Wednesday, 11 April 2018

Decisions . . . . .

and how to make them?

I don’t know how you would feel, but I find it very hard to make any at all since Beloved died. Being the only one to decide on major life changes is complicated; when there are two of you - preferably not more than two, otherwise there will be three or more different opinions - you can talk, sometimes for days, weeks, months, but eventually you will sort out problems and find solutions that suit both of you. With luck and goodwill.

I’ve had an unpleasant head cold since Friday afternoon, which fast turned into a chesty one. The kind of cold that you catch as if it were “thrown at you” as my mum used to say, without warning. All the cold remedies on the medicine shelves are long out of date, I haven’t had a proper cold for two years, but I am using some of the ones whose sell by date was sometime last year rather than two years ago. After all, can aspirin/paracetamol - the main ingredient - or sickly sweet cough syrups ever lose all their potency?

For two days I stayed indoors, barely washed and never got out of my pyjamas. A friend kindly bought my Saturday paper when he went for his own, waddled Millie along the drive - that’s Millie waddling, not my friend -,  and on Sunday a neighbour offered to take her for a quick walk. I was grateful but I should have turned her offer down, because this lady walks at a fair lick and Millie does fifty meters at fifteen minutes. And even then she has to have a little sit down on the way. She came home limping badly.

So Sunday night we were both feeling very poorly indeed. Millie woke me from a light, snuffly, snoring doze when she collapsed against the bedroom door as she tried to turn over. Obviously, I got up and calmed her, both of us lying on the floor. Whereupon, and not for the first time, it hit me. “What if something really serious happened?” You know what I mean, something serious enough to cause an injury which leaves you unable to get to a phone. And even if you get to the phone, whom can you ring for help in the middle of the night?

My mind flips from one side to the other. Do I sell, do I stay, do I find somewhere smaller, less isolated? Nearer a bus service, a train station, the shops, a cinema, a theatre? No point moving closer to my son’s town, he’ll be moving home himself again soon. I’ve even looked at residential retirement facilities, small one or two bedroom apartments, but there I’d probably live in close proximity with people a lot less mentally and physically active than I am.

I simply cannot come to any decision; could that mean that decision making is not a good thing at the moment? I’ve been feeling better again yesterday and today, have chatted with people, been to the gym, done some gardening - that always makes me want to stay put. Nowhere else would I get a location like the one I have now, no other home could be as comfortable as mine, the home I’m used to. So why move? Because of the comparative isolation and the larger than necessary house and garden, of course.

So, round and round in circles I go.

If I stay, I must do some decorating. If I leave, decorating will be a waste of time and money, not to mention the upheaval, the mess, the inconvenience. But moving house makes for upheaval, mess and inconvenience. And huge expenditure.

Perhaps it’s time to stop fretting and continue as I am, for now. Or, perhaps it’s time to make lists of pros and cons, weigh up things, get in touch with the professionals for estimates, house valuations, find help like the old-fashioned companions rich old ladies employed. Sadly, I am not a rich old lady. Besides, I am far too young for a companion.

Perhaps the solution is indeed to get organised, collect information, then evaluate and make those lists of pros and cons. How pathetic it all is. Help! I'm beginning to bore not just you but me too.

Tuesday, 3 April 2018

One year on . . . .

. . . . and last month I hit rock bottom. Just as that heart specialist (how apt, ‘heart 'specialist) told me a year ago, that the end of the first year would be hardest to cope with. I’ve barely been able to rouse myself to do anything at all, off my own bat, that is. When other people have encouraged me to do things I’ve given in and done them. But as soon as I’ve been out from under their well-meaning efforts I crawled back into my cave. The weather was awful too, cold and damp and wet, with snow and ice for a week twice, which meant that I couldn’t even get out of the garage and drive to a supermarket. Did I feel sorry for myself? Not really, it was more a dull ache, a feeling of loneliness and abandonment. TV, books, chocolates and wine were my constant companions, but even they didn’t do much to lighten the mood. I wonder what I’d’ve been like without those crutches.

