Funeral for a Friend

A picture Rob did for me in the days when Facebook had Graffiti

Four years today my friend Rob died and I went to the cemetery to visit him today. As always his grave was coloured with fresh flowers and his parents had put a cross up with a photo of him which was different to the one on his gravestone, which shows him with his irrepressible grin: this picture is gentle and pensive, as if he knows he hasn’t got long left. I felt his eyes watching me the whole time as I gave him a plant and talked to him. It was very cold but I didn’t want to leave. The air felt thin and brittle. My shoulderblades were prickling; my eyes wouldn’t.

It is the same every year. On the anniversary of Rob’s death I start feeling very claustrophobic and prickly, as if I’m too big for my skin. I got the same feeling a year to the day that my friend Fred died. I feel disturbed and unsettled, not sobbing or weeping, but feeling like a dog who can’t get comfortable on her blanket. I feel that something unidentifiable is prodding me, rubbing against my skin, scraping it and making it bleed.

In October 2008 my friend and colleague Steve died in a motorbike accident. It was a huge shock and tragedy: a huge loss of a great man. Two weeks later Rob drove into a tree on his way home, and he held on for another fortnight in hospital before he died. My precious gecko Dexter died in February 2009 and a week later Fred killed himself. A month after that another friend and erstwhile colleague, Paul, was killed in a helicopter crash.

To misquote Frank Sinatra, it was not a very good year.

After all those bereavements, things became difficult. I began sleep-walking, developed acute anxiety and had memory lapses. I had to call people moments after speaking to them because I couldn’t remember our conversations or if we had even spoken. It was a very odd time. After Dexter, even before Fred and Paul, I felt something had literally cracked inside me and I couldn’t function in quite the same way. I cried constantly – a programme featuring Gordon Ramsey killing an octopus made me burst into floods and my stomach was constantly clenched in dread of something unnameable. I feared death and ruined a potential relationship because I was convinced that he too, like my friends, would die. I learned to dread the words ‘I’ll see you soon’ because they had been said so many times and they had been innocent lies.

To fight off the veil of depression I felt drawing over me, as grey and thick as dusk, I had a huge party for my 30th in the July of 2009 which reminded me how good things could be, and how many wonderful people were still alive for me to love. It was a celebration of life when I really did feel ‘in the midst of death’. The bright blue of my dress, the hectic glitter of the disco lights, the frantic heartbeat of the music; all ephemeral, touching the senses briefly, but the warmth of the 80-odd people gathered in the village hall has stayed with me always and lit a candle in me which has never been extinguished, despite the dark days and nights which followed.

Lots has changed since then. I still am quite an anxious person, but I always was. I’ve accepted that my friends are gone, as much as anyone can. I don’t think you ‘get over’ things but you do learn how to live with them. The hole in the road doesn’t disappear but you learn to walk around it, acknowledge its presence and continue on your journey. I remember when Rob died telling friends at the gym that I would rather be feeling so dreadful, having known him, than be spared grief, and never had his friendship. I’d actually driven to the gym before I heard the news of his accident, and saw a newspaper board with the headline ‘Man fights for life following A40 crash’. I thought “How sad” and my mind, like my car, changed gears. It never occurred to me it would be someone I loved. These things always happen to Other People.

The night of Rob’s crash I was at a friend’s 40th party. I wore black jeans and bright red shoes. I danced not knowing that my friend was fighting for his life. Shortly after his funeral I wrote this poem for Rob which summed up my friendship with him and the impact he had on my life:

Red Shoes

I bought red shoes when I had no more trouble than

What to wear to a meeting.

Shiny scarlet shoes

Luscious as a piece of fruit.

All my other shoes were dark,

Plain, dull.

 

I wore my red shoes

On the night you left.

I didn’t know

As I danced in them

You were driving away from us.

 

A kind hand reached down to you.

You took it and it helped you

Step out of your broken body.

You were free and healed.

My red shoes lay in the wardrobe

Coated in dust.

 

My feet were so heavy.

I walked in black shoes

Past gaudy Christmas lights,

Panicked tinsel-eyed shoppers.

