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There’s something to be said for the damp grey mist. How it sits blankly on the horizon.
I look out the window and that’s all. I don’t know what to say.
The snow started up last week and it’s not stopped since
It is the first snowfall of the year and a heavy covering cloaks the landscape. The cottage roof is thickly capped in white, its slate grey tiles hidden from view.
The days and their gravity tug at the sheet of snow, and as it sinks towards the guttering, horizontal folds form.
The roof appears creased
a rippling up there like waves
frozen in motion
Snow too on the garden and fence. And even the sand beyond.
The sea isn’t covered, though. The sea remains untouched.
Some people are the same way; not phased by anything.
Snowflakes land on the ocean and
turn instantly to seawater.
It’s like they were always there
There are people like this too.
Though I was never that way, comfortable wherever.
I could never relax completely around anyone,
The sea a strip of blue, always.
I see the snow on the roof when I go out to the end of the garden; the furthest I’ve ventured since last autumn. Since my
I don’t walk so well. Jane, my carer, brings everything for me; food shopping, magazines, puzzle books, medicine.
Am I an invalid? I wonder.
I can’t stand the word. As if invalidated.
I leave footprints on the tightly-packed snow. Not crisp outlines, but rather loose and shapeless ones. That’s because I shuffle along. I’m getting old.
In fact, I must be there already,
A place I’ve arrived at without even noticing.
My posture isn’t so good. I have bad knees. A hunched gait. Though I can still listen to big band music on our stereo, sway along. Remember the dancehall where John and I first met.
They can’t take that away from me.
(The way you wear your hat).
Snow-clad bushes line the garden, a few leaves poke through. These bushes are a hardy type. John liked plants which stayed put, or else returned year after year.
He wasn’t as fond of fair-weather plants, though he could grow anything.
Starch-white gardenia blooms
Delicate violet wisteria
Tapering bundles of foxgloves
He’d kneel outside for hours at a time
I reach the gate and stop.
Lean against the fence. Feel
the cold in my hip.
Which means it’s already time to be turning, time to be heading back.
The snow picks up. Wind billows. Ears numb, I look up and that’s when I catch sight of the cottage’s slate roof and its bellowing snow.
(The way you sip your tea).
Shuffle up the path and
close the door of the cottage on a
Back in the cottage my feet are icy cold, so I set my damp slippers on the radiator and slip on John’s instead. They’re in the shoe rack, same as always.
His top shelf,
mine on the bottom.
It’s funny to feel them slack on my feet as I move from room to room. My steps could be his.
And then I’m back in my chair, sitting, sitting
Length of sea and sky. Out the window, everything gleaming in low winter light. In the back garden crocuses break through the snow, their purple tips and green stalks pushing out.
I feed logs and dry twigs into the log burner throughout the day. My hands tremble as I push and pull the iron door.
The cottage has existed for hundreds of years and it’s hardly changed. Only its inhabitants.
One old lady
I return to my chair by the window; I always seem to be heading there. Or to bed. Some magnetic pull leading me either to one or the other.
Today, I am all natural disaster.
All trembling hands, all earthquake within.
All lost control, with the surroundings perfectly still.
And as with an earthquake, it’s something which cannot be outrun, I must
sit with it until it passes.
The same with my memory – I think of something and
within seconds it’s
I sit with my forgetting.
I am in my chair. Where else?
The garden returns to view, although no one tends to it now. John was the gardener.
A breeze causes the plants to sway, sends leaves fluttering into the air
(picture a plume of dispersed seeds).
John’s favourite to grow was rhubarb
with its wide green leaves and
thick scarlet stems.
Some plants unfurl, cautiously. While rhubarb just seems to shoot straight up, towards the sky,
Some summers we must’ve had rhubarb crumble every pudding for a month.
I’d often tire of it, but never said. Probably John did, as well.
The snow melted, but it’s not summer yet.
Wind still rattles the cottage.
The sea all roaring white foam. I mute Countdown to listen,
hands folding around the remote
control the shaking
Retirement suited us, John and I. The cottage was an inheritance from his parents and most days we’d stay put, potter about. Walks by the water. Comfortable silences. Silences in a marriage are more important than people know
when things aren’t being said and
what is felt
Once or twice a week we went out on day trips, long days of driving.
Pork pies and orange squash.
French fancies wrapped in kitchen roll.
Empty ones, recently ploughed
Cows, sheep, horses
A haze of yellow;
buttercups or daffodils (from a distance I could never tell).
We met in our twenties and retired fifteen years ago.
I worked as a secretary and John as a tailor.
Even after we’d retired I took care of our bills, pensions.
Paperwork is my life’s work, it seems.
still repaired our clothes, his glasses perched low on his nose as he pulled thread onto a needle. His fingers dark with dirt from gardening; but he’d never get a speck on the material. He was unscrupulous – no
That’s not right. Which word do I mean?
