The Beast Inside

I have been wrestling with an ugly beast. For a while it bided its time, pacing behind bars, gathering strength until finally, a few days ago, it broke free.

I’ve always thought of myself as a relatively calm, mild-mannered person, but this week my anger was unleashed. I have wanted to hurl plates, kick the cat and find a tall lonely spot to scream at the sky. No one has been safe from my rage. Not the call centre workers I am endlessly on hold to, nor the friends and loved ones dipping in and out of our pain. Not even Matt. Quite frankly, I have been angry at the world and raging at the seeming unfairness of this situation: it just wasn’t supposed to be this way.

Last week I read On Grief and Grieving by Elizabeth Kübler-Ross, which details the author’s infamous ‘five stages’ model of grief. Anger is one of Kübler’s stages, and while I welcome the idea of ‘progression’, I do not find the emotion an easy companion. Anger feels like a misdirection of my energy – a negative descent into the realms of self-pity. I am horrible to be around. My broken heart is leaking venom. I am no longer the wise old lady tending her garden that I wrote about a few weeks ago, but rather a petulant, self-absorbed teenager, stomping resentfully through this new life. Or, in my lowest moments, I’m an embittered old crone sitting alone in the twilight of her life, muttering profanities at the universe. Whoever told me it would get worse before it gets better was right. Dammit.

The counsellor who teaches me about mindfulness tells me that anger is a valid emotion. Who wouldn’t be angry? She reminds me to be gentle with myself – to be self-compassionate and kind. And frankly, even while I rage and berate the unfairness of Matt’s death and its impact upon our family, there is still the small, defeated voice in my head whispering: Why not us? Why not Matt’s death?  We were not so very special … and the only thing we can be certain of in this life is that death will claim us all, at some point. Perhaps it was better this way – to lose love while it was still whole and beautiful – before damage could be done – before we could hurt or disappoint each other?

Still, when the red haze descends, it fills me up. It threatens to pull me apart at the seams and it needs release. Writing helps a little. I am filling pages of my journal with scrawled words, my hand cramping around the pen. And I think that’s why I keep posting here, too. At other times the urge to flee the house is overwhelming. I put my trainers and headphones on and head outside to stimulate some serotonin. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn’t. Running was something Matt loved and so it brings its own kind of pain – not just the pain of physical exertion but an emotional response too. To feel my heart pounding in my chest and my lungs burning can serve as a reminder of how alive I am when Matt is not. So when the running fails, I sit instead. I have a secret spot, a sheltered slab of sandstone positioned beside the harbour where I can watch the sunlight playing upon the water, the ferries navigating their way between stops and the dragonflies skimming the waves. It’s hard to appreciate beauty when you long to share it with someone whom you no longer can; but it’s still beauty, and the tears always dry – eventually.

Then, unexpectedly, a moment arrives as it did yesterday morning: my children sitting at the kitchen table eating breakfast, me packing my son’s lunchbox and trying to hold back the tears that had begun to flow. I’d thought I was being discrete, but the kids must have noticed my distress because, wordlessly, they left the table and came to hug me; and for just a minute we were a three, adrift on the kitchen floor, clinging to each other in a fierce bundle. It was quite a moment. Powerful not only for the fact it reminded me how amazing they are – so young and yet so full of empathy – so full of their father’s love – but also because it felt for a fleeting second or two that we were no longer a three – but a four again, wrapped in Matt’s strong arms. And let me tell you, it’s hard to sustain the anger when a moment like that comes along and melts you to your hard, bitter core.

 

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Books for the Broken-Hearted

It is not my intention for this blog to become a ‘grief blog’. Back when life felt ‘normal’, I used to post here about books I’d read and the process of writing my novels, as well as new experiences I’d enjoyed or things I felt passionately about. Right now, however, my life feels stranger than fiction — writing novels is proving difficult — and most books don’t speak to me as they used to. There isn’t much in my heart or my head right now other than profound sadness.

But, in a faint attempt to strive for something familiar, I thought I’d post about the books I have been reading over the past two months. It’s surprised me that I have turned to non-fiction, and in particular those texts that reflect the shock that comes with the sudden loss of a loved one and the ensuing deep grief. The truth is that I am finding comfort in reading words written by people who have been there too. Their writing seems to normalise the extreme emotions I am feeling and somehow makes me feel a little less freakishly alone. So while I don’t intend for every blog post I write from here on to focus on the theme of grief, it is my hope that the list of books I’ve compiled below (for both adults and children) might offer comfort to one or two of you who have found my blog since Matt’s death and who share a similar journey to me.