A pool of grief welled up

Past my ankles, past my knees

Up past my chest.

I started to drown.

 

I wore my red shoes a week after you died.

I was dressed as a dragon

With a fake tail and a painted-on smile.

I drank and smoked and danced

I held close those who were left

And I wept for you.

 

But now I will always wear red shoes,

Sparkling and vivid and bold;

I will wear them because

You encouraged me to be all three.

You saw I could be those things

And made me see it too.

I will always walk in red shoes

Because a part of you walks in me.

 

Standing by his grave today I reflected that so much has changed in the four years since Steve, Rob, Fred and Paul died and yet a lot hasn’t in so many ways. I like to think they would be proud of me and how far I’ve come, though sometimes I don’t feel I have taken more than one step forward. The person I was when I started training with Rob was miserable, overweight, trapped and fiercely insecure, with scars from the inside etched on her outside. It’s taken several years but I can honestly say I am a changed person and so much of that is down to Rob’s encouragement, friendship and unfailing ability to make me laugh when I felt like giving up. I’ve become friends with his lovely girlfriend and shared in her joys as her life, too, goes on and she has learned happiness again. I’ve continued with my training and am fitter, if not thinner, than I’ve ever been in my life.

Rob: I’ll light a candle for you at Christmas like I do every year. So I never convinced you to use Hopi ear candles to sort your bunged-up nose – but I did get rid of the toxic man you told me to. I just wish I’d been able to share my (well overdue!) achievement when you were alive rather than tell you via text after your funeral, a message I knew you’d never read.

Thank you for your friendship and thank you for setting me on the road to being a brighter, happier person. We’ll all miss you forever – but how much better than not missing you at all.

This Post Has No Title

This has not been a good week. I think I can give you an idea of how bad it’s been when I tell you that, in the course of cleaning the flat today, I ate 7 snowballs. I don’t quite know why, and I was also very aware that I shouldn’t be doing it, but it didn’t stop me. I went to the Spar last night for milk and came out with a big bar of Orange Aero, a Halloween Screme Egg (reduced) and some spooky jaffa cake bars (also reduced). The jaffa cake bars were not remotely spooky, but the Screme Egg was green inside, if this helps you decide whether to have one next year or not.

I am turning over a new leaf as of tomorrow, as I would like to (as always) lose a stone by Christmas, or at least December 19th, our Christmas do which has taken rather an epic time to organise due to internal politics. If the lion and the lamb lay down together at Christmas (not in the Biblical sense, I imagine, apart from that obviously it was Biblical, it being in the Bible and all) then I think people should be able to… but I’ve never had to eat opposite anyone who put me off my food. Perhaps I ought to start, as it might help me lose weight.

My Titanic Lives book really took off and it’s another book I’m glad I read because it debunked a lot of the myths (the third class being locked downstairs, women and children ONLY – on one side of the ship anyway) though I found it curious that it didn’t mention the band playing until the epilogue, and nor does it mention Murdoch’s infamous shooting and subsequent suicide. It would have been nice to mention the latter if only to clear Murdoch’s name. I also felt it was very fair to Ismay, who I have always felt rather sorry for. The sinking of Titanic is romanticised as a huge tragedy but this book (which I hugely recommend) brings to life not only the society of 1912, the people on the ship and Titanic herself, but the true horror of the event. It was heartbreaking reading, but I do feel it’s important reading because that horror is sometimes forgotten in the romance of it. A university Darrn Sarrf had a ‘Titanic ball’ a while back and it was considered rather poor taste – I quite agree.

I am now on Nine Times in Ten, a book of rather odd but enjoyable stories by John Foster who I have not come across before. The blurb says that he draws on the work of Ernest Hemingway and Gabriel Garcia Marquez amongst others, and each story is slightly different. It’s a quirky little volume which I liked, and after Titanic Lives it was like washing down a tincture with a glass of fresh water. I read the book in two sittings, interrupted only by the necessities of housework. I think there’s a real talent to telling a good short story, and John Foster has it. Woody’s Mabs is told beautifully in the words of a young boy who makes a grisly discovery, while Keeping Up Appearances, charting the attempts of a man to get his inheritance, is both amusing and disturbing. Not all of them work – Obsession felt like it had been written in a hurry and The Wedding was a bit nondescript – but on the whole it’s a very readable collection, and I would like to read more by this author.

