OPTIONS.

Stating the blindingly obvious I haven’t posted for a while now. Not because I couldn’t be bothered, or didn’t want to, but simply because I could not bring my concentration to bear on it or anything much else for that matter.

In the last blog I stated how I felt inspired by my friend Marilyn’s ability to push on with life following the loss of her husband some eight years ago. I thought this would make it easier for me to do the same and accept the fact that Elaine is not coming back to me.

I may well have thought this but ‘accepting’ has proved somewhat difficult; also I had not reckoned with the ever recurring grief leaping out at damn near every opportunity to bollocks-up a given moment, or sometimes the entire day.

I figured I’d done well in having cleared a lot of Elaine’s personal stuff and was, I thought, fit to tackle the rest (mostly work related) but invisible buffers sprang up and I ground to a complete halt.

As spring turned to summer it seemed that everything required my attention NOW!

Garden to sort, vehicles too, cats to look after, shopping, washing, the house to clean, meals to plan and prepare (when I bothered) items to sort for the Vintage Barn (I’ll explain shortly) plus all the mundane phone calls and emails that constitute modern life to see to; not to mention trying to earn a fucking living to pay the bloody bills that always know where you are hiding.

My world was getting more and more cluttered, but worse still, so was my head. Mentally and often physically I was adrift in a sea of complete inertia with no land in sight.

This peaked one Saturday when, returning home after a shopping trip I flopped down in the lounge, lord of all I surveyed.

 Everything was just as I had left it earlier and I began brooding on all that needed doing. An hour and a half later I’m still sat there wanting to move to get going and do something, any bloody thing, but I just couldn’t the enormity of it all was pushing me under.

“There’s no end to this, stop resisting let it drag you down, smother you- this is your life from now on!”

It was then I gently became aware of something more.

I’m beginning to wallow in it, to enjoy it even, to accept it because that’s the easier option to take, easier than facing up to and taking control of myself and the situation that had arisen around me.

Depression had been lurking at the threshold of my wounded heart for a good while now, and had somehow slipped through disguised as a friend proffering sympathy…cheeky bastard!

Standing up I thought;

Depression!

But was I secretly welcoming it?

Was it again a case of the easier option?

It occurs to me here that most of you reading this know next to nothing about me outside of that written or hinted at in the blog or the book. Perhaps a bit of background would be the polite course right now.

I was born May’58 in Wimborne Dorset, the town I live just outside of at present. I was the youngest of our little family which consisted of Mum and Dad and my elder sister Sue, all sadly long dead now.

I had a happy childhood and although money was tight, Sue and I wanted for nothing and felt safe in the love that our parents wrapped us in.

My later school years coincided with the change from Secondary Modern/Grammar school to so called all- encompassing Comprehensive education.

It was a bit chaotic at the time and it didn’t help that the older generation of teachers, whom we had grown up to respect seemed to a man and woman all be pensioned-off at this moment and their replacements, barely much older than ourselves, somehow thought that being our ‘right-on’ friends was the way forward.

 It wasn’t.

We were used to and indeed thrived, in a more disciplined routine; breakdown was inevitable and swift.

I loved history and art, but the teachers I studied under combined to make these worthy and beautiful subjects downright boring and my enthusiasm waned rapidly.

I left school with some exams under my belt but not really a damn clue of what I wanted or was going to do.

 The easy option was to join the auction firm my dad was with, so I did, for a couple of years, but it was a dead end from the start and I jacked it in and ‘temporarily’ joined a local removals company owned by a family friend.

The temporary bit turned out to last eight years (you get less for murder), and I ended up travelling all over the country and continent. It proved to be an education in its own right and, as anyone who has ever done this job professionally will agree, you see every side of human nature possible; the good, the bad and the downright ugly!

As time passed I would arrive for work and sit with the engine running contemplating just buggering-off again. The job had become something to endure rather than enjoy. It was time for me to move.

Through a friend I met Alan who ran a ‘sort of’ decorating business. I had always been handy with a paintbrush so when offered a job I took it without too much thinking involved; again that easy option.

Turned out Alan’s imagination was bigger than his reality and after four months (much of it spent in the pub) the work dried-up.

I became self- employed and worked a short time for my sister’s partner, then did a year or so with a couple of plasterers. During this time I met Jim who was renovating a house to sell on and needed help.

We got on well together and I did much of the painting required and gradually turned my hand to the other jobs that Jim took on.

One of these jobs was the painting of Elaine’s cottage, I’m guessing most of you know the outcome of that.

Before her first marriage she had been dealing in small antiques and old costume etc, really what is now termed Vintage. She went back to this with items in a friends shop and then started doing local fairs and markets.

Elaine and I finally started living together full time in 1993. Never afraid of work, she did all sorts to pay her way and keep her then horse Teddy.

Trouble was the local venues didn’t pay very well for all the effort involved; she needed to travel further afield, this is where I came in.

She could set-up and sell okay but needed help loading unloading and driving and this now mostly fell to me.

We became a real team doing fairs regularly across London and the south of England. Later we branched out doing house clearance work and eventually Elaine started-up her own fairs.

Of course this meant we spent a huge amount of time in each- others company, forging a bond others could only guess at.

As cancer and treatments came and went we carried on as best we could, the bond between us becoming greater still.

By now I had started going with her on buying trips to collect and load the purchases and encouraged by my wife I started buying myself. It became a game between us as to who could bag the day’s best bargain, and she didn’t always win!

Being self-employed meant I could pretty much take time to help Elaine whenever I wished, so it made sense for me to stay with what I was doing (the right option), it also leant a sense of security for when cancer put Elaine out of action and I could stay home to be with her during treatments, without having to gain permission from an employer.

We had so much fun working side-by-side. It was often hard work but how I miss it now I simply cannot put into words.

 It’s not just my wife I’ve lost but a whole way of living has closed to me forever, the exception (for now) being the vintage barn at Cranborne.

Housed in the garden centre at Cranborne, about ten miles from our home, Elaine was offered selling space in the vintage barn around the time the cancer was declared  terminal, roughly five or six years ago now. Items sell on a commission only basis.

This suited Elaine, as it was somewhere else to sell direct to the public now that we were doing less and less fairs due to her regime of treatments taking their toll on her energy.

She loved it, we frequently travelled over with new items to arrange and squeeze in and she was soon publicising it on social media platforms to gain new customers and followers.

We carried on buying, and plenty of my time was taken up repairing, painting and tarting up…sorry…adding patina to much of what we purchased.

Elaine wanted me to carry on with the barn after her death. She thought it would help in getting me out of the house and meeting people again. It did, well to a point anyway, but it near broke my heart the first few times I went back there; buying at the sales again all but did the bloody same.

The mistake I made these last eighteen months or so, was continuing to buy more things but not facing up to and clearing that which I already had; the harder option put to one side.

The problem was I was fearful, lest parting with this ‘gear’ somehow mean parting again with Elaine and our way of life being lost to me forever. I just wasn’t ready to concede that it was already lost and not coming back.

The easier option was to do next to nothing and try to hold on; not the best decision but, I think forgivable in the circumstances. 

With so many items around the house needing my attention plus everyday living to get through, as I said earlier, depression crept in and I could easily have folded.

 Indeed in many ways I wanted to do just that, the easy option once more, but that Saturday afternoon as I stood I could imagine Elaine’s little hand tucking into mine and I felt her voice whispering into my heart.

