend in the quiet room, because I am too busy covering up emotion with pointless speech.

I always think the vet must think me a little bit nuts, on account of the pointless speech. I wish I could say: don’t pay any heed, it’s just that damn monkey mind, chattering fearful things in my ear. I wish I could explain that I can’t quite do the art of stillness when I’m fretting about that horse. I try to do matter of fact and hopeful and stoical, and sometimes I make a decent fist of it, but inside I’m wailing like a child.


She’ll be all right, that sweet horse. We’ll get her right in the end. And in the meantime, I shall go away and work on the art of stillness. I’m too damn old for the pointless speaking. 

Wednesday, 20 July 2016

The smiling men of Loch Muick.




Darwin the Dog sees two likely fellows and bounds over to make friends. There have been new people coming and going outside my window for a couple of weeks and I wonder what they are up to. Now the incurably friendly puppy has broken the ice, I can ask them.

They are smiling men, very young, probably just out of university. I grin at them from under my absurd, battered hat, and ask them what they are doing. ‘Oh,’ they say, beaming, ‘we are fixing the path at Loch Muick.’

Loch Muick is half an hour to the west. When I first came to live here, I used to drive about the country, looking in wonder at the mountains and the glens. I could hardly believe that if I took the road a mere twenty minutes to the north-west, I would find myself in proper wilderness, with not a house or a human for miles. On this crowded little island, this felt like a miracle.

I discovered Loch Muick by accident, since it is hidden away. I took a tiny road along the south of the Dee, and found myself twisting and turning through mossy plantations of silver birches, and then moving upward into dense pine forests. I was in the beginnings of a valley, tight and close, rather magical, like something out of the fairy tales of my childhood. Then, the road took a sudden turn and the glen opened out like a great book.

There it was, wild and wide and glacial, speaking vividly of its ancient beginnings. The floor of the valley was flat and expansive, with a river running through it in sapphire blue curves, and herds of deer gently grazing. I remember thinking that it had a look of South America about it; it was very familiar, but very foreign at the same time. The mountains rose up on either side in almost perpendicular folds, like grave guardians of this secret place.

At the end of the glen, there was a shining silver loch with its high sentinel cliffs and a sliver of bright beach at its eastern end. I stared and stared at it, in awe and wonder, astonished that I should have this much beauty on my doorstep.

Now, I don’t drive about the country. I have work to do, livestock to care for, my voluntary job, and family obligations. There is never enough time for life, let alone going on tour. But there were these smiling young men, going up into that fairy tale and making the path good, so that people can walk through the beauty without falling into potholes.

‘Do you know this country?’ I say.

‘No,’ they say, smiling more broadly than ever. ‘We come from Dumfries, we come from Edinburgh.’

They bend down to stroke Darwin, laughing at his antic disposition. I think how glorious it was that there are young people who came from Edinburgh to make the path at Loch Muick fine. I want to ask whether they are volunteers or on some kind of work experience or what. I feel goodness and kindness flowing out them in waves. I long to know why they have chosen this good job instead of any other.

But we all have to get on, so we smile some more and part ways, in great good humour with each other.


It was a tiny moment, but it gave a lustre and a gleam to my day. Afterwards, I felt glad that because of the blog, this small conversation would be written down and recorded. I would always have a memory of the grand young men, because I had put them into words. I would forget them otherwise. I have a sieve memory and too much of the important stuff tumbles through the holes. I want to remember this, I thought. In two, three, four years time, I want to be able to look back and think of those boys, by the side of that silver loch, making their path.

Saturday, 16 July 2016

Friendship and kindness and love.




As all the drawers are emptied, I take home each day small files and folders of papers. My mother kept everything. There are cards in wobbly childish writing saying: I love you Granny. There are notes from old friends, from her dear husband, even one from the Spanish Ambassador. (I can’t read the writing, so have no idea what that is about.) I can’t save them all. Sometimes I have to throw away things with words of love written on them. This feels like sacrilege. Do we find love so often that we turn it off the box?

In one of the piles, I find a flimsy telegram. It is typed in the faded capital letters of a lost time. It is very simple. It says: ‘You transformed a sad week into one S and I adored because of friendship kindness and love.’

I remember well the man who wrote that. He is one of the cohort of the great old gentlemen, the ones who remember the war. He was very sweet to me when I was a raw teen, doing the thing that the finest gentlemen do, which is treating me not as if I were a callow youth, but as if I were in fact the Spanish ambassador. (The father of the Beloved Cousin used to do the same thing. I think of it every week. It is one of the great gifts in life, and it leaves an enduring legacy.)