I’ve not got much else to report.

  • I fell in love with a coat, had it delivered, and it was perfect apart from too short in the arms, so now I feel like Inspector Gadget.
  • I drove to Bristol last week and I got followed all the way down the motorway by a car with only one working headlight. It was like being followed by General Woundwort from Watership Down.
  • I have done 78% of my Christmas shopping but none of my Christmas-card writing. I have 81 on my list. I need to fall out with someone.
  • Last night I saw someone I went to school with 24 years ago and blimey he has grown up (but one would hope so in 24 years). I fear that I blushed.
  • My gerbil Eric has got tumours again. The vet gave me a free appointment to have a look at him, and a hug when I admitted that a second operation was not an option for the little fellow.
  • I dreamt about going to a very old castle, and doing something simply unspeakable in the loo.
  • A friend was telling me about his new girlfriend and saying how “nobody has a bad word to say about her”. This has set me thinking about all the bad words that one could say about me. I have come up with 3 so far. They’re not horrifically awful, but they’re not compliments. I am up too late worrying about this, so tomorrow there will be four: “grumpy”.

My Animals, and Other Family

Posting the photos of Miggy Miggy Moo Moo the other day made me think about her more than I have in a long time. A little candle burns forever for her at the back of my mind but as I saw that photo of her at Dunwich suddenly she was there in front of me. The way her toes splayed in the sand. The way she smelled when she came out of the sea, of salt and wet dog. The little snorts she used to make through her nose when she was content. The velvet softness of her ears and the melting-chocolate of her eyes. Her favourite thing was to sit in front of me with her back to me and let me comb her from the ruff of her collar down to the very base of her spine. She’d shiver and twitch her shoulders as I did it. After she died, mum kept finding ginger fur under the cushions of the armchairs. I would have liked to have stuffed a cushion with it but I doubt it will have smelled very nice.

Our two cats, Pickle and Ferdi, were her great chums although she and Ferdi had a love-hate relationship and had spats when they were young (one of my earliest memories, when we lived in Suffolk – we moved when I was 5 – is of her joyfully pursuing the pair of kittens around the back yard). On the day that we had to have Moo put to sleep, mum and dad both freaked out by ‘seeing’ Pickle in different places around the house. Ferdi died 1997 and Pickle died 2 years later in the April, Moo in the December. Anyone who knows my parents will know that they are not the easily-freaked types (dad’s cynical reaction about “setting up a stone-throwing machine” to my ghost hunt experiences says it all!) but mum recalls dad being white behind his beard as he met her in the playroom and said “I’m going mad. I just saw Pickle by the back door.” We all found it comforting to think that she had come to collect her old friend and the three Musketeers were reunited at last.

Animals have always been a vital part of my life. I’ve had stick insects, fish, gerbils (I could still name every one), and Dexter, the most precious little gecko in existence. I was their mummy, but Migs, Pickle and Ferdi were my best friends and I grew up with them. One of my best memories is just after I had an operation which broke all my toes (bear with me!). I was sleeping on the sofabed to recuperate, and had been dozing. When I woke up the fire was burning gently, and Pickle and Ferdi were on either end of my bed, purring quietly and sedately, like furry sentinels. Moo was also on guard, at the foot of the bed. I felt so protected, and so safe, and so content. Another of those Moments, maybe.

I haven’t read a whole load of books about animals which have touched me, if I’m honest. The Plague Dogs, as posted earlier, really disturbed me, but I can’t (at the moment) think of one which made me feel like I’d finished the book and made a new friend. However, I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm was given to me when I was about ten and still resonates with me twenty (or so – ahem) years later. It’s a very simple story, beautifully told, about a boy who has a dog, Effie. As he gets taller, “Effie gets rounder”. When she eventually dies in her sleep, he is comforted by the fact that every night before he went to sleep he said to her “I’ll always love you.” It’s a very straightforward premise, but one I have lived by, and I try to do it to the people in my life as well.