“It’s up to you now, you must decide no one else can do it. If it’s all dragging you down then chuck the lot, it isn’t worth the grief…but, if you can work with it and not against there’s money to be found here, and change as well which is the more important thing for you now.

“Pace yourself Mark, each thing accomplished is a triumph, each one a step forward.

“You must not become a victim or it’s won.

“Make the most of the open doors before you; so many we knew together are now closed or closing, holding on is no option embrace the new that comes into your world.

 “I won’t die any the more because of it; don’t be afraid to change.

“You’re here to live and you’ve cause to live for now haven’t you”?

I know she’s right, to be honest it wasn’t often that she was wrong; her belief so very strong in so many things, especially us.

There are a lot of physical items to remove from this house, this home, and from my life. I’ve a whole stack of crates untouched since our last fair together, Christmas 2019 at Devizes.

 Treasures to unearth? (Hope you are still out there and interested Lynne)!

But whatever, the options are now all mine, sink or swim it’s up to me.

Clearing the ground will I know, clear my head and my heart too; what my life from then on becomes will make no difference to ‘us’.

Life with Elaine stopped when despite the odds, we got to the top of the hill together. Then I knocked the truck out of gear and turned out the engine for the last time; she had to get out, and foot off the brake I started coasting downhill alone.

I’ve been coasting ever since but I’m gradually getting slower and slower, I know that at some point in the future I will stop, then I’ll get out, lock the door, pocket the keys, and walk away.

I can’t walk back up the hill to her, she won’t be there anyway; the route for me is straight ahead, and I’ll have to trust my instincts when I encounter the options there will be along the way.

But I’ll not throw away those keys they still represent another option and a life not to be forgotten.

Change is upon me whether I like/want it or not. But to be perfectly honest with you all, I know deep down that I want it to be; that it is the right way.

I’ve allowed myself to be bogged-down long enough, lasting it out will make no bloody difference to that which has occurred, no difference at all.

Is this now the beginning for me? No.

The beginning of the end maybe? I doubt it.

But the end of the beginning? Yes I think so.

Churchill’s words miss- quoted from the darkest of hours.

It’s no longer the darkest for me, but it is not yet full morning either, though the streaks of light passing through the horizon tell me that morning is due soon and inevitable in my life.

However long it takes to reach me is kind-of down to me. Somehow it will come whatever, but I want more than a measure of control, the option to be mine again.

I know that I don’t have to sit around and wait, it’s okay to go forwards and meet it.

I have reason to do so, to live; but being so close I hadn’t seen this coming…..

SURVIVING THE STORMS.

A friend of Elaine’s (and mine) called unexpectedly on Sunday afternoon to retrieve some DVD’S lent to Elaine just prior to her going into the hospice. We chatted briefly whilst outside in the cold sunshine and it was later, after she left, that I started to think.

Elaine would have been up to Bruce at about that time. The sunshine welcome; the cold expected but tolerated. That bright sun would be the early herald of the coming spring and the summer.

Mucking out the stable in jeans and t-shirt, too hot for a coat; Bruce turned out without a rug. The plentiful grass vibrant green with stored new life.

Somehow these thoughts seem to have passed by me last year, but not now.

Those summer Sunday evenings after she returned home, we sat outside on a bench together. Tea but more likely beer or wine in hand. Easy gentle conversation, sometimes intimate, sometimes hard reality; always inclusive of laughter and hope.

It serves to spell out in capitals that it is not just my wife, my partner, my confidant that I have lost but whole sections of my life are now forfeited; the sun and the seasons will carry-on, but Elaine and I have stopped. The sands of time for us could never be eternal, at least not in this world.

Unseen, hope still sits on the bench beside me.

I’ve lived in this house over 42 years now. My parents were the original leaseholders, a situation inherited by the National Trust when they were bequeathed the estate my home is part of in 1981.

Mum and Dad left in the summer of ’87 when I took over the full lease and lived here alone for the next six years until Elaine moved in mid-1993. We were under this roof together for the next 27 years until her death early 2021.

Some years ago we acquired a property of our own, long since paid for, but we never wanted to go live there. We did look at other places locally with a view to moving, but each and every time cancer reared its ugly face and moving home went onto the backburner, then simply never happened at all. Somehow I think we both knew it never would.

A lot of trees surround this place and it’s a worry when strong winds and storms are forecast as damage due to falling debris is always feared.

 The storms of late January 1990 brought significant damage to the building due to a fallen chimney; and many surrounding trees lost limbs or their very foothold in the earth because of the fury of the elements.  The scaffolding was still around the Lodge when Elaine came here for the first time that summer.

Power cuts and loss of telephone lines are quite a regular aspect of life here due to all the cables having to come through a copse or two next to the church, which is up and behind us (me), then directly through the woods at the rear of the house.

Elaine and I always had torches strategically placed around our home lest the power fail after the descent of darkness and candles plus an oil lamp or two were, and are, always to hand. Also a landline phone that does not require mains power is always in-situ should the phone line survive but the power be lost.

During the first year since Elaine’s death I had only one power failure when the wind took out the local area early one Sunday morning shortly before Christmas.

The weather was mild, I managed alright and all was soon restored back to normal.

Three weeks ago the elements struck again, but with somewhat different consequences.

Two big storms battered the south of England in the same week and I returned home on the Friday afternoon to find no power, no phone-Bugger!

In short, a tree in the copse beside the church had snapped-off about six feet or so from the ground. It took off the tops of two others as it fell, crushed a fence, but more importantly it shattered a telegraph pole and destroyed the cables on it- my cables!

All was eventually reported but there were problems all over the region and I knew this was going to be a long haul.

At least I had the Rayburn working still and the woodburner but everything else is electric and as this house is nearly 150 years old with solid walls and zero insulation it can, and does, get bloody cold especially upstairs at night.

I spent some of that first night at the pub, but even alcohol cannot entirely ward off the dark and cold, and I could not help but wonder what Elaine would be thinking right now faced with days, or even longer, spent like this.

On Saturday morning I took the contents of my freezer and most of the fridge, over to Julie’s house. She kindly lent me the use of her landline and her shower; did some washing for me, charged my mobile and supplied a late breakfast and then delicious lunch. It was a shame to go home but I started back mid-afternoon to get things ready for the nineteenth century to return with the inevitable darkness.

For half of its life this house would only have been lit by candles or oil lamps-no gas here; how the fuck did they see anything much? It’s trying and difficult to read by these means and the fumes soon get me in the throat resulting in a cough to put covid to shame.

I manage to make a balls-up of my evening meal and the mood is not enhanced by room temperature lager, when, sat at the kitchen table in a pool of fumy light the mobile phone rings.

It’s Marilyn, my friend who lives in Wimborne, I saw her yesterday so she knows my situation.

“Everything still the same Mark?”

“Yes, the cats think I’m mad going about with a head-torch on.”

She continues; “Mark you can’t stay there alone in the cold and dark you’ll just be miserable.”

“It’s not too bad downstairs, perhaps I’ll sleep by the woodburner.”

“That’s not going to be comfortable at all and you know it; why don’t you come down here and stay with me?”

“Are you sure?”

“Yes I’m sure. Promise to behave yourself though!”

I didn’t take much persuading; “OK I’ll be with you as soon as I can.”

I was a bit late getting there but we relaxed with drinks in front of the TV until bed time and it occurred to me then that I’d not done this of a Saturday night since before Elaine had died.

