ECHOES – PART 3. PAST and PRESENT.

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.

Why?

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.

“Hello-we’re-staying-across-the-road-and-noticed-the-old-meat-safe-in-your-skip-if-you-don’t-want-it-can-we have-it-please-we-might-be-able-to-do-something-with-it-and-you’ll-have-more-room-for-other-stuff?”

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?”

“Other one?”

“Yeah there’s another, still fixed to the wall out back, only going to chuck it anyway.”

“Can I come and see?”

“Sure.”

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.  

ECHOES… Part Two.

Continued:-

It’s a short walk up the road to the car. All okay, no parking ticket so that’s good. I hang around a little just to breathe the air and munch some crisps from a bag in the shopping I’ve on-board from nearly five hours earlier.

Time to go back, but I take the cut through rather than return past the Harbour Hospital. In a few minutes I’m in the pharmacy at Poole.

I sit down and wait, not too hopefully as some of the people waiting were here when I left twenty minutes ago or more. But, after about fifteen minutes Marilyn’s name is called and I collect her drugs; then re-trace my steps to A&E.

It’s very crowded here now. The inner receptionist leaves the safety of her desk and screen to work the keypad allowing me back to bay 4 and Marilyn.

“Busy night?” I say to her as she presses the buttons.

“Always busy nights here” comes the weary reply.

She holds the door for me and I glance back at all the people behind us. It’s a complete cross section of society, old, young, affluent and not so, all here with one common purpose to get help for themselves or a loved one.

There’s been talk of closing this place down, of moving it all to Bournemouth Hospital some miles away, across roads regularly choked with traffic. I can only assume that those proposing this idea have never spent any time in A&E or had to witness a loved one of their own doing so.

We need more of these places not less, funds should always be available for them. Hope is to be found here for so many, and who has the right to take that away from them. Why do we have to suffer so many bloody fools in authority in this country and see so much money wasted by and on box tickers and pen- pushers holding down lucrative non- jobs?

Deep breath Mark, don’t get wound up it’ll only unsettle Mar’.

I’m soon back at bay 4. Marilyn’s pleased to see me, her heart rate is coming down but it’s still a slow process not aided by her growing tension and anxiety. It’s easy for me to forget that she just is not use to this environment whereas I am well baptised in its pace and procedure’s.

I continue to tell her about the last time Elaine and I were here and the people we came across, and promise to read her Elaine’s blog of that night.

Josh has gone off duty and we have a new consultant though I cannot now remember her name.

We both like her, she is very thorough, in- fact the care here is excellent from everyone we deal with. They don’t rush or shout or get flustered but are very professional and re-assuring at all times; I remember it as being like this on previous occasions though everybody is new to me now.

The bay opposite has a new resident, a lady of late middle age who looks to be in a lot of pain. We assume the rather bored looking man with her is her husband. He looks to have lost a lot of weight recently as his clothes are all loose and baggy. She is doubled over on the bed and wants morphine.

“Just need some details first” chirps the young nurse beside her.

A few mumbled replies come to her questions then she addresses the husband, “Has this happened before?”

“Forever” is the tired reply and he busies himself from then onwards with his phone.

Staff come and go and I guess she got her morphine as later she perks up and behind closed curtains a nurse questions her about recent bowel movements, “ No, not exactly runny but quite wet and a lot of bits in it; I’m not usually like that.”

Marilyn and I look at each other, her face tells me she doesn’t fancy a sandwich right now. A just reward awaits he who invents the soundproof curtain.

Our wait continues.

Mar’s heart rate is consistently lower now but does keep rising again especially as she keeps looking behind her at the monitor.

“Stop looking round you’re winding yourself up.”

“I can’t help it Mark, I’m getting so anxious lying here, and I’m getting worried about you now too.”

“Why?”

“I’m worrying about what being here is doing to you. You went through all this shit with Elaine I can’t ask you to go through it with me too. You ought to go, I could call Simon (son) he may be able to come over.”