In my last post I talked about authors who didn’t do much description. Judith Kinghorn in The Last Summer is quite the opposite, but she’s an author who can really pull it off. Her story, of doomed love during World War One, is full of lush passages about steaming hot summers, the eroticism of new romance and the horrors of war. It really gripped me and I felt that envious ‘pang’ that I’ve posted about before (in time am I just going to recycle all my words?) when Clarissa and Tom first have feelings for each other. Kingholm paints characters well, and she enjoys taking her time describing the country pile Deyney and the characters who inhabit it. The book is like a slow-boiling saucepan frothing to a shocking conclusion.

Unfortunately I found myself losing patience about 2/3 of the way through, because the story keeps looping around. It won’t be spoiling anything to say that upper-class Clarissa’s romance with the cook’s son Tom is doomed from the start, and both the romance and tragedy in the story is strong and beautifully written. However, it just keeps going on. And on. Every now and then Tom and Clarissa meet each other, have a tortured eye-meet, and then go their separate ways. And this goes on throughout the years, without any real reason. Yes, things were different in those days: divorce was a social stigma, class boundaries were there to be respected – but by the seventh year or so in which the lovers had spent an awkward few moments in each other’s company I found myself getting a bit tired of it and thinking the literary equivalent of “shit or get off the pot”.

I also found Clarissa’s mother’s behaviour pretty unforgiveable, and the pat ending didn’t sit well with me as I felt it had taken rather too long to get there. So I finished it, and felt a bit cross.

I am currently reading Titanic Lives which is also very descriptive, and is about the passengers, crew and creators of/on Titanic. It is in rather poor taste to say the author, Richard Davenport-Hines, brings his characters to life – but this is a full-colour snapshot of society, and a whirlwind period of time, not just the doomed ship. I’m really enjoying it, even though it’s like watching the film when you know it doesn’t have a happy ending.

Share with me, Gentle Reader, books about animals that you have enjoyed.

Random Thoughts – Squashes, and Being Nice

I stuffed a squash with leeks and cheese this evening. When I took it out of the fridge I realised its “best before” date was 3rd March 2012. However it looked, and tasted, as good as new.

The longevity of the squash has impressed me. Its life had been planned out and yet it had beaten Asda’s expectancy a thousand fold, with nary a wrinkle nor a blemish. There’s a metaphor in there somewhere. But tonight, all that was in there was leeks and Manchego.

Somehow, that was enough.

 

I had a bloody awful day yesterday. REALLY vile. My temptation when I feel bad is to make someone else feel bad. It’s why bullies should be pitied because they’re mostly miserable insecure people (but I’ve yet to find a piteable bully). Instead, I made a concerted effort to make people happier. I wrote a letter to the hospital thanking the staff for their care over Fingergate, and I rang someone whose leaflets had been dumped on our doorstep, rather than sending them all back in a non-stamped envelope as I was tempted. He had been paying someone to deliver, so I dropped someone else in it, but he was very grateful. It was a bit of an effort to be nice rather than being a cow, but I felt better about it in the long run. It goes back to trying to be like the Queen again.

I wasn’t quite so nice to someone in our residents’ car park (RESIDENTS ONLY). There was a big bang (not a universe-creating-one) outside my window and it turned out a bloke in a van had driven straight into another bloke’s (very smart) car and chopped the front off, literally. I felt a bit bad for him, as he was obviously shocked and it could happen to anyone if you weren’t paying attention. Later that evening I came home to discover someone had parked their van over two bays in our RESIDENTS ONLY carpark. I wrote a (fairly polite) note pointing out that the can had been parked inconsiderately. I came out the next day and the van had been moved – and it had a massive hole in its front. It was the van wot had had the crash. So not only had the poor bloke caused huge amounts of damage to his van and someone else’s car, he’d had a (fairly shitty) note left on said van. Mea culpa, not half. The Queen would not have left a note, but in fairness she would probably have had the van clamped…

and how do you like your blue-eyed boy, m r james?

