One day at a time is a good idea when you’re a little more plugged into the concept of ‘day’. I was planning to post another piece from the memorial last night, but I’d had a really nice day out with a friend* followed by supper at a pub** and when I got home . . . home was darker and colder and emptier even than usual since 16 December, despite the presence of a hellmob who were more than happy to join me on the sofa for some mutual support*** and I couldn’t face posting more remembering-Peter stuff. This evening I got home from my interview at the abbey to become an Ornamental Laic Doohickey appended in some mystic and numinous manner from the monkish community†, firmly opened my laptop and addressed myself to the next memorial piece and . . . realised I needed to ask its author a few questions before I posted it and he didn’t get back to me by return electron what is the MATTER with the man.†† My sensible alternative was to hang some photos—there were posters full of photos at the memorial service, most of them patiently loaded and tweaked into available digital format by the tireless Philippa—but I can’t face that right now either.†††
So you’ll have to make do with this for tonight. Tomorrow is another day. For better or worse.
* * *
*Fiona. We went to a YARN SHOP. That was a no-brainer, wasn’t it? But it’s a yarn shop that specialises in small indie spinners and dyers where if you see something you like BUY IT IMMEDIATELY BECAUSE IT WON’T BE THERE IF YOU GO AWAY FOR A CUP OF TEA TO THINK ABOUT IT AND COME BACK HAVING DECIDED ‘YES’. The problem with going in there even having decided in advance to kill on sight—er—I mean snaffle and stuff in basket on sight is that these frelling itsy bitsy indies—I mean the tinies, doing it in their kitchen sinks^, seem only ever to produce one middling-sized skein of anything. Which does make for a highly engaged day out, scampering around the shop looking for something that complements the single unique skein you have fallen in love with, which alone has about enough yardage^^ for a bow tie and one earring. This matching trick is likely to be impossible however because you’ve got to get the same gauge—the thickness of your yarn—and the mix of fibres similar if not identical between or among your skeins or your knitting will come out a gnarly ramshackle mess.^^^ This odds-against pursuit also goes some way to preventing you from buying more yarn than will fit in the car.#
^ You can tell what mum or dad is dyeing by the colour of the food on your plate. Orange meatloaf. Green bread speckled with dazzling yellow pumpkin seeds. Red peanut butter. Pink brussels sprouts. All finest wholesome vegetable dyes of course. That’s probably beet juice in the peanut butter and maybe in the brussels sprouts too.
^^ or meterage
^^^ Fiona, who has been at this scam a lot longer than I have, is also a lot braver. I keep looking at the percentages of stretchy (wool, etc) and non-stretchy (cotton, silk etc) and wanting them to match if I’m going to try to knit them together, and sometimes frelling teeny indies don’t even give you the percentages, so you have something that says wool/silk and something else that says wool/silk but THEY ARE OBVIOUSLY PERILOUSLY DIFFERENT and then you see something that says wool/silk and something else that says alpaca/cotton and they actually look pretty similar and you’re sure you’re losing your mind as you’re kneeling weeping on the floor when Fiona drifts by says, no, feel it—rubbing various yarns briskly between her fingers—it’ll be fine. She also has some INSANE ideas about holding double a 4-ply yarn that matches your unique skein of 8-ply colours in paradisical perfection, to make up the weight. AAAAAUUUUUGGGGHHHH. Maybe she could do this without inadvertently stringing herself and three local hellcritters from the rafters but I’m not going to risk it.
# It’s probably a good thing Fiona has a small car.~
~ I have ANOTHER yarn day out planned with ANOTHER friend. This however will be to a serious, sober yarn shop and I shall go armed with a LIST. As Fiona and I were agreeing yesterday, when you go into a random yarn shop you buy . . . random yarn which goes in your stash. If you have a PROJECT in mind . . . of course you have to buy yarn for it because your stash is . . . your stash. You don’t knit from it. Of course not.