“Bollocks, I’m not going anywhere till you’re ready to leave. It doesn’t bother me being here; I might have thought it would but it honestly doesn’t. Elaine’s not waiting here for us or me or whatever, like Kilroy- We Were Here- but now we’re not, just me again, this time with you.”

“I bet she’s laughing Mark- “There, your turn now.”

“If she’s laughing then she’s laughing with us- or holding our hands.”

Mar’ smiles over at me; time passes, the monitor keeps flashing its lottery of numbers.

We are silent for a time and I think of Elaine and that full night we spent right here together, so clear in my mind. I was afraid at first that she was dying, that I was going to lose her, the fear so real to me then. How was I to know it would be realised little more than a year later.

Time passes and the patient becomes more impatient and restless.

She is given more tablets and we are told that the x-ray results have come back all clear.

It’s now just after 8pm and it’s become quite obvious to me that Marilyn’s bpm is going to stay on the high side just because of where she is, so I go in search of nurse Maria and explain asking if the consultant might come and see us again soon.

To my utter amazement she joins us only a few minutes after my return.

She studies the monitor in silence for a short while, then kneels beside the bed on a level with its occupant.

“Yes you can go home now but…..”

There is a list of do’s and don’ts plus she carefully goes through the drugs and the dosage Marilyn is to take. This is all addressed mostly to me as she knows I’m the one to remember it all, not the patient; again a role I’m very familiar with. Then we are free to go.

Mar’s off the bed and into her jumper coat and boots in seconds, afraid I think, that there may be a change of mind. But soon we are re-tracing the route I remember so well to fresh air and freedom.

On our way back Marilyn turns her phone on and there are several messages from worried friends. Going to hospital meant cancelling her afternoon shift at the tiny Oddfellows Arms pub in the centre of Wimborne, and word has got around.

Traffic is light and it’s not long before we are back outside her home; it’s been a long afternoon/evening.

Sitting at the kitchen table I go through the drugs and dosage with her and write it all down. She’s not stupid, but it’s easy to get confused once you’re back home, something else I know only too well. Then I take my leave making her promise to call me later so I know she’s okay.

It’s a short journey of a few minutes back home for me. The cats have been shut in as I had expected to be home hours ago. Rita runs about at the prospect of food whilst Sammy ignores me with lofty distain from the staircase.

They get their supper, and after lighting the wood-burner I crack open a beer and sit close thinking on what this day has brought into my life.

How strange it all seems now I’m home. Co-incidence? – to end up in that same place again; or is there some hidden lesson or message in it all waiting to be found? As I’ve mentioned previously Elaine didn’t believe in co-incidence, but the question now is, do I?

A short time ago Marilyn was fine and dandy, now all this. Is it permanent or is it transitory? A warning shot across the bows maybe? “Time is precious un-buyable, constantly running down and then out; don’t waste it or the opportunities it brings with it.”

Elaine and I always tried to make the most of what we had, what came our way. As time pressed on we came to realise its importance, not a conscious decision perhaps, at least not at first, but intuition maybe, ignored at our loss.

Today I didn’t envisage Elaine in bay 4, it was always Marilyn there, and I honestly had no jitters being back in that place once more. My tears outside the Harbour hospital were spontaneous and genuine at that moment; there is no point in forcing emotion that is not present.

But I don’t regret them nor am I embarrassed by them, though it’s nearly two years since I lost her there is rawness still within me; I know there always will be to some extent. Sometimes I may need to scratch it open again, like you would with a scabbed over cut or burn; you know it does little good but you cannot resist that minute of indulgence.

Is time the healer that they say or is that capability within us all along and the moment just has to be right? 

Today’s echoes of and from my life with Elaine have set me thinking.

So much of ‘us’ was given over to time at hospitals that it became a way of life, but even more was spent at vintage and antique fairs. An idea has been hovering at the edges of my mind for a while now, that is, to return to the place of our last ever fair together- the Cornmarket building Devizes -early 2020.