Back home Sunday the loan of a petrol generator from friend Giles at the local forge, brought a spark of civilisation back to me. I could run the fridge for a while, charge my phone and power up one light; but the bastard drank more petrol than I could whisky, and the noise scared the cats- and me- half to death. But I was and am grateful for such kindness.

Monday morning and the phone guy arrives to say they can do nothing until the electric co’ replace the pole and their own cables. That afternoon the electric rep’ declares it to be quite a major job but I’m rewarded for my attitude of; “Fuck it, don’t apologise to me, it’s not your fault a tree fell down, at the end of the day it’s just a power cut”- by them later announcing that I’m to get an emergency generator that night to power the whole house.

It’s up and running just before 11pm, thanks Elaine, I’m back in the 21st century.

Well almost, no landline still, but some internet as Bob comes over and sets up the emergency hub I’ve been sent. How we rely on all this stuff now!

Anyway all goes fine until late the following Saturday afternoon when whilst being re-fuelled the generator cuts-out. Shit!

The guy tries to start it up to no effect, so he contacts the electric co’ who take my details and say they will try to get an engineer out ASAP. On a Saturday night-sure!

Luckily I’ve hot water ready for a bath, but to say I’m pissed-off with it all by now is a vast understatement.

I try not to do self-pity ( a lesson learned from my wife ) but the prospect of a dark, fumy Saturday night or even longer, sent my spirits and humour to the bottom of the scale.

It’s dinner by oil lamp, but my hearts not in it at all, and a trip outside for firewood confirms glittering frost forming-it’s going to be cold tonight!

Almost on cue from seven days ago the mobile rings and it’s Marilyn again.

“How’s it going Mark?”

“It’s fucking gone! The generator’s packed up!”

I explain my situation in the enriched language she knows to expect from me.

“OK do you want to come and stay with me again?”

“I’d love to, I just need to get out of here tonight.”

“Come down when you’re ready then and bring some beers, I’ve only got wine.”

I notice she hasn’t told me I’m to behave myself this time, but I take it as read none the less.

I settle the cats, who know by now that I’ve gone mad, pack a few things then go out into the darkness and strangely invigorating cold.

I feel a bit like I’m jumping ship but for me darkness coupled with the cold are sometimes too familiar, a bit like old friends you don’t want to meet anymore. It all brings to mind the edge of the void I stood on after I lost Elaine. I know it’s just in my mind but I don’t want to face it down each and every bloody time; right this minute I want warmth, light and trusted company and they are just a short journey away.

I’ve been with Marilyn less than an hour when a call to my phone heralds the arrival of an engineer at home, to examine the silent generator.

“Do you need me to come back?”

“No point mate, you being here makes no difference to my fixing the fucker or not.”

I like this guy.

About 10.30 he calls again.

“All up and running fine now.”

“What was wrong?”

“Idiot fuelled it too quickly, any overflow triggers a safety sensor to avoid fire, just had to reset it and check through.”

I give him my distant thanks, then he’s gone.

Marilyn has overheard our exchange.

“Do you want to go back then Mark?”

“Well I have had a drink, shouldn’t really risk it, much rather stay here with you.”

“That’s fine with me too.”

We sit and watch TV and Marilyn channel-hops for a while then we settle to just talking over our drinks.

Her situation has some strange parallels with my own as she lost her husband Jeff, over seven years ago to cancer. Like Elaine he too died at Forest Holme hospice.

“He was my rock Mark, despite whatever was happening in my life he was always there for me, and I know he always loved me.”

They were together nigh-on fifty years, having one son Simon, who I have known since he was a young child.

Marilyn continues; “Jeff did everything for me, I didn’t have to worry about the house, the bills or finance he sorted it all, but when he died I was thrown in at the deep end and I just had to manage. I know Simon will always help but he has his own life now with Steph and the boys and I was determined not to be reliant on anybody.”

Something tells me to remain silent, she drinks some wine then picks up again.

“Many thought I’d go under after he died, no bloody chance! He would have been so disappointed in me if I had, and the least I could do was not to let him down in this, so I pushed myself on. You see Mark I had to forge a new life for myself, a new way of living that he would be proud of and me too, and I’ve done it. Yes, I’ve had more time than you have as Elaine’s not been gone as long, but she’d want for you as he did for me, to survive, and not just survive the loss, but to flourish in spite of it.”

Despite the highs and lows of fortune in our lives Marilyn and I have retained a friendship through the last four decades, though as I have said before we rarely met of late or even saw each other.

Shortly before she went into Forest Holme Elaine asked me to contact Marilyn and tell her our situation. When I asked her why her reply was quite straightforward.

“Because when this happens you are going to need all the help you can get.”

‘This’ meaning of course her-Elaine’s-own death.

Elaine knew what she was about too as Marilyn is one of a small band of people, without any one of whom, I’m not sure I could have survived the storm that has been my life for the past fourteen or so months.

Sat with her that night I realised that where I’m trying to get to in my life my friend is already there. What I’m writing and talking about she has already achieved. Okay, she’s a head start on me, but she has quietly just gotten on with life; no fanfare no blog or book, only the human spirit determined not to be broken by adverse circumstance and, when faced with staying put or moving forward into life has bravely moved on to see what living still offers; understanding full well that whatever comes her way now, cannot take away anything from that which has already been lived and experienced.

When I got home Sunday morning I made coffee and sat outside listening to the generator humming me out of the dark ages.

The power and phone lines would be up and running again soon enough; a hiccup in my life but then business as usual. The damage of the storm all repaired and forgotten.

But what about the damage done by that other storm, the one that left me alone without my wife?

The repairs are slow and ongoing still, they may never be completed, and even if they are things will never be the same, how could they?

But I’m aware now that carrying on as before is not an option and neither is standing still. I have been treading water for long enough now, talking about letting go/moving forward etc, yet unable or unwilling to take many meaningful steps to do so.

Talking with Marilyn and recognising my own situation reflected in hers I’m feeling fully for the first time since losing Elaine that I have nothing to fear by living.

Whatever happens in my world from now onwards it cannot take away anything from that which has been; my past remains fixed and untarnished by the present and the future.

We spoke that night of Elaine and Jeff without hint of embarrassment or any false humbleness; they could have been in the room there with us. Whether we speak of them or not they are still dead and will stay so. It matters only that they lived and the times we shared with them remain, whatever happens in our lives from now on.

I see through my friend that living, and enjoying doing so is still allowed after loss.

It is perfectly possible to carry the past within, whilst forming a new way of life for yourself; and feeling guilt in doing so, though natural enough, is ultimately unnecessary and a self- inflicted punishment that those whose memory we carry it in would never wish upon us.

As I got up from the bench I shared so often with Elaine I remembered how she never believed in co-incidence.

“There’s always a reason Mark, you just have to find it.”

Was there indeed a reason behind the storm and the broken cables?

A lesson to be brought home thanks to a failed generator and time spent with a close friend.

Strange the hand of fate.

RITUALS and the LAST TWO ROCKETS.

Do you have any rituals in your life that you feel compelled to carry out?

 I don’t mean routines, they’re more in the nature of necessity and I’m not meaning habit here either. What I mean by rituals is the doing of something that is completely unnecessary to living but you carry out anyway, either because of desire, compulsion or perhaps even superstition.

Personally I think many people do have such rituals in their lives, but don’t always want others to know about them; maybe it’s something too private and not for sharing, the reasons for which may not be understood by outsiders.