** I think I’ve told you that the Troll and Nightingale used to be the brawlers’ pub, the presence of which haven of misbehaviour in deeply staid New Arcadia used to amuse me to an unseemly degree.^ Well it got a refit a year or three ago and has blossomed into quite the many-petalled flower of the art of the gastropub. I’m a tiny bit nostalgic for the bad behaviour of yore, but mostly I’m happy to have another option for a glass of fizz and some food to hold it down within walking distance. New Arcadia is so well off for foodie pubs that you can choose your atmosphere by your mood of the moment and you can indulge in a permanent snit with one of your locals and still have plenty of alternatives. For a cranky person the availability of a righteous snit that doesn’t cost anything in pleasure or convenience is as delicious as . . . well, Niall’s chocolate brownies, say. Anyway. The Troll and Nightingale wasn’t expecting much business on a wet Tuesday night in January and were understaffed and service was SLOOOOOW. But Fiona and I just got on with our knitting. Knitting rules.^^
^ except when the spilling into the street and the tops of their lungs and breaking furniture+ thing was happening very late at night on a summer evening when your windows are open. I won’t say I would be trying to sleep, but if you’re propped up in bed on six pillows in the wee hours reading, part of the pleasure of the entertainment is the you’re-the-only-one-awake silence.
+ You probably know it’s actually quite difficult to break furniture that hasn’t been Hollywoodised for filming scenic altercations, but it can be done.
^^ Even if I did have to rip that multiply-damned sleeve out again. I would suspect myself of not wanting to finish the last project I’d started while Peter was still alive but since I never finish anything anyway this seems superfluous to requirements. I’ve done a lot of knitting since 7 September because it keeps me off the ceiling^ and pretending to be calm and sane, knitknitknitFOCUSknitknitknit, but I think it’s all lying around waiting to have some kind of finishing element applied. Mostly this involves weaving in ends and sewing up seams but I’m also experimenting with making bags for handbells which require felting. Oh, and I made an adorable scarf with my last two skeins of indie yarn.^^
^ Unless of course I’m trying to knit with a double strand of 4-ply to match the every-two-rows swap with the other single-indie-skein of 8-ply.
^^ You’re allowed to knit randomly out of your stash. You just can’t knit planned projects.
*** And snoring. The hellterror is a redoubtable snorer.
† The monk who is Master of Ornamental Doohickeys said to me kindly that signing up was a significant thing to do at a crisis or turning point in one’s life. Oh. I thought Alfrick was just stampeding me into something he thought would be good for me.
†† Possibly he has a life? Some people do I believe.
††† The posters themselves, at my request, were handed over to me at the end of the memorial, and they are leaning up against a corner in the cottage sitting room. I want them, I just don’t want to look at them quite yet.
PETER — EARLY MEMORIES *
My earliest memories of Peter are when he was 4 in our tropical bungalow in Livingstone (now Zambia) — within sight of the plume of spray from the Victoria Falls. We each had an African minder and a pet: Richard a sulky eagle owl chained to a stump, Pete a mongoose which nipped our heels but was meant to deter snakes — Dickie, our Dad, named it Rikki-Tikki-Tavi after Kipling. I had an armadillo which was singularly unresponsive to affectionate stroking. We bathed in the Zambezi protected from crocodiles by wire mesh fencing and had picnics in the dry season on a rock right on the lip of the Falls. There was a lot of travelling. We travelled to and fro — a gruelling three day journey – to Plettenberg Bay on the South Coast of South Africa for the hot weather and then to England (three weeks’ voyage in a Union Castle steamer) to meet our English grandparents. We eventually settled as refugees in our grandparents’ house in Painswick after our father died.
I’m a bit confused about the chronology but for several years we lodged with our Hyett Great Aunts in Painswick House, a small dowdy** but beautiful Georgian Mansion in a huge wild garden with romantic Rococo follies half hidden in the undergrowth. For Peter it was heaven. Aunt Lucy knew much of Shakespeare by heart so there were yearly productions of Shakespeare on the bowling green in which Peter always had a part. Julian Slade lived in the village so he was of course the lead! There are many echoes of that lost world in Peter’s books.
In a production of Alice, Richard was the Mad Hatter; Peter the March Hare. I was the Dormouse.
