42 West Street

This happened last year.

The pain? It’s truly indescribable so I’m not even going to try. And if that’s not enough, I have never felt so frigging ill in my whole life. If this is Karma and I’m paying for past transgressions then many earlier versions of me are now debt free.

I’m on the floor, clutching at the pattern on the carpet and banging my forehead against the chair leg. The razor-sharp wire wrapped around my chest is tightening like a garrote, and if my eyeballs could sweat, they’d sweat blood.

In as calm a manner as I can muster (because ironically I don’t want him thinking I’m ill) I suggest that Mark “calls someone.”

“Call who?”
“Call the fucking ambulance.”

He recounts my symptoms to the emergency service until the call-handler interrupts to ask vital questions. His replies are quick and concise.

“Yes, she’s breathing. Yes, she’s conscious. Lying on the floor. No, not blue. Like this for some time.”
When he repeats “She has stage 4 breast cancer” the questions halt abruptly.

“The ambulance is on its way.”

Those relief of those words cut through the wire like a sword through butter. I grasp and gasp the offered breath. By the time the ambulance parks in front of the house, blue flashing light reflecting though the windows, the resounding pain in my chest and back has dulled to an acute ache. I hear the medics carry their cumbersome equipment up the stairs. Colour rises in my cheeks, am I being a Drama Queen?

The two medics look about twelve years old. They work efficiently and in an instant, I’m plugged in to machines monitoring every vital organ.

Reading the print-out they say in unison “it doesn’t look like a heart attack but you’re going to need more tests, bloods, observation, and with your history I don’t think we should take chances. Hospital for you.”

We agree the pain is no joke and its intensity not subsiding, so the medic suggests I take two paracetamol for the journey.

I look at Mark trying not to look at me, and nod.

“Can you walk down the stairs?”
“Yes I think so.”
“I’ll wait in the hall while you gather some things. Does your husband want to come with, or follow in the car?”
“I’ll follow,” says Mark.

I can’t think of what to take with me, so I put on some clean undies and hope for the best.

The ambulance is cold, the ultra-thin blanket sparse but surprisingly warm. We bump slowly along the rough track that we call our driveway before lurching onto the potholed country lane. Without being able to see the route I try to calm myself by guessing where we are, and as soon as the bumping stops, I feel we’re on the main road. The driver takes a circuitous route suggested by satnav, and by way of explanation the medic says “the driver’s from New Zealand.” We smile conspiratorially; two locals bumping along together in the back of an ambulance.

At the hospital, I’m unloaded into the chill evening air and the winter breeze dances on my face. In the busy corridor, I’m transferred to a trolley and parked under a bright overhead light, next to a radiator. The ambulance staff write-up their notes electronically, wish me luck and hand me over to the nursing staff. Then they’re gone.

I’m well illuminated, sweatily warm, and very uncomfortable- the paracetamol hasn’t even touched the sides of the pain. There’s a queue of trolleys ahead of me, and at the end of our destination ward signs say Critical, Resuscitation and Majors. I start to feel very scared.

I’m lying on my own trying to breathe slowly, when a young girl comes marching along the corridor. She’s wearing leopardskin print leggings and gold gladiator sandals which make me smile because of their sheer audacity.

 “Are you Elaine?” she asks brightly, stopping at my trolley.

“Yes” I reply meekly. I know doctors are getting younger, but . . .

“I’m Sarah from reception” she says, “and I’m pleased to meet you! I have your friend Julie at the front desk. When no one’s looking I’ll smuggle her through. They don’t like people out here but you look a bit lonely”

I nod. I think I’m going to cry. Sarah touches my shoulder, and I cry.

Julie perches on the end of my trolley. We hold hands and giggle and when it turns to tears, we just hold hands. We’ve been together thirty years, together through absolutely everything.

“Mark phoned me before he left home and told me what happened,” she says, rubbing my hands with hers. “I was just sitting down for the evening with a glass of sherry, John offered to drink it for me but I poured it back in the bottle.”

I apologise for the call-out, it’s not like it’s the first time and we giggle again. We agree how useful it is she lives near the hospital. I tell her I’m scared (again, not for the first time) and she says she knows I am, and we laugh-cry-giggle for a few indulgent minutes in our own little world, letting the reality of the situation pass us by.

I’m feeling less scared by the time Sarah appears again, this time with Mark. She tactfully suggests a visitor swap. As Julie and I hug and say our good-byes and our love-yous, a nurse comes to admit me to Majors. Julie and Sarah walk back down the corridor and as they turn to wave, we go our separate ways and I’m wheeled into the bustling Majors Ward.

My trolley is parked in a bay by the doctor’s desk, and the curtains drawn around me. Beyond the curtains is a cacophony of bleeping machines, phone ring-tones, trolleys wheeling to-and-fro, and many-accented voices.

The nurse clears the detritus from the previous occupant, sprays everything with disinfectant and lays fresh linen on the bed before asking me if I can move myself from the trolley. I nod, and slide over. The nurse raises the bed-head higher, and places pillows behind me.

“I’ll be back in a minute,” he says, disappearing through the gap in the curtains.

Mark sits in the single adjacent chair and we look glumly at each other.

“I fed the cats before I left home,” he says.

“What time is it now?”
 “Seven forty-five. The ambulance man said they’d do some blood tests and we should be home by midnight.”

In the midst of trying to smile more-brightly-than-we-feel, a high-pitched voice from the patient in the opposite bay drifts through the curtains.

“I’m a transvestite you know! I wish I’d worn my feminine attire, this outfit isn’t very flattering is it?”

“Each to their own” is the reply from the nurse, followed by a deep sigh.

No amount of pain can stop me wanting to laugh. It’s going to be a long night, but things are looking up.

The nurse returns, with a doctor and an intern and I’m plugged back in to the monitors, recite my list of current drugs (lengthy) and medical history (even lengthier). They need to take blood. My veins collapsed after much chemo and I had a portacath inserted under my collarbone to make needling easier. The medics look confused when I show them, and after a lengthy confab they call another doctor.

She examines the portacath and says “what size needle do you use?”

“I don’t know I’ve never asked” I reply. “They just put the needle in. I didn’t know there were different sizes.”
She peers closely at my arms and hands hoping to find a vein to use as an alternative, but finds none. She sighs before exiting through the curtains.

“I’m in an awful lot of pain” I say to the nurse. “Can I have something?”

He nods, and while he’s gone to find pain-relief, the doctor re-appears with a student nurse and shows him how to take blood from the portacath.

“What size needle did you choose?” I ask

“The smallest. Best to start small and work upwards” she replies.

The first nurse arrives back with codeine.

“I’m sorry, I can’t take it” I say, recalling my past out-of-head-and-body experiences.

“Ok” I’ll be back.

The second offering is Oramorph, together with pills for anti-sickness and gastro-guard medication. I swallow the pills with water and empty the phial of sickly-sweet morphine directly into my mouth.The pain recedes, my face reddens, and for the second time that night, things begin to look up.

“When do you think I’ll be discharged?” I ask Mark.

“Oh”, he says wearily “midnight-ish?”

“Uh huh, sounds good. The pain’s gone, I feel fine now.”

He looks weary and doesn’t share my optimism.

“I think I need to pay more attention to my food,” I say brightly.

“Oh? Why?”