 Whatever, can there be any harm involved? Possibly not, but what if by tying yourself to carrying through certain actions, if say only once a year, you are actually holding yourself back in some way or binding yourself to something or someone which, or who, has in fact long since moved on and your actions over time have now become a form of lip service.

I’ve mentioned my late friend Ian before. Ian died of cancer in November 1991; at that time Elaine and I had known each other about sixteen months. Though she was still officially with her first husband she attended Ian’s funeral with me, but not the wake.

We met up at my home later that evening and as it was now quite dark we carried out a ritual in Ian’s memory that we continued with, on that same date together, through twenty-nine years.

We let off a rocket (firework) into the night sky and raised our glasses to toast our friend as it briefly lit-up the darkness as he had lit-up so many lives during his short time amongst us.

The trouble was I often had to buy the rockets in pairs or multiples so we had spares and started letting them off in memory of other people, usually on the anniversaries of their deaths. We soon had more night time launches going than NASA could handle and it was getting a bit out of hand.

It was Elaine who said this needed to stop as it was all now becoming a bit morbid and I had to agree, so we just stuck with Ian’s yearly ritual and soon discovered that spare rockets did keep till the following year.

On one of these nights not so long ago, Elaine told me that she did not want me to remember her in this way should she die, or for me to start-up any other forms of ritual remembrance for her.

Seeing my puzzled look she explained that although she never wanted me to forget her she didn’t want me creating artificial ways in which to do it and falling captive to them.

The only special ritual for her was our annual walk by the river.

Every year Elaine and I re-enacted our first ever date together by walking again along the riverbank as we did in July 1990. It took a certain amount of effort for her sometimes, as chemo’ and other treatments took their toll along with the cancer, but we managed as best we could.

We never missed, and I know as she told me, that she hoped I would continue with this yearly walk to remember us.

Last July’s pilgrimage on my own was, I must be honest, one of the hardest things I have ever had to do, but I just had to do it; and I’ll carry on doing it as long as I can as I know she would want me to.

I realised then too that Ian’s evening ceremony in November would be carried out alone for the first time ever.

When the date came I had two rockets left from the previous year but I bought two larger one’s also as by now a plan was forming in my mind that I somehow knew was going to be the right thing to do albeit the ending of an era for me.

It was Ian’s 30th anniversary of leaving this life and I thought a fitting time to end this annual salute.

Why? Because I felt it had lived its time, especially as Elaine had always been there before and without her I knew it was just going to emphasize her loss.

It was strange to stand in the darkness of the garden alone. Always before she was beside me but thinking on it now I believe she was really just there for my sake, the original meaning of the evening having long since faded like the light from that first firework.

As two rockets in succession lit the sky for my long past friend I told him they’d be the last and hoped he would understand my reasons.

I felt glad at the decision to stop, like something had lifted, but if it had, then it was a burden of my own making and no one else’s. I’ll never forget Ian he still shines bright in many hearts, brighter than any firework ever could.

I had two rockets left now and they were going to be for Elaine whether she wanted them or not!

I visited her grave at Christmas twice, as I said in the previous blog, then did so again for our wedding anniversary on the 29th. I went also on the date of her death but had made up my mind that these were not going to become yearly fixtures. As her birthday follows just two days later (7th Jan’) I felt she would sooner have a visit then rather than my being back and forth over several separate dates in quick succession.

I’d said to Elaine after we had organised her funeral and bought our plots some five years previously, that when/if she died I would place a small Christmas tree on her grave each year.                                   

“What for, I won’t be there to see it?” was her laughing reply, and I now see how right she was.

If she were capable of witnessing a seasonal tree at Christmas, then why not witness the one at home in the lounge as she did when alive, than be stood outside looking at some rain sodden piss-poor shrub on a mound of grass? Logically it makes sense to me now too.

Standing next to where she lies, on her birthday I did feel closer to her, but possibly this is only as expected as her body is there; but that’s just the point it’s her body not the shining spirit that lived within it, that’s moved on. She can be anywhere that I am, the revelation of which came to me on Christmas Day outside the hospice.

There is genuine comfort in this.

As I stood before her there was something else for me to do; I moved my wedding ring to my right hand.

I had sworn to myself when Elaine died that it would stay put on my left hand for at least one year and a day. I couldn’t bear to not wear it at all and there’s no room around my neck on a chain for it, so the other hand is the only choice.

It wasn’t an easy thing to do and it does not mean I love her any the less, or ever will, but it is about my walking forward from here on and not standing still or looking back at that which I have been so lucky to live but which can’t be carried into my future other than as memories.

Later that day, back at the home we shared for nearly three decades I went outside into the late evening darkness at around 7pm.The rain had stopped-thanks Elaine!

The air was cold but encouraging in its refreshing embrace as I set up the improvised launch tube for what I knew would be the last time ever; so many before!

I opened a bottle of the same tap we had had at our wedding some twenty six years before and poured out two fizzing glasses to the brims.

There were two rockets, one large brute the other somewhat smaller.

First to go was the smaller one, and I thought then how it was the last of four, two of which Elaine had witnessed in November 2020 stood by my side.

Was she here now somehow to see this one as it launched with a screech and flare of white and red fire, shot skywards then fell and briefly hugged the landscape before plunging to earth and exploding in an orange ball of flame seemingly far greater that its size should have allowed.

Pungent sulphury smoke filled my nostrils and made me laugh as we had always laughed together, even despite the toughest news, given in consulting rooms and telephone calls over so many years.

Why were my cheeks wet when it wasn’t even raining-thanks Elaine!

I raised a glass and toasted my love, and the life that lives on in memories and yes, that to come also.

Then the second and final rocket was placed in the tube.

I hesitated, looking around me trying to penetrate the darkness, hoping still that somehow Elaine could see this earthly moment.

The lighter flame glowed steady, like a candle at a wake as I ignited the fuse which started burning with a spluttering hiss. Weirdly to me, I felt I’d just lit a light to eternity.

Standing back I took a sip from my glass as bright orangey fire lit up the small world around me and with a fantastic WOOSH!! carried my love skywards to try and find the one whose name is forever engraved upon my soul.

It exploded impossibly high in the world of darkness above me forming a stunning ‘living’ tree of golden stars and streaks of fire that hung for seconds but will shine forever in my years to come.

I knew she was close by and was pleased at my decision for this night and the future.

Stood in the silence it came to mind that this was the deliberate ending of an era by me for me.

I understand clearly now why Elaine didn’t want elaborate or false rituals; they can and do tie you down and hold you to something that is material in its make-up when that which is being remembered is more of the spirit than of this world.

I’ll walk by the river for her and for us each year as often as I am able. I’ll tend her grave and visit when I can, when it feels right to, or maybe on a special date, but not just for the sake of going to stand there and make myself bloody miserable because I falsely think it’s the proper thing to do.

Becoming a slave to ritual remembrance is pointless, it won’t bring Elaine back and I know damn well she wouldn’t want it.

The best way I can honour her is to live and try to do it well. It’s not the easy option as I have to make the effort every day with no fanfare, not just on a few selected dates now and then. Life simply cannot be lived through any sort of lip service.

That night, which would have been Elaine’s 67th birthday, wrought a change within me. I had to be open to it and it would not be hurried, but the shift has occurred; now to find a direction.

A CHANGE OF DIRECTION.

This was originally intended to be part of a more general post but in the end I wanted to keep Christmas Day as compact and complete as possible, so it has become a blog in its own right.