Of Peter my most vivid memory is of him sitting with his head in a book anywhere he happened to be: on the stairs, under the billiard table, behind the library sofa; on any vacant bed, with his thumbs stuck in his ears to exclude all exterior distractions like urgent calls. The only way to get his attention was to grab the book and run. One winter afternoon he didn’t turn up for lunch. We weren’t too surprised because time was a flexible dimension in his world; but when it started to get dark our mother began to get worried and I heard anxious grown-up whispered conversations. “What shall we do?” When it became too dark to read the ten foot high double doors to the drawing room were pushed open (the room was seldom used) and a rather bleary-eyed boy came out to ask if it was lunch time yet. His mother was uncharacteristically cross with him — I think she had been really frightened. “Peter, what have you been doing? We’ve been calling for you for hours!” “Oh sorry Mum, just been finishing Macbeth and Hamlet. ”
He had an extraordinary memory for poetry. At our prep school we had to memorise a poem each week and recite it on demand. Peter learned Chesterton’s “Lepanto”, admittedly in weekly chunks, but could still recite most of it*** years later. I remember him chanting in a gale on Painswick Beacon ” White founts falling in the courts of the sun, And the Soldan of Byzantium is smiling as they run, There is laughter like the fountains in that face that all men feared, It stirs the forest darkness the darkness of his beard, It curls the blood red crescent the crescent of his lips, For the inmost sea of all the earth is shaken with his ships” . Our mother loved Housman’s poems and used to recite them to us on our long cross-country drives in our ancient Morris 8. Peter came to know many of them by heart and as I sat beside his bed in the week before he died we recited several together nudging each other’s memories. I have chosen the last poem he spoke.
From there Peter went to Eton as a King’s Scholar. It was a family tradition of several generations that “going to school” simply meant going to Eton. He was remarkably uncontaminated by the experience and seldom talked about it, perhaps because he got terrible reports for idleness and carelessness, but his natural intelligence got him an Exhibition to Kings College Cambridge, initially to read classics but moving over to English as soon as he could. Our ways gradually separated (I was spared the family tradition† ) but when we met we always picked up our voluble conversations more or less at the point when we had last left them. Richard used to complain that we talked simultaneously and much too noisily.
He did 2 years National Service in the Royal Signals in the course of which he managed to mislay 4 army trucks which were never traced. He told me that a kindly Sergeant quartermaster added them to his own inventory of mislaid equipment for which he was court-martialled. It sounds a bit like a novel. But that is hardly surprising.
One final snippet. Peter loved limericks and invented a new verse form called a ‘Bishopric’ There were strict rules: there had to be a Bishop in the first line and another clerical office mentioned in the third.
The Bishop of Joppa
Grew moss on his topper.
He said to his curate
“My wife will manure it,
I wish you could stop her.”
The Bishop of York
Ate his soup with a fork.
“My Lord,” said his vicar,
“A spoon would be quicker,
And allow us to talk.”
The Bishop of Bude
Used to bathe in the nude.
“My Lord,” said the Dean,
“Wear a hat, lest you’re seen
On the beach by a prude.”
But it was to Housman that his mind drifted back at the end. †† Tess ††† is now going to read one of his favourites which seems apt today. ‡
* * *
Editor’s footnotes, for anyone who is unaware of blog style:
* by Peter’s brother Hugh, retired Dean of Salisbury Cathedral, which I think makes him a Very Reverend. He was also my guardian angel both during the funeral Mass on Tuesday that Alfrick took and the funeral Wednesday morning^ which was immediate family only at the crematorium . . . both of which I wept shatteringly through and probably only survived at all because Hugh sat next to me and held my hand.
^ before the memorial service Wednesday afternoon which is where these pieces are coming from
** Only the overpowering effect of a decade of being responsible for Salisbury Cathedral could make anyone call Painswick House small and dowdy. I daresay my crude American sensibilities are being led astray by subtle English humour. But for other easily misled Americans let me just say that all nine bedrooms of our old house^ would fit in PH’s sitting room. You needed a telephone or a carrier pigeon to talk to someone at the other end of that room and the ceilings were easily high enough that private weather systems were an issue. Those of you who have read the Damar stories? Luthe’s hall? Yes.
^ jackdaw-infested chimneys optional
*** All of it on that exciting trek from Bangor Maine in the middle of the night in February.
† Please. Hugh went to Winchester, which is if anything even posher than frelling Eton.
