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The Places We Have Travelled – on Friendship, Life and Death

This post is because I can’t quite believe that you my friend are not somewhere, opening your computer, a glass of tea or a macchiato to hand. You told me many times that you loved to read my posts. You were there from the beginning, a loyal follower, even though you were slightly puzzled by my love of cows. But you were constantly encouraging and supportive nevertheless, as you were in all my new endeavours and reinventions over the years.

Four months ago I was with you in Regents Park. We went there by bus and sat together on a downstairs seat. It was bitterly cold, the sky a leaden grey, the park bleak, like it had been swept by a giant wintry broom. We linked arms and I think I covered your hand with mine – I am muddled by all the other hand holding we have done in the last month. You of course would probably remember. If only I could ask you.

It was unusual for us to be walking like this but these were unusual times. We laughed about feeling like two old ladies on a regular afternoon stroll, slow and careful, and there was comfort in that. You in your immaculate black coat, slightly stooped from the pain in your back, your beautiful face pale. I thought how Italian you looked. Because that is what I had taken to doing lately; not looking forward, which appeared to be something of a narrow funnel, but to the past, which fanned out behind you in an expanse of people and places. We talked about the people we knew (not unusual) and how we had both come to a place of appreciation for the small details of life; for the ripple of wind through the grass, or a drop of rain on a pool or for the whole landscape to be seen in the iris of your lovers eye.

Pool

On the way back we tut tutted and growled at the young men playing with death on Baker Street, dodging speeding cars on the crossing.  If only they knew.

There have been so many places.

How has it come to this? you asked, not for the first time.

I looked back. It now seemed impossible that we were at one time scrambling up a mountain in Scotland, breathless and excited, chattering all the way about our plans.  This was the time you took us to visit M in the bothy, just outside Dundee, for New Year. And being silly, our giggling and snorting ringing out into the cold sharp air. Until, feeling a change in the atmosphere, we looked up and what had only a minute ago been a clear view of the mountains all around, shining with spectacular clarity in the low winter sun, had turned with startling speed to an impenetrable fug of white, the blizzard obliterating our bearings so that all we could see were each other. I had never seen anything like it but you and M were all too aware how things could change in a blink of an eye. Each bombarding snowflake was the size of an egg and we looked up and let them fall and settle on our screwed up faces before we made an escape strategy. We listened hard through the muffled and blinding air for the sound of water, clutching each other, still laughing, though now with the slight hysteria of alarm. Luckily we found the stream which we’d been roughly following on the way up and we clambered down, keeping it close, relief flooding through us. Later we fired the woodburner  back at the bothy and ate mince and potatoes. We drank whisky and you both enveloped us in your Scottishness. We recited Rabbie Burns around the dinner table and my attempt had you in stitches. Your turn of phrase, your inclusive laugh, your warm gaze.

I look at the photographs from that trip now. I remember how cold you were on the beach at Auchmithie, how we urged you to run about to warm up. There is one of me and N on the glistening sand, wrapped up, looking young and stern, posed against a dark grey sky shot through with yellow ochre. You have jumped into one corner, grinning, inhabiting your inner troll with glee, a persona you often joked about in those days. Troll didn’t go away entirely but eight years in Paris took their toll – perhaps there just wasn’t room in the 14th Arondissement for the both of you.

I loved to hear you speak French – and Italian for that matter. I remember in the south of Italy staying on the Amalfi coast when we followed you around like ducklings while you chatted with the market traders, searching out the best salad or the tastiest cheese. We’d go back, eat, and watch the sea below, brittle and sparkling in the afternoon sun.  A stand of tall pines gave us shade in the heat of the day, breathing out their resinous treasure, hammocks strung between them. Here we lay, reading books and snoozing, or just hanging about talking. What are we going to have for dinner? might well have been an important topic. We loved to chat.