One of the things I had been dreading most was the coming of the first Christmas without Elaine. Though she was in the hospice the previous year at least she was still alive and we were together there; but I feared this Christmas just gone that I would be alone and in darkness, if only metaphorically speaking. At least that’s what I thought would be the case, but I hadn’t reckoned with my wife or the intervention of fate.

Christmas Day 25th December 2021.

I’m disappointed to wake up to greyness all around. Outside it’s peeing with rain and the wind is relentless, and I had so much hoped for seasonal goodwill from the elements. But my hopes have fallen on stony ground like so much of the proverbial wasted seed.

I have breakfast as Elaine and I always did but sit in the kitchen not the lounge as we used to. Then I open some kindly given presents from my friend Mike, one of which has me blubbing like a kid; they are not my first tears of the day and I know they won’t be my last.

I am late getting out and leave home after 11am. I’ve no real plans, just ideas.

First I drive to the ruined church and Neolithic site of Knowlton where Mike and I went after Elaine’s funeral. Apart from one hardy dog walker, I have the place to myself and I go straight to the two yew trees where I tied the pink wool ‘offering’, almost a year since, in remembrance of my wife.

I cannot find it anywhere. Whether it’s been blown away or simply removed who can say but I’m frustrated and begin to get angry. The awful weather doesn’t help the situation, but then as I stop and look across at the bleak and frigid landscape before me I start to smile and an unheralded warmth begins to calm me from within.

What difference a piece of wool it can be replaced if need be. We don’t need it to stand here side by side and gaze at this feral beauty around us, and you are by my side, aren’t you? I can neither see nor touch you but something inside says you’re here and that’s enough for me.

I leave after about twenty minutes; I’m both wet and cold but I’m glad that I came; something unexpected has come away with me but it still remains invisible to my understanding.

I head for Wimborne stopping off at the woodland burial ground on the way. It’s quite busy, something I selfishly don’t like even so I visit Elaine for the second time in two days. I’m not at all sure what I expected to find. Peace? Comfort in solitude? Whatever, it’s not here and frustration once again starts to gnaw at the ragged edges inside of me.

So I drive into town, park up and walk around for a bit, despite the weather.

 Nothing seems to be panning out as I had thought, but then what did I think? I don’t have any answers but something of that feeling I had at Knowlton is staying with me, it whispers about none of this really mattering.

Back at the car I change my wet through coat for a dry one, and start off for Sandbanks and the sea just outside of Poole.

It’s here that I was working when a few years ago Elaine’s condition became terminal. Neither of us knew how long we had left together and I would take early morning walks along the shoreline before work, lost in thoughts and trailed by ill-hidden fears.

Parking where I used to I take the footpath between houses and flats and rounding the last corner come out above the beach; I’m now exposed to the full un-Christmas-like fury of the elements. The wind is a bastard and the heavy drizzle near horizontal plus it’s bitterly cold.

It seems like the whole world and his wife have come here today too, it’s more crowded than an early summers’ morning. I wanted to be alone to walk in self-indulgent privacy, have these people got no Christmas dinners to go to?

I begin the trudge along the shoreline but in minutes I’m wet through again and frozen to the bone. I imagine Elaine walking by my side:-

“Fuck this for a joke Mark, why the hell are we here? You’re going to catch pneumonia at this rate. Get back to the car for goodness sake”.

I take her ‘advice’ and a short cut, and am soon back dripping in the drivers’ seat. I’m feeling very pissed-off by now, none of this day is going as planned.

“What plans? You said you’d make no plans just take the day as it comes, don’t blame it that it’s what it is; control is yours if that’s what you want”.

I remember I’m not far from Forest Holme hospice where a year ago today I was beside my wife; I decide to drive over.

The traffic is very light and I’m soon on all too familiar territory.

I park away from the hospice and despite the weather walk beside the main road towards the back entrance, a route forever engraved within me.

Then a strange thing. Each Christmas morning for as long as I can remember Elaine and I opened a bottle of fizz, Champagne or sparkling wine depending on our funds! Also our last ‘drink’ together was a sip of Bucks Fizz on our wedding anniversary shortly before she died. And now as I walk up the hill bang in front of me in the middle of the pavement (sidewalk) is a Champagne cork; no other debris is around, just the cork.

I laugh to myself as I pick it up, it brings a wave of memories to me of all those wonderful Christmas mornings we spent with each other.

 “They cannot be expunged by the memory of that one last Christmas, unless you let them”.

I don’t hear the words, but I feel them.

I walk on and through to the back of the hospice and gently open the gate that stands like an old friend in greeting. There’s no one about and I’m tempted to go further until I notice the window of what was Elaine’s room is open. I don’t want to alarm anyone so I re-trace my steps, but I do place the cork up on the gatepost against the wall.

Then I leave by the front car park.

 Passing the main entrance my thoughts’ are of that Monday morning, over a year ago now, when we passed through that doorway together, Elaine and I, for the last time.

I carry on walking to the pavement then turn and unconsciously start to wave; it’s then that I ‘hear’ her inside me- no voice-just feelings as before, but just as loud.

“No need to wave Mark I’m not staying there, I’m right here. You won’t be leaving me there ever again, now I can come with you”.

It wasn’t just the rain running down my face; but in my heart and spirit a light like Edison’s new invention flared-up into my world at last.

She didn’t have to stay this time, now she could walk away with me. It was so obvious Why oh! Why couldn’t I see it before?

I put out my right hand as though holding hers and start away, I’m smiling broadly through the rain and tears, this feels so right. I hesitate after a few yards, “Don’t look back, there’s nothing of us there now, I’m beside you and I know you know it’s true”.

So I keep walking straight on and back to the car where I sit dripping again and think on what’s just happened to and within me.

I feel like a man who’s just discovered a new element, something that’s always been there but remained unseen before.

Elaine isn’t in a hole in the earth at the burial ground that’s just her body, a focus to mourn, but it’s not her or any of us.

She’s not at the hospice either nor is she pacing the boards at the Lodge waiting for me to return home. She is I realise now, wherever I am especially when I think of her.

I remember saying to her once that if she died I would not ever be able to leave this home we shared together for so long, as it would be akin to leaving her behind.

Her reply: “Sod that I’m not waiting here, I’ll be coming with you”.

She is in my heart and soul and my memories, Christmas or otherwise; and she always will be. I don’t need special occasions or places to remember our love I see that now. She’s beside me as I think of her, right here right now, always will be.

Brushing away the tears and rain I see it’s almost 2pm. There’s nowhere else for me to go except home. It looks like the rest of the day I’ll spend alone, I’ve had offers but I just don’t fancy walking in halfway through someone else’s Christmas.

So I head back for Wimborne and as there is little or no traffic I’m soon at the town.

It’s now that fate takes a more direct hand in my day.

I mentioned in an earlier blog my friend of forty years, Marilyn. I had an invite to spend Christmas with her and her son and his family; I’d said I might come over later in the day depending how I felt, but I’m cold and wet now and I know me well enough that after I get home and warm again I’ll be reluctant to go out and impose myself on others.

I come to the mini-roundabout where it’s quickest for me to turn left but intuition overcomes habit and I carry straight on. Why the hell have I come this way it’s longer?

But it’s about to get longer still when instead of going straight through town intuition asserts itself again and I simply know I must turn right. I don’t understand why, there’s no traffic to avoid, no reason.