I’m not sure why, I know Elaine won’t be waiting there. Perhaps I’m picking at that scab again but I have to find out. Maybe future time is not the only healer, maybe past time can do it too.

I do know I’ve be afraid of returning to any of our regular venues; afraid I think of what I may find, find within me that is, not in any actual building itself.

I have already checked online; at present there are no longer any vintage fairs being held at Devizes, but there is going to be a craft fair, on a Saturday, late November; we were always there on a Saturday.

It only takes to the end of my second drink, my minds locked in; I’m going back.

To be continued, soon…

It’s that time of year again and I am not sure if the next post will be out before Christmas so I’d like to take this chance to say once more a big “THANK YOU” to you all.

Thank you for staying with the story as it unfolds; I’m never quite sure where it’s going at any one time but it’s moving; somehow I feel in the right direction.

Believe me when I say that writing this and, knowing there are those out there who wish to read it, with or without comment, has been to me as great a help as any individual has in my life since I lost Elaine.

Nearly two years ago now a faceless horror came into my world. We, Elaine and I, always knew that that horror lurked at the threshold of our happiness, but we came to regard it as part and parcel.

Just something that was there, that one day we understood was going to be able to cross that threshold; and one day it did.

In doing so it instigated its own destruction – stupid bastard, but we knew it would never be capable of destroying ‘us’, and it never did.

This should be a miserable time of year for me but, I’m damned if I’ll let the ‘turkeys get me down’ any more. Elaine would swell with pride at my standing defiant and, laughing along with others rather than folding into darkness and constant tears.

I know in my heart her wish across the void would be that I will not forget her and God may strike the light from my soul if I should ever dare- but life goes on, including mine.

Have the best Christmas you can; I’ll be back soon- my love and thanks to you all…Mark.

                                                             ECHOES- part one.

42 West Street, (Re-visited).

Again not the intended post but, as this all occurred very recently, true to the moment; and I’m trying to follow my instincts here.

In 2020 Elaine posted a blog entitled 42 West Street in which she gave a well-observed if somewhat condensed version of an overnight stay we had in the emergency department at Poole hospital a year or so previously.

Recently lightning struck again and I found myself back on familiar ground albeit only for half the original 12 hours plus that Elaine and I endured.

My friend Marilyn had not been feeling too well for a while. She’d had the latest Covid jab, shortly followed by one for the flu but began to feel unwell a few days later. To start with its flu-like stuff, headache, blocked nose, cough etc, but then she noticed her heart was starting to beat erratically and fast.

Her home blood pressure monitor was giving some very strange readings plus showing heart rate often topping 100 bpm. This situation continued for a couple of weeks and the hope was that all would settle down, but though the fluey symptoms did, the heart rate didn’t.

One Thursday morning it’s up to 137 bpm, “It feels like my hearts trying to bounce out of my chest Mark and my breathings getting tight”. I assumed that this wasn’t all down to my close proximity to her and all joking aside I was now becoming concerned, my own senses telling me she’s got a problem.

She has a doctor’s appointment but its two weeks away yet so I suggest a visit to the small A&E unit at our local hospital, but I can tell she is reluctant so don’t push too hard. Still not feeling right the next morning she calls 111 to ask for advice and they question her thoroughly then book her into Poole A&E for that afternoon telling her not to delay.

The first I know of this is when my phone rings as I’m shopping in town about 1pm.  “I know it’s short notice Mark but can you run me into Poole they want me there in 45 minutes time”.

I know her well enough that I can distil the worry from in between her words.

“Of course I will, I’ll come in with you too if you want.”

“Thanks I’d like that”.

I’m a bit of an old hand to say the least when it comes to hospitals, including emergency departments, but Marilyn isn’t; I know she will be anxious and once more the supporting role is mine, but I’m pleased enough to do it.

We arrive pretty much on time, but A&E has changed a bit since my last time here. Mar’ gives her details to a nurse sitting behind a secure screen at the entrance. We are then admitted through to the inner sanctum and give details again to a receptionist behind another screen, we are expected and asked to sit and wait.

