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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
‘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.
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.