It was always difficult to judge what would make a welcome gift for Elaine. That’s not to say she was demanding in any way, far from it, but she had definite likes and dislikes that were not always so easy to guess, and, as her birthday followed Christmas by just two weeks I was always on the look-out for present ideas throughout the year.
Early one summer she returned home after a trip to Marlborough with a friend when I asked if she’d seen or bought anything she liked; she told me about a shoulder bag she had seen and fallen in love with.
It was petrol-blue leather with chrome fittings and a front flap with a zip at a 45 degree angle.
“Why didn’t you buy it?”
“It was £160.00.”
“It’s too much Mark, I can’t justify it, but it was nice.”
Here was an opportunity too good to let pass.
Some tactful questioning got me the whereabouts of the shop and I knew an illicit trip to Marlborough was needed.
At the time I was working about 15 miles from home, so left fairly early in the morning; when Elaine went off to a boot sale even earlier one day I left soon after, and as the place where I was working was empty anyway I knew I had time to do the 100 miles plus to Marlborough and back OK, without being missed for a couple of hours.
I arrived about 8.15am, bought a parking ticket for the centre of town then checked out the shop.
Shit! they didn’t open until 10am, but I was here now so I just had to wait, and buy another bloody ticket!
10am and I’m through the shop door. The woman there seemed rather surprised and a bit ‘needled’ to have a customer so early. I explained what I had come for as she silently eyed me with ill-concealed suspicion.
Judging by the stock and prices asked, I guess she didn’t get many customers in paint spotted clothes and wearing miss-laced steel toecap boots.
“Would this be the one?” she said through her nose, whilst producing a vibrant blue bag that even I immediately liked.
“Or there is a LESS expensive version.”(She’d obviously taken my dress code on-board).
Without waiting for an answer she went in search of the ‘cheaper bag’.
I couldn’t see anything cheap in the entire place.
Back she came with a smaller version which was about £50 less, but I knew the one I was holding was what I had come for and said so.
We walked over to the counter.
“And HOW will you be paying?”
I so much wanted to say by cheque just to piss her off but I’d brought cash as I did not want Elaine to see any record of it as Christmas was still six months away.
The transaction done, I was impressed to see the bag sealed in its own white cotton cover before it all went into a very posh carrier bag with an indecipherable logo on it.
We said our goodbyes and back in the car I realised that she never once called me sir, or anything else, but what the hell I had a real gem of a present for my wife.
The bag was smuggled to Mike and lived in his spare room, away from Elaine’s prying eyes and fingers.
In the event I decided to save it for her birthday as she never expected too much then as she reckoned on the best pressies being for Christmas.
“It’s not much I’m afraid darling.”
I say this as I hand her three small parcels on the morning of her birthday. She’s sitting-up in bed, I’ve made some tea but she is yet to get up; waiting long for presents was not her forte`.
“That’s OK Mark, it’s just nice to have something to open.”
The three are duly dealt with and she is genuinely pleased enough.
I walk away from the bed, then stop, “Oh bugger, there is something else, I’d forgotten.”
She’s no fool and knows this is a game and there is something special to come.
I fetch the wrapped bag from the wardrobe and hand it over. She looks at it then up at me. I can’t help smiling.
This is her cue to attack the paper which reveals the carrier bag- she doesn’t recognise the logo.
The white cotton cover fools her and she frowns quizzically until she opens it up and sees that vibrant blue.
It was and is, simply the best £160.00 I ever have or ever will spend. Elaine was ecstatic and lost for words. She hugged the bag, then me, then both of us together. She then confessed that she had deeply regretted not buying it that day as she loved it so much.
Of course, I have to tell her how and when I got it and I think she loved the story as much as the bag. She told everybody.
That blue bag went everywhere with her for years. It went to the USA, to Europe and all over this country again and again, she rarely travelled far without it.
It got worn and faded, but I think she loved it even the more.
She carried it with her when she went to the hospice, and it was hanging on the bed beside her as she died.
I brought it back home later that day.
All of Solomon’s riches could not buy it from me…
Like Scrooge, this year I’d be happy to leave Christmas alone; but I know damn well it won’t be leaving me alone that easily.
Elaine and I always enjoyed our Christmases together. In later years it was just the two of us, which we loved; we had lots of fun and made it all so very special for each other.
