In the village, a young man gazes up at the sky. There is something arresting about him. I stop and look at him as I pass by.
He’s perhaps twenty-six or seven, and he wears one of those old-fashioned forage caps like the ones they had in old war movies. He’s got on a long overcoat with a faintly funky twist to it. It reminds me of Benedict Cumberbatch in Sherlock. He has a pale, poet’s face and those round delicate gold-rimmed spectacles that they used to give out on the NHS.
He’s not from round here, I think. He looks as if he would be perfectly at home on the streets of lower Manhattan or the avenues of the Left Bank. What is he doing, I wonder, in a little village in north-east Scotland, gazing earnestly at the sky?
The twilight is falling and there are few people about. There are a couple of kids on bicycles and an old man walking home and someone with a dog. As I feel so often when I go to the shop, I think it’s absolutely, utterly normal and it’s not normal at all.
Today has been utterly normal. I did some work and watched the racing and burst into tears when Bryony Frost and Frodon soared round Cheltenham and won the big race. (This is completely normal for me. Great horses and great partnerships make me cry, most Saturdays.) I went down to the field and laughed as the red mare lay down to roll, groaning with pleasure, covering herself with a thick layer of glorious Scottish mud. I walked the dogs and looked at the autumn leaves and wondered where the sheep have gone. (The farmer has moved them from the south meadow. I always miss the elegant ladies when they go up the hill.)
And today was not normal at all. Not just because of the pandemic, not just because there was a young man in the village gazing at the sky as if he had never seen sky before, but because this is the day, five years ago, that my mother died.
I suppose the irony is that the death of a mother is normal and not normal. She was eighty-one, and she’d been ill for a while. She was old, and she had run her race. She was ready to go. What could be more normal than that? But I remember the tearing sense of non-normality. It’s like a rupture in the space-time continuum, an exploding black hole in the universe. Everything felt wrong. The world felt wrong, the house where she had lived felt wrong, the same sky my youthful poet stared at was all wrong. My body felt wrong, as if I did not know quite how to function in it. There was an extreme sense of hyper-reality and of unreality, at the very same time.
I remember thinking: I know how to do this. I should know how to do this. I’d had quite a lot of death by then; grief was an old familiar. I’ll remember what to do, I thought.
I did not know what to do.
Now, sitting in my silent room, I have an echo of that feeling. It comes muted through time – not the rampaging, ripping, tearing grief that knocks down mountains, but the memory of it, softened yet haunting, like TS’s music from a farther room.
Anniversaries shouldn’t mean anything, I think, momentarily cross; I miss her every day.
But of course they do. Of course they do.
She would have loved Frodon today. I wish she could have seen him as he pricked his ears and settled into his magnificent, powering, rhythmic gallop, jumping out of his stride from fence to fence. I wish she could have seen Bryony, sitting close to her horse, letting him do his glorious thing, trusting him absolutely. She would have loved the blinding Frost smile and the tumbling words of enthusiasm and the bone-deep horsemanship. I can hear Mum’s voice now. ‘Oh,’ she would have said, ‘little Bryony.’ (Everyone under the age of thirty was ‘little’ to her.) And she would have cried too, just like I did.
When the people I love die, I put them somewhere. My dad is in a delicate Japanese cherry tree in my garden and my beautiful bay mare, who galloped away from us in June, is in the horse chestnut outside my back door, and my old friend Simon is in the sky. (I don’t know how he got the whole sky, but he did, and I look up at him every day and say hello.) Mum got the stars. She’s especially in the evening star, so that there is always something magical when I see it glimmering and gleaming above the hill. ‘That’s Mum,’ I think, ‘just checking on me.’
Just checking. Normal, and not normal at all.