What I need is a passion. I have friends who sing in choirs, work in spite of being in their late sixties and seventies, endlessly help with grandchildren, work on village committees and church affairs, run all sorts of do-gooding charities. None of these activities tempt me. Not for the moment, anyway. I’ve said it before, I am not a joiner. My voice is a croak, proper work has long left me behind, my grandchildren are grown up. I’ve been on committees in the past and hated it. Quiet, behind the scenes charity is more my bag than noisy, front of house, ‘look how hard I work and how marvellously I run the show’ charity. I have to admit, if anything were down to me it would probably not get done. Or get done without fanfare.

So, how do I get a passion? Gardening was once one, I’d love to start again when the weather improves. In fact, last week I already did a full morning’s work and several short spurts and paid for it. No matter, easy does it. I have gone back to the gym after a break of a couple of weeks, worked out and paid for that too. Aches and pains are the natural outcome for sudden onset of physical jerks by the elderly.

I kid myself that going back to college would do the trick, retrieving my failing memory of Medieval European history, for instance, but blame living in the sticks for non-availability of any academic, interesting courses. Perfectly true. Online courses don’t quite answer the need for human interaction.

It’s only been a year, perhaps it’s still early days and I should not feel guilty for my lack of enthusiasm and my inability to ‘look on the bright side’. Positivity, Arghh.

There is the theatre, of course. I had a couple of injections of stage dust. First, "Imperium, The Cicero Plays," a seven-hour, two part version of Robert Harris’ trilogy about the rise and fall of Cicero, the Roman lawyer and politician. (Robert Harris described it as ‘like the West Wing in togas’). We stayed overnight at a delightful boutique hotel dead opposite the theatre, which allowed us to do some shopping in Stratford, an interesting town quite apart from the Shakespeare connection.

Then came ‘Macbeth’. Shakespeare’s bloody tragedy of greed, ambition and lust for power is everywhere at the moment. We saw the RSC version with Christopher Eccleston (ex Dr. Who) and Niamh Cusack.

Both plays are gripping, of course, but hardly a bundle of laughs. What is it they use in theatres for blood? There is such a lot of it in Macbeth. Barely anyone left standing at the end of the evening. Sitting in the front row I got sprayed with what I assumed was meant to be snowflakes during the final fight between Macbeth and Macduff; the stuff stuck to my black cashmere jumper and wouldn’t come off. It has now, without any brushing. Clever people, back stage personnel.

We also went to the opera: the Mid Wales production of ‘ Eugene Onegin’. The opera combines Pushkin’s compelling and heart-breaking story with Tchaikovsky’s sweeping lyricism in a stunning exploration of love, death, (more death) life and convention. Filled with breath-taking arias including Tatyana’s great letter scene and one of my personal favourites, Prince Gremin’s aria, the tale contrasts the simplicity of country life with the sophisticated excesses of Russia’s pre-revolutionary court and tells of the fated love between the innocent Tatyana and the world-weary cynic Onegin.


In spite of Mid Wales Opera being very much a provincial company and the orchestra being reduced to one representative of each instrument for lack of space in the pit, the evening was a success, as we told a lady with a pad and pencil taking notes of what we said. Is that how reviews are written? Get hold of audience members standing around after the performance and take down their freshly received impressions? We didn’t realise we had attended the first night.

Although the opera made for a pleasant evening, much more memorable was the meal beforehand in a pub/hotel in the centre of this small Welsh town just over the border from England. The place was heaving, very noisy, with beefy young men milling about everywhere. One giant TV screen was
showing an important rugby match between Scotland and England, (The Six Nations Championship is an annual international rugby union competition between the teams of England, France, Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales. The current champions are Ireland, having won the 2018 tournament.)