I jabber away happily in my drug-induced gaiety; food, decorating styles, hairdressers, all random subjects that suddenly seem interesting. I distinctly, and embarrassingly, remember asking his opinion on constipation and piles.

Through the now opened curtains, I watch as the transvestite straightens her unflattering clothes and leaves the ward in a flurry of flounces and showboating. A new occupant is wheeled into the vacant bay. “You’ll be sure to tell my husband I’m here won’t you,” she asks the nurse earnestly. “He’s watching television and won’t know where I am.”
The nurse nods.

“And my handbag- I’ve left my handbag somewhere”
The nurse gives a cursory glance over the bed, floor and bedside locker.

“No handbag here, darling.”
“Oh, it’ll be with my slippers then, or my husband might have it. Now, I need to brush my teeth . . .” She struggles to get out of bed.

“No, you need to stay in bed darling.”

“But my teeth.”

“Never mind your teeth, you need to stay in bed.”
She wriggles down the bed, dangling her legs and feet over the end, just as a nurse wheels another patient along the narrow central aisle. He slams his trolley to a halt precariously jolting his patient, and shouts something in a foreign language. A swearword still sounds like a swearword in any language. Together, the two nurses move the two patients back up their beds.

An assessment doctor arrives and shines a torch deep into the woman’s eyes before checking her neck brace and head bandage dressing. The patient knows her own name, can count backwards from ten, and knows she’s in Poole Hospital because ‘she’s been there for the past three days’. The doctor asks her to remember the address 42 West Street, which she promptly forgets, but does remember she fell while walking her dog. Then she says “No, I don’t have a dog. Why?”

A new nurse, arrives at my bed with another doctor. “Hello darling” he says, “I’m Ghio. Could I get you a cup of tea?” He has a kind way and a gentle voice.

“I could murder a cup of tea” I say. “And biscuits?”

“I’ll see what I can do, darling.” He turns to Mark, “tea for you?” (For a moment I think he’s gong to call him darling). Mark shakes his head.

“Have you had an ECG?” asks the doctor.

“Yes, I had one when I arrived.”

“Did, you? I don’t have a record of that.” She scans her notes. “They must’ve lost it, I’ll get the machine and we’ll do another”.

The sticky tabs are stuck back on my skin and I’m plugged in again.

“We also need to do another blood test.”
“I had one of those.”

“Yes, but it needed a longer time lag, it was done too soon after you arrived.”
I show her the portacath with the canula still attached for when it’s needed again.

“There’s no-one available who can use that” she says, “we’ll use a vein.”

“I don’t think you’ll get one.”

She examines my arm and shakes her head doubtfully. “Can we go in your hand?”

“It blows up like a balloon,” I say, trying to avoid hunt-the-vein scenarios played out so often in the past. “That’s why I had the portacath fitted. . .”

Ghio takes my hand, moving his thumb lightly over the skin.

“I was a phlebotomist in Mexico,” he says gently. “If you trust me darling, I can get a vein no problem.”

“One try only” I reply.

“It’s all I need darling.”

I don’t feel him insert the needle; it’s the sweetest blood test I’ve ever had, and he hits bullseye first time. His skill, his tea and his packet of biscuits merit eternal gratitude. Being called darling is a bonus.

To my left, two daughters are comforting their elderly mother, who has a suspected hip fracture. All she wants to do is pee but she can’t be moved to use the bedpan, so the nurse tells her to wet the bed.

One sister is the Carer. The other looks like the Bankroller and is obviously feeling completely out of her depth, witnessing the grim reality of her mother’s situation.

“Mum, just pee in the bed, we’ll change sheets soon” coos the Carer, while the Bankroller turns her head and inspects the wall.

The assessment doctor shines her torch and ascertains the patient knows her own name and location, and can count backwards from ten. She also remembers the address 42 West Street, and when asked her date of birth recites today’s date, proudly stating it’s her ninety-ninth birthday.

With touching spontaneity, everyone in earshot smiles and shouts “Happy Birthday!”

She continues to pee in the bed which begins to overflow. The awkward daughter has a panic attack and faints, and the nurses lift her onto a trolley next to her mother. The Caring daughter catches my eye, shrugs, and smiles.

A man with a continuous nosebleed is admitted. He’s covered head-to-toe in blood and leaves a red trail along the ward to his bed. He is trying to make a phonecall, but has so many pads and towels wrapped around his face, all that comes out is a muffled “hhhmmmmmmnnpppppfff.”

A young doctor comes to ask my medical history and the events leading to my admission. I give an abbreviated version of both. She says the blood tests show I have elevated liver function, and they’re trying to find out why. A nurse takes my blood pressure, and the next moment I’m transferred to a wheelchair and wheeled along the corridor for a chest x-ray. The midnight discharge time has passed. Mark and I re-assess our guess, saying 2a.m sounds more likely. We are both wide-awake and over-awed by the horrific yet mesmerising drama around us, which is still unfolding.

And we are part of it.

Mark gets up and goes to the toilet along the corridor, and comes back to say all hell has broken loose. Nurses are rushing victims of a car accident into the Emergency Ward and the corridor is full of police officers and screaming relatives. En masse, all our doctors disappear into the Emergency Room.

For a few moments, a sense of calm descends over our ward as the nurses quietly bustle from one patient to the next, checking dressings and giving drugs. Their trainers making little or no noise on the floor. The nosebleed is slowing, the woman opposite has her neck brace removed (all the while asking about her husband and handbag), and the fainting daughter in the next bay recovers enough to move from trolley to chair.

A piercing scream shatters the silence. An elderly lady in the end bed, brought in from her care home with a bladder infection, is resisting an injection.

“Now, Mary, this won’t take a minute,” says the nurse patiently.

“Fuck OFF” screams Mary. “And don’t call me Mary.”

“What shall I call you?”
“Mrs Scrivener. My name is Mrs Scrivener. M I S S US”

“Ok Mrs Scrivener, I need to give you this injection.”
“Fuckofffuckofffuckoff.”

“But Mary . . . Mrs Scrivener . . .”
“Fuck off.”

The nurse retreats and fetches Ghio who approaches the bed with a bright smile.

“Hi Mary darling, I’m just going to give you something for the pain. OK?”

“Yes” she replies, “that’s okay.”

At four o’clock Mark and I laugh about our 2a.m expectations, and at five o’clock I ask if he could go across the road to the all-night petrol station and fetch a pack of peppermints. While he’s away, a doctor pulls the curtains around my bay, and asks me my medical details once again. Slowly I repeat the same answers to the same questions, and ask if there are further blood tests results.

“We’re still trying to find the reason for the elevated levels,” she says “so we’re going to admit you to a ward for further tests and observation.”

My heart drops. I want to go home.

“How long will I be in?”
“It depends on what they find.”

When Mark returns I ask if he could go home and fetch my cancer meds, and some sweat pants and tees for a hospital stay. He looks as crestfallen as I’m feeling.

Together we’ve weathered this night – no, not just weathered, but been part of a parallel universe that must occur in every hospital, 24/7. The way the nurses work as a team and the doctors seamlessly change from one patient to another is awesome, and it doesn’t matter what the political funding and resources debate says, it’s the people that make the situation bearable. It was emotional. And the scan showed I have gallstones. I was home by teatime.

morning

An early morning walk is my new normal because the need to be outdoors, to feel the morning air and the grounding presence of a world larger than mine is overwhelming. It feels strange to walk without the footfall of a companionable horse, but this is now and that was then, and I’m trying to focus on being where I need to be in this part of my life.