This particular gentleman had polio when he was young, so he was slightly lame. He and my mother used to go to the same dances, in those far-off days when people went to dances. My mother was very shy, and used to find them torture. The grand gentleman was not yet grand, but diffident and with a gammy leg. The more dashing girls found other partners. But Mum always danced with him. She did not care about the leg.

Thirty years after those excruciating social gatherings, he wrote her a telegram about friendship and kindness and love. Thirty years after that, I found the slip of paper, almost transparent with age, which she had preserved in a little leather case where she kept her most precious correspondence.

It’s not a bad epitaph. If someone ever wrote that of me, I should think that I had had a good life.


Not everyone chooses friendship and kindness and love. As the hectic news rolls daily off the presses, it is clear that these simple virtues are not at the top of everyone’s list. They seem so simple and so obvious, almost as if they fall from the sky like gentle rain. But they are not obvious to every human, and they do not simply fall. They, like all the important things in life, must be chosen. They are active virtues, more robust and stalwart than they sound. They are what Shakespeare meant when he wrote: so shines a good deed in a naughty world. They make a difference. They can transform something sad into something adored. I have written proof. 

Friday, 15 July 2016

There are no words.




I never know what to do when tragedy strikes, out in the world. My own world is very small, and, in some ways, very sheltered. When I go down to the field each morning to let the dogs play and to tend to the horses, it feels as if we are hidden from all the bad things and the mad things and the sad things. Nobody can see us there. We are sheltered by a high hill and stretches of dense woodland. I have a friend who shares the field with me. Her young daughter christened it The Magic Paddock, and there is something magical about it.

My house is small and sheltered too, but the world comes in there when I turn on the wireless or switch on the internet to hear the news. There, suddenly, in vivid colours, is that distant, outside world, with its living and dying, its tectonic shifts, its sudden political shocks.

As social media gallops and wheels in its wild, wide prairies of news, there can be almost an imperative to say something. Sometimes it feels as if everyone must react to everything, must have an opinion, must choose the right thing to say. I find the right thing to say almost impossible. Sometimes, I don’t say anything at all, because mere paltry human words in the face of unspeakable grief and loss and horror seem pointless and gimcrack. A huge thing has happened; why should anyone need to know what my own small feeling about it is? It can seem self-regarding, jumping on any passing bandwagon. Look at me, caring. On the other hand, to speak about ordinary things can seem callous and stupid. Can I really put up a picture of Stanley the Dog on Facebook when eighty-four people lie dead in the street?

But what word do you use for those eighty-four lost souls? Even the language of Shakespeare and Milton seems to come up short. It is shocking, and heartbreaking, and beyond human imagination. It is mad and wrong and lunatic. Yet every word one slaps on the horror seems too thin and small.

All the same, people will write the words, will stretch out uncertain fingers for the words, will try to make the nonsensical make sense with the words. Some good, wise people will use the right words, to reach out across oceans and incomprehensions, across time and distance, from one wounded heart to another. Some people will have the words, and will act as stalwarts, as witnesses, as consolers, if any consolation is to be found.

As I stood in that hidden, magical field this morning, with my little brown mare, who is the kindest, sweetest, most gentle animal I ever met, there were words in my ear. I was listening to a portable radio, and something rather extraordinary happened. It was Desert Island Discs, and Nicole Farhi was on. The programme had obviously been recorded some days before, and as she said, blithely and happily, that she grew up in Nice, I felt a visceral shock. She could speak of Nice with innocence, because she did not know what was to happen there. It was haunting and moving and added an extra twist to the tragedy. It somehow made it more touching that she was such a lovely woman, charming and engaged and thoughtful. She was all light and goodness, on such a dark day.

And then she chose Ne Me Quitte Pas by Jacques Brel for one of her records. I listened to that beloved singer of songs singing ‘don’t leave me’ in the quiet Scottish morning. The mare rested her sweet head against my shoulder. I thought of all those people, celebrating in their happy, peaceful streets, in the moments before tragedy struck. I thought of the ones who had left, against their will, torn violently from life and laughter by actions the human mind can barely understand.


It was a very strange moment. Listening to that most tender of voices was both lovely, and heart-rending. It is a time when words are not enough, and yet Brel had the right words. ‘I will make a kingdom where love will be king.’ If only it could be so. If only. 

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