But suddenly there is. As I near the end of the road there’s a lone figure, bags and umbrella in hand, bent against the elements-Marilyn!

I draw alongside her and she looks up in surprise then recognition and hurries round to the passenger door.

“Mark, God am I glad to see you, I’m getting wet through and my boots seem to have a leak; where are you going?”

“Home after I’ve dropped you, I assume you’re going to Simons?”

“Yes, yes I am, but why did you come round this way?”

“I’ve no real idea other than I had to.”

It’s weird, a few moments one way or another, and I would have missed her completely.

It transpired she had woken-up late not feeling too good and wanted to take a Covid test. By the time she got her hands on one, did it, and waited for the result, then got ready to go out she was running quite late all round.

I drive her to her son’s home about half a mile or so away.

“Mark the offers still there if you’d like to join us, Simon would love to see you.”

“I’d like to see him too, but I’m cold and wet and need to be home for a while, but I’d like to come up later (I could feel Elaine urging me) though I don’t want to walk in halfway through your meal.”

“That’s okay I’ll text you when we’re done.”

And so I returned about 4pm and stayed until 10.30 that night.

I had a really great time and was made to feel so welcome. It was completely different to any Christmas I’d known in a long while, but the lesson began to sink in that Christmas is what you make it, as I guess life is too.

The wonderful festive times I shared with my wife are not coming around again; but they will live on in memories as long as I do. What is important is that they existed in the first place.

Christmas for me from now on will be different, not necessarily better or worse than before, just different; this past one has helped me to accept that.

Question is, can I now accept that all of my life will be ‘different’ from that which I knew with Elaine?

Only time will tell.

Christmas Past

  ALL THE TIME IN THE WORLD.

                             For Elaine my darling wife- 7.1 1955/5.1.2021.

 In memory of just one of so many wonderful adventures together- Appledore, N.Devon England.

We walked along the shore together

Do you remember? The Burrows,

We had it all almost to ourselves.

The wide damp sand, the sea

That house right on the cliffs edge,

All ours for the day.

Everyone else working, but not us

We’re on our hol’s.

Doesn’t take much to make us happy

Just each other really.

You looked so carefree so casual and so in love,

With life, with me.

All I ever wanted was more time

With you

For us.

To live, to breathe, to hope, to walk and keep on walking

Hand in hand never once looking back, with

All the time in the world.

CHRISTMAS PRESENCE.

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.”

“So?”

“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.

Thank You…Mark.

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.

              FRIENDS.

                                                  

A funny thing happened to me recently on my way into the kitchen. When I say funny I mean that in the sense of its strangeness, not its humour.

It was early one evening, I’d had a shower popped on a t-shirt and some sweat pants and came downstairs. Sometime previously I had left a knife on the kitchen table.

 It was a prep’ knife, very sharp and pointy.

I don’t know why it was on the table and not the little worktop but it was, and it was lying kind of the wrong way around, so that when I walked from the hallway into the kitchen and casually picked it up in my right hand I lifted it up and close to me; in doing this the blade was level with and a few inches from my chest.

Please understand that I was, as far as I remember, not at that moment in a morbid frame of mind (nor was I half pissed)! I don’t really know what I was thinking and though Elaine is constantly on my mind I was fairly cheerful and generally okay.

But as I lifted the knife and its blade came up, the thought burst into my head with absolute crystal clarity “Why don’t you just push it through your heart?”

I stopped and stood contemplating what was happening.

The point was now just a couple of inches from my heart, which strangely I could see faintly beating through my shirt, as if to leave no doubt as to the availability of the target. I stood still.

I’d not had any real serious self-destructive thoughts since that bloody awful ‘Black Night’ I spoke of in the blog-One Good Day.

That night’s threat was so very real and solid that I have believed since it occurred that I would recognise it if it came again, but this situation pounced out of the blue just as that one had.

Nevertheless what shocked me the most was that in the few moments after this idea struck me I realised I was actually contemplating it; somehow it was presenting itself as a reasonable solution worthy of consideration at the very least, or a good plan as it were, that would be best acted upon now.

I didn’t drop the knife like it was the treacherous Asp but walked forward and placed it in the sink, then I leaned back against the Rayburn thinking on what had just happened. The Judas here wasn’t the knife itself it was the impulse from within me, exactly as it was before, but why had it occurred?

I can fully understand the night of the 30th of January, it was still the month of her death and not long after her funeral but we’re ten months on from that, how much longer will I have to be wary of this sudden impulse jumping out on me? I thought I was doing quite well but I admit to being shocked and a bit fearful at the clarity of it. What if it caught me really off guard, a bit drunk or melancholy and depressed?

Luckily for me (I guess) I’m not prone to be an impulsive person, I’m more of an over-thinker if anything, and the wave of this latest impulse broke against a wall that’s been quietly building up around the harbour of my reason for some time now; but if that wave were taller or me lower?

I glanced again at the knife in the sink and the words of so many months ago came back to me, “It would be so easy”.

How many people I thought, had been seduced by this phrase; whose minds or reason were just then out of balance enough and had acted on the same sudden impulse that I had encountered.

How many have sought to dissolve away their fears and grief by acting on it only perhaps to feel or recognise their mistake a moment after it’s too late.

Some years ago Elaine and I had discussed the possibility of my suicide (there I’ve managed to say it) in the event of her death. Though we talked fairly often about her possible demise we only ever had the one conversation concerning my following her should she go first, as was we knew, most likely.

I’ve always really been of the opinion that it is not right to destroy your own life, except possibly in the most dire or extreme of circumstances or possibly to save another, but she and I were so close that neither of us ever wanted to be apart from the other for too long.

The ongoing cancer had forged us closer together, but I’m damn sure it never intended to, and the idea of my living without Elaine held little appeal for me, and though I know Elaine did not fear death I believe she did, for many years, fear us being parted.

We talked openly, as we nearly always did, and we both found a certain appeal in the thought of us going together, but I know that she wasn’t keen on being the cause of my own self-destruction or my losing out on life or happiness that may be due to me.

We decided against.

 One reason being if there is some controlling force in another dimension or life, then it may not allow us any togetherness if I were to murder myself to jump the queue, so to speak.

Also we came to the conclusion that life is so short and precious that handing back the gift after so many years is akin to eating half the choc’s in a given box then returning the others to the giver saying you don’t want the rest thank you.

It would be a slap in the face when many try so hard to stay alive, and so many others try so hard to help them.

I poured myself a beer and walking through to the lounge sat down by the wood-burner where two cats were doing a good job of absorbing most of the heat. Watching their carefree slumbers I acknowledged my gratitude for their presence and this started me thinking about the living rather than the dead.

For such a long time I have been thinking that I must carry on living for the sake of the dead, particularly my wife sister and late best friend. It’s been the thing to say that I am going to carry-on for their sakes, but what about those still alive whose support over this last year has been invaluable to me? And what about me myself?

A small but tight-knit group has been mainly responsible for my getting this far since Elaine died in January.

When she went every day was much the same- bloody awful! There wasn’t much difference between one day and the next; I had entered a limbo land that shared little with the life that I knew. I was numb, but not comfortably so, I guess it’s a form of shock and I went through the motions of living because I had to.

Then, after the funeral reality reared its ugly face and I fell off a cliff and into a darkness that up until then I never knew existed. Everything was cold dark and miserable. A half-light dominated most days and the night seemed to rush in pushing out late afternoon far too quickly in its haste to assert its seasonal authority over the light.