The kissing gate leads to a steep footpath through the woods, shaded from light by mature trees. When I pass the tree I call Tall Man the sun breaks through the canopy, and I walk looking up instead of down.

Following the narrow path and avoiding badger setts, I reach Lady’s Walk and the back gate of St. Stephen’s church.

Henrietta Bankes was the chatelaine of Kingston Lacy House. In 1906 her husband Walter Ralph Bankes gave her £5,000 to build the church. Lady’s Walk was her personal path the north door where she’d sit in her own pew, leaving as the last hymn was sung to avoid mixing with the hoi polloi.

The Bankes family have lived in Dorset since the 17th century when they were considered one of the most powerful families in England, owning both the estates of Corfe Castle and Kingston Lacy. In 1643, the Royalist Lady Mary Bankes stayed at Corfe Castle while her husband fought in the Civil War. Corfe Castle was the only Royalist stronghold left in Dorset, and when Parliamentarians attacked, ‘Brave Dame Mary’ held the castle for three-year siege until she was betrayed from within. In recognition of her bravery, the Parliamentarians allowed her to keep the castle seal and keys.

When Henrietta and WRB’s son died in 1981, he left the 16,000 acre estate to the National Trust.

The front of the church catches the full morning sun, and I sit a while on the bench or in the sheltered porchway. The church has no graveyard, just trees planted with plaques of remembrance and a tall stone memorial cross for Mr. Bankes.

Like characters from a Thomas Hardy novel, Mark and I walked the same wooded path from home one July afternoon to renew our wedding vows in this church. The vicar was an eccentric scholar who studied Judaism, and with great tact and understanding he accommodated our wishes of a G-dly but not devoutly Christian service. The three of us stood in an otherwise empty church, I held a posy of flowers cut from Julie’s garden, and it was a most beautiful service. Afterwards we drank a champagne toast, and the vicar provided a napkin to wrap a glass so we could stamp on it and shout l’chaim! Then we went home for tea and cakes.

Leaving the church, I turn right onto the narrow lane. From February ’til early summer the high banks are covered in snowdrops primroses celandine daffodils and bluebells, and natural springwater runs freely down the hill. It freezes in winter which is quite treacherous.

Through a perfectly placed gap in the trees there’s a fantastic view of the fields leading down to the river.

The 19thC forge is a working forge. It laid empty from 1945 until Giles began working there in the mid-nineties, using many of the same blacksmithing tools and techniques in a tradition unchanged for hundreds of years. It has quirky windows made from small panes of overlapped glass that I always want to touch; its like touching history.

The exposed roots of fallen tree remind me of extracted tooth! When I reach the little thatched cottage at the bottom of the hill I turn off the road and walk across the fields.

Ruby Red Devon cattle have grazed here since the 19thC. When the last member of the Bankes family to live at Kingston Lacy gifted the estate to the National Trust, he asked that that herd of Red Devons would always be maintained on the estate. They graze outside our house and their colour and solidness always makes me smile.

I was taking a picture of this tree framing a fallen tree (sometimes I go and sit on the fallen tree) when I heard a rustling behind me

and as I turned round, a startled deer stood motionless for a second before fleeing to safety.

In the grass there’s a fairy citadel of fungi, a row of freshly dug molehills, and a cluster of stinking iris. I Googled why they have such an unfortunate name and its because the leaves smell disgusting if you crush them. For some reason, the birds never eat the berries.

Now I’m on the downward path towards home

and when I reach the low-spread copper beech branches, there’s the first glimpse of our house.

The ancient copper beech tree has initials carved on the bough, it makes me wonder who these people were, sitting with their back against the tree, maybe planning their future together?

Our house is tucked away under the trees and gets little or no sunlight until springtime. I really miss the warmth and cheer.

At the front of the house is our dear fallen hero, the Victorian cedar tree that came down in the rain and high winds just before Christmas. We heard him crash at three in the morning. Some of the roots remained intact, and thankfully the greenery has begun to grow again so he continues his life, albeit from a different perspective.

And back to my own front gate where tea and toast and two cats are waiting inside. Thankyou for coming with me today, it was lovely to have your company and share my walk with you. Perhaps next time we’ll have a walk around Kingston Lacy House and I’ll show you the treasures? xx

The Secret in My Freezer

Is your deepfreeze a depository for experimental batch-bakes that taste awful but you can’t justify wasting? Do you have packs of Supermarket Ready Meals reduced in price, but so reduced in size they barely constitute a snack? While the tasteless foods stay on the top shelf pleading for a purpose, the homemade pizzas hide out of sight, impossible to find without satnav, and the unlabeled frost-fugged bags become an unlucky lucky dip. Frozen pasta bake can be such a disappointment when you thought it was apple crumble.

Well, my heart has got just like that. Overcrowded with dour tasting stuff that is well past its use-by-date, and by the time I’ve found something nice to feel, I’ve gone off-the-boil fumbling through the detritus. So, in the spirit of tackling long overdue jobs, I donned my metaphoric apron and rubber gloves and set to work de-cluttering and defrosting.

First out are family arguments, they don’t improve with age and won’t mend now. A rickety relationship with my father needs releasing. He’s been dead for so many years he’s probably forgotten about it and that’s just what I should do. I decide to dump the lot but its roots are so deep they’re tied to the gates of hell. As I chisel and scrape, the mess begins to thaw but no matter how hard I scrub, the stain spreads further. It’s more stubborn than my father. With a massive heave-ho I finally wrench it out. It overflows onto the floor so I mop with strong disinfectant until no trace remains, not even a whiff of remorse. Gone. Probably never forgiven, but it’s gone, and the jettisoned weight makes my heart flutter. I was being as stubborn as dad by hanging on to it for so long.

Broken friendships go straight in the bin; they taught me the disappointment of expectation. Would I go back for a second helping? Once I could have been tempted, but none of those people fought to keep me and I don’t want to re-live the pain of losing someone I’ve shared myself with. Friendships are never truer than the old adage ‘A reason, a season or a lifetime’. Wrapping the love of my lifetime friends around my shoulders stops the chill of sadness.

Envy for my ex-sister-in-law’s Biba coat; black velvet maxi with dagger collar and leg o’mutton sleeves, it was deservedly covetous back in the 1970s, but why has jealousy sat there so long? She and I had known each other since we were seven years old, we shared all the people we became, and nowadays I miss the reference points nobody else knows. Was jealousy on both sides the reason we no longer speak?  Whatever the reason, neither of us would fit into each other’s lives these days any more than we’d fit into the coat. No need to wear regret, the coat goes.

My first wedding day wrapped in the lingering scent of bouquet freesias. As I tenderly lift it out, unexpected emotion weaves through the floral perfume. I hear the voice of the cantor echoing around the synagogue, and catch my mother’s face filled with pride. It was a poignant day in many ways because we married to make everyone else happy. My second wedding day smelt of hope and love and fear, spoilt when cancer gate-crashed the party. Mark and I tried to ignore the unwanted guest and battle through the day together as best we could. It’s what we still do, and will always do. Til death do us part is for quitters. You cannot deny your own history, nor can you discard it, so I tuck the wedding days together, side-by-side, and blow them a kiss.