Some people have a real talent for drawing masterpieces out of pencil and paper. The most basic strokes can create a three-dimensional image if you know how to do it, and that’s what I think Patrick deWitt, the author of The Sisters Brothers has done. This is a really unusual, fascinating book. Narrated by Eli Sisters, one of the two hired killer brothers, there is never any description of the main character in it though he’s quite matter-of-fact in describing the other men and women he encounters. Some books start talking about what people look like, and what they think and their tendencies, in a rather formulaic fashion; Eli doesn’t once describe his brother, yet by the end of the book you feel you’d recognise both of them if they walked towards you. This is a real talent, very distinct and not one that I’ve noticed in many authors (I would be interested if you have).

It’s not that I’m averse to description. The beautiful language of L M Montgomery, for example, in her passages about Prince Edward Island in Canada, is pure poetry.  But I like authors who try something a little different. I remember doing an English exam in which one of the tasks was writing a letter and describing someone in it. So I did, only to be marked down by the teacher who said “You wouldn’t write that in a letter”. Of course you wouldn’t – so why tell me to do it?! The Sisters Brothers is like having Eli write you a letter, or tell you his story, and it works brilliantly.

Speaking of story-telling, my mum and I went to see some M R James stories performed by a sole actor on Tuesday. The set was beautiful; the actor in an armchair, telling the stories by candlelight. Word-perfect, he had learned both of them – Count Magnus and Number Thirteen – off by heart, and they were very eerie. M R James is a much-lauded teller of supernatural stories, and rightly so. His language is gentle yet it creates such menace that my spine turned to ice by the end of Count Magnus and the heebies (which I always imagine as small, furry creatures, like Ursula Moray Williams’s Bogwoppit) creeping my shoulderblades going home. The music played didn’t help. It reminded me of when I got locked in a church by myself while someone had put The Messiah on the stereo and left it playing loudly: the section where the choir get all het up and sing

Crucify

Crucify

CRRUUUUCCIIFFFYY!

I was gibbering in the vestry by the time the vicar came back.

I also wrote a story about a room number 13 in a hotel when I was in my early teens, but I don’t think I’d discovered M R James then. I haven’t actually written it down but I’ve Told it to various people and I suppose I ought to pop it down in case I become famous after my death and it could be a ‘lost gem’ like the Beatles’ unpublished tracks, or the Hitler Diaries.

Anyway, I must post about Halloween! I meant to post about it when it happened but side-tracked by Guy Fawkes. My baking was not the best – “moderately easy” my arse, to quote Jim Royle – as the photographic evidence shows. However I have been reassured it tasted much better than it looked.

The top photo is what it was supposed to look like.

owls2

Owls

In the evening I went to a friend’s house for a spooky supper, and then I told my ghost story ‘Writer’s Block’ by the light of a wickedly-grinning pumpkin. The story is one I wrote for a library competition. You were given the first few lines, and then had to complete the story. I must admit I didn’t expect to win, mainly because I used the word ‘piss’ in the story but also because the first lines were so feeble, my narrator started writing them, and then screwed them up and put them in the bin. Which won’t have gone down well with the judges.

Still, it was the first story I’d written in a number of years, and I’d forgotten how good it was. I don’t mean that arrogantly – but when you’ve written something good, you know it’s good because you can’t remember writing it. During my halcyon book-writing days in my teens, I’d sit at the computer, typing in fury (and probably drooling like Homer) and then ‘wake up’ not remembering I’d written certain phrases or passages. It is like someone sitting over your shoulder and running their spirit down your arm, trickling it out through your fingertips. So I don’t claim that I’ve written special stuff because I don’t think it’s necessarily me doing it.

We then watched The Woman in Black. The most classic of ghost stories, and a film which deserves to be a classic in its own right. It was my fourth time of watching it and I still screamed and jumped when appropriate.