These for the most part young Welshmen bellowed their approval every time Scotland had an advantage,  (I don’t know the rules of rugby) and their dislike of and disdain for the English team couldn’t have been expressed more clearly. We were just barely half an hour away from the English border; amazing how much animosity there exists between some Welsh and the English. I had a taste of that myself once when an elderly Welsh lady pushed me and Beloved off a bench on the promenade at Aberystwyth by shuffling closer and closer, first to the middle, and then to our side of the bench. We gave in gracefully.

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Trying to Stay Cheerful . . . .

but it's not easy in the depths of winter, at this late stage in the season. I had a post planned about the turf wars breaking out among the more aggressively territorial birds, like blackbirds, thrushes, robins et al. Every morning before break of day a thrush sat in the very top of the tall conifer in the garden and shouted out her war cry to all and sundry :”this is occupied land, enter my territory if you dare.” The thrush has been absent for days now, not a peep out of her. The icy Siberian winds, bringing heavy snow and the nastiest weather for years, frightened even the hardiest bird species. Instead of heralding spring they have been squabbling on and around and under the feeding stations. Twice every day I went out to feed them and clear some patches of snow for the ground feeders. It’s been a losing battle. Warmer temperatures are on their way. Hallelujah!

This is a country full of weather watchers, The leading news stories have all concerned themselves with travel conditions, weather reports, endless pictures of people stuck on the roads in cars and lorries, on trains halted midway through journeys, unable to move. Surely, if you don’t use winter tyres or chains, you stay at home when snow is falling in such quantities as we had this past week? And if you have to make your journey, surely you take shovels and blankets and hot drinks and other life saving equipment? As well as said winter tyres and chains? Nah, let’s all complain about the authorities not doing enough to stop the snow.

Anyway, I feel better now. Besides, I think I air this rant every winter.

So, staying cheerful. The more I am cooped up at home the less active I become. I’ve been binge watching ancient episodes of The Big Bang Theory, until I want to chuck something at the screen when Sheldon is at his most opprobrious and the others just humour him and fall in with his wishes. Even Penny just sighs and rolls her eyes.

I have also been binge eating chocolate. It feels like my waistband is shrinking. It can’t be my waist expanding, can it? TBBT, chocolate and frequent warming, calorific snacks, hours reclining in a large, comfy chair, occasionally nodding off for forty winks, none of these promote healthy and active cheerfulness. Ah yes, the gym was meant to provide for that. But guess what, I haven’t been to the gym for a good two weeks, partly due to other engagements and partly due to my car being stranded in the garage.

I had started to enjoy the gym, there is something addictive about regular exercise; the thing is if you, for whatever reason, stop going, the addiction wears off and lethargy sets in and you have to fire yourself up all over again. Tuesday and Friday morning old biddies and old chaps go and use the treadmills and stand bikes, medicine balls, weight training machines and lots of other apparatus whose names escape me. There we all are, turned inwards, counting squats, stretches, pulls and pushes, knee bends, etc.; the fitness instructors give you exercises and homework to do, so many of everything, and we perform, silently, lips moving with the effort of counting, breath getting shorter and muscles beginning to ache.  A friend and I were sitting on two adjacent bikes, both pedalling madly, like a couple in a two seater pedalo on a boating lake. Except that we were going nowhere.

Reading has helped to pass the time; there is a pile of unread books awaiting my attention but, instead, I searched for something utterly enchanting on my shelves. Quite unexpectedly, I lit upon the small row of Michael Innes’ crime fiction; I think nowadays these stories would be called 'cosy mysteries’. Innes’ real name was J.I.M. Stewart, he was an academic and serious writer of literary criticism, but his crime fiction is a delightful mixture of crime, erudition, adventure and a charming picture of an imaginary England which, if it was ever real, disappeared between the wars. I chose ‘Christmas at Candleshoe’, an amusing tale, beautifully told, of some eccentric country folk, and a gang of boys prepared to defend the dilapidated manor and its nonagenarian owner against all comers, particularly a group of shadowy thieves bent on removing long buried treasure. The book reads as if it had been a pleasure to write, with Innes indulging himself gleefully. I shall reread the others I have by and by. I am looking forward to reacquainting myself with Sir John Appleby next.