There are a couple of seats free together but one has a handbag beneath so I speak to the woman perched close by it, “Anyone sitting here love?”

The mini-skirted figure in long white socks with a shock of blond hair glances up at me and I realise my mistake as he mutters something, grabs up the bag and moves away to a single seat.

 Genuine mistake; but Marilyn doesn’t notice, she is a fish out of water here and looks very uncomfortable.

Minutes later we are called to a tiny side room hardly bigger than a large closet. A cheery young nurse takes details as she attaches a pressure cuff to Mars’ arm. Then she sits down at a keyboard with screen in front.

She’s asking Marilyn what has happened but stops mid-sentence as the read- out hits 150 bpm.

“Oh, this is rather high. How are you feeling now?”

“A bit dizzy”, comes the reply.

“Right I think there’s room for you in re-sus’ I’ll just check”.

Re-sus! I almost say it out loud.

Another short wait then we are ushered through to a large curtain fronted room packed with electronic equipment; a large bed/couch takes centre stage. Mar’ is soon installed here and another nurse begins to wire her up to God knows what. I take up position in the only chair close by.

A doctor introduces himself as Josh. He sports a wedding ring but could easily pass as a schoolboy on his lunch break but, he is very re-assuring and explains clearly all that they are doing.

Mar’s bpm reaches almost 160 and they decide that she is suffering Atrial Fibrillation where the heart can race then slow then race again but for what reason they cannot say.

 Contributing factors are the usual suspects, smoking, drinking, eating the wrong stuff or just getting older but it’s not all relevant here. Marilyn asks if her recent jabs could be the cause, but this idea is quickly dismissed (though a little too quickly we think). The plan is now to administer drugs to gradually stabilise her, but it’s not a quick fix, we are going to be here for a good while yet. If it’s not sorted a stroke can be the result.

But we’re not to stay just here. Marilyn is de-wired and we are taken further into the hospital, it’s now that the Déjà vu hits me. We are led to the small six bay ‘ward’ that is the exact location of the night of 42 West Street. Ours is bay 4, that night three years ago Elaine and I occupied bay 6.

Again Marilyn lies on the trolley/bed and again she is wired-up, the monitor is overhead, she can see it if she turns, I can watch it easily from my solitary chair.

She looks very pale.

They inform us she is to have an x-ray soon to check heart and lungs. This does not improve her mood so I start to tell her of my previous visit here which does help to keep her mind off the present situation. It doesn’t bother me to talk of it, though it does feel strange to be here without Elaine.

Just as before our fellow inmates are a mixed and ever changing crew.

The old girl in bay 2 is yelling into a mobile phone, “They’re getting me a taxi, YES…I’ll be an hour or more. NO,NO I’ve got to get out of here…NO Right Nowww.”

Her voice trails off into a tearful wail, I wonder at her history here; she defiantly sits in a chair at the end of the bed until ‘they’ come for her.

Next to us in bay 5 a middle aged man lies in the bed, I never hear him say a word; a young woman is with him. We see her frequently as she dumps Costa coffee cups and other debris in the bin at our end of the room on a regular basis.

Bay 3 opposite us is empty on our arrival but it’s shortly taken by a woman late 30’s / early 40’s.

There are curtains at the end of the bays, ours are almost constantly open but even when closed none can blot out the sound.

Our new neighbour was having a consultation concerning a lump on her neck when she began to feel unwell and her heart rate skyrocketed.

When questioned about the lump she has been told that it’s not believed to be cancer but they want to remove it anyway. Mar’ and I look at each other at the mention of cancer, our joint sympathies pass across to bay 3 to hold silent solidarity.

She isn’t with us too long though as a gap in the curtain reveals to me her heart rate is over 180 and she is whisked off into the hospital for specialised treatment to slow part of her heart down.

“It’s not pleasant, for a while, but it works”…. I hope it did.

Marilyn was started on some tablets before we left re-sus’ now she is given more; her heart rate is trending down but not very quickly.