I got out of the house whenever I could but with the lockdown in force and crap weather there were not many places to go anyway and once out I feared returning and being alone at home yet again.

All round it was a no-win situation and when I think back now it still fills me with a hopeless dread. I fear it’s all going to sneak back up and cast total despair over me like the net of a Retiarius and drag me back down.

But official stuff still had to be gotten through and my first key players now came into their own. Julie, Mike and Bob rallied round and their support was invaluable. Being the time of the second lockdown Mike soon became nigh-on my sole visitor and when he wasn’t here he phoned, wary of how I was or what I was (or was not) doing, or might do.

Others played their parts to:-

Cake and beer left in the woodbin by Judy, followed by a text to tell me where to look.

Our special friend Paula who called round despite the lockdown (we kept a distance) and then gave me a beautiful wirework Lark that she made in memory of Elaine, and which has pride of place hanging in the front porch.

Sara, whose early visits and constant texts reminded me so much of a world of love outside of my grim reality.

Penny, who is the very embodiment of the loving mindfulness she teaches.

Anna, in the States, whose help, encouragement, friendship and love has been beyond price.

Kathy, whose counselling and friendship is a gift from the Gods.

Each day was a challenge to get through. Waking without Elaine was the start of the real nightmare (should that be daymare?) and so many times I wanted to say “Fuck it all” and give up but Elaine would not allow that; so people would make contact one way or another and somehow I’d drag my sorry ass through the next 24 hours.

Of all the days and nights the worst bastard was Saturday night.

Elaine and I had given-up doing Sunday lunch years ago. We did go to my Mum’s for a while and I will never forget the time we were about to sit down when the phone rang. Without a thought Mum, well into her 70’s, said “Oh who the fuck’s that now”. Elaine’s face was just perfect as I tried not to laugh; she said afterwards that she had never heard anyone’s mum say that word before. They always got on well together and even better after that.

But we began to get very busy on Sundays and Elaine liked to try and ride her horse then too, so Saturday night’s meal became a sort of special one for us; and after her death I tried to keep this tradition alive. But I wasn’t too successful.

It seemed so futile sat there without her; it just served to amplify the emptiness. Sat there alone I knew I was unlikely to see anybody till at least Monday at the earliest. Sunday might bring some phone calls as Mike or Julie would often ring then; also my friend Graham, now living in Spain, would regularly call as did Elaine’s Cousin Jeff and wife Mary from the USA.

All these people and others were there for me but those Saturday evenings dragged like a long walk to the gallows.

The ‘Black Night’ referred to earlier was a Saturday night and the fear of its recurrence was ever present for a while and though Mike and Julie and a couple of others had said to just call if you feel the need to, I foolishly could not bring myself to admit defeat at the hands of solitude and loneliness, but I could feel it wearing me down.

I began dreading the weekends and Saturday night in particular.

One Saturday evening, I was sitting feigning interest in the TV when the phone rang.

The words of Mum came back to me “Oh who the fucks that” but I answered and heard a long familiar and never forgotten voice say “Mark? Hi it’s me, Marilyn.”

Marilyn and I have known one another and been friends for some forty years.

Though we rarely saw each other in recent times, unless by chance encounter, the friendship remained alive despite the passing of the years. She had learned from a mutual friend what had happened to Elaine and having got my number from said friend had been deliberating over whether to phone me or not until her son said “Oh for goodness sake just call him” so she did and was I ever bloody grateful to hear her voice that Saturday night.

Elaine and Marilyn had met on a number of occasions but did not know each other too well, so it was nice to talk about my wife with someone who had no pre-conceived ideas about her. It was also nice to learn about Marilyn’s friends most of whom were then unknown to me.

The point I’m trying to put across, is that talking with someone I knew but had not been around for so long acted like a real tonic to me; the passage of time lent a new element to our conversation and the minutes sped by.

I’ve never asked Marilyn why she chose to call on a Saturday night. Though she would normally be working until late evening this was during lockdown so she could have called at any time, I’m just so glad she chose as she did. Now we talk and meet regularly.

So many synchronicity moments like this have occurred. So many things and people falling into place at just the right time that I am left more than thinking, is there is some form of deliberate intervention going on here?

I spoke of things falling in the right order immediately after Elaine died, and the same is happening now, she would fully understand the danger in the loneliness and the silence and seek somehow to re-dress it.

Elaine always set great store by her friends and liked to maintain contacts; I tend to be a more solitary person and can easily let contacts lapse. I realise now this is not a good thing to do given my present situation.

I remain deeply indebted to all those who have not forgotten me. Whether it has been a text, email, phone call or visit, once or a dozen times, thank you all.

You’ve helped me to keep going, push back against the dark and the fear and allowed me to find the last thing left in the box-hope!

Elaine would love you all all the more for it, as do I.

But then I know you are all being gently manoeuvred by my wife she never could resist interfering- sorry, being pro-active, thank God.

Friends in New York.

  WHAT’S THE DIFFERENCE?

Tuesday 12th October ’21.

Today I killed a spider.

Not a deliberate act, I hasten to add. It lived in one of the woodbins behind the house. I was filling the bin then let go of the lid just as I noticed the large black spider that’s been living in it for a while was sat on the top edge.

I grabbed for the lid but-“Too late Ethel”- it fell and crushed her. Lifting the lid, the still twitching, but ruined body fell to the concrete and the sole of my boot was employed to administer mercy, and finish that which I had inadvertently started.

I felt sorry, but not ashamed in any way as it was a complete act of chance; or was it?

Was the spider’s time up no matter what I did and if so had it made a difference in any way by its living in the first place?

I recently dreamed vividly of Elaine; I knew that I was dreaming but she was there large as life. We talked and I asked her why she had to go. She simply replied “It was time” and looked very sad as she said it.

After my sister Sue died I had a similar dream. We were talking on a street full of people and I said to her “I wish you hadn’t had to go”. To which she replied “So do I” with that same sadness. Then she turned and walked away and I was aware that I could not follow.

This blog shares similar ground with the last one-“Seconds”. That ground is time and what or when anyone decides ‘it’ or it’s duration.

Every living thing, be it spiders or humans, will eventually lose that ability to live. Death comes to all and we tend to perceive our lives as a long or short duration of time; but what if it’s the events in a life that matter most not the span of time it covers?

My great friend Ian died of cancer some 30 years ago in 1991. This was also the year of Elaine’s first cancer too.

When he died I was deeply upset and complained to Elaine that his was too short a life, his time cut off somehow.

“Try to look at it as a life complete”, was her reply.

“He’d done all he was meant to, duration might not come into it at all”.

It’s true that Ian (or big G as we called him) touched many many lives in his short one. He was one of those larger-than- life characters who could make lasting friendships in a hovel or a palace. The fact is 30 years after his passing he is still talked of and remembered with humour and affection. To those who knew and loved him he will never be fully gone.

His life made a difference, but what about that of the spider?

I, of course, believe that Elaine died too early but was hers a life completed also? Her life criss-crossed and intertwined with so many others and then in later years she began to touch a lot of lives with her writings and observations of what is under all our noses, if only we would bother to stop look and listen.

Living with the constant shadow of early death sharpens the senses-even if it is not your own death that threatens- I can fully attest to that.

Elaine uncovered joy and wonder in the strangest of places, even spiders webs, but how many of us healthy ones just pass on by, oblivious to the miracles surrounding us?