Monday, 19 February 2018

This and That


As I’ve said before, I now accept more or less every invitation extended, in fact I appreciate it when people include me. We always went to every social occasion as a couple, so being invited on my own is flattering and heart warming. I assumed that Beloved was the attraction, and that I simply came as the lesser part of the package.
Not so? Maybe.

However, I tend to gravitate towards widows more than couples in my own invitations. In the olden days I never saw widows as ‘widows’, just as women on their own. There is always a slight feeling of unease when it comes to couples; even the most friendly ones. Is it perhaps that the new widow reminds them that it could happen to them too and they’d rather not face up to the possibility? Is it that we’d rather push the thought away as far as possible? After all, as my son said “it really doesn’t bear thinking about.” Beloved and I thought about it a lot during the last couple of years but it still didn’t feel ‘real’; not until it happened.

Being with other widows is easy. Of course, we talk mainly about the person we lost, and how we lost them. Perhaps we repeat ourselves at each meeting, that doesn’t seem to matter. We go into detail about the final illness, what the doctors said, what the children did or said, how shattered we felt, how grief is all pervading and how hard it is to pick up the threads of life afterwards. We all share that knowledge and understand. Spending time with other widows is easy and healing.


The other day I came home after a lovely long and chatty lunch with one of these widows. I was feeling relaxed and, after chewing the fat for several hours, I was ready to sit quietly and put my feet up back home. Before I reached the front door I was stopped in my tracks by a tremendous din outside the gate into the castle grounds. Those of you who pay attention to such matters know that my hedged boundary marches with an open expanse of greensward which is used by dog walkers and tourists visiting the castle. I rushed to the gate, the row really was fearful, with screaming and shouting and high pitched dog yelping. Lorna’s greyhound was attacking a smaller dog as well as Robert, its owner, both of them howling in pain and anger. Lorna was some distance away, but a friend walking with her was nearer my gate; looking down on the fracas I saw the greyhound turn away from Robert and his dog and run back to Lorna. Everybody was shouting by now, me included. As the greyhound reached Lorna she began to beat him with the doubled lead, viciously, with all her strength. Now the greyhound howled too. Seeing the carnage I screeched for Lorna to stop, which was the signal for her friend to screech at me. I couldn’t make out much of what she said but “you don’t know what happened, mind your own business” came across loud and clear. Lorna was still beating her greyhound and I was frantic to make her stop but Lorna’s friend screeched all the louder the more I tried to bring Lorna to her senses. Nobody paid any attention to anybody, all was uproar and noise. Perhaps it’s a good thing that there’s a steep bank between my gate and the path below where all this was happening otherwise I’d have rushed down and beaten Lorna with her own dog lead. And might have been had up for assault and battery myself.

By now Robert had picked himself up, gathered his badly bleeding dog, examined his own thigh which showed a deep bite and, cursing Lorna and swearing to involve the police he went off.  Apparently, this was the second time the greyhound had attacked Robert’s dog. This story was quickly all over Valley’s End, with everybody taking Robert’s side.

Lorna is a mad woman, everybody says so. In the evening she came ringing my doorbell, ostensibly “to apologise for her friend screeching obscenities at me” but really to convince me that she ‘has never beaten a dog before’  - not true acc. to consensus around the village - and that Robert only got bitten because he came between his dog and the greyhound. Some excuse! The greyhound is out of order and needs muzzling and training, not beating. According to Lorna he ‘fully understands that he has done wrong and equally understands that’s why I beat him” .  Did I say she is generally considered to be mad? When I remonstrated with her, pointing out that animals do not reason, she calmly said 'we must agree to disagree’.

The greyhound is still roaming unmuzzled, Robert’s and his dog’s wounds are healing, incurring hefty vet’s bills and some painful treatment for Robert, and the police have indeed been involved. Robert is grateful ‘for all the support he has received in Valley’s End’ and Lorna is licking her wounds, still promising to all who want to listen that she will do everything to keep her dog under control. So far nothing has happened. The next fracas is only just around the corner with everybody saying “what if it's a child being attacked next time?”.