Shortly she announces a need for the loo. A new nurse suggests a bed pan, Mar’ looks at me quizzically and I explain.

“No thanks I’ll wait.”

But the wait gets longer so she asks again. This time its nurse Maria who saw us in here; she suggests a wheelchair to the toilet as they are concerned about Marilyn walking, so the patient agrees.

15minutes pass and Mar’ thinks Maria has forgotten, but I know the pace of things here. Then ‘IT’ arrives but it aint no wheelchair. Maria is pushing a portable commode minus the container.

It’s just a metal frame with a loo seat and cover on four wildly spinning castors; cream coloured tubular metal straight out of the 1940’s it belongs in a museum.

Maria apologises whilst trying not to laugh. We do laugh together and out loud. Marilyn has a sense of humour akin to Elaine’s and, she can laugh at herself.

“I’ll keep my foot behind as you get on because there is no brake” says the nurse/chauffer.

I’m almost crying, it’s the first good laugh since we got here. I can just imagine her skating across the ward and being ejected through the window.

“Death by commode” – what a blog that’d make – eat your heart out Elaine.

They return shortly both grinning broadly. This tableau reminds me of a cheap Carry-On film, maybe “Arrival of the Queen of Sheba”… budget version, just wish I’d thought to take a picture, but ‘the queen’ is soon wired-up again and the wait continues.

Another nurse, Oshin, arrives to take Mar’ for her X-ray; they soon return. More waiting, more checks, heart rate still too high; no release until it’s under 100 and staying there. Their concern brings home the seriousness of the situation.

Dr Josh arrives and tells Marilyn she will have to be on medication and blood thinners indefinitely, also he’s going to book her an appointment with the out patients heart clinic.

“Isn’t there any alternative” she pleads.

“Shock treatment maybe, but it doesn’t suit everybody.”

“I’ll go for it if it’s a chance not to have to take bloody pills for the rest of my life” the patient replies.

I can’t help but admire her spirit.

Josh suggests I go to the pharmacy with Marilyn’s prescription which he has brought with him.

“Best to go now, they close at six and they’re short staffed so you’ll have to wait”.

He leaves us and I look at Mar’, “You be ok?”

“Yeah I’m alright.”

Liar I think, but say nothing just squeeze her hand gently and go.

The main hospital has changed somewhat since my last time here but I soon find my destination. I hand over the large paper form and am told there will be a wait of at least 40 minutes.

I guess it’s the nature of the beast, but it is a chance to get some air and check the car as I’m well over time now on the parking.

So I re-trace my steps, stopping to use what must be the smallest toilet on the planet. It’s a squeeze just to turn around. They must have converted a broom cupboard having left the toilet off the original plans. I can’t see how some of the people here would ever fit in, or get out again!

Walking through the new lobby I find myself further down the main road from where we came in. It’s about 5.15 now, virtually dark and it’s been raining. Crossing the road I notice the lights from the traffic and buildings around reflect a constant game of tag across the wet surfaces; new colours flash into life then die in an instant only to be re-born again seconds later.

I walk through the forecourt of the 24hour filling station and into the road behind. Turning right towards the car it’s now that I find myself face to face with the Harbour Hospital; for me it’s like coming home.

Mechanically I walk into the car park and stand looking at this building that I know so intimately. This is where Elaine underwent countless treatments and operations over nearly three decades.

That window above the entrance, her view of the world for two weeks in early ’97 after her second mastectomy and the bi-lateral re-build. She would stand and wave to me as she got better when I left after an evening visit.

To my right the windows of the oncology suites; Studland, Sandbanks etc names never forgotten; we were in them all so many times over and over again.

I have stood for hours watching the cars come and go from those windows. It’s no exaggeration to say that I’ve spent weeks of my life here yet never once been a patient; I know it all so well I could walk the corridors blindfold.

My cheeks are wet but it’s not raining. Emotion has found me off guard and I am stood here freely crying for all the world to see, but I really don’t give a fuck right now who’s looking. I have known the highest and lowest of emotions within those walls. Felt the hopes and dreams of expectations, had them fulfilled and had them dashed once more on the rocks of returning cancer again and again.