A narrow path led us steeply down to a tiny beach, flanked by rocky outcrops and the singed remains of spring flowers, the limestone cliffs climbing up in a tumble of tiers high above. Here we swam and got endlessly chewed by hungry wasps, their jaws rasping away at our skin as we lay on the rocks. Later, in the cooler evening, the sound of cicadas humming through the air we took to the roof and danced, the stone still warm beneath our bare feet. Any excuse.

If I counted the acres of dance floors on which I have travelled with you it might wrap around this land twice. Oh the joy of all that shuffling, jumping, knowing. The last time was in your living room, on E’s birthday, on a freezing February weekend. We’d all been up in the hills, walking on the goatherds and hunters byways, the sky a bright clear blue and the sun shining, the ground crackling beneath our feet, filled with the brittle tawny leaves of sweet chestnut. We could see where the wild boar had been and the waterfalls were frozen, static, amazing. You’d stayed behind, to be godmother, and also because those long walks were too much for you now. After dinner, we jigged around to some tunes and I thought how amazing you were, that despite all the suffering you had found a way to live. How love had softened you and some of the things which had plagued you had dropped away like a stone.

The Cevennes

Your mother’s family had emigrated to Scotland from a village in the mountains in Italy. You took a trip there one time in the 1990’s and I remember you saying you could see yourself living in a place like that one day. And how disconcertingly funny it had been to find a fair few people there had spoken with thick Glaswegian accents, having found their way back.

In the end it was France which called you and it was in the Cevennes where you and P made your beautiful place together. It was also where you tapped into something deep; a connection with the landscapes and nature surrounding you. They gave you solace and unleashed your creativity, something which you’d always sworn was not inside you, not even the tiniest bit. We all knew different – just by knowing you.

2384

While out roaming the thin rocky soils and riverbeds of the Garrigue you found its crevices and ravines studded with lavender, thyme and arbutus. And here you found the shapes which inspired you – the dessicated, twisted branches of cistus, box and rosemary or the flow of fast water over rocks.

The Garrigue

Water ring

The Garrigue

In a bigger river, not far from you, we swam one summer. The water was glacial, chalky blue and fierce. For fun we launched ourselves upstream and let ourselves be carried in the current through a procession of massive boulders, squeezing through a narrow channel into a quieter pool. It was too cold to stay in for long and we climbed out into the baking day, shivering, and let the sun beat down on our backs as we lay outstretched on the flat stones, feeling the warmth returning. In the last month you worried that we would all forget you, that even though you loved us you couldn’t bear for us to be having fun without you.

Don’t worry G, you’ll be there.

As Ardu says in his poem, dedicated to you:

Gift

‘I want to tell my friends,’ you said.

‘I’d like to give them this gift.

I want to tell them:

Most of the things we fret about

Don’t matter, and how

I have learnt to love the life I have.’

*

When we were alone, you asked

What was troubling me?

I found some words

For my condition (forgetting your condition)

‘Sometimes, I concluded,

I feel like I’ve been lobotomized.’

‘That’s bad’, you said. And then we both erupted.

*

Your lovely spluttering, hiccupping

Helpless, breathless, waterfall laugh

Cascading over us.

Relief, semi-hysteria even

To spit and gurgle at the pain

To chortle and show our teeth,

Your lovely teeth.

*

A little later, I asked, nervously,

Do you think, without death so close

It is possible to know what you know:

To cherish life and love?

Can you get there some other way?

‘It wouldn’t be the same,’ you say.

*

You knew how we’d all go on worrying about

Bills and stains, and who does best.

We’d all go on arguing about who’s right

And why we always fight when driving.

*

And yet, you showed us

You will go on giving us

Your life and how you lived it:

The light in the trees, a swim at Sumenette,

Your mountains, a dance…so many dances.

Your eyes, your hair, your smile – your buttercup skirt –

Your life and how you lived it.

*

GS

*

In your last days by the side of the canal you were so glad to be out of the hospital. And despite your fear, to have those who loved you all around. You spoke about the tall silver birch just outside the window of your room, how sometimes, though not enough, the way the light danced through the leaves gave you comfort. And if there is such a thing as a good death, then yours was it. I am so grateful that I was there, that I could be present in this final place; to have a chance to say goodbye, to hug and to hold you, to allow our tears to mingle.