He made clothes sometimes too. I run my hands over the seams of his work lately and it’s like a conversation.
Something brushes against my fingertips – meticulous
That’s it, he was meticulous.
Though it takes longer to feel about for these lost words, it’s a relief I can still summon them.
All life flourishes in the summer months. Although the doctor says my health is in decline.
A telephone appointment and another list.
Jane brings the plastic bottles to the cottage and sorts at the dining table. She drops each tablet into a plastic box with special compartments labelled by the day. They clatter like thrown pebbles which don’t quite reach the sea. The ones which bounce off other stones and skitter sideways across the beach.
She asks questions over the clattering. Are you eating properly in the evenings? Is the neighbour still checking round? When are you wanting your hair cut?
She is efficient without being brusque. Caring, not cloying. I am pleased to see her, I realise. She breaks the day up a little. Things feel lighter when she comes.
She holds out her palm and I swallow today’s assortment.
The rhododendrons flowered this week. Pale pink silk ruffles. Curls of satin in the garden. Some flowers look all dressed up. I’m drab in comparison; they make me feel lazy, in my dressing gown all day. So much so that I dress, properly, for the first time in a while. And again the next day. It won’t do to be shown up by something growing in the dirt.
I sit out by the front door. From here I see the long length of beach. Seabirds circle, echoing high-pitched cries. Rocks jut from the ocean.
Jane at the gate, pills in tow, hairdressing scissors tucked into her bag no doubt. The salt air does you good, Jane calls as she swings into the garden. As if she’s the first to notice.
She doesn’t mention the fact that I’m outdoors, for the first time all year. Perhaps she thinks she’ll startle me, and I’ll scuttle back in. She should know I move far too slowly for that.
The thing is, as I lay in bed this morning it struck me; am I just waiting to go too, then? What would John say; he’d tell me to get on with it. With living that is. With life. However things are, he’d say, make sure you keep going.
I feel more myself lately. Not like earlier in the year.
Then, all I wanted was to sit, to wait for it all to be over. Since December and John passing. The thing was, it all came with no warning. If he could have said something beforehand; listen, love, soon I’ll collapse from a stroke, one afternoon before Christmas. You won’t know what’s the matter. You’ll call for an ambulance, barely breathing yourself. You’ll be afraid of me for the first time. But there’ll be no need, it’ll still be me lying there.
At least then I could have prepared myself.
John was here, then he wasn’t. And I still am.
I’ve started to feel a little better though, even with my ailing health.
The summer brings tourists. Children’s calls join the birds’. I listen for a while, then put on the stereo and play our songs.
(The memory of all that).
I think of our lives together. Things we did, didn’t do.
John tending his plants each day. And our dog. Smith. He was mine really, to tend to. When he died a few years back, we buried him close to the beach.
Things between John and I never grew cold, loveless. We went through spells, like everyone. Eventually I realised it’s like weather passing over. It will, if you can just wait it out. Of course, that’s the difficult part. But we managed.
We were happy. We were.
I could have been more open with him about certain things.
I suppose it’s not worth worrying now.
A particular day keeps coming back to me lately, and I can’t seem to put it out of my mind. Perhaps it’s the time of year; it was an August too. The last day of our honeymoon. I was thirty-two and John thirty-six. We were in Italy, a driving holiday.
Every night we stopped off in a different hotel then drove on again in the morning, taking turns at the wheel. We had no route. No plan. We weren’t bound by anything. We always liked driving that way.
Although of course as we aged we grew more cautious. It got so that we didn’t want to miss our favourite programme on television, our comforts. We found ourselves checking maps first; not straying so far or for so long.
So far so long. That reminds me of something. Doe a deer.
What is it, that musical, always on around Christmas –
No. Its name escapes me now.
But that was how we used to drive back then. Carefree. We spent the final days of our honeymoon in Tuscany. This is the landscape I find pinned to my memory now, like the far-off mountains seemed to be tacked up in the sky. Vast, hilly vineyards drifting past the car windows, furrows of shade and light.
These neat lines brought an orderliness to the view. As if a comb had recently been pulled through the wild landscape. Then the vineyards fell behind again and the fields returned to disarray, with occasional hay bales dotting the landscape. From a distance the vineyards were dark green corduroy, and the bales bobbins of a pale, straw-coloured thread.
At intervals we’d pass through villages, all oranges and browns with their terracotta tiles, dirt tracks, orange trees. The amber light of the sun turning coral as evening came on, catching on paint-cracked window frames and cobbled floors. We stopped at little restaurants and John ordered for us. His semi-fluent Italian; I couldn’t get enough of it back then. To my ear he sounded like a native. He’d lived there for a spell in his early twenties, before we met. And he seemed to endear himself instantly to the locals.