My eyes are drawn back to the entrance and I remember that last time I was here, Saturday 19th December 2020, early evening. Elaine was in 24hours for fluid to be drained from her tummy.

For the bloody life of me I will never forget her words as she came out looking so frail and tired;

“Don’t expect too much Mark, I’m not so good.”

She wanted to go home via the Christmas lights in town. Inside, we both knew it would be for the last time. Even now I can’t remember that journey home without the tears flooding my world.

Less than 48 hours later I brought her to the hospice little more than a good stones’ throw from where I’m stood.

The emotion makes me shiver, my heart feels like it could overtake Marilyn’s.

I wonder what it would be like to go through that entrance again, would it help me or drag me down? To pass through those rooms where we held each other close for strength and support so many times, desperate to keep the dream of ‘us’ alive.

I haven’t heard Elaine’s voice since before she died but as I have stated previously I’ve ‘felt’ it inside of me on several occasions. It’s there now.

“You won’t find me or us here, not today not ever. Go back to Marilyn she’s frightened and alone and she needs you more than I do right now.”

There is a lot of me still in this place I know, but now is not the time for going back to re-claim it. One day maybe, but I know from my experience outside the hospice last Christmas that if I ever do go back into this hospital again I will not find Elaine, just echoes of the past, of what has been; memories really and quite frankly, I’ve enough of those to live on right now.

Turning sharply and wiping away the tears I head towards the car.

To be continued…soon.

HOOFPRINTS.

This was intended to be a short intro’ to the next blog but, as has happened before, it kind-of galloped away with me so I gave it its head to see where it went. I’m pleased enough with the destination even more so the ride to get there. Somehow I just needed to write this down, hope you don’t mind reading it.

While I was out driving recently I came by a field of horses. The weather was warm bordering hot, even so some had rugs on whilst others didn’t.

I slowed down and remembered.

White fencing tape, oh so familiar to me, was dividing the space into individual quarters and dancing erratically in a compassionate breeze between its supporting poles.

Most of the animals were mooching about heads down scouring the parched earth in the forlorn hope of finding something green hidden in a sea of brown and beige; two were grooming one another on either side of the flapping tape.

A sea of memories washed over and through me but I had to drive on; later at home those memories returned.

I began thinking back to the various stables I’d known with Elaine. There were several different ‘yards’ during our years together but only really the two horses, Teddy and then Bruce.

She loved them both but Bruce had the edge; Elaine needed him in a different way to any other. Despite the known and unknown problems he came with his presence in her life was a light in the darkness that edged around the last eleven years or so that she lived.

When Elaine and I got together full time I soon came to realise that when you have a horse you are signed-up for life, either it’s or yours depending on fate. It’s pointless owning one if you are afraid of hard work or don’t have access to a bucket of money, (possibly both!).

The bills are relentless:- stabling, bedding, feed, farrier and of course- the vet.

“Got a horse? Let’s face it – it’s gonna go lame”; regularly, from what I remember.

Elaine always worked hard to be able to keep this all going and there is no doubt that she, and then we, went without things that we could have easily afforded had she not kept a horse.

Did I ever resent this? Emphatically – NO!

When you love someone so very much you just want them to be happy. The pleasure she gained from her horses by far outweighed the expense involved or the time taken up. Indeed time was a commodity that Elaine did not squander easily; she knew it was not an infinite luxury and spending it with her horse was almost (I hope!) her favourite pastime.

It was inevitable that I would become ‘roped in’ (pun intended) to this horsey world because there were certain things that Elaine could not easily manage alone, due mostly to treatments she had had or was having.

Stuff such as stable repairs or painting, maybe fences too, also hay and feed to haul and stack, poo picking in the fields, you get the picture.

Even so my wife was a little reluctant to get me too heavily involved at first. She knew I didn’t have any great love for horses, they more than often make me sneeze and itch as do most animals, and I have never in my life even sat on a horse and I can honestly say to do so is not on my bucket list.

(Elaine did once suggest that I have a sit on Bruce whilst she led him, but with no steering wheel or effective brakes- no thanks darling!).

But she was happy when I genuinely came to enjoy our visits to the yard, something we did do occasionally together, though not always. Sometimes I would go alone to carry out repairs or deliver hay etc’ and if Bruce was in the vicinity he would usually come over to lend a hoof or mug me for treats or have his ears scratched; much hand washing followed.

Even I must admit there was a certain presence, a certain something about that horse that made him stand out from the herd as it were. He was intelligent with charisma and personality in spades, people just wanted to approach him and be his friend; he soon became the star wherever he was stabled, something his owner was secretly quite proud of.

When well enough and often when not, Elaine would do all the mucking-out and stable care herself and she really liked to be alone to do it. I came to recognise that many owners treat it as a sort of social thing, meeting others over coffee or tea and having a chat etc but that really wasn’t Elaine’s style, certainly not in the latter times anyway.

In her last few years she worked her visits so as to be alone at the yard if possible; she enjoyed the solitude and the opportunity it gave her to think. Nobody’s fool when it came to the cancer situation she understood that the fuse was getting shorter and was  unlikely to be drawn-out far beyond its time.

How exactly her thoughts ran though I can only guess; the big smile was nearly always back in place when she returned home.

I didn’t understand this solitude thing until a few years back when Elaine was on more chemo’ and too unwell to tend to the stable. Help was to hand with fetching Bruce in and out but not for everything else, so I volunteered my services for stable duties.

Elaine was wary, not that she didn’t trust me, but I think she feared it was an imposition and that somehow sorting horse things was her duty alone. Anyway, she showed me what and how, and while she recovered I became stable orderly for a time.

I too chose to go when no one else was likely to be there, mainly to avoid any criticism of my efforts, and then a strange thing- I began to enjoy it, not so much the work itself but just being alone.

Alone yet with the world all around me, there was a unique satisfaction to it. Sun, wind even rain all brought something special to the table as did the open space and immediate silence. It seemed to free-up my mind and gift me the capacity to think clearly if only for an hour or two.

I remember too the smells of nature caught on the frequent breeze and hanging as unspoken thoughts in my mind. This horsey world, now forfeit to me, is something I would love to re-visit again one day but not yet.

It ended completely when Elaine died but it started closing for us both when Bruce died barely four months before her.

Ever since she had him he had suffered with painful bouts of colic (twisting of and blockages in the gut). He was always a right greedy bastard when it came to food, and in the field he would just eat and eat; often he looked as though he’d been inflated via an airline.

Elaine restricted him where possible, which never enhanced his mood, but especially when the grass was wet as he would get problems often resulting in him collapsing to the ground amid lingering groans, eyes distended pleading for help. Mind you, at many of these moments he seemed to make certain that an audience was on hand to bear witness and dispense due sympathy.

My wife had her emergency kit close at all times and often successfully treated him herself though the vet would be summoned on occasions to administer injections and advice. Once he had recovered sufficiently Bruce would be ready for his evening meal and did not much appreciate it being replaced with a bland bran mash for his own good, (he still ate it!).

Elaine always returned to the stables at night if Bruce had one of these turns to check all was okay. I would often go too if it was dark and nobody else was going to be around; a stable yard at night is so different to one in daylight.

The yard described as Old Roman Farm in Elaine’s book was quite a remote and eerie place with several ancient tomb mounds near at hand; it was the first ‘home’ for Bruce with Elaine. The daytime skies were vast and brooding whatever the weather, and the atmosphere particularly at dusk, brought with it an edginess and a slight contempt for all around and beneath it.

I never did like her returning there alone after dark, and although not an easily frightened person, I know she was always grateful when I volunteered to go with her.

Bruce’s final home was about two and a half miles from ours and a busier place with quite a few people living on site. I rarely had a night visit there but for Elaine they started to become more and more frequent.

The end of Bruce’s life came unexpectedly just over 2 years ago on September 10th 2020.

Two years, it seems longer to me but then time is a bit of a jumble in my world at present, but I can recall that morning only too well.

He’d gone down with colic the previous afternoon. Elaine said she’d sat outside of his stable and was watching him in his field when in her mind she knew something was wrong, he was moving erratically and fidgeting and eventually she fetched him in.

It soon became obvious colic was again the problem, but Elaine wasn’t sure why as the grass was not wet which nearly always acted as the kick-off point.

She treated him and the symptoms eased but not fully and after dinner that night she returned alone to the stables for several hours. When she came back I just knew this time was different, she was quiet and obviously still concerned.

 Elaine knew this horse better than anyone else alive and although she didn’t voice her fears directly to me I felt them none the less and knew also that she felt uneasy leaving him that night.

Next day she left early for the yard.

 I was at home that morning but couldn’t settle to anything. Instinct told me my fears were not unfounded and I decided to call Elaine by 9 o’clock; the phone rang at five minutes to.

“Please come over now.”

“What’s happening?”

“Just come now Mark please.”

Never before had I heard my darling’s voice so small, so lost.

I grabbed boots coat and keys all in one movement and was in the truck before I barely had time to think. Elaine had taken the car as the truck had a broken spring but that was of no matter to me right now.

Two and a half grinding bouncy miles later I arrive, just too late.

Bruce is down in his stable, obviously dead.

I shall never be able to shake the image of my wife kneeling beside him her head and face buried in his neck. She is sobbing fit to burst, the emotion wracking her body like a storm playing with a feather.

The vet, whom Elaine had called very early that morning was left with no choice but to euthanize this magnificent force of nature; it appeared that a section of his gut had effectively died leaving him in great pain and beyond all hope of saving, though they had tried.

It had been Elaine’s unenviable call at the end but she said “Just do it” to save him any more torment. Apparently he went down so fast he almost took the vet with him when she administered the drugs.

I helped my love to her feet and we hugged instinctively; she was desperately trying to stop crying but had just as well tried to stop breathing. I held her close as composure eventually returned; words were superfluous.

After a few minutes she went outside and phone in hand started the process of getting the body removed- ever the practical.

I’m grateful that any others at the yard that morning had the grace and good sense to keep away.

Alone in the stable I said my own goodbyes to the horse who had been such a major part of my life too for the past eleven years. I rubbed his ears as he had always loved and his soft pink nose, still warm.  I can feel that even now.

It was as I went to leave that I saw the green wristband that Anna in the U.S had sent to Elaine with two others and she had attached to Bruce’s headcollar; lying in the bedding it was broken through and I dropped it in my pocket unbeknown to my wife.

I knew then clearly in my mind what I had to do with it, the clarity of it unnerved me at that moment.

 I was to make it whole again and when the time came it would accompany Elaine on her final journey. I remember the fear rising like cold bile as understanding briefly flashed in my mind that I would not be waiting long for that time.

I know now without doubt that I sensed only too well the sands were running low for Elaine and I. Too many things were happening at once with regard to her illness and treatment; I can see it now but know that I desperately didn’t want to see it then.

I know also that Elaine, always previously so pro-active with regard to the cancer, took her eye off the ball in her grief for Bruce.

She thought she’d let him down, that she should have seen what was coming and somehow prevented it. But how?

When logic eventually pushed grief out of the picture cancer had sized its chance and become unstoppable. It would have done so anyway but we might have had a bit more time, the enormity of which will be lost on you who luckily have never stood where we were.

Without words we both knew the situation and naturally and unconsciously started planning.

I’m grateful at the close it was so quick and she looked herself to the end.

And Bruce? Well I miss the old villain still, and I must confess I miss the smells of the hay and the feed and the tack (even sometimes the dung heap!), it all mixed in to make up a complete world now closed to me.

The only thing I don’t miss at present is the solitude; it’s there in spades if I want it but it’s a dead end and like it or not I’m still alive and somehow intend to stay so.

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.