†† With me it was Kipling–one of the things Peter and I first bonded over was Kipling, and he was murmuring Kipling to me till the end. I imagine his four kids would offer two, three or twelve more poets.
††† Hugh’s daughter
‡ This one: XLV Smooth Between Sea and Land
[Fixed – Blogmom] I’m sorry, I can’t get this ugly beast to light up into a link. WordPress has been through 1,000,000 updates since I was last posting regularly, each one of them less helpful than the last, and the only old sneakaround I can remember doesn’t work any more. If you copy and paste it into your own little screen window it will take you to the poem, I’ve just tried it.
I can’t get my head around the widow thing. I’m what? Peter’s what? No, no, no, it’s a bad dream. It’s a shit-sucking multi-tentacled toxic-spiked nightmare. At heart level I know he’s gone gone gone gongegonegonegone gone: it’s why I don’t seem to be inhabiting my body, I look at my hands on the keyboard or picking up the chopsticks to seize some broccoli* and think, what? What are you? Whose are you? I’m pelting down the pavement*** after the hellhounds and thinking, whose legs are these, that still work so well? If Peter can’t hurtle any more, why was I left behind?
Intellectually I’m still arguing about the gone gone gone. My body knows. I can hardly type because my fingers may still bend and strike but they’re crying too, and crying ruins your aim. I’ve broken three dishes in about ten days—one of them a favourite, and it’s out of print, whatever you call it for china, and I can’t replace it. I don’t break dishes. That’s Peter’s job.
Every day I get out of bed and am surprised that I can. And then wonder why I’m bothering. Well, I have to. I have to let the hellmob out.†
The truth is that Peter hasn’t hurtled in years. He still used to come with us sometimes on the shorter afternoon hurtles when the hellhounds were young and frelling inexhaustible†† but his long long tramps over (muddy†††) Hampshire countryside had stopped by the time we moved into town. Being walking distance of the shops, Peter said, was his idea of growing old gracefully. And he did keep walking to the shops, even if he got a little slower, and a little slower, and eventually he was walking with a stick. But he was still moving along. . . .
And then the first stroke, two years ago.
The last two years have been sodding bloody puking awful. Even though I can only afford to admit it now. Now that it’s all over.‡ I don’t know how common this is, but I’ve always been someone who when things are bad, helplessly bad, and the only thing to do is endure, I shut down, and get on with it as best I can. Admitting the unbearable is unbearable does not help. So I don’t. Didn’t. I joined the Street Pastors and the Samaritans partly because God told me to‡‡ but partly because I could do fuck-all for Peter, and maybe I could have a dab at slapping a plaster on someone else’s mortal wounds.
And? I pretty well haven’t written a publishable word since Peter’s first stroke. It took a few months to catch up with me—that I essentially wasn’t coping—but the proof is pretty stark. And I’d better start writing soon or retrain as a grocery store shelf re-stocker.
Life sucks and then you die. Or your beloved husband does, after being yanked around by fate and the devil for a couple of years.
I have various friends keeping a sharp eye on me. I rang frelling handbells this afternoon because doubly-frelling Niall is triply-frelling relentless.‡‡‡ Half a dozen of my St Margaret’s friends came to the memorial service and mobbed me after the talking part and before the champagne to discuss how and when I was going to start coming to church again, since I haven’t for . . . about four months. Since the 7th of September. I want to start coming, I said, but I can’t face all those people asking me how I am. We’ll come fetch you! they said, more or less in chorus. And we won’t leave your side for a moment! So there was discussion of tactical defence manoeuvres . . . and one of them, whom we will call Rosamund§, is going to drive to New Arcadia and pick me up, and about four of the others are going to GUARD THE BACK ROW against our arrival. I’m going to bring my knitting!§§ I may not do anything but crouch in the back, cry, and knit! I said. That’s fine, they all chorused—including Buck, whose sermon I will be knitting through.
Whatever. Okay. I guess. Sigh. And you all are probably going to tell me I still have to finish PEGASUS.
I’ve got permission to hang the other memorial pieces, by the way, which will follow in due course. And the six minute limit? Thanks for all your protests on my behalf, but we were trying to cram a lot in in an hour. It was actually a pretty spectacular show. Peter would have loved it . . .
So, I’m crying again.