Old cars; doesn’t everyone hoard a little bit of love for them? Oh, you don’t? My cars all had names and when I recall certain events, I remember who I drove at that time. My first car was a 1955 MG, collectable now but just an ‘old banger’ back then. I saw her as characterful, grand old lady, but others only saw the rust. Some sensible hatchbacks and a fabulous (but juice-guzzling) Range Rover followed, before I settled into my stride with pickup trucks. I think I’ll leave my cars parked where they are.

Trying to save other people, smart answers, rigidity and control. They’re past their sell-by date and I can chuck them all. Impatience is at the back and tramples everything to get out first. Impatience dives headfirst into the bin.

Animals: I usher Horses I Have Loved into a large field. They graze happily together, safe in the knowledge they will never be discarded. Cats and Kittens snuggle back down with a contented sigh, as do the special chicken souls of Henny and Martina. The rest of the flock fly upstairs to be stored in Memory. I killed my pet rabbit when I was eight years old, his name was Thumper and I loved him. I forgot to close the hutch door, he got out and a dog ate him. Now I’m a stickler for double-fastening doors. Lesson learned, time for Thumper-guilt to go.

Teenage angst still there? Oh for goodness sake, I won’t need that again!

Dead family, other people’s dead families. Dead friends. All gone but somehow staying.

Broken promises on both sides. They were promises made and meant at the time, but broken things always have a story and maybe the story was more important than the promise?

I’m midway down now, touching the bit where the therapist would say “is there anything else?” and I’d smile my brightest smile and make small talk, and we’d both know what was going on. Secrets, Dark Stuff, Middle-of-the-Nightmares. Peek and poke or tiptoe away? I breathe deeply and decide to poke. There’s a lot of heartache, a lot of grief. Do I carry grief with me to prove my love, if I let the grief go does love fill the void? Maybe it’s time I tried.

I let people down. I was rude and said the C word at a dinner party. I sulked, I was jealous and unjust. I was unkind unfair unbending and downright cruel. I lied. And my punishment has been holding on to it this long. Grant absolution, in the bin.

I shouted at my mum when she was ill. I shouted at her for being ill. How can anyone do that? She trusted me with her life but I couldn’t stop her getting cancer. I know she instantly forgave me so why can’t I?

Challenge. Why does my life have to be such a challenge. I know I thrive when I’ve got my back to the wall, but these days I’m scared to venture out into the middle of the room. To let that fear go I need a steady supply of resilience, but nothing is steady any more. Illness. The sickening glimpse through the portal that shows how ill I actually am. I consider myself a well person suffering the indignities of endless treatment, when in real life I’m an ill person who needs treatment. Just like challenge, I can’t change the situation I can only change my perspective, and today’s the day for action not pondering.

This stuff is getting too much so I make tea and move on down, and there, stowed right at the back of the bottom drawer, where you only ever look for old boyfriends and boots you once loved is a very secret secret which makes me smile.

I love challenge. If life is steady I create a project. I didn’t want a challenging illness (or two) but I accepted the challenge and said fuck off I’m too busy living to spend time on this. Sometimes I hustle my inner Jewish Princess to the surface and pull rank, sometimes I plot my next move and sometimes I let change take place organically, re-inventing myself to take advantage of the situation and the openings its limitations have created. Start a new business, learn to milk a goat, bend the rules, fall in love with a troubled horse, use a spreadsheet. I wouldn’t know how to live a life that wasn’t challenging and when I whinge it’s not the challenge that gets me, it’s overwhelm. Time to take a step back, admit I’m pooped and get a good night’s sleep. That admission isn’t something I’ve quite grasped yet but I’ll work on it, it’s my next big challenge.

The best thing I found in the freezer came last. Maybe I had to make room for it to find it. I’m a secret challenge diva, and I aint chucking that one out. The bin is full. My heart is light. Time for ice cream.

What She Wrote

Once upon a time there was a girl who wrote stories. They were mostly stories about ponies. One day in school her teacher asked her to read her essay out loud to the class. The girl stood proudly and read clearly. A lot of the other little girls were also pony-mad so the story was well received.

When she had finished reading the teacher said “A good essay Elaine, well written and well read. But  why do you always write a pony story?”

“Because I love ponies,” replied the little girl.

“But the subject for this essay was My Best Friend, and you’ve given me a story about an imaginary pony,” said Miss Turner.

“He is my best friend,” replied the little girl, with no hint of defiance.

“From now on, I’d like you to consider other subjects, other things to write about. I don’t want another pony story.”

“Yes Miss Turner,” replied the little girl with a faintly wobbly bottom lip. She didn’t understand why was being shamed in front of the whole class. Then her true character erupted, just like it would for the rest of her life, and she stood up again with a straight back and a strong voice. “But I like writing about ponies, and if you give us a title it’s up to us how we write about it. It might be your title but they’re our stories.”

The little girl was eight years old.

For as long as I can remember, I’ve written stories and eventually I wrote about things other than ponies. When I was eleven, I won a writing competition with a piece called ‘After the Storm’, describing a sudden rainstorm, and how everything smelt in the aftermath. Miss Turner would’ve been proud of me. I wrote little caricature stories for friends, painting in words a picture of their endearing foibles or family tiffs. In my early twenties when I had a falling-out with my friend Jimmy, a story about a fairy and a frog said sorry more eloquently than I could’ve spoken. I began to write a book on my portable Brother typewriter. I’ve no recollection what it was about but written to the soundtrack of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, and overdoses of Neil Young, I expect it was full of angst. I must’ve been serious though, because I bought a Writers Yearbook listing all the publishers, and a Dictionary of Synonyms which I still use today.

Fast forward to 2017. I followed Anna Blake’s blog, and when she put forward the idea of starting a writing group, I signed-up pronto. I love words, especially wordy words, and my writing was very wordy. Why use one word when an artful pronouncement would illustrate the point with literary eloquence worthy of scholars? Weird really, because I don’t talk like that. Thinking my unbridled enthusiasm for the Oxford Dictionary would stand me in good stead, my weekly assignments flourished until we got to Editing. I got the biggest shock of my writing life when Anna decreed shorter is better. How could that be? why would there be so many lovely long words if you didn’t need to use them? Anna suggested taking a paragraph and honing it down to five important words. Five. Fifty-five was better, but no, she was adamant five would do. And take a chainsaw to the rest. Ouch that hurt.

I spent weeks describing, and thinking about things in five words. As I sought the essence of what I needed to say, my writing began to change. I discovered words weren’t just a garnish, they actually mattered, and the fewer you used the more power they held. As we built a safe place to share penmanship, the like-minded women in the writing group gelled into friends and writing styles gained confidence. Comments were encouraging but honest, and when Katie repeatedly asked me to stop rushing and find a flow, I began be aware of my breath as I wrote, and my pace became a rhythmic trot and not a hollow canter speeding towards to the last paragraph. I wrote and wrote, even on days when I didn’t want to write, until I found I couldn’t not write. I started this blog in order to create discipline, and when writing for you became so enjoyable, I began to write Bruce’s story, and my story, and Mark’s story, and intertwine the three.

Anna Blake and Crissi McDonald are two women whom I greatly respect. Together they formed Lilith House Press to mentor women authors, and when they invited submissions for an anthology of women’s writing I sent two essays. I’ve had them both accepted for publication. I’m going to be an author!

