Chris had the Shepherd’s Hut made about 5 years ago as a “room of her own.” She decorated it exquisitely on the inside with a kind of post-modern, narrow-boat aesthetic, leaving the outside very plain to belie the cornucopia of delights within.
She loved to snooze in it on summer days and to light the stove and make tea in colder weather. Often, she would lie on the bed to read and sketch in her notebook. I didn’t go in for months after she died but since getting back from holiday, when Ted and I spent 5 weeks cheek by jowl in the camper van, being in a house, even one as small as Folly Cottage, feels a bit strange so he and I sometimes spend the night in the hut.
It caught my eye through the window the other day as I sat at the dining room table in the cottage and over the past few days I wrote this about how it feels to be there now Chris has gone:
We go inside the shepherd’s hut;
the stove is lit, the door is shut;
we lie awake as darkness falls,
our shadows dancing on the walls.
Ted stretches out beside the fire;
he lifts his head a little higher
and looks at me as if to say:
She isn’t here, she’s gone away.
I swallow hard and catch my breath.
What does he know of sudden death?
It’s alright boy, she couldn’t stay.
It’s you and me. We’ll be O.K.
He settles down to sleep, and I,
I hug the blankets and I try
to conjure you from where you are:
my she-bear playing on a star.
Outside, the garden weeps with dew;
all living things are missing you.
Last Tuesday, after a day’s work in Scotland, I caught the overnight train to Euston. It was already past midnight when the Caledonian Sleeper pulled into Stirling. The attendant checked my name against the passenger list and welcomed me on board.
As the train pulled out of the station, I made my way to the passenger lounge and ordered a large whisky (for aficionados, it was a 12 year old Auchentoshan lowland single malt). I sat by the window sipping my solitary drink and looking out of the window, beyond my reflection, into the night. I slipped into a kind of reverie, thinking about how much Chris and I used to enjoy travelling on sleeper trains, especially on holiday.
Sometimes we would go down to Penzance from London on the splendidly named Cornish Riviera Express for a long weekend; once we took our Morgan Roadster to the south of France on the SNCF Motorail. We loved the companionable intimacy of sharing a sleeping compartment, rattling through the countryside, stopping for mail in out of the way stations in the middle of the night, bumping and clanking as the train divided or added more carriages en route.
We would reach across the gap to hold hands if we woke in the night and squeeze ourselves into a single bunk for a cuddle and snooze when the sun came up. Soon we’d hear a welcome knock on the door and the attendant would appear with early morning tea for us to drink in bed as we approached our destination, ready for a new adventure.
A sudden lurch as the train went over some points jolted me back to the present. I caught sight of my tired face in the window. I finished the whisky, went back to my compartment, climbed into the narrow bunk, wrapped myself in the duvet and lay awake most of the night, wishing that Chris was there to share the journey.
No Ted for a week while I travel to Scotland and back to Ashridge for work. He’s staying with Carole and David and I know he’ll be happy there. Even so, I can’t wait to see him next Saturday. We got so close while we were on holiday that I talk to him constantly, providing his answers myself if he doesn’t respond. In Ted’s absence, I miss Chris even more than usual and I lay in bed this morning wishing I could speak with her, feeling very sorry for myself.
Joan Didion wrote in A Year of Magical Thinking that for a long time after her husband died, she unconsciously acted as if he had just stepped outside and would return at any moment. She didn’t get rid of his shoes, for example, because she knew deep down that “he would need them.”
Anyone who has lost a loved one will understand how long it takes for the reality of their absence to sink in. I know Chris has died and that she’s not coming back. It’s just that I sometimes forget that she’s not here. I turn my head to talk to her (always over my left shoulder for some reason) and often I’ve spoken a couple of sentences before I pull myself up short.
On holiday in Brittany this summer I realised the futility of these one-way conversations, so I wrote her a love letter instead. The French postal system was unable to guarantee delivery and found my own way to share it with her. This morning, I wondered if a postcard would have been simpler: nothing fancy, just a Penny Plain.
If I could send a postcard
it wouldn’t have a picture
of children eating ice-cream;
there’d be no saucy caption,
no view of Blackpool tower.
I wouldn’t write to tell you
that the weather here is bracing
or that we’re having fun.
There’d be no newsy scribblings
scrawled upon the page.
No, the message I would send you
is simple and it’s clear:
I don’t know where you are, my love
but I wish that you were here.
There seems to be a reasonable consensus among cosmologists that our universe originated in an event known popularly as the Big Bang in which space-time appeared and expanded, not from a single point outwards but from all points simultaneously.
Many people experienced Chris as just such an expansive force of nature: her restless intellectual curiosity combined with her open-hearted joie de vivre were infectious. In her presence, you could escape the gravitational pull of your own self-imposed limitations. I would say, along with many others, that I am a more caring and creative person, a bigger person, and I hope a better person, as a result of our relationship.
The question I asked myself this morning as I lay in bed, was how do I keep on expanding, now that she has gone? Without her example constantly before me, it’s a real challenge to keep moving and growing, to look to the present and the future as well as to the past. At my lowest ebb, when I’m feeling abandoned and alone, I want to shrink until I disappear.
But, I know that it would be a betrayal of all that she stood for, to fix this moment in my mind as the apogee of my life and do nothing or, worse still, either willfully or by neglect, to allow my universe to contract. So I do what she taught me: I delve into my writing to live more generatively and creatively; connect as best I can with the folk in our various tribes; and try to do “good” work in the world.
And there are still some bright stars in the firmament who invite me to join them in the cosmic game, encourage me to believe that life is still worthwhile, and insist that I don’t play small.
Without them I would indeed be lost.
Ted and I got off the ferry late last Tuesday evening and made it back to Folly Cottage in the early hours of the morning. I unpacked a few essentials from the camper van and crawled into bed at about 2.00am for a few hours sleep before plunging straight into the craziness of work next day.
Later, on Wednesday afternoon, I took Ted to stay at Hydegate kennels (his look of reproach as he was led away still haunts me) and travelled up to the National Exhibition Centre in Birmingham, where I had been asked to run some storytelling sessions for groups of 250-500 at a two-day corporate event.
On the way back, I collected Ted and picked up an Australian friend from the railway station to stay for the weekend. On Monday we had an early start and a long drive to get to Ashridge to examine a doctoral thesis. Yesterday my guest left for London and a few hours later Miche and Flora arrived for supper.
After the tranquility of a solitary five-week sojourn in rural France, this whirlwind of activity has been an extraordinary contrast. Much as I have enjoyed the work and the company of friends, I’ve missed the simple daily routines of life in the bounded world of the camper van, and the time to reflect, write and be with my thoughts and feelings.
But this morning, Folly Cottage is empty, there is nowhere else I have to be and I’m lying in bed in the Shepherd’s Hut with the door open, looking out onto the garden which has become lush and overgrown during the summer, thinking how much Chris would have loved the view. The Rowan tree she planted is bursting with plump new berries; a wood-pigeon is clapping its wings and cooing from the rooftop of the house she lived in for 20 years; and our beloved dog Ted is stretched out beside me, waiting for me to get up and take him for a walk.
Finally we’re home.