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The Year of Magical Thinking – Joan Didion

I bought this book before Matt died. It sat on our bookshelf collecting dust and for some unexplained reason I never reached for it. Not long after his death in July, I was gazing at Facebook seeking some kind of inane distraction from my pain when a post from the brain pickings site popped up into my feed. It was these words, from The Year of Magical Thinking, that leapt out at me:

Grief turns out to be a place none of us know until we reach it. We anticipate (we know) that someone close to us could die, but we do not look beyond the few days or weeks that immediately follow such an imagined death. We misconstrue the nature of even those few days or weeks. We might expect if the death is sudden to feel shock. We do not expect the shock to be obliterative, dislocating to both body and mind. We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe that their husband is about to return and need his shoes. In the version of grief we imagine, the model will be “healing.” A certain forward movement will prevail. The worst days will be the earliest days. We imagine that the moment to most severely test us will be the funeral, after which this hypothetical healing will take place. When we anticipate the funeral we wonder about failing to “get through it,” rise to the occasion, exhibit the “strength” that invariably gets mentioned as the correct response to death. We anticipate needing to steel ourselves for the moment: will I be able to greet people, will I be able to leave the scene, will I be able even to get dressed that day? We have no way of knowing that this will not be the issue. We have no way of knowing that the funeral itself will be anodyne, a kind of narcotic regression in which we are wrapped in the care of others and the gravity and meaning of the occasion. Nor can we know ahead of the fact (and here lies the heart of the difference between grief as we imagine it and grief as it is) the unending absence that follows, the void, the very opposite of meaning, the relentless succession of moments during which we will confront the experience of meaninglessness itself.”

Reading that paragraph was like two charged wires connecting in my foggy brain. Yes. Here was someone who had walked my path. Here was someone who understood.

Joan Didion’s words reminded me of the strange, mechanical being I was at the celebration of Matt’s life just nine days after his accident. It felt like I was navigating my way through a terribly polite industry event – and I suppose in some ways I was. I stood at a podium. I read some words. ‘Hello, hello’. Hug. Hug. ‘A glass of champagne?’ ‘Why, thank you.’ I kept expecting to find Matt at my shoulder – see him appearing through the crowds. A shared smile, a knowing wink – just for me. But he never appeared. And in the midst of a polite conversation, I would suddenly remember with soul-searing pain why I was there. Funny how social mores can keep you in check, even in the most extreme or surreal situations. Didion is right about the ‘narcotic regression’ of the occasion, and how we have no idea until we are there, that the worst days are yet to come.

After reading Didion’s words online, I found The Year of Magical Thinking on our bookshelf and started to read. This is the book that first drew me back to the comfort of words and encouraged me to reach out for other books about grief and loss.

A Grief Observed – C. S. Lewis

This is a slim volume by C. S. Lewis and an honest exploration of his pain after losing his wife to cancer. It was passed to me by a good friend and I read it in one evening – gobbled it up – and copied out particularly meaningful passages into my journal. It really struck a chord. I particularly related to the comments he makes about suddenly feeling desperately self-conscious in social situations – for me it’s the school gates or bumping into people on my local shopping strip.

‘I’m aware of being an embarrassment to everyone I meet. At work, at the club, in the street, I see people, as they approach me, trying to make up their minds whether they’ll ‘say something about it’ or not. I hate it if they do, and if they don’t … Perhaps the bereaved ought to be isolated in special settlements like lepers. To some I’m worse than an embarrassment. I am a death’s head. Whenever I meet a happily married pair I can feel them both thinking, ‘One or other of us must some day be as he is now.”

It’s Not Raining, Daddy, It’s Happy – Benjamin Brooks-Dutton

In the earliest days after Matt’s death, three different people suggested I read this recently-published memoir, written by Benjamin Brooks-Dutton whose wife, Desreen, was killed by a car while walking home from an afternoon with friends in West Hampstead. Brooks-Dutton writes about his love for his wife and the painful first year that followed her death. It’s also him capturing their family memories onto the page for their young son, Jackson, who was just two-years-old when his mum died. There are many differences in our situations, and yet so many pages had