The book cover of What She Wrote is designed by Jane Dixon Smith, ‘my’ editor, MaxieJane Frasier of BirchBark Editing guided me through the on-line editing process, and taught me about presentation for a future book submission, and I’ve also learnt about book formatting . . .information I hope I can put to good use in the future.

The release date for What She Wrote is November 9th! It will be available from Lilith House Press and through Amazon in print and as an ebook, and signed copies will be available through my blog. Signed copies. An author. Get me!

HennyPenny and Martina

Like all the other waifs and strays, HennyPenny limped into our life a mere shadow of her former self. We should have a sign on our house saying ‘Soft Touch Suckers Live Here’.

I answered a knock at the door to a woman whom I vaguely knew through another friend, but it took a moment to figure out who she was. Seeing my confusion, she re-balanced the box she was holding in both hands and said “Hi, I’m Eve’s friend Jo.”

Eve sold free-range eggs at the Farmers Market. We’d been chatting and I told her Mark and I wanted to get some hens. I asked Jo if she’d like to come in.

“Well, no,” she said, looking embarrassed. “You see, I’m probably being pushy coming to see you, but you’re the last hope.”

“Sounds intriguing,” I replied, intrigued.

“Our house backs onto a chicken farm,” she continued, “and they cleared out the battery hens. Trucks came and took them for slaughter. Except this one escaped.” She pushed the box she was holding towards me. “We found her yesterday under our hedge, she was cold and wet so we took her in, but we can’t keep her. I thought Eve would want her, but she doesn’t, so she suggested you . . .” She pushed the box further towards me until it was impossible for me not to take it, like being served legal papers.

“Oh, right,” I said dubiously, looking down at the weightless box I was now holding. “So the chicken is in here?”

“Yes,” said Jo looking very relieved. “The chicken is in the box. We called her HennyPenny.”

I peered though the gap in the top of the box and saw HennyPenny’s glassy eyes peering back at me, her pale pink comb hanging listlessly to one side. She nestled on a bed of straw, and apart from three straggly feathers protruding from where her tail should be, she was completely naked. I understood why Eve didn’t want her. “I see.” I said to Jo. “She looks a bit sorry for herself, doesn’t she?”

Jo smiled and nodded, anxious to leave before I changed my mind or the chicken died, which looked imminent. I carried the box indoors, opened the top flaps and set it down next to the warm Rayburn. HennyPenny might look plucked and oven-ready, but there wasn’t enough meat on her to feed a mouse. I fetched an old wool sweater and wrapped it round her, and placed a dish of bread and milk in her box. The least I could do was help her die comfortably.

Later that evening I found Mark sitting on the floor next to the box, telling HennyPenny a bedtime story about earthworms. Her comb was the most pitiful sight. It should’ve been bright red standing proudly atop her feathered head, but instead it hung limply, faded to anaemic pink with brown tinged edges. She was literally fading away.

Overnight Henny ate another dish of bread and milk, drank a bowl of water, and looked very surprised to still be alive. My friend Sadie came and gave her a Reiki treatment, using her hands to spread healing around HennyPenny’s frail body. The chicken sat motionless on Sadie’s lap with her head tucked into her chest and eyes tightly shut.  Afterwards, we placed her back in the box and re-wrapped her sweater while she continued to sleep. Not wanting to disturb her, Sadie and I took our tea into the other room.

“What do you think her chances are?” I asked.

“Not much,” sighed Sadie. “To be honest, I think she’s almost gone.”

We agreed that at least she’d tasted freedom of sorts, and drank our tea in silence.

Henny slept that whole day, and the next morning she tried to preen her three feathers. Mark found her a larger box which we filled with lots of fresh straw and breadcrumbs, and put her outside in the sunshine. She pecked some crumbs, nestled in the straw and bathed in sunshine and fresh air. Each day she ate a little more, and grew a little stronger. HennyPenny was a fighter.

When Sadie visited the following week, HennyPenny raised her head at the sound of a voice she knew. As Sadie walked in the kitchen, the chicken stood up in her box and shook her little body, ruffling imaginary feathers. Sadie greeted her with a cheery hello, and Henny stretched one wing, then the other wing, and then lifted each scrawny foot, flexing her toes. Then she turned and looked at Sadie. Sadie knelt over the box sending healing energy, and HennyPenny’s eyes fixed on Sadie, locked on to the radiowaves of Reiki. It was a sight I’ll never forget. Sadie and I looked at eachother, shrugged and smiled. Henny coopied down and went back to sleep.

HennyPenny continued to thrive and it was joyful watching her become a ‘proper’ chicken again. As she began walking about it was obvious she was lame on one leg, but it didn’t stop her helping us in the garden, and she quickly learnt to scratch the soil and dig for insects. Serendipitously one afternoon I met Martin, who ran a chick-rearing unit nearby. He asked me if I wanted an odd hen who had escaped from the unit and evaded capture until he saw her roosting on the front gate. If I had any use for her, he’d take her to the farm. That evening I returned home with HennyPenny’s new housemate, Martina.

Mark built Henny and Martina a chicken palace at the top of the garden. They had a large wire-covered run, with a little ramp leading up to a hen sized door in the side of the garden shed. The first time we put them in and carefully shut the gate, Martina demonstrated her Houdini technique, squeezed through the wire and did a victory dance on the roof while Henny watched in awe from below. The escapee was swiftly recaptured and Mark re-enforced the wire mesh while Martina stalked the boundary searching for another flaw in the fortifications, strutting about like Steve McQueen in The Great Escape.

As dusk fell, Mark and I quietly walked up to the chicken house to check the girls had found their way inside and feed their night-time corn. Martina was squawking at Henny, who couldn’t figure out how to walk up the ramp. Martina did a demo walk strutting like a supermodel on the catwalk. At the top, she stood by the door and flapped her wings while Henny watched from the ground, but Henny kept walking under the ramp. Martina marched back down and pecked the old chicken until she was facing the correct direction. Then Martina pushed Henny up the ramp in a display of chicken wrangling at its best. Our chicken had her own carer.

HennyPenny and Martina were inseparable. They devoured all the weeds snails and slugs in the garden, and most of the flowers, while chattering to eachother in a soft question-and-answer rhythm. When the morning sun moved round to face the hedge, they’d scoop a dug-out in the soil and settle down for a nap, but if Martina saw a frog or a mouse in the undergrowth she’d launch herself like an Exocet missile, running, flapping her wings and semi-flying until she caught it and ate it with a satisfying gulp. One lucky frog was rescued when he defiantly spread-eagled himself across her mouth and refused to be swallowed. That afternoon when Martina stood on the kitchen windowsill pecking at the window, we took our tea and biscuits outside, and she sat on Mark’s lap drinking tea from a saucer and eating custard creams while Henny nibbled cake crumbs. Afternoon tea was so much tastier than a frog.

Martina laid a large brown egg each day, and heralded its arrival with a fanfare of squawks while Henny stood chirruping encouragement; Henny’s eggs were tiny inedible ‘fart eggs’ but we made a fuss over them and praised her because the old girl did her best. Home-baked cakes rose to great heights, with saffron-yellow sponge, and omelettes took on a whole new dimension. If you added the cost of chicken corn to the time spent tending the girls, they would probably be the most expensive eggs in the world, but they were our eggs from our hen, and they were priceless.