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37 Comments Post a comment
  1. What a wonderful eulogy. She was a beautiful woman. Your words and photos do her justice.

    June 30, 2013
    • She certainly was. It’ll be a whole different landscape without her in it. Thank you very much mrscarmichael for your comment.

      July 2, 2013
  2. beautifully written…thank you for sharing this…what a tribute

    June 30, 2013
    • butterfly girl I’m glad you enjoyed the writing. Sometimes it flows, sometimes it doesn’t! Thank you for the visit.

      July 2, 2013
  3. Although I never met your friend Sarah, I’m feeling very moved by what you have written, how beautiful your memories are, people become a part of us, even though they aren’t with us anymore. Xx

    June 30, 2013
    • You’re right Jane, they do. I couldn’t really ask for any more than you be moved by what I’ve written….thank you xx

      July 2, 2013
  4. Anonymous #

    Couldn’t have put it better myself. Or a tenth as well. She would have loved it….. xx

    June 30, 2013
    • I hope she would too. Thanks very much. And your pictures are superb, thank you for letting me use them, they work so well. The ones of the Garrigue are amazing. xx

      July 2, 2013
  5. Rhonda Crowe #

    Heartfelt words in memory of a dear friend…beautifully written.

    June 30, 2013
    • Thank you Rhonda, so glad you enjoyed the writing. It’s amazing how it all came back to me, I must have been paying more attention than I realised!

      July 2, 2013
  6. Oh, so sorry for your loss of this very dear friend. Such a beautiful homage to an obviously remarkable woman and wonderful friendship. So many great adventures and lovely sounding hours together.

    July 1, 2013
    • I like the word homage, it really fits, thanks. Still can’t quite believe there won’t be any more of those hours…it’s hard to get your head around isn’t it?

      July 2, 2013
      • Indeed. And such friendships are rare, I think – the way you seemed to have connected. Lovely you had that and terribly sad she’s gone.

        July 2, 2013
  7. Katherine Kearns #

    Sarah, your beautiful words do justice to a wonderful friendship. They make me want to give you a big hug to comfort you for your loss. xxx

    July 1, 2013
    • Thanks Katherine. I accept. I know that you too understand the meaning of appreciation of the small details. xx

      July 2, 2013
  8. Gosh. That’s incredibly powerful and moving. It put me in mind of the poem by Henry Scott Holland: your friend is still with you and will always be with you in many ways. Life’s fragile – we have to make the most of it while we can.

    July 1, 2013
    • I like that line ‘slipped away into the next room’ – it’s good imagery. Life is indeed fragile, and pretty short…we can easily get bogged down with ultimately irrelevant concerns…and we can’t seem to stop ourselves! At least not without some mindfulness.

      July 2, 2013
  9. Such a beautiful, touching tribute. When I first read it yesterday, I was so moved I couldn’t find a single word. You’ve not only told us much about her, and your relationship with her, you’ve reminded us that we, too, need to tend to those friendships which we cherish.

    July 1, 2013
    • Shoreacres, to have you and others moved by my tribute is lovely. If it in any way helps people to see, if only for a moment, on what’s really important then I am glad. Friends are such an amazing thing – including online ones! Thanks very much.

      July 2, 2013
  10. Rachel #

    What a beautifully written, lasting memoir. I’m very sorry for your loss, but she will always be with you in memories 🙂

    July 1, 2013
    • Yes, hopefully she’ll be trolling about in the corners of my mind – jumping in, just like normal.
      Thank you Rachel.

      July 2, 2013
  11. I read your words this morning and they stayed with me all day. You’ve a great gift for remembering. You reminded us that the meaning of life is love. Thank you.

    July 1, 2013
    • Ah Hamer this is very true. My father had a long carved piece of wood in front of his fire saying ‘We love or die’ …. I think it might be a quote from somewhere. To be honest we were all a bit embarrassed by it, but now it just makes me proud that he stood by his beliefs. I’ve actually got quite a bad short term memory….but it seems I can remember lots of details about the physical past! I’m so glad you were moved by my words – an aspiring writer couldn’t ask for more.