Thursday, 8 February 2018

It’s Official, I’m Old

Opening the five-bar gate from the field into the castle ground to take Millie for a much truncated walk on one of these very cold afternoons we’ve been having recently I heard what sounded like a whole school class of small children, all chattering at the tops of their voices. I was wondering what the teacher could be thinking of to bring them out into the bitter wind of the shelterless castle grounds on such a day. Small children without diligent supervision are notorious for leaving their coats unbuttoned and losing gloves and hats.

I slid the gate catch back into its groove, turned round and started the climb up the hill, Millie preceding me at her very sedate pace. At the same time the ‘school class’ appeared on the path at right angles above me, i.e., one mum holding the hand of a very small child, one small and very lively spaniel, and a curly-haired, blond cherub bombing along ahead, perhaps between three and four years old. It was he who was making the racket. His treble pierced my eardrums. He saw Millie and a high-pitched squeal greeted her dignified presence.

“O look Mum, another dog. It must be really old. And there’s a lady with him. She's really old too.” That was me assessed, judged and dismissed, all in the space of seconds. The castle called. But did he have to be quite as sharp-eyed as he was? After all, I was wrapped in a Michelin man coat and furred hood and almost invisible.

Mum turned and giggled with embarrassment.

Out of the mouths of babes comes wisdom and truth.

Thursday, 1 February 2018


How do you read? Not so much which kind of books - although that comes into it - but how deeply and with how much concentration do you read? At a recent supper party there were nine of us (me making the odd number) and the talk turned to books when I casually mentioned, that when I passed his house, I frequently saw one of the guests sitting in his window seat reading, usually in the morning. I was absolutely not making a value judgement, the man is retired and he can please himself what he does and when he does it. So books it was. The fellow guest, call him Roger for now, said that he enjoyed leisurely mornings after walking his dogs and reading was his preferred occupation. As it is mine.

“What is it you read”, someone asked. "Any favourite authors? What are you currently reading?”
The sort of questions anyone asks when it comes to discussing books.

“I hardly know,” Roger said. "I just read and read, very fast, one book down and another started. I really am a very fast reader. Ask me what I’ve read and I find it hard to tell you.” I know from discussing books with Roger’s wife that both of them tend to go for thrillers, fantasy and blockbusters. Roger is an intelligent man, has successfully held down an important and well-paid job in business, and is an active member of the Valley’s End community. 

Everyone at the table tried to keep a straight face as Roger was digging himself deeper and deeper into his reading matter hole. I saw an embarrassed smirk appear on the face of his table neighbour who is a writer herself. His wife, sitting opposite me, was trying to shush him, obviously feeling that he was showing a side of himself that didn’t reflect well on them. Roger plowed merrily on, oblivious of the reaction around the table.

When Roger stopped to draw breath, the host’s son, who had cooked us an excellent meal providing equally good and plentiful wine, (possibly partly the reason for Roger’s lack of inhibition and poor self-awareness) intervened by saying “I am a very slow reader, very slow indeed. I even leave gaps between books. Mind you, I usually remember what I’ve read; titles, authors, content, message, if there is one, and the impression the book has left on me. But, as I said, I am very slow about it."

Lucky you, I thought. Although by no means a Roger type of reader, I frequently forget the names of authors, titles of books, although I can usually put a story to the memory of a book. Since Beloved’s death I have been an avid reader, even more so than previously, going for slighter and lighter stories rather than sad and tragic ones, and yes, I have, at times, been reading the comfortable kind of thriller which demands little attention. The only thing I insist on is that the writing is good and the editing has been done carefully. And I can foresee a time when more nourishing fare will be on the reading menu again. In fact, my diet is already becoming more substantial.