One afternoon while Mark was at work, the girls were sleeping under the front hedge while I painted furniture in the garden. The phone rang and I went indoors, and when I came out the girls had gone. I called but no answer . . . and then I saw Henny’s feathers by the dugout and another pile of feathers by the chicken coop. The fox had been. Henny would have been an easy lunch as she sat still and awaited her fate, but Martina had made a run for safety, her stick-legs racing across the garden to the chicken coop, but she couldn’t outrun the fox. Nature is cruel and the garden fell silent.

When life is so full of heartbreak and death, it’s difficult to find importance in the demise of two chickens. Mark and I wept at their departure but kept our grief between ourselves. When the bigger picture is too daunting to contemplate, you bury your feelings in something more personal, something that you can actually feel. In processing the smaller picture, the larger one becomes more bearable.

We had other chickens after Henny and Martina but they were ‘just chickens’ and while their eggs were every bit as large and brown, they were ‘just eggs’. People, animals, events come in and out of life and we can’t stop change any more than we can halt time. Cakes still rise and the world still spins. In the words of Rumi:

‘This being human is a guest house. Every morning a new arrival. A joy, a depression, a meanness, some momentary awareness comes as an unexpected visitor. Welcome and entertain them all! Even if they’re a crowd of sorrows, who violently sweep your house empty of its furniture, still, treat each guest honorably. He may be clearing you out for some new delight. The dark thought, the shame, the malice, meet them at the door laughing, and invite them in. Be grateful for whoever comes, because each has been sent as a guide from beyond.’

Trust

Do you ever wonder if penguins stand around laughing while one of them pretends to walk like a person? The thought hadn’t crossed my mind either until I tried (in vain) to distract myself this week from real life, and real feelings.

Meditation has been too scary because I don’t want to be alone in my head. Going for a walk seems pointless without a destination, and although people irritate me like never before, I’ve leant on shoulders from four corners of the world and sighed as friends caressed me with words, hugs, cups of tea and compassionate silence. And goats. Mark has shown a depth of love I’m incapable of reciprocating, and as each shard of my grief bought another ticket and re-joined the queue, I felt it say to Mark: “When she goes, you’ll feel like this too.” Just as money goes to money, death highlights death.

Kirsty’s goats deserve more than a passing mention because goat solidarity is very solid. Lupin, whose mother was the sagacious Libby, has inherited her mother’s serenity and happily shared what she could spare. Kokomo the kid bounced about demonstrating life with a carefree heart, and Honeybee the movie star, who views the world as only a diva can, stood quietly offering no opinion, just support. The other herd members cudded thoughtfully, radiating constancy. Thankyou goats.

It seems I’m the only person surprised at how shaken I am. Astra, Barley, Paddy, Barney, Will-Be and Teddy lamely answer “Gone” when their names appear on my own euthanised roll-call, and I thought their numbers would numb the blow when it came to Bruce. I’ve stood with others as they died, some I knew, and some I only met just before the ceremony like an ironic arranged marriage, and while no death is easy I stood firm. This time, I can feel my bedrock crumbling.

For the past few years it’s been a toss-up whether Bruce died first or I did, and statistically it should’ve been me. In the eleven years we were together I had three cancer recurrences in the first seven years and have been ‘incurable’ for the past four. Bruce preferred me to stay in the present moment so morbid thoughts became black jokes and the future wasn’t a place we explored. With his death a significant part of my world closed (I’m the mistress of re-invention so don’t start muttering about one door closes blah blah) which deserves some grieving of its own. My life keeps shrinking. I feel like I’m being funnelled into a concentration to discover my essence, and I’m a tad concerned what happens when the distillation is complete. Physically I’m incapable of doing what I did, but mentally I’m still a horse person. I don’t want the sheer hard work of keeping another horse, nor the responsibility, but I want the connection and I want to put stuff Bruce taught me back into the world.

Meanwhile, Bruce is gone. His bridle, which I spent too much money having made-to-measure, hangs on its hook but he’ll never wear it again. All of my horses have worn hand-me-downs and hand-me-ups and I never throw anything away that’s repairable. Having a traditional bridle made from best English leather that fitted Bruce’s head perfectly was my gift to him. The plain cavesson noseband took three fittings to ascertain the perfect width, and cut-outs on the headpiece meant the base of his broad ears would never pinch. It was a bridle that signified we were working together in a way neither of us had done with another partner, it was a bridle worthy of the horse that wore it.

My health is having a bit of a wobble. I’m desperate to come off my steroid meds, but the low dose hasn’t controlled inflammation levels and instead of respite, the rheumatologist has increased the dose. I sought out the best medical practitioners for treatment so I can’t complain when pharmaceuticals are their weapon of choice, but by stopping my over-active immune system behaving like a drama queen, what does that leave me with to fight everything else? For the first time since I began this blog I’m actually feeling sorry for myself.

Not fitting my daily life around Bruce has created a new routine of having time, and maybe time is what I need right now. Time to do nothing, time to just be because there’s nowhere left to run. Time to write? Doing nothing, trying less and noticing what happens was my first big Bruce lesson. The concept is as scary as it is compelling, but it was Bruce’s parting gift and if there’s one single thing he taught me, it was to listen. And to trust what I heard. And to stop feeling sorry for myself because an answer will come.

Fuck the Rainbow Bridge

“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.”

To take responsibility for ending your own life is tough, but if it’s the wrong decision you only have yourself to blame. To end someone else’s life with or without their agreement is illegal, although Death Row and warfare continue. But to snuff out the soft breath of one so dear that the mere thought of it leaves you feeling like you’ve been eviscerated with a blunt fingernail, is the task we horse carers accept each time four hooves and a velvety nose nuzzle their way into our hearts.

It is our job to order destruction of the life that lives above those hooves, and forever close the eyes of the soul we have worked so hard to keep safe. There will be no more silken coat to groom, no more smell in which to bury our face, and we will never again see the blink of trust that passes between two opposing species. When we nod our head to signal the felling of the body beside us, the world instantly changes. Is becomes was, and wisps of memory are the bittersweet legacy of love.

I’m  So  Sorry are the three words you never want your vet to say, because There’s Nothing Else We Can Do completes the sentence. It’s not a life sentence it’s a death sentence. You nod, and as you mime an answer, trying to swallow rising bile, find a spare breath, and fight against the urge to run away, three huge tears plop out of your eyes and your horse turns to look at you. The vet stands back until you win your fight for air, and when you can agree coherently she brings you the death warrant to sign and you can’t write your own name. We have the idea that living creatures deserve a good death, but many didn’t even get a good life. You can only do the best you can do and there’s a whole future ahead to beat yourself up with what-ifs. Doing the best by your horse is commitment to love even when sparing him pain means sacrificing his life.

Death and sex (which ironically started the dying process the moment it gave life) are very similar. In reality neither actually resemble the misty-hued scenes depicted in the movies, but they do both leave you feeling totally exhausted, or disconsolate because the end came too soon. From Here to Eternity has the right title, but in death the waves only ebb and the tide never returns to the shore.

Euthanising a horse is not a pretty sight. Don’t let the Rainbow Bridge fool you for a minute, because horses don’t really metamorphose into a unicorn and trot across the coloured arch to heaven. I’ve stood with enough horses as they received anaesthetic overdose or bolt gun to know they all die as individually as they lived. Some struggle with surprise or fight to stay alive, some are thankful to go and some hardly notice. The sight that is unreal, and the one that I can never un-see is half a ton of horseflesh laid dead with its tongue lolling to one side. If you need to sob into a still-warm neck before your own heart breaks, brace yourself against the sight of a corpse because this is your last opportunity. You’ve held it together this long, and the vet will busy herself checking his pulse and heart even though you all know he’s dead. Touch his body, smooth his coat and stroke his ears. Whisper the prayer or the thankyou or tell him he’s a good boy because part of him might still be watching you, just like he always watched from the gate until you were out of sight.

