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.