But then he must have differed from the usual tourist, with his in-depth knowledge of Italian regions and food. And he was always immaculately turned out, his clothes immaculately pressed.
I never needed to iron; a blessing looking back, because I’d never have made the same efforts. John liked to listen to the radio at the ironing board, taking care over each garment. Every crease just so.
I’d only give everything a quick going over. I looked far more put together with John around.
On the final day of the honeymoon we set off to Vada in the early morning, to spend our last morning by the coast. We didn’t live by the sea then so it wasn’t like later, when we could just look out the window.
I remember it so well. The car broke down in a valley of quiet shade.
John had to walk to the next village to get help. This was all in the days before mobile phones of course.
I sat alone in the car to the hum of Italian radio.
I was pregnant at the time, though I hadn’t said anything. I hadn’t even been to a doctor to confirm it, but I just knew.
When the jolt of searing pain came, my first thought was that I was going into labour too soon. Foolish, really. I wasn’t even showing, I couldn’t have been far gone by then. But you do think these things.
I opened the car door and pushed myself up and out
a wave of heat
The road stretching away from, towards me. John was already out of sight and I felt too weak to go after him.
There were no other cars in sight. I felt unsteady, so lay down by the side of the road next to the car, my hands flat against the dry dirt track. It was cool there on the ground and the pain was terrible. I must have curled up, cried, called out?
I don’t remember.
I’d never known pain like that. Never have since, either. Soon the sun rose higher and the shade retreated. Dust all over me, in my hair, pressed into the skin of my shoulders.
Slowly, I stood.
There was a tangle of bushes by the road. I squatted behind them, relieved myself,
still no one.
Just open air, all around.
Breathlessly opening the rear door of the car.
Reaching to turn off the radio.
Lying down on the cream leather seats.
Still, that pulsing wave.
The sunflower’s yellowness. The bales of hay. The undulating hills. The sun feathering out against the grassy hillsides, patches of shifting light on the landscape.
And I lay there.
Eventually a little blue van pulled up; it was John returning with a mechanic. It felt like a whole day had passed but it wasn’t even midday. I think they must have thought I was asleep the way I’d laid down in the back like that. I heard their voices somewhere in front of the car. I’d not opened any windows and it was stifling hot. The car swayed slightly. I felt the thunk of the bonnet being propped open. John stayed outside while the mechanic worked; he liked watching practical people doing their jobs. Maybe because he was also good with his hands. Their work couldn’t have been more different, but they had something in common.
I sat to roll the window. The pain had started to fade but I could feel a pooling, a gathering. I knew for certain I’d lost it by then.
A slight breeze came in. I peered into the rearview mirror and saw myself starkly pale, hair unkempt. I smoothed it back and brushed away some of the dust.
John and the mechanic still obscured by the car bonnet.
I felt around in my suitcase for the flannels I’d brought on the trip. They were still damp from my shower back at the hotel. I was wearing a dress so was able to discreetly clean between my legs with one, then wipe down the leather seats with the other. I folded and pushed them into a side pocket of my bag, then pulled on some beach shorts from my case.
Ten minutes later I had drifted into a half sleep, but awoke when the engine thrummed to life. John was inside the car and had his back to me as he craned out the open door. I heard the clanking of tools and an exchange I couldn’t understand. The sounds seemed amplified after the silence of the morning. The mechanic climbed back into his van and signalled out of the window as he pulled away. John shut his door and eased the car forwards, then said without looking at me that we were following on to the garage to get a part replaced.
The road wove. Weave. Fields of wheat. He asked if I was all right. Did I sleep? I replied that I’d had stomach pains all morning, I didn’t feel like talking much.
Long narrow trees in perpendicular rows. Then fields of poppies. John turned his head but I didn’t meet his gaze. He leaned over to open the glove compartment and took out a box of painkillers which he handed back to me. A flask of cold water. Are you ok love? I took the aspirin, nodded. Lay back in my seat and pulled the seatbelt across.
Our honeymoon appears to me now as snapshots from the back seat. I’d forgotten my camera so haven’t any of my own photographs of the trip. We always had ours developed at the chemists; when John’s came back I didn’t look. I had no desire to remember the time we spent there.
My mind captured it regardless, stored it somewhere. Over the decades the images didn’t fade, in fact, time seemed to act as a key chemical to turn the colours brighter, more vivid. The countryside grows more precise than ever now, even while I’m forgetting everything else.
The mountains, with their dramatic crags and peaks. They looked at times as if they’d been cut out from the sky. And they contrasted with all the little fragile things we drove past, the swarms of tiny flowers gathered at the roadside. The clouds like bundles of feathers, spacing out and then coming close together as the wind pulled them along. They lit up when the sun got behind them. John’s hands resting on the steering wheel. Tanned. Knots of muscle under flesh. Starched sleeves, shirt cuffs.