My friend, her husband and their new delicious daughter live in a delectable white cottage in a little country village, with an enormous black iron range in the kitchen, a woodburner in the sitting room, and (this evening only) a pumpkin gurning at the back door. (Would you write all this in a letter? Do you know, I think I might.) Sometimes I get physical pain from wanting something, and I got a strong pang of home-envy that evening. Do you ever experience this pain? I used to get it when I was watching films and the hero kissed the heroine, and I got a real streak of pain across the front of my chest because I didn’t think it would ever happen to me. The kiss did – eventually – perhaps the cottage, complete with range, wood-burner and pumpkin, will do, too. Let’s hope so eh…

After the M R James performance I remembered an interesting incident which I could make a story out of – and I’m tempted  not to write it on here in case someone nicks it, but I’m trusting you, O Gentle Reader, not to, mmmkay? Many years my family went for a walk at Dunwich. It’s the place where a church set on a cliff, complete with graveyard, has started slipping into the sea. Our dog, Miggy Miggy Moo Moo (full name Mig), went for a run, and came back with a human femur in her mouth. It had obviously tumbled from a slipped grave. My mum, not sure exactly what to do, but being a nurse au fait with handling dead things (even if she did faint when taking out my stitches after FingerGate) wrestled the bone from a rather piqued Miggy and, with as much dignity as she could muster, threw it into the sea. This both terrified and titillated me in equal measure: “Oh, he’s not going to follow us back home after that, is he?! “He” (or she) did not, as far as I’m aware, follow us to exact any sort of revenge for treating his remains with such disrespect, but wouldn’t it make a great story if he had? (It might have been hard with only one leg though.)

PS: I have the most delicious photo of Moo on Dunwich beach. I will get my dad to send it over and post it up here. She deserves to be shared.

Moo

Remember, Remember the Fifth of November

I feel a bit bad for Guy Fawkes. I know I shouldn’t really say that because he was a terrorist and was going to blow up the Houses of Parliament and everything but – blimey, it wasn’t like he was the only one, or even the ringleader. How many of the conspirators can you name? Robert Catesby (and I’d have to Wiki the rest, too) was the main man, yet Fawkes was the one caught with his fingers in the rather baleful biscuit barrel and so it’s his figure we burn every year on a bonfire, while we chant:

Guy, Guy, Guy

Stick him in the eye

Hang him on a bonfire

And there let him die

Pleasant little ryme, innit. The fireworks are for the explosives that never happened, and the bonfire because the conspirators had their innards thrown on a fire after they were hung until they were unconscious, and then drawn and quartered. Civilised times, don’t you think? Aside from anything else, fireworks give me the heebies. Sudden loud bangs are not my forte. I’m as highly strung as a poodle, and toast popping out of the toaster makes me shriek, so after a few rockets and Catherine Wheels George Formby could use my nerves for When I’m Cleaning Windows.

On a brighter note, we have improved since then. One of the most interesting books I’ve read this year is The Better Angels of Our Nature by Steven Pinker, which is a history of violence in society; and how we are actually becoming a lot nicer as a race. A lot of it is to do with the advent of the printing press, and literacy: stories being available to the masses. People were able to start empathising, and putting themselves in the shoes of others (animals and humans). Every time a local council/government decide they need to close a library, direct them to this worthy tome and point out how we’ll all go feral again without books!

I am quite serious though: books do make you see things from a different angle, put you in situations you would never find yourself in In Real Life, and introduce you to emotions and experiences outside of your own limited sphere. In Cold Blood by Truman Capote is a prime example of this. Who’d have thought that you would be able to see things from the point of view of a murderer? But Capote makes his characters three-dimensional and Human, so you can hear their thoughts rather than just their words. Perhaps because I’ve read so much, that’s why I am peculiarly sensitive to Guy Fawkes, because he was a person, flawed and foolish and not necessarily particularly pleasant, but a lot more than an effigy on a bonfire. (It doesn’t help that I had a Discovery tape when I was 9 or so and he was ‘interviewed’ on it and sounded very sad and frightened, and I felt bad for him. At around this age, I had peculiar fits of compassion for others as well – I read a schoolbook about Hitler and my mum had to explain to me that just because he had been a brave soldier didn’t mean that he hadn’t been a Very Bad Man too.)

