It’s a bright fresh and beautiful morning. The sunrays caressing the wet landscape give everything an edge of unnatural clarity. Every blade of grass seems edged with crystal bringing out the colours of nature as though they had just been created; it is a joy to drive through.
This is a day in waiting since Elaine died, one I knew I’d be facing at some time or another and I want it to be on my terms and not a chance encounter.
It is about fifty miles from home to Devizes. I can’t now remember the first time we did the vintage fair there but it was one of our more recent venues. Our best fairs’ were consistently those in or around London, Kempton being the best of all, but I always enjoyed travelling in the opposite direction (west that is) as it meant not driving mile after mile on boring motorways, and the countryside is so much nicer.
I always drove. Elaine would sit, phone in hand, checking some social network or other, mostly work related stuff but not entirely, especially after she started to write more and more. I remember the light from her phone screen would distract me if it was still dark; oh for that distraction now.
Later we would chat about the day to come and other things or just sit quietly. When you are so close with another there is no embarrassment in the silence.
I have told no one of my plan for today. This is something private to me, but make no mistake it is still a big undertaking.
Well inside of me in my heart and spirit whatever and wherever that is, she is still alive somewhere though I know the physical woman is no more; but since her death I’ve struggled with, resisted even, that fact. Despite the near ever presence of death Elaine was a great force of life (perhaps partly because of it) and since that was taken away I’ve felt an urge to seek it out, see if it’s still present in this world, somewhere we knew together perhaps.
From my experiences over the last two years I know that she’s not waiting in hospice, hospital, burial ground or our home, so what am I looking for today?
Well I’m looking for re- assurance that she was.
That she was my wife, my lover, my world and we actually did share a wonderful life together.
It may sound mad but sometimes I’ve caught myself doubting it. I read once about a man whose dreams were so vivid and real that he couldn’t differentiate between being awake or asleep.
I was living in this house alone when I met Elaine, I’m here alone again but three decades have passed and sometimes it feels like I dreamt the lot away. That by chance I met this fabulous woman and we became friends and fell in love; she came to live with me, we married and had lots of adventures some good some not so, but we were always together there for each other, and then and then…..I spoiled it all by fucking waking up!
I have to know I’m not dreaming now. It doesn’t work at home it’s all too familiar I have to try away from there.
Re-visiting A&E with Marilyn has helped me to grasp this concept; Elaine wasn’t there but the echoes of what had been were, at least they were for me.
That was a chance encounter, today is planned to see if those echoes live elsewhere too. This is a crucible I want to pass through, part of a process that may allow me to live the life I have left in a worthwhile manner, allow me to carry my past proudly before me rather than dragging it like Marley’s chain throughout my remaining years.
We must have done hundreds of fairs in our time. Devizes wasn’t the most lucrative but it was a friendly venue and well run. Elaine sold literally tens of thousands of items in her life, she was a born seller who would have had no problem selling water to a drowning man.
She bought from auctions, boot sales, shops and private calls but was always most pleased when something came her way for free.
I remember as I drive…
We’d been invited to a dinner party near Oxford but there was no room for us to stay so Elaine booked a hotel for the night a short drive away. I don’t recall the town but the hotel was a Georgian building fronting the main road with parking to the rear where there were a number of guest chalets, though our room was in the main hotel overlooking the road.
The road was wide and on the opposite side a row of small houses and cottages one of which had a large rubbish skip outside. We arrived late PM and on looking out of our first floor window Elaine made a discovery.
“Maaark – look on top of that skip is that a meat safe?”
I did look and indeed it was a meat safe, a pine Victorian meat safe.
“They obviously don’t want it” she continued looking up at me, “what do you think?”
I had to agree it was a good chance, but knew from past experience you have to be cautious asking for something others regard as crap or they become suspicious that you know something they don’t – which we did.
We reasoned there was no time now to act, we had to get ready and go and the cottage looked shut up with no car outside; just walking over and taking it would not be such a good idea either as people were about in the street and technically it was still another’s property.
Returning late that night we decided we would sus’ out the situation next morning.
We were first down for breakfast, the dining room facing the road; as we ate a car drew up next to the skip the sole occupant going into the cottage.
Elaine could barely contain herself; breakfast was hurried and no other guests had appeared as we crossed the road to try our luck.
She knocks the door as I hover by the skip. A rather bemused looking man appears and Elaine fixing him with a beaming smile hardly gives him chance to think.
He looks from her to the skip then me then back to her, she is still fixing him with that smile.
“Yeah…. yes take it if you want, fine by me but it’s a bit knocked about.”
“Oh thank you so much, my husband’s good at repairing things he’ll soon sort it out.”
She moves towards me when, “Do you want the other one as well?”
“Yeah there’s another, still fixed to the wall out back, only going to chuck it anyway.”
“Can I come and see?”
He turns back indoors, Elaine looks at me eyes wide I motion her to leave the door open as she follows our would-be benefactor into the cottage.
She’s soon back.
“It looks good, bit smaller than this one, he’s going to unscrew it.”
Five minutes pass, then another five and again; loud noises and ill muffled swearing filter through the building to us, Elaine goes to investigate.
She returns in a minute or so. “He’s got it unscrewed from the wall but it seems to be fixed to the floor too.”
Another ten minutes and he appears, hot and sweaty, carrying a slightly smaller version of the first one though it’s a bit more battered, but Elaine is pleased and thanks him profusely as she takes it from him.
He still looks bemused as each with our separate prizes we turn back to the road.
Traffic has built-up considerably and as we wait kerbside we both look over to the hotel. It seems that near everyone is now down for breakfast and that we are the object of their collective interest.
Many eyes follow as we negotiate a path across the road. They continue to do so as we make our way along the side of the building into the blind spot of the car park.
We think it’s over but no, the chalets all seem to be changing guests and we now become the subject of their scrutiny and whispers as we walk the gauntlet to our pick-up truck at the far end of the car park.
Setting down our goods we each automatically go either side of the back and begin unfastening the cover. Elaine starts to laugh and smiles smugly over at me.
“Sod them, they can have their amusement, these two are going to pay for most of this trip.”
And after a few ‘skilful’ repairs, they did.
Other fun times spring to mind as my odyssey continues and then suddenly I’m on the outskirts of town; Devizes, not a large place but very pleasing to the eye, I would recognise it had I just been dumped here.
The road curves into the town centre the Corn Exchange appearing on my left and I turn down the road beside it, following along and into the car park left again as the shallow hill levels out.
‘Our’ parking space is vacant, waiting, so I back in and switch out the engine; didn’t realise I’d been holding my breath as I exhale deeply. Last time I was here Elaine was alive, how often in my remaining days will I go somewhere and that thought occur to me.
I sit in silence for a while; there’s not many people about and thankfully no one takes any notice of me, but I’m not here to sit so I go buy a ticket for the car then walk my way back uphill towards town.
I go via the far side of the road, not the familiar steps through the car park (I’m not sure why) and soon I am alongside the Corn Exchange building.
The blue side doors, that’s where we unloaded and loaded again later. Parking out front is limited so many of us had to double park and work quickly. It didn’t seem so much like fun then why do I remember it as such now?
I walk to the entrance, everything feels so familiar, and without hesitation I go straight on in. The foyer is busy but I carry on into the main hall. It’s not too crowded and although it’s a craft fair it could easily be a vintage one, the stalls are colourful and glittering many heralding the coming festivities of Christmas and New Year.
We always had the same spot nearly opposite the inside of those blue doors.
A young woman occupies it now. She’s selling hand knitted goods which all look very bright and cheery; she stands knitting and smiles warmly at those passing by.
Maybe it’s her smile that triggers it, Elaine always smiled, I can’t rightly say but suddenly it’s the vintage fair again just before opening.
Elaine is stood phone in hand taking pictures of her stall, meticulously set up to best effect. She walks around for different angles and shots to go on Facebook etc later on. She has crammed as much as possible into the available space; each object seems to flow seamlessly into the next, the colours some vivid, some fading with years vying with one another for the beholders eye. Solid memories of the past to hold today.
My heart melts.
Opposite is our great friend Lynne, her stall as ever a stunning array of wonderful items and desires arranged to tempt the senses. To our side the couple who sell mostly Art Deco pieces, all beautifully restored.
I’m just fetching a cup of tea for Elaine from the small kitchen. As I stand and watch myself in such a familiar role, I want to call out; “Hold her you fool and don’t stop holding her ever; there’s so little time left, make every second a prisoner, make every second a lifetime, make every second for ever!”
A passage from Dickens A Christmas Carol comes to mind; “These are but shadows of the things that have been, they have no consciousness of us.”
Elaine is smiling, chatting to other stallholders, putting down her tea and forgetting where she’s left it, laughing with Liz about the music playing in the background, looking forward to the day.
As I watch the vision fades, and feeling totally alone no one notices as I blot away a tear that’s claimed freedom from the corner of my eye.
I would give a lifetime just to hold her once more, just for moments to turn back the clock and live it for real all over again; but if I’d had the certain knowledge of today back then would I have acted differently towards her and would those actions somehow have spoiled that which we did live and enjoy together?
Cradling my heavy heart I walk around the hall for a while then leave and take a few turns around the town visiting many of the shops and places that I used to; not much has changed.
Later I return to the fair and after buying a small knitted Christmas stocking decoration from ‘our’ stall I claim an anonymous corner to stand and think.
Has today been worth the journey?
Yes without doubt I believe it has. I did not come here looking to lay any ghosts; just as well as I didn’t find any. What I did find, much to my comfort now I think about it, is that the past is still somehow available in the memories and the echoes that are all around us.
They can be seen and heard and more importantly felt if that is what you want at a given moment; available to be ‘tapped into’ especially should you return to where they first had life and were known as the present.
Should I return, even if years pass, they’ll still be here just as bright and real as the memories on her stall.
Wherever we were together the echoes of what was live on, to be ‘listened’ to again or maybe just remembered. Elaine is still alive to me in them but I must learn now that standing still and ‘listening’ for too long will not help me to move forwards in life. Elaine can no longer move but I have to or the unchangeable past will overwhelm my present time, take it over if I let it; and should that happen I will become the victim having forged my love into the bullet and Elaine would not easily forgive me.
“You’re going to have to move on Mark, in everything I mean. You’ll have to be strong, or you won’t be able to live.”
Her words in the hospice coming back to me.
Driving back that afternoon I think on how it’s nearly two years since I lost her. There will be no more fairs together just undying echoes of the ones that were. I’m trying to be grateful for what we did have rather than be bitter for what wasn’t, but must admit that it is not always easy to do so.
Somehow I must now learn to trust and loosen my foot off the brakes; trust that there is a road ahead for me to travel even though I cannot see it too well.
It might not be clear but at least I’m pretty sure now that it is there waiting for me to begin a new adventure. Allowing myself to do so is now the difficult part.