* * *
* Yes I am eating.^
^ And broccoli is my fifth food group, with black tea, champagne, chocolate and apples.
** It’s kind of funny that knitting is soothing when it seems to be being performed by someone else’s hands, but I’ll take what I can get in terms of soothingness.
*** The wettest December on record is morphing seamlessly into the wettest January. I’ve got standing water in my little garden^, which is on the top of a hill and less than a spade-blade length down is full of builders’ rubble which ought to be good drainage, for pity’s sake, even it’s a little short on plant nutrients. Hannah is coming over next week bringing, she told me, her hiking boots, and I’m wondering if I should tell her not to waste the space: out in the countryside it’s scuba gear^^ or nothing.^^^ We can splash down assorted quaint medieval cobblestone streets in Mauncester. Supposing the road between here and there doesn’t flood out. I seem to have mislaid Wolfgang’s water wings.^^^^
^ This severely displeases the hellmob.
^^ No, a bathysphere. With a strong headlamp.
^^^ If I told her not to bring them the sun would instantly nova and turn us into a desert. I guess she’d better bring them.
^^^^ The hellterror may have eaten them.
† Into the paddling pool
†† Okay, so at least I haven’t been trying to quench two young inflammable hellhounds every day these last four months, and the hellterror, given about four foot in all seven directions^ can hucklebutt herself into a state of pleasant nap-taking collapse. Am I supposed to be GRATEFUL?
^ Up, down, back, forth, in, out and AAAAAUGH
††† All right it hasn’t always been muddy, the last not-quite-quarter-century^ but right at the moment it feels like it has.
^ Our anniversary was 3 January+ but we also celebrated 26 July, which was the beginning of that weekend in Maine
+ Tolkien’s birthday. Yes. I’ve told that story somewhere on this blog.
‡ He wanted to go. He absolutely, totally wanted to go. But I wasn’t ready to let him go. He won.
‡‡ I’m not going to argue about this. Anyone who doesn’t believe in God^ is going to have no clue why the unsainted hell your faith is a comfort to you in bad times, when God could flapdoodling well sort it, whatever it is, if he/she/it/they blinkety-blankety well wanted to. I can only say that faith really is your bulwark and buttress and rock of ages and so on, and I’m not entirely sure I would still be getting out of bed in the morning if I didn’t have Jesus and his Mum^^ to scream at.
^ And I’m not going to argue about this either: as Alfrick says, we’re all going to have some surprises when we get to whatever heaven is, all of us, the Christians, the Muslims, the Hindus, the Shintos, the Buddhists, the shamans, the wiccans, the pagans, the everybody else, and the agnostics and the atheists. Especially the atheists.
^^ That would be God, not Mary, although Mary is good too. Although I have my own ideas about what she thought she was getting into with Gabriel. I mean, she was a teenager, right? And Gabriel was cute.
‡‡‡ He’s also responsible for chivvying me into ringing a quarter peal in Peter’s memory a few days after Peter died and before the madness that is funeral and memorial service arrangements had closed me down completely. It’ll be good for you, Niall said. It will not! I said. Jumping off a bridge would be good for me! No, no, no, Niall said. Think of the hellmob. For better or worse all my friends know to remind me of the furries at critical moments.
§ Who is another of Alfrick’s devoted admirers, by the way
§§ I took a certain amount of teasing for the fact that I had my knitting with me at the memorial service. I had bought my Good Black Leather Shoulderbag some years before there was any question of knitting needles, and they stick out the top. Yo, I said, if I go to pieces, I will want my knitting.
This is what I said at the memorial service* today:
Peter’s first romantic fiancé’s gift to me was a pair of secateurs. This was about four hours after he’d said ‘just because you’re taking me on doesn’t mean you have to take gardening on.’ I was in England seeing what I was getting myself into. Peter and I had had an unexpectedly life-altering weekend in Maine about a fortnight before; we knew each other slightly through the book world, I’d visited him at home once when Mary Rose was still alive, he was merely returning the favour. But a week after we parted, feeling dazed and saying to each other, ‘it would never work, we are separated by age, culture, background, about 3000 miles and a national boundary,’ my phone rang at 7 am and I knew who it was and what he was going to say: ‘if we don’t give it a try we’ll regret it the rest of our lives.’ He had an idea that we could commute; I wanted to settle down somewhere with him, and I was the Navy brat, used to moving on. I emigrated.