Last year was all but lost to us due to her escalating illness, but this will be the first in thirty years for me, without Elaine. To say it’s going to be difficult is the understatement of the century.
Previously she went into the hospice four days before Christmas, and died after being there for just over two weeks.
So she was there for Christmas Eve and the day itself and our 25th anniversary four days later. Then New Year followed, and her death barely five days on from that which was just two days before what would have been her 66th birthday.
This is emotional overload openly lying in wait.
I can see the Bear-Pit yawning in the fairy lights, but can I stop myself from walking straight up to and into it?
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not looking to punish myself for any reason, I’m about done with the hair shirt; but the upset is coming, sure as Christmas, whether I want it or not. But I’m thinking now is this the key to it? Is this a crucible I must pass through, to endure or overcome somehow so as not to have to face the same overload situation every Christmas?
Just where the hell the last 12 months have gone? I don’t know. After Elaine’s death and funeral time all but stopped for me. I felt there were lead weights around my legs and I was dragging them through molasses.
Taking up the blog gave me an unexpected focus and it was I believe one of the biggest things in helping me to cope (another Elaine influence?) But this Christmas has come on so fast I am going to have to become a bit of a time traveller to survive it.
I’m going to be back and forth between our past, last year and the present, and I believe it’s going to be the only way for me to face all of this. Head on.
Kind friends have offered to share their Christmas with me and I am ever grateful for the invites, (I was even offered a holiday home in Cornwall, thanks Sara, but it’s a bit too far); but I know this Christmas I must do here mostly on my own.
The ‘presence’ of last Christmas has to be laid, and it has to be done this year.
I don’t know how many Christmases are left to me, but I want in future years to be able to honour and enjoy the spirit of the season as Elaine and I always did. Last year I witnessed how they still manage to do this in a hospice of all places, and if it can be done there by staff and patients alike, then there is no excuse for me… after this year that is.
I want too to remember all the joy that Elaine and I had together over three decades without the heartache. We managed it despite bloody cancer so often trying to break us down, but it never succeeded not even at the last, and I’m damned if I’m going to let the bastard get me from beyond the grave, so to speak.
I know fully well that this is how Elaine would think too.
Her prediction that it would be worse for me left behind to carry on living than for her, as she only had to die, has proved pretty well true to date; but I am feeling recovery around the edges and getting through and out of the other side of this Christmas, and its aftermath, will for me be a big step forward into that recovery zone (if I live that long!).
0nce January 5th gets here there will be no more ‘firsts’.
Every anniversary will have been before and I can breathe out a little easier.
What will I do on the day itself? Well truth is I don’t know. I’m making no plans, I’ll check out the weather and how I feel and take it from there.
Perhaps I’ll see friends later in the day, but if I were to be sat around a table with others early on I would not really be there.
In my mind, I would be with Elaine.
So I’ll travel back to Christmas past and re-live.
I may go over to the hospice just to be briefly closer to last year. I wouldn’t go in, even if they’d let me. I’d just sit in the car or walk around and remember.
This all sounds a bit like the hair shirt again I know, and to an extent it is; but this time I’ll be choosing where and when I wear it, and for how long. I’ll be doing this for me, not Elaine.
She would say just go and be with others, “I’m not at the bloody hospice, any more than I’m waiting at the burial ground”, and I know it; but this Christmas is for me, not for her.
I must do it my way now or that last Christmas at the hospice will be ever present and get stronger each year, I know it will; the ghost of that Christmas past has to be laid for me now, or never at all.
It’s got to be my terms from now onwards, and I don’t mean this just for Christmas either.
I know full well that part of me never left the room that my wife and I shared for the last six days of her life, and I’m not sure I’ll ever fully be able to leave it; or even if I want to.
The intensity of those days and nights is eternally burned into my soul. No words that I write here could convey even a fraction of it to you; live it as I did only then will you be capable of any understanding.
I dearly hope you remain ever ignorant.
Wherever I go come Christmas that blue bag is going with me. I don’t need it to remember, I need its presence just this once so I can live on through any Christmases yet to come and not be a constant time traveller every year.
I’ll let you know how I get on.
My heartfelt best wishes for Christmas and the New Year to you all. The fact that I am writing this is fully due to your support.
PS. Thursday 6th January ’22 falls between the anniversary of Elaine’s passing and what would have been her 67th birthday, I’ll be sharing a very short personal indulgence that day -hope you understand.