What’s the point of reading like Roger? Surely even a rubbishy novel has to offer more than instant gratification, a mere way of passing the time? Too many writers produce the same story over and over again, no wonder the people who read them can’t keep track. I went into a bookshop the other day, the first time since I have had the cataracts removed from both eyes, just “to have a look”. I was planning to get rid of some books, not buy more, but, alas, that’s easier said than done; I bought a small pile, not a blockbuster among them. The gift of renewed eyesight is just too precious to waste it.

By the way, I was also going to express my appreciation of my hosts at this dinner: they asked me on my own and did not feel it necessary to provide me with a table partner. Thanks very much!

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Yet More Rumaninations

An old acquaintance's funeral was held today and although I promised the person who told me of the death that I would present myself punctually at 2pm at St George’s I failed miserably to keep my promise. At 96 the friend was old indeed, his wife died several years ago and he had been in a nursing home for some time. I have yet to formulate a reasonably valid excuse; suffice it to say that it’s been a cold and miserably wet day, with snow and rain, the church itself is bitterly cold, there are always people in the congregation who are nursing winter chills and flu, apt to pass them on, funerals rarely do the deceased justice, and they are no longer on my list of must-attend occasions, particularly the formulaic Church dos, except in the case of people who matter to me. Call me what you like, weak-kneed, lazy, mean, selfish, all of those could apply.

Nowadays I find it hard to force myself to do things I don’t want to do. Perhaps I don’t try very hard? And I really, truly, definitely, do not mind if nobody comes to my funeral, which is going to be a very basic, simple and quiet affair.

In Victorian times things were very different; they shrouded grief in elaborate and complex rituals.

The depth of the band on a man’s hat and  the width of a black border on a piece of writing paper indicated to the world the precise stage that mourning had reached. Whether this made sorrow any easier to bear is debatable. Perhaps all that can be said of these fashions in mourning is that their intricacy kept people occupied when they most needed to be and provided an elaborate facade behind which to conceal their sorrow.” (Debrett’s Etiquette)

Lately I have started to think of the future. It’s still very hazy and rather than making plans for what I might want to do, I have clearer ideas on what I certainly don’t want to happen: having lost the most important person in my life I do not want to replace him; there will never be an unconditionally welcoming space within friendly arms again, all I can hope for is a companionable hug from a male or female friend to say ‘hello’ or ‘goodbye’. There are advantages to living on one’s own, i.e. without a co-habitee, house sharer or lodger. We cannot know what the future holds but I prefer not to have my space invaded, I prefer to be without a dependent being, or someone who tries to look into my mind and soul. I do not want to be disturbed or disarranged, and I do not want to be a caregiver again. I have brought up two children, taken care of my parents in their final years in different ways and looked after and cared for Beloved’s every need in his last year. I tell myself that I would love to be able to take care of him still, but I am not sure how keen I would be as his illness and confusion progressed into total disability. As it would have done had he lived. I miss him dreadfully, but maybe ten months later I see him more as the man he was before he fell ill.

Today I can make up my mind about what I want to do and when and how and why I want to do it. I don’t need to make compromises, I can arrange every day as I want it. Not an unalloyed pleasure, of course, it is a privilege which could easily bring loneliness and boredom and a descent into self-absorption. One can have too much of a good thing, as they say. I expect with time will come a way of finding activities that will fill the empty space.

I am not done with mourning. Strangely, grieving for Beloved has stirred up the pain of old losses. I find myself missing my parents all over again, thinking of them and their way of departing this world; I am even mourning the loss of my home country, something I have only ever done in the shape of temporary Heimweh. (Home sickness is not entirely the same) I also mourn the loss of my daughter who is alive and well, but lost to me all the same. I mourn my callow youth, the loss of friends here and in the old country and I mourn opportunities I missed and roads I have not taken.

Perhaps, with grief not as deadening and all-encompassing as it was, with finally accepting Beloved’s death and learning to come to terms with it, a period of calm reflection will bring relief and renewed hope for a bearable future. Darkest winter must turn to spring eventually.