And life is a miracle I defy you to say or think otherwise. Just stop as she did and wonder at the beauty and the cruelty of it all.

A couple of years or so back I came home and locking-up the car I noticed a small spindly fly dangling, caught in a cobweb. It was desperately trying to free itself to no effect. Without intervention it would die, its time over, but did that matter?

For whatever reason I decided I was going to be that intervention.

It wasn’t a housefly just a little creature that seemed no more than a few hairs stuck together, so I pulled out part of the web plus the fly and laid it all in my hand. It seemed to sense a new chance and renewed its efforts to be free of the net.

I carefully dragged away some of the strands but its limbs and wings were so frail that I feared of dismembering it, but still it struggled for its life refusing to give up. By now I was wondering why I had started this, it would be easier for me to just call it a day and swiftly end the fly’s distress, but I admired its spirit and sheer will to live so decided to finish what I had begun.

I clicked open my pocket knife and carefully pulled and cut at the web against the palm of my hand.

It took some twenty minutes of our combined efforts but then suddenly it was free and flew upwards; I almost heard a cry of joy.

Then the strangest thing of all.

With no lie, it flew round in front of me, circled my head twice and seemingly hovered for a few seconds before my eyes, then it was gone.

I felt a strange elation, how stupid, just a little fly.

I related the story to Elaine when she got home, “It was thanking you” she said.

“But it was just a bandy little fly” I replied, “What real difference does it make when millions probably die in a day?

“Made a difference to that one didn’t it” she said. “And maybe it’ll make a difference somewhere else, and so on”.

“I don’t really see what difference that thing could make anywhere. It may even be dead by now”.

She was silent for a few moments, but her reply still makes me think to this day. “Maybe the difference was not for it, maybe it was meant for you. Perhaps your act of compassion, the loss of twenty minutes from your life has saved you somehow, some accident or injury possibly, you’ll never really know; but tell me do you feel like you wasted your time Mark, do you feel foolish”?

“No, I don’t”, was my truthful reply.

“Then it was the right thing to do regardless of where the difference lies, or with whom”.

It didn’t occur to me then but I’m wondering now how did that fly perceive me?

Was I part of its world, or was I something so huge and alien that even though we share the same space it had no real conception of my ‘being’? Yet its weird actions when freed say different.

A couple of months back I was sat outside in the evening drinking a beer -and memories with it; both cats were with me as they used to be when Elaine and I sat there together. I casually noticed a large group of gnats flying round and round in a sphere they had formed about the size of a football.

They just kept on spinning in their own mad little universe seemingly oblivious to all else; I’m certain they had no consciousness of me watching from only a few feet away. I could so easily have interfered in their world, but why would I? I just watched, fascinated by the urgency and skill of their gyrations.

Did those gnats, all long dead now, have a concept of time hence their frenzy, their lives lived at a faster rate of completion to our own? Did they understand limited time better than we do, and what difference, if any, did they make by existing in the first place?

Are we those gnats to something so much vaster than us that we have little or no consciousness of our being watched as we spin round and round? Something that could, but rarely does, intervene in our lives; or do we know that intervention and label it luck or fate or chance?

Strange I’ve never really thought along these lines before; before Elaine died that is.

I keep wondering where is she? And I don’t mean the burial ground!

I more than half-hoped she would ‘visit’ somehow if only in my dreams, but it hasn’t really happened, at least not to the extent or way that I had wanted.

Perhaps I wouldn’t be able to carry on or move on if she were still ever present in my life in a 100% way. I can’t think that she is here constantly, if she is then what’s the point in her dying in the first place?

Was Elaine’s life/work complete? When is that decision made if it’s made at all, and by whom? And has she made a difference by her living?

I’ve asked a lot of questions I know, but it’s all so raw and unreal that I’ve no real answers to suggest. Death and dying throw out the ‘What’s and Whys’ but any potential answers are really unprovable beliefs belonging to the individual.

There is no proof of continuance after we die that can be held aloft to public satisfaction and approval.

But belief persists.

Though why should we continue on and not the spider or the fly? They too are of this world and just as dead to it when they ‘pass’.

Sisters-in-law, who should have caught later trains.

Whilst I have your attention, if you’ve not all fallen asleep by now, I would just like to say a big thank you to all who tuned-in to the Horse Husband and Cancer book launch live on-line a couple of weeks back. We all thought that it went very well and like to think that Elaine would be pleased too.

My greatest thanks must go to Anna and Crissi who have done so much, especially on the night itself. They I know are used to this sort of situation and they undoubtedly carried me along with their professionalism and belief in the book itself, I remain ever grateful.

It’s funny but that sort of thing, appearing live and reading to the world (my own words some of it too) would normally have seen me a bundle of nerves days beforehand and most likely making a ‘balls’ on the night itself.

But I was strangely calm and not flustered at all and felt confident in myself; I hope that came across OK.

Mike watched the video and said he’d now seen a side of me he never knew existed in all these years- so did I!

 I reckon it was the red wine and more than a single measure of my wife.

My thanks also to Julie and John for the use of their Wi-Fi and their larder! (John was the cook – Julie the technician).

Please do give your comments on the book, especially reviews online. Please do buy and read it in the first place!

We really do so much want to get Elaine’s story of her fight for her right to live as she wanted out into the world at large. If you read this work and believe it should reach a wider audience and you have contacts or ideas that may achieve this then please do try your best.

This is not said for myself, but for one whose existence burned bright in the lives of so many others and actually did I believe make a difference; and who I and many believe deserves to be remembered far beyond her years among us.

I’ll write again soon, and try not to ask so many bloody questions, -but- if any of you have any answers…

A Horse A Husband and Cancer is available in paperback and ebook at all online booksellers includiding: Amazon, The Book Depository, and Barnes and Noble. Or ask your indie bookstore to order it.

Book Launch!!

Lilith House Press is thrilled to present Elaine’s irreverent memoir is here at last. Published posthumously, hers was a life lived with unique humor and remarkable passion. Join Mark and Crissi and Anna for live reading and Q&A from listeners.

Starting at Noon Mountain Time this Saturday, October 2nd. London time is 7pm Saturday.

Find us on Facebook, the Lilith House Press page (https://www.facebook.com/lilithhousepress/posts/233381492138153?notif_id=1632937138287687&notif_t=page_share&ref=notif)

This memoir is a celebration in so many ways, join us to cheer this book into the world.

The book and eBook will be available at all online book sellers October 1st.

A Horse A Husband and Cancer: the book.

Our cover reveal! The memoir will be available very soon!

This is not a book about horses; nor is it a book about husbands and it is certainly not a book solely about cancer.

Though that condition is the core reason for this work it does not make this some sort of self-help book for those suffering from this illness or yet another set of pages condoning positive thinking and attitudes to try to overcome despair and fear.

This book leads you through one woman’s fight to stay a step ahead of the silent assassin within. Elaine dug deep within to find her allies and always refused any hint of sympathy from others.

Her deep-seated and dark sense of humour, her even deeper love for me and for her friends and horses helped her to prevail, against the odds, for so long. She was bruised and battered in mind, spirit and body so many times, yet a two fingered salute was all the ground she would give to the cancer.

If you have an interest in horses, husbands or cancer there is something here for you to chew over; but if you want to hear of the unrelenting human spirit even knowing the fight is unwinnable, then read on, there is a feast before you.

-Mark Edsall