I haven’t written this diary for a hundred years and the critical voices in my head tell me that I should apologise to you for that, but I know perfectly well that you are grown-ups and you are doing life too and you understand how this works.
I’m sitting in my room and Darwin the Dog is asleep on the sofa and the sun, which has been away, has returned and is beaming through my window. Nina Simone is singing I Shall Be Released. I have absolutely no idea what is going on in the world, because I’ve been in my own small world and this is the first time I’ve opened the computer today.
(Nina sings, ‘I see my light come shining, from the west down to the east,’ and I think of how she has always been with me. She was with me when I was first falling in love and when I first fell out of it. She came with me, through tinny Walkman speakers, through the ancient cloisters of my university, when I didn’t know anyone and all I had to hold on to was the history that breathed out of those old stones. She was there when I was first published, and she was there when I got sacked by that first publisher and I thought my whole career was over. She was by my side through the glory years, when I was young and heedless and Soho was my own private playground, and she came with me when I left the city behind and took, literally, to the hills. She’s been riding with me, out into the Caledonian pine forests, on the back of my mighty red mare. She goes everywhere, and she’s always the same, and she doesn’t care if I’m in bits or if I am whole. That’s a friend.)
A very old friend rang up today. He’s someone I knew when I was in my twenties, and I adored him and we ran around together and had a whole lot of fun. We weren’t tough-time friends; we were good-time friends. We operated on the surface, but what a lovely surface it was. I have some great memories of that distant past, most especially a trip to the Dingle Peninsula when we left our urban threads behind and gazed out to sea, looking for the famous Dingle dolphin.
That was years and years ago, and life intervened and I moved north and we lost touch. Then the clever old social media brought us together again, and once more we were working on that delightful surface – liking each other’s tweets and sending each other the occasional old times’ sake line. And then he called and we spoke for fifty-one minutes without stopping.
I can’t even remember the last time I heard his voice; some time in the nineties perhaps. There was no surface now; this was a deep dive. We did life and death and grief and ambition and the nature of success and how to process emotion. We did men and women and the straitjacket of cultural imperatives. We did childhood hurts and happy memories and how sometimes it is a thing just to put one foot in front of the other.
It was one of the best conversations I ever had.
How does that happen? As I pressed the goodbye button, I felt a sense of amazement and inspiration and gratitude. How can it be that you don’t speak to someone for half your life and then there they are, picking up as if they’d never left off? And not just picking up, but ready for all the big subjects, the ones I love to hash out. No small talk, no humming or hawing, no looking for a way in, after so much time. It felt like one of those small, everyday miracles which must never be taken for granted.
I got a bit overwhelmed by all this coronacrisis. That’s why I stopped writing the lockdown diary. I felt I was not dealing with it well and I did not want to bore you with my harping on one note. There were the huge seismic shocks out in the world, as furious debates broke out about black lives and the transgender movement. There was fighting in the streets and fighting on the social media. And all the time, there was the background hum of sorrow and uncertainty as the deaths went on, and on, and on.
There was shouting about that too, as people cast around for someone to blame. So, every day, there were fierce furies about this government operative or that failed policy. I did not know what to write about any of that. I wanted to find a nice cave to hide in, as I thought of all the ramifications and tried to get my head straight. (Some of it made me look at myself too, to do a decency audit, to check for complacency and calcified beliefs, which was a fairly uncomfortable feeling. It was not made easier by all the Manichean yelling.)
And just as I felt I was coming back to some kind of even keel, one of my mares had to be put down. So I was back with my old friend, grief. Ah, I said, not you again. I have to remember how to do you. (Every time that old compadre knocks on my door, I have to remind myself how to welcome it in, not to fight it, not to brace against it, not to try and wish it away by a sheer act of will. Every time, it is hard. And every time, I tell myself – you really should know this by now.)
The little bay mare was one of the kindest, funniest, most gentle and beautiful creatures with whom I’ve been lucky enough to spend my days. She brought joy to me, and to so many other people. She was such a dream that I could put everyone on her back, and I used to watch with delight and pride as she took anyone, from a child of eleven to a seasoned horsewoman who once rode the Silk Route, up into the Scottish hills. She illuminated my hours, and now a light has gone out, and I have to get used to that. She was my faithful companion through the long days of lockdown, when I could not see a single other human being. She gave me all the things I was missing: love, understanding, affection, laughs. (She had the comic timing of a young Lucille Ball.) I owe her more than I can say, and her loss is like a hard, bruising ache on the heart.
Here is the thing I am remembering about grief. You have to feel it. You have to step into it. It cannot be denied. But you can, gently, gently, make small spaces for other things too. The whole day does not have to be a grief day. You have to roll with the waves, when they come, but you can watch them wash away too, and then there is room for a happiness, or a funniness, or a fascination. There is time to stand and marvel at the green of the trees. There is time to work and hope. There is time to hear the voice of a dear person on the end of the telephone and to feel a humming sense of communion, a lovely reminder that old ties are not broken but just lying slack until you draw them tight again.
Sometimes, I think, the universe sends the blows. The sea grows stormy, and I am bailing like crazy to keep my little ship from sinking. Sometimes, the universe sends a gift. The winds drop, and the ocean calms, and the sun comes out from behind the clouds, and the ship is sailing again.
Today, quite unexpectedly, I got one of those gifts. And that is what I wanted to write down, so I would not forget.