I’ve always been ‘blessed’ with a very vivid imagination though (as my post re Dracula relates!) and a sensitivity which goes to ridiculous extremes. I remember feeling so sorry for a red-and-yellow fountain pen that I eschewed the butterfly one I really wanted in favour of the one which sat alone and dusty, unwanted, on a shelf. As a young girl I felt acutely sorry for ugly items, possibly because I ‘knew how they felt’. (I used the red-and-yellow pen for a good few years, until I got the butterfly one – and that was promptly stolen by a girl in my school when I was 10. Donna, I know it was you, in case you’re reading this, and no, I haven’t forgotten.) I’ve always felt very sad for Judas, because he did something dreadful, but he had his part to play and if he hadn’t betrayed Jesus the rest of it could not have happened (whether you believe in it – which I do – or not). The Harrowing by Robert Dinsdale (an impressive debut set in World War One) gave me a different outlook on what might have happened to Judas, and what Jesus did in the three days after he died before his resurrection (the title is all that’s Biblical, as the book is a story about one brother going to pull the other out of the hell of war). I don’t know if it’s true or not (The Harrowing idea) as I’d never heard of it prior to reading this book, but I like to think it is.

Anyway. I think my sensitivity has certainly been heightened by the huge amount I’ve read, but I felt no sympathy at all with the characters in Toby’s Room by Pat Barker which I devoured last week. I devoured it because she writes so simply, so starkly. She paints the most hideous of pictures with the most delicate of colours so you can’t help but read on even when you wince and want to look away. This story of a brother and sister and what happens when he (Toby) is killed during World War One is both beautiful and brutal, but I found it difficult because I had no sympathy for Elinor and Toby; I’m afraid their ‘secret’ left me cold. However I want to read more of Barker’s books – I have been meaning to go through the Regeneration trilogy since they came out – and it’s not often that I enjoy reading a book where I don’t really like anyone in it!

I’ve also been reading Prescription for Murder about Harold Shipman (and I didn’t like him, either). This was a bit of an odd book. Shipman’s crimes, to me, have for some reason always seemed less horrific to Joe Public because his victims died so peacefully, without any sex or violence. This book points out that those he killed were old, yes, and some were ill, but they had as much right to life as anyone does, and most of them were in good health and still enjoying being on the planet. The fact that Shipman killed an estimated 200 people over a period of 30 years is something I can’t get my head round. The most chilling thing for me was reading how he killed four good friends, two couples who lived very close to each other, in a period of weeks. He just picked them off, decided to pay them a visit, and they trustingly held out their arms for his injection of death. Very disturbing. I’m glad I read this book because it taught me a lot about the case, and the author, while scraping somewhat at the barrel to find oddities in Shipman’s childhood or upbringing to explain his behaviour, takes care in ensuring that each of the victims are individuals. They are people: grandparents, parents, friends.

Much the same, on a Ripper Walk a few weeks ago in London, the guide focused a lot more on the women killed by “Jack” rather than Jack himself. The murderer didn’t matter so much as the innocent women he’d slaughtered, and he brought a real humanity to the macabre story. (Though it still drives me mad that nobody knows who Jack was.)

Anyway. Rather than burning Guy Fawkes over and over again for a crime he had quite a small part in, I think if we’re going to burn anyone at all, that we should emulate the inhabitants of Edenbridge, Kent, who burn a different ‘hate figure’ each year.  Though, being a bit soft-hearted and fearful of people killing themselves because everyone loathes them, I’m leaning towards burning a ‘hate object’ rather than an individual, like a skinhead with a swastika tattoo, or a hoodie playing his music obnoxiously loud on public transport. Or whoever stole the Maltesers out of my study bay when I was 17. I haven’t forgotten that, either.

That’s enough of remembering, remembering. Guy, I think if Judas has been forgiven by now, I think you probably have as well, so I won’t be burning you next year. But I will be thinking about who to put in your place…

One Moment in Time

28th October

Today I took friends to the village where I grew up and, despite not living there for 8 years, consider home. I wanted to show it off to them because I love it so much. My parents had surpassed themselves: we had a fire burning, warm bread out of the oven, and soup bubbling on the stove. After a delicious lunch we went up Bredon Hill, wading through piles of crispy brown leaves under the dappled cover of woodland. Getting to the top of the hill was no mean feat as by now the rain was pelting down and the view I had so badly wanted to show off was shrouded in mist; but the Elephant Stone was there in all his glory, and after a rather brisker walk back down we came home to find my parents had put the kettle on. We had pots of tea by the fire and I held my damp toes up to the flames to be cooked. Curled up on the shabby old sofa in the sitting room, my toes – “fingers on your feet”, as Carol called them – toasting and my head on a cushion, I could quite easily have fallen fast asleep. I always feel this way when I’m at my parents’ house. In a way that’s all I aspire to: having a small cottage in the village I love with an open fire that I can lie down in front of, perhaps on a big furry rug. But without wrestling with Oliver Reed on it, a la Women in Love (which I haven’t read).

5th November

Bugger! I started writing this 2 weeks ago, and then forgot it and lo, here I am again remembering everything that I meant to write in this. So I hope you don’t mind me writing it now. Well, if you do mind, it’s not really like you can do much about it…

So. The point of this post was to pick up ‘points’ in your life which aren’t spectacular, or madly glamorous, but at which you feel complete and utter peace. I don’t have them often, as my life isn’t what you would call tranquil. But that afternoon, in the house I love most in the world, I felt it. The warm glow of the fire. The flickering on the glass in the photos, and the gentle tickle of the flames on the coals. The feel of the sofa – not too soft, not too hard. The people I cared about around me. Most of all a sense of utter contentment, not wanting anything more, not caring about money or weight or work or cleaning or any of the things that normally occupy my life. Just Being was enough.

Another of these Moments was when I went to Greece this year. Work had been hectic and I was panicking and stressed on my flight out. It didn’t help that I’d booked the hotel ‘right next to the airport’ – the old airport in Athens, which is the other side of the City. I got dropped off by a bus at 0300 and walked through the dark, rubble-strewn streets with my rucksack on my back and a big sign saying Tourist: I Don’t Know Where I Am above my head in neon lights. I finally found the hotel, and slept for about 3 hours before jumping out of bed to make it all the way to Piraeus port to catch my boat. I got tea spilled all over my brand new pink shorts. I was cross, wretched, tired, and with a persistent knot in my stomach.

I got to the port, slumped into a cafe and ordered an orange juice. Then my friend George rang me, and told me he was “on his way” and then arrived at the port. I cancelled the juice and hopped aboard the speedboat my friends had hired for the week, and we set off to the beach. I stood on the boat, blinking as the sun hit the waves in gold flashes and not quite believing I was there at last. The wind tugged at my hair and pushed tears from my eyes. It was warm and smelled of salt. The boat lurched carelessly against the sea, tossing up swathes of spray which hit the backs of my legs with a playful smack, and the sun soaked into my skin warming me from the very tips of my toes (fingers on feet) to my ears. I felt filled with a very simple calm, as if I were a pot filled with liquid honey. I knew that everything was going to be alright – because I was finally on the island I love with dear friends whose company is simple, and honest, and loving; with whom there are no expectations and no requirements beyond be yourself.

That is perhaps when we find peace, innit … by being ourselves. It’s taken me 32-odd years to understand there is no point being anyone else because you fool nobody! The way you speak, the music you listen to, the clothes you wear, the things you like, embrace them and bugger whether it’s not fashionable, or you don’t Fit In, or whatever. Most people are rubbish at being anyone else, but if you practice, you can be pretty good at just being you. It seems a dreadful waste of however much time we have on this planet trying to do otherwise.

ANYWAY. I’m not peaceful at all right now, because I’m watching The Strangers and I get the feeling it’s really not a film you are supposed to watch alone. But I tend to follow Magnus Magnusson: I’ve started, so I’ll finish. I will join you, gentle reader, on the other side… if I get there…