Got on a train yesterday on the way to another medical appointment, feeling tired and dispirited and was hit by a wave of energy. A class of seven year olds were coming back from an outing. All wearing paper crowns decorated with leaves and flowers and sitting quietly, with teachers cheerfully keeping an eye on them.
The vitality in that train was unbelievable; pure life force, we could all feel it. The other commuters like me, just grinned with joy. The kids ate weird combinations of lunches and chatted happily with their teachers, who also seemed to be enjoying themselves.
I had to get off before they did and was tempted to stay on the train; it felt like a secret passage into another world that we adults, and me in particular, have mostly lost. We recognise it still though, the simple joyful delight in life itself. My lovely friend Peter would have been sketching them for all he was worth.
Felt a bit like a vampire though.
It was my friend Peter’s funeral yesterday and I couldn’t go because it was too far away. I went to church to say a prayer for him, dressed in a riot of colour – he was a very talented painter and lithographer and loved colour and disliked black.
What a life-liver and giver! We met in the same village in France, and quickly became friends with him and his wife Marion. My memory is full of laughter and dinners like the one in the high hills of a Provençal farm that took hours to find but was so delicious that I can still taste the paté, hams, sun dried tomatoes, melon (first course) roast rabbit with home-grown veg and a groaning cheeseboard of local produce. All served outside in the warmth of a Provençal evening. Just as we were getting ready to pay the bill, the farmer’s wife emerged with the largest apricot tart in creation. We groaned, but we ate.
Peter was also very serious about his work and produced some wonderful prints and paintings. His other great passion was his saxophone – he played in a band. He was also serious about everyone else’s work; no conversation would go by without him asking you how it was going. Quiet, determined encouragement, getting you to talk about your writing, painting or dancing. Yes you had to work to put bread on the table, but your real destiny was your art, so you’d better have something to show him, or talk about.
He was not a religious man but deeply philosophical, when bad stuff happened, he’d listen or tell you about it. Then shrug his shoulders with a grin, ‘what can you do?’ I’ve been smiling about him all day, remembering so many lovely times together. But I’ve also been neglecting my writing since I’ve been ill – I can see him raising his eyebrows and asking one of his, ‘so what’ve you been writing then?Better get on with it.’
He’s right. What can you do? Shrug and get back to work. I’m not allowed to drink with all the medication but I’m smiling as I think of him and raising a large glass of metaphorical rosé.
A very good friend invited me to his club in Piccadilly for lunch; that’s just the way we socialists roll these days. Walking down towards the club I felt the ghosts of P.G. Wodehouse and Lord Peter Wimsey smiling; P.G’s wonderful prose has seen me through many bleak hours and Lord Peter is a recent but firm friendship. I think I’d prefer Bunter to Jeeves as an aide-de-camp, he seems more flesh and blood than the cerebral Jeeves.
What struck me inside, apart from the delicious food were the perfect manners of everyone there, even the dress exhortations for ladies in the loo suggested, ‘hats may be worn and open-toed dress shoes’. Whatever they are when they’re at home. Manners that came naturally to P.G and Lord Peter but which we have rather lost. There’s much to be said for a properly opened door. And yes I know those manners came at a price, not least for women. In previous generations, I’d have been serving rather than eating.
Of course I prefer the world I live in now. But still rather pleasant to be transported back, what.
Several heartening things happened these last few days. A friend sends me a series of detective novels in the post and a lovely card arrives from my aunt in France. It’s full of good wishes but the bit that’s most striking is, ‘we’re strong women, you can get through this.’
She’s in her eighties and understands suffering – she lived in occupied France during the war, she lost a baby when she and her husband were posted to Libya, she lost her husband of sixty years a couple of years ago and survived breast cancer last year. She’s a woman of deep faith (she unlocks the church every morning) and she’s a wonderful cook and will still put on a feast at a moment’s notice. Last summer it was all made with produce from within a five mile radius : home made farci, mussels, a rabbit that a neighbour had shot, cheese from her husband’s hairdresser and plum tart. Neighbourhood bonds are strong in the village and everyone keeps an eye on her.
But in her card she was talking about different bonds – what we might call genetic ones. The women of my family have had to be strong; my aunt and my mother were the first women in generations not to lose their husbands at war. My great-grandmother, Pauline, would put her knife and fork down after every meal and sigh, “That’s another meal the Prussians won’t get.’ I remember my great-grandmother and her three sisters well, they were ‘coriace‘ – difficult to translate, ‘tough’ doesn’t do justice to the respect in the word. All with terribly difficult lives, they could withstand anything, or so it seemed.