He’s free at last. This magical creature had such a strong will to survive evolution, he paid for domesticity with his freedom, his ability to roam in a herd, and his fundamental right to just be a horse. He buried his wants, forgave constantly and learned to work through pain. He served people as best he could, if he was lucky he got his own girl and when she heaped the worries of her world on him, he carried them as stoically as he carried her. Mankind wanted a horse that suited their needs, not his, and the horse has made all the compromises. It’s not wrong to want something back from our horses, but don’t assume because you pay the bills and make the decisions, you own them.

We want a partnership but how many people communicate with their horse in his language? If you scratched his withers in a one-sided attempt at mutual grooming it’s a start, but then you put him back in his solitary paddock. Horses acquiesce and dominate and find safety in the herd pecking order, but we humanise their reactions and ‘protect’ them with fences. We leave a flight animal to watch 24/7 for imaginary predators instead of having a herd leader to do it for them, and then wonder why they get anxiety, or fat because they aren’t moving with interaction. Connect with your horse in his language while he’s still alive. Lower your eyes, lower your expectations, empty your mind and take the opportunity to just be with him, breathe with him and be quiet. Give him a holiday from your constant chatter, verbal and mental. Knowing that you’ve tried to meet him halfway will mean more to him than all the treats and titbits, and when the end comes he’ll know you know that the weakest has to leave the herd and he’ll trust you to be the swiftest predator.

“The horses at Rainbow Bridge play together in the sunshine until each of their owners comes to claim them, as the owners themselves pass away. The souls of horses and their owners finally reunite and cling together in joyous reunion, never to be parted again.” Don’t make Bruce wait for me, he’s done his time with people clinging to him and claiming him and his soul is his not mine. Just as he lived, he died with a force that shouted “That’s it, I’m off,” but this time I bailed out and let him run because there was no reason for him to stop. I might have paid the bills and taken responsibilty but I never owned one single hair on his body. How can anyone own magnificence?

If I be the first of Us

If I be the first of us to die,

Let grief not blacken long your sky.

Be bold yet modest in your grieving.

There is a change but not a leaving.

And just as death is part of life,

The dead live on for ever in the living.

And all the gathered riches of our journey,

The moments shared, the mysteries explored,

The steady layering of intimacy stored,

The things that made us laugh or weep or sing,

The joy of sunlit snow or first unfurling of the spring,

The wordless language of look and touch,

The knowing,

Each giving and each taking,

These are not flowers that fade,

Nor trees that fall and crumble,

Nor are we stone

For even stone cannot the wind and rain withstand

And mighty mountain peaks

In time reduce to sand.

What we were, we are.

What we had, we have.

A conjoined past imperishably present.

So when you walk the woods

Where once we walked together

And scan in vain the dappled bank beside you

For my shadow,

Or pause where we always did upon the hill

To gaze across the land,

And spotting something,

Reach by habit for my hand,

And finding none, feel sorrow start to steal upon you,

Be still.

Close your eyes.

Breathe.

Listen for my footfall in your heart.

I am not gone but merely walk within you.

Nicholas Evans

worry

Back in April, Bruce and his horse-neighbour Winston broke their dividing fence, and hoolied around the field like a couple of youngsters. Things sobered up when Bruce got kicked on his hock, and I found him standing by the gate looking very sorry for himself.

The joint swelled and subsided, puffy became the new normal, and Bruce walked a tad stiffly but appeared unconcerned. Last week his displeasure at being out in the wind and rain erupted in an awesome acrobatic display, cantering back and forth with sliding stops and handbrake turns. Then he suddenly found he couldn’t put his hind leg to the ground, and what had been a ligament strain got a whole lot worse.

I’ve spent a week of worry on auto-pilot. The torn ligament, mega-swelling, and Bruce’s age, were all cause for concern and I was reluctant to have the joint drained because of possible infection, and the high likelihood of the fluid returning. I’m realistic about movement-limiting injuries and euthanasia, but Bruce is as much part of me as my own arm or leg, and I don’t know how I’d manage without one of them either.

Last night Bruce laid down in his stable for the first time, but more importantly he managed to get back up. He turned the corner to recovery and I breathed again.

Today is Thursday. I got up early to write my blog and sat with tea and toast wondering what to write. Then it occurred to me. How often do we actually worry about what we’re worried about?

I’ll let those words sit for a moment because they surprised me too.

At the moment we’re all worried about Covid, and that worry has given the green light for all other worries to become important. We’re on permanent alert lest a stranger sneezes, and making sense of government guidance (I use the word ironically) is like doing a cryptic crossword in Ancient Urdu. A lot of people met their own mortality for the first time, and even though they didn’t shake hands it wasn’t an amiable introduction.

Worrying about things out of our control makes us feel stressed, but stress has become such a dirty word it’ll soon be unmentionable. It’s overtaken smoking, eating or sitting down as something you Must Not Do, and soon we’ll have a government minister in charge of it. But without stress I think we’d probably crumple; just like tension on a high-wire, stress counter-balances all the blah emotions. If only life could be one long scented bath, but in order to get more hot water we have to get out some time and stoke the boiler.

Are we ignoring the real worry and worrying that we can’t control the outcome, which is change. Change is a ‘C’ word more graphic than the anatomical one we don’t say unless in the company of our sluttiest girlfriends. Change means facing up to fears of the unknown, and the unknown is the nemesis of mankind.

So, if the unknown is too immense to think about, we find something smaller on which to pin our fret, because worrying about something tangible is more controllable. We rant about things like chocolate bars getting smaller, or beat ourselves up for hugging a friend. We worry about our horses/dogs/cats eating properly, when really we’re wondering who will look after them if we can’t, and we worry about our sore knee when we’re wondering who will look after us if we can’t. Or our partner. Or both of us at the same time.

So let’s make time for small worries. Let’s recognise them as big worries in drag, trying their best to put some glitz into pathos. Let’s accept them, acknowledge them, and at three o’clock in the morning, try to let them go. We can’t change change because it’ll happen whatever. But we can cut ourselves some slack, eat two chocolate bars instead of one, and make the best of what we have in front of us because sooner or later that will change too. And that’ll be a whole new load of stuff to worry about.

The blog is short rambling and random this week with not much editing. Normal service will resume asap. Blame Bruce? Never.

Bruce’s Story: a perfect storm

New Years Day 2012 was sullen and grey, and so was I. Viewing my ashen face in the mirror, I grimaced at the chemotherapy residue and tried to focus my bloodshot eyes on something positive.

“Stop brooding! Get yourself together and do something.” I said sharply to my pale reflection, pulling on a pair of jeans that hung like pantaloons, and swamping my small frame with two thick sweaters. The clothes were cosy but inwardly I still shivered.