We stopped in a town after a while and in a cramped toilet stall I cried for the loss of something. The pain came up again, then retreated. A woman said something in Italian through the cubicle door. I didn’t know what to do and soon she was gone.
I keep remembering the curve of the road and the fields either side of us, and the nothingness there.
John drove and I spent the rest of the trip watching the landscape pass by.
A loss creates space in you, an emptiness. That was the first time I realised it.
This week I leave the confines of the garden fence and walk over the shingle.
The tide rushes up and over the pebbles and makes a pleasing ssssssshhhhhhhhhhhhh.
I imagine the sound shivering the contours of the country.
The same noise can be found inland, in libraries, and under glowing scenes in cinema theatres.
The natural reaction when two people murmur, the rest all trying to listen.
A collective exhale, a quietening.
A hush to pay attention.
It means: something is happening, outside of you.
The world is asking you to listen.
The oak tree turns to sinew again. As it empties, the garden fills with colour. Oranges and browns, the colour of Italian villages.
I spend all day trying to remember the name of an actor we like, one of our favourites. If John were here he’d know. I want to remember. I make it a sort of test for myself.
After our honeymoon, I didn’t get pregnant again. I thought it would happen. It didn’t. I never told John what happened that day in Italy.
One day he mentioned as an aside; he probably couldn’t have children. Low fertility, something inherited, like the cottage. He didn’t seem to mind, and so I tried not to either. But looking through his things this afternoon, I find some of his childhood possessions; toys, stuffed animals. Had he kept these things only for nostalgia or –
I don’t know. I curse myself, my cowardice. Later we had Smith, although not a child. He meant the world to me, all the same.
Then, from nowhere, the actor’s name appears in my mind. It blooms there all at once, the petals fanning out.
It is such a feeling of relief that I repeat the name to myself for the rest of the day. I test out each syllable as I carry the teapot, stoke the fire, open a puzzle book. I’m not shaking as badly, presumably thanks to something prescribed. I play our songs and even take the ironing board out, although the effort tires me. The following day I ask Jane to put it back again.
I open my eyes some mornings and for a few short moments, he’s here. For those few brief seconds everything is as it was. Then I turn over and
I am all of a sudden alone
A hollow, an acute feeling.
Just like that.
Just like that; one of Tommy Cooper’s lines.
I remember, all over again. It breaks suddenly like a wave. I miss John and Smith and our lives. More than I can express in words, more than anything.
If I’d only told John about what happened in Italy, things might have opened between us. We could have shared it between us, so I didn’t need to keep it all myself. And he would have understood.
I wonder if he thought I didn’t want all that. Or just that it wouldn’t happen for us.
I don’t know why we didn’t talk more. We had time, still.
I’ve always been far too secretive a person. My instinct is always to withhold. But it never protects me, just keeps people at an arm’s length. I never talk about him with Jane, I realise. And it’s like he was never here.
The same feelings rear up from the start of the year; a wish for everything to come to some slow, steady end. Painless.
Because I’ve always thought it must be the worst way, for your last feelings to be agony. What I hope for now is to slip away without knowing it’s happened.
The bedcovers are heavy, I long to throw them off.
But then I might grow colder and colder, I might freeze, and have Jane find me here. That’s no way to go. A slow shutting down from the inside.
The covers are tucked in under me
I think of sleeping pills, which I don’t have. I wouldn’t want that either though.
I think of the sea, and the way it numbs a person. You lose feeling, after a while.
Later that morning I am walking beside the waves and I consider it. No one else is around. I could turn myself into the white, the splash, the churn. The end.
But then, in the folds of some sort of madness, lucidity comes.
I turn and head over to where Smith is buried. I stand there a while.
Back at the garden gate Jane meets me, with a grin as always. Opens up, helps me navigate the path. Shall I put the kettle on Tess? Sea churning the shingle behind us. The kettle going and going, clicking off. The quiet.
A low cloud drifts over the sea. Coarse spider web.
It is December and I’ve almost reached the end of John’s gardening diary – my Christmas gift, which he never opened.
A year’s worth of notes in my handwriting. I hold the diary out in front of the log burner. Notes to pass time, for no one.
The sea and these rooms. A tremble in the hand is something trying to escape from you. A memory, you couldn’t quite distance yourself from.
I show Jane the photos from our honeymoon. It is the first time I have seen them properly myself. I take our wedding album down from the shelf, talk about John. I feel a bit better for it. I stay in my chair. Comforting, that she’ll be back again tomorrow.
The damp grey mist. How it sits blankly on the horizon.
There was something else –
I dredge through the thoughts
try and bring the thing back, but
I looked out the window and that was all. I didn’t know what to say.
About Jennifer Albon Burns
Jennifer Albon Burns is a London-based writer from Newcastle-upon-Tyne.