Mum was the first in the village to go to university, leaving a tiny place in the middle of nowhere. The whole village turned out to see her off, knowing that she wouldn’t come back (she met my Dad at university and came to England). When I go to the village I’m still the daughter of the woman who married the foreigner.
Before I got ill, I’d been working on a memoir of those women, the four sisters who just got on with life. They’d be sympathetic with my situation, ask for a detailed account of symptoms and then expect me to get on with it. Time to go back to the memoir. I’d like to think I was ‘coriace’ too, but at the moment I’m more of a blancmange.
Sleeping much improved with medication – I’m actually sleeping through the night. Five nights of ten hour sleeps seem like a miracle and my energy levels are very gradually returning.
I can tell because I’m bored. Bored with the whole seriously ill thing, the depression, having to plan everything ahead when I want to go out. Enough already. I get the picture, can we please change the record?
So how to take back some semblance of control in this blancmange of a life? Cooked myself two tasty meals today, while listening to the radio. I’ve always loved putting ingredients together; my taste buds are pretty shot to pieces but I can still enjoy the meals on some kind of meta memory level. I know what egg, bacon and roast tomatoes should taste like, or fish cake, cabbage and haricot beans.
When I was last at Mum’s I found some of the lovely watercolours she did while we were on holiday together. Tonight I put them into clip frames – anticipating a struggle as in the past the clips never quite fit. But whoever’s designing them now, it couldn’t have been simpler.
And just for an hour or so I was back in Provence, in the snail-shaped medieval village where I spent twenty-five happy years on holiday and one memorably cold winter. Neither of us will go there again – as the houses all have spiral stone staircases, quite beyond either of us now. One of her watercolours is titled ‘view from my window’. It captures the heat and the hills and higgledy-piggledy houses; I know that view like the back of my hand. Can still hear the gossip from the neighbours, the children running through the streets, opening the shutters one morning at nine only for a neighbour to poke her head out of her window and say she was going to phone the police as she thought we must be dead, getting up so late. Dinners on the terrace after swimming in the local pool, nights watching shooting stars cascading in the inky blackness. The smell of garlic from a dozen kitchens, bags of veg and salad hooked on the door from friends with allotment surpluses.
Fine, glorious, sun-filled times stiffen the sinews.
We have accepted an offer on Mum’s house which we need to sell to pay for her nursing home. We all feel mixed emotions (except Mum who’s unaware of the whole process thankfully) as it’s the house we grew up in. None of us have lived there as adults – except when I moved in to look after Mum for the last year or so, when it felt as though I was the parent rather than the daughter.
The thing is that it was our bolt hole, the place where whatever happened in life, we could walk in and know we’d be accepted and welcomed and looked after. Although we all had our own homes and busy lives, whatever life threw at us, in the back of our minds, that was our place of safety. And soon it will be gone. It’s not the building of course, but everything it represented.
But there’s still a strong imprint of the place and the values we were taught there by Mum and Dad. So after the firm offer, the estate agent suggested letting other people view the house and maybe offer more. My brilliant brother, who’s an ace negotiator said firmly that we wanted to take the house off the market as gazumping wasn’t the sort of thing we approved of. We’re refusing all offers from developers too.
I think the house probably smiled at that. We may be losing the house but the moral compass is still working fine.
Second night of sleeping for more than nine hours, thanks to sleeping tablets. It’s been six weeks since I had more than intermittent good nights of sleep and just two nights of decent sleep have already made a difference physically and emotionally.
There’s not the dread of waking at three to watch the clock slowly turn until morning. Or worse not being able to get to sleep until four.
Long term insomnia makes me ratty and slightly (!) deranged and I’m sure it’s not good for me physically either. For someone who has always slept like a log it’s a particular torture. I’ve always thought that enough sleep was one of the keys to a happy life and in my current situation that’s even more the case.
Science and particularly medicine get a bad rap these days, it’s as though alternative health ideas are valid per se without any rigorous testing. We who are seriously ill are particularly vulnerable to the wilder theories out there.The medical profession and scientists in general are not some dark force trying to stop us from knowing what will make us better. If you believe that ground lavender soaked in guinea pig sweat will cure you, fine. Just don’t try to make me inhale it.
So three cheers for sleeping tablets and the scientists who worked so hard to help me sleep.