It was cold at the farm. Sheila’s horses had their backs to the wind in the paddock, and Bruce stood quietly in his stable munching hay. He acknowledged my presence without missing a mouthful, like a diner would greet an acquaintance by raising their eyes and nodding. He had been with me for nearly three years, and while his tendon repair had been straightforward, I still struggled with his complex character. In the beginning I did what I knew and he did what he knew, because neither of us knew what else to do, but as our understanding grew, glimmers of partnership shone and waned like a flickering lightbulb. I hoped a brisk in-hand walk would be a good start to the New Year so I removed his rugs, buckled his bridle and decided to go along the stony track and across the ‘naughty field’ where he’d previously run away on a ride. Hopefully I could show him there was no need for panic.

Bruce walked exuberantly in-hand, but we’d not been out for a while and the connection we lost during my raging anxiety still discoloured our relationship, so I talked quietly, trying to settle his dancing feet. As we opened the gate at the top the forty-acre field, I stood for a minute to catch the breeze and loosen my jacket, while Bruce pawed the ground. The field sloped dramatically downhill and the marked path was slippery, so I turned to the right and followed the unploughed headland along the fence. Bruce’s pace quickened on the grass. With ears pricked and muscles trembling he jogged sideways with head held high to evade the bridle contact. As the long weeds tickled his belly and aggravated his excitement he began to trot, and keeping my footing was difficult while I clung to the reins. I tried circling him which created a whirling equine vortex, and I have no recollection how we reached the bottom of the field.

We were both hot, sweaty, thoroughly wound up, and I was scared. I caught my breath as Bruce stopped to eat the hedge, and I tactfully ignored his misdemeanour of eating while being led. We could sensibly have exited through the bottom gate and walked back to the stables along the stony track, but with false bravado I felt I had to regain the upper hand, and took the ploughed path running up the centre of the field to the top gate. As we turned, Bruce barged right through me. Shouting a sharp reprimand I asked him to step backwards but he planted four feet firmly on the ground and shoved his nose hard into my chest. Gasping for breath I told him to back up again, and again, both requests met with blunt refusal.

“Right, I’ve had enough. We’ll bloody well sort this out!” I shouted as I yanked the reins and shoved him back with an elbow in the chest. He reluctantly shuffled two hind feet, and in view of the situation I decided that was sufficient.

Bruce also decided he’d had enough and sorted it out the best way he knew. He stood up on his hind legs and spun round to face home. As the force of his rearing-up knocked me sideways, he galloped off at full pelt. I swung from the reins like a ragdoll in a child’s hand, before realising I was going to get dragged. So I let go. In the gleeful spirit of freedom, Bruce let fly with an almighty buck. I trust it wasn’t aimed at me, but I probably flatter myself.

Wedged between half a ton of fleeing horse and a wire fence, there was no escaping the trajectory of his back feet. Time stopped and I froze as the underside of his perfectly shaped hooves swung towards me. I felt the impact of his feet and then the impact of the ground and then I lay in the mud listening to a tractor engine humming in the distance. From the intense pain in my chest I figured I was still alive, and if I was alive I’d better catch my loose horse. I gingerly tested body parts; Legs were mobile, my neck and hip felt like they had dislocated from my body, and my head throbbed to a resounding reggae beat. Moving anything above the waist caused racking waves of pain across my chest, but the pain lessened if I bent double, so I rolled and made a hundred little shuffles, and struggled to my feet staying folded at the waist (thank you Pilates).

Lurching sideways with hands on knees, I looked down at the ploughed earth, gritted my teeth and made one step after another until I reached the top of the hill. Bruce was watching from the gateway, nonchalantly resting a back leg, with the remains of his bridle hanging down his neck. He lowered his head and I took hold, struggled to open the gate, and we slowly walked through together, closing it firmly behind us.

Stooped over, and stopping often so I could ease the racking pain, we walked the mile home side by side, Bruce steadying his pace to match mine, head down mimicking my stance. When we reached the safety of his stable I realised the bridle had fallen off and I hadn’t been leading him. Bruce resumed eating his morning hay, and I dragged his stable rug partly over his back to keep him warm. Then I began shivering and slumped in the corner of the stable, which is where Sheila found me when she came to do her horses.

I recalled scant details of our accident as Sheila helped me into her car, but I couldn’t speak much and crying was too painful. I was grateful for silence as she drove me home, one hand on the wheel, the other holding mine. The colour drained from Mark’s face when we arrived back. He made me a cup of tea and took me to hospital Accident & Emergency, where the young doctor listened aghast at the story.

“Tell me again what happened,” she asked, trying to maintain a practised expression of non-expression.

“I got kicked in the chest by my horse,” I repeated for the second time. “I think I’ve ruptured my mastectomy implant and broken my ribs.” I paused, wondering if I should bother to say more. “I landed on my hip and banged my head. I don’t think I blacked out but my shoulder and neck are really sore. And my arm doesn’t feel connected.”

She rolled her eyes, collected her thoughts, and systematically checked my breathing, sight and cognitive function. Her conclusion was minor concussion, whiplash to my neck, severe bruising to my hip, possible ligament damage to my arm, broken top ribs, and a completely ruptured mastectomy implant. I made a weak joke about being fitted with airbags. Nobody laughed.

“We don’t x-ray for broken ribs,” the doctor sighed. “If you rest, everything should heal in the next six weeks, but see your GP if you get further pain, dizziness or shortness of breath.” She showed me the door. “Take painkillers if you need them, and . . . be careful.”

“Happy New Year.” I muttered weakly as I left.

There’s no point trying to make light of this serious accident. Like most accidents, it could’ve been far more serious, but it was pretty bad as it was. Bruce drew his line of tolerance, I disregarded it and suffered the consequences. The strange thing was that it literally booted the past into the past. All the cancer stuff, all the anxiety and chemotherapy detritus, and all the negativity I felt towards my own failings.

I thought I was working progressively with Kirsty’s guidance because I’d made huge changes, but I was going by rote and not by feeling, and I misread a lot in my haste to look like I was doing right. We all have to start somewhere but Bruce was way ahead of me, and to have any chance of catching him up I had to let go of expectations and a great deal of ego. Cancer makes things all about me; how I’m feeling, how I’m surviving, what’s my latest prognosis. The preceding two years of cancer treatment had taken a toll on both of us, but Bruce’s primary concern was his own survival. He didn’t pander to my weakness, he needed capability.

My father had been a do-as-I-say disciplinarian, demanding submission from his family. Our punishment for not reaching his high expectations or following his rules was to live with his sulks. We weren’t abused, but the strain of living with totally inflexible standards eventually made me run for my life. If I wanted to regain equilibrium with my horse, I had to take the plunge and accept some things would always be beyond my control, and inflexibility was not the answer. I had to be honest and acknowledge things as they were, not bury them under false bravado.

There had to be a middle way of training where I could set out my non-negotiables, and then negotiate a balance where both Bruce and I felt comfortable; I guess you call it a partnership. Kirsty began the process, I carried it, and Bruce showed me how to let go the only way he knew. He knocked the old way into oblivion, and there was no going back.

Would I have preferred a horse that I could just get on and ride, the same as I had always done? Yes I would, because the enjoyment and freedom exploring picture-perfect countryside with a steady companion has no equal. Would I have still felt the bond of togetherness that ties me to Bruce’s heart? Yes, I probably would. Do I regret the way things turned out? Bruce was a gift horse. I might not have known at the time he was something I wanted, let alone something I would treasure, but the people Bruce brought into my life, and the person I have become because of him, are gifts beyond compare. The gift horse who brought gifts. Non, je ne regrette rien.