      July 2, 2013
  12. Sarah, I am so sorry for your loss. This post is a beautiful and loving tribute to your friend.

    July 2, 2013
    • Many thanks, Lemony, much appreciated. I know you know a thing or two about beauty so I’m glad you found it so. I wanted to make sense of things and this has definitely helped.

      July 2, 2013
  13. It’s like walking with she and you. I keep re-reading it to be there. xxxx

    July 2, 2013
    • slenderbill I thought about you too when I was writing, the walk and the dancing. So glad you were there slenderly billing. xxx

      July 2, 2013
  14. A life made shorter but a life spent well. Cram packed full of adventure and possibilities…a life that most of us won’t lead despite age making us weary. A woman of character and an intuitive understanding of life who wore it like she wore her friends, with grace and uncanny chic. People like your friend don’t die. They weave themselves into the fabric of our lives. They come back to visit us and we hear them laughing in the mist of time when we are alone and pondering. We are getting to “an age” where our mortality gives us pause for thought. We can’t ignore the passage of time or where inevitability will take us and one by one we bow out. We can only hope for the dignity of a good death tinted gold by the love of real friendship. Your beautiful friend isn’t in pain anymore. Time will take her from raw grief to slow beautiful moments and she will be with you more profoundly now that she is gone. I am so sorry that you lost a friend as wonderful as she was. Friends like that are like finding buried treasure. Please accept my apologies for getting here late. Life takes you all over the place but most of us never get to taste it like your friend did. You are most blessed to have shared those adventures with her 🙂

    July 4, 2013
    • That’s lovely Fran, thank you. Day to day life takes over and then I have profound moments of grief – like today, swimming in the sea, just me and my thoughts and started sobbing…then I thought I better stop as there was choking hazard and real waves coming my way (large ones) – she would have laughed at that! – not the choking obviously but the irony 😉

      July 6, 2013
  15. This is such a moving tribute. It is easy to underestimate the importance of friendship. I shall come back to it again I’m sure. The words and images combine beautifully.

    July 6, 2013
    • Thanks Diana…I feel honoured that you would read it again. And I’m glad you noticed the word/image thing!

      July 6, 2013
  16. I’m so sorry for the loss of your dear friend. This is a wonderful tribute to her, really heart moving.
    Best regards
    Dina

    July 8, 2013
  17. A very moving post, which brings across the difficulty of making sense of death and particularly of someone so young. I love your last words about allowing tears to mingle, it seems to touch on something important about life & death, joy & grief.

    July 11, 2013
    • It IS hard to make sense of, I still can’t believe it. And even harder for those closest…who have to make a new life. I’m pleased you like the tears mingling bit. I haven’t used that word for ages as I can’t get that bar ‘mingles’ in Brixton out of my head! But it just seemed right.

      July 12, 2013
  18. It might have helped my appreciation that I don’t know that particular bar. When I try to remember nights out in Brixton I think of the Fridge (night club), a thought which is always accompanied by a vague sense of disappointment. I think I like your comment because we all share a desire to mingle our experiences. However the truth (of this life) is that we are always physically seperate. Our striving to somehow counter this by bonding emotionally with others is one way of overcoming and making sense of our isolation. When my youngest daughter was about 6, she formed a spice girls band with a friend and called themselves ‘Mix & Mingle’. Unfortunately it only lasted a week but now as young adults the idea of mix & mingle still very much lives on.

    July 14, 2013
  19. Mix & Mingle…genius! Mingles is on Railton Road, the frontline, I always thought ‘what a terrible name for a bar’ … but ended up there a couple of times! I think its the only one that stays open post 2am and isn’t a nightclub. Ah, the Fridge….memories memories (sometimes)

    It’s true what you say about life – that we’re basically alone. I think this used to worry me more than it does now. There’s got to be some advantage to middle age, right?

    July 16, 2013

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