Writing was the thing for both of us of course. He was an early riser and he’d be at his desk staring intensely at the page curling out of his typewriter or, eventually, the screen of his computer, by the time I staggered past him clutching a cup of strong tea, to go to my desk. In good weather both breakfast and lunch were in the garden, 7:30 and 12:30 sharp—one of his nicknames was Time Lord—tea followed at precisely 4:30 and supper at 7:30. He did most of the cooking; my right to make our bread half the time was hard-won. Over breakfast he did the GUARDIAN cryptic crossword and lunch and dinner were followed by one of his complex versions of patience; if he started getting some pattern out too often he changed the rules. Mornings were at his desk; after lunch was in the garden—if it was raining he would declare ‘it’s not wet rain’ and go out anyway.
That garden. It was a little over two acres and an insane amount of it was labour-intensive flowerbeds. Visiting friends and family were shamelessly put to work. There was some wild, for nettles and butterflies, some lawn, for grandchildren to play on (although heaven help any grandchild whose ball landed in a flowerbed), and a vegetable garden beyond the old stables. A lot of it was flowerbeds, especially the walled kitchen garden: people walking into it for the first time in high summer went ‘oooooh.’ The Warm Upford village fete was held there for years; Peter started opening on the National Garden Scheme with Mary Rose and carried on into my era. He was in his element on open days, holding forth about gardening, Latin nomenclature and plants, especially clematis, although he had many favourites, especially the weird and wonderful. I usually hid in the shrubbery with a bucket and trowel, although Peter extracted me occasionally to talk to someone about roses. He’d been slightly querulous when my rose mania burst out of the beds he’d assigned to it but since it made me a willing victim, I mean partner, in the whole gardening epic he adapted. He took wholeheartedly to having several whippets underfoot (who were rigorously trained to stay out of flowerbeds).
We lived in the old family house thirteen years after I married him. Peter started feeling his age in his 70s, and the DIY necessary to keep up a nine-bedroom-plus-outbuildings country house, even a ramshackle one, began to escape him. We moved into New Arcadia almost twelve years ago, where Peter redesigned and replanted two more gardens, even if they were small town gardens, including digging a pond for water lilies, newts and a fountain after he turned 80. Living in New Arcadia also meant he was walking distance of one of his bridge clubs; we were out two, three, four evenings a week, I bell-ringing and he playing bridge. There were still good times, but he’d stopped writing; ‘the well is dry’, he said.
How do I tell you about twenty-three years with Peter in six minutes? He was scarily intelligent and terrifyingly erudite; he knew a profligate profusion of poetry off by heart, and once when I was driving back to Blue Hill from Bangor, Maine after a late night flight from England in the winter, a treacherous trip that took over an hour, he kept me awake reciting poetry nonstop and without hesitation or repeat. He began with ‘Let me not to a marriage of true minds admit impediment’. He loved my books maybe even as much as I loved his, and believed in me and my writing without any edge or restraint; he never made me feel in any way less than him, despite being twenty-five years younger, and indeed after several years in his company I found I remembered the 1940’s well. (I was born in 1952.) But he was also not so much stubborn as monolithic: his way was the only way about many, many things and if you disagreed you were merely bowled over. He had kept four children quiet in the back seat of the car by telling stories; he now told stories to me and the whippets as we tramped across the glorious, if frequently muddy, Hampshire countryside. I called him the plot factory, and several of my stories spring from Peter’s ideas. I have a few in my notebooks that I’m still hoping to write, if I can stop crying long enough.
He was adorable and maddening in about equal proportions. I assume I’ll get used to his absence; most people do eventually adjust to loss and grief. But I’ll remember him every day for the rest of my life, even if I knock Methuselah out of the top spot.
* * *
* We did him proud, if I do say so myself. I’m going to see if I can persuade any of the others to let me post what they said too. And yes, six minutes. I ran about six minutes and ten seconds. Bad me. But not very bad. I’m the widow.^ I have privileges.
^ Widowhood sucks. Avoid. Make a note.
16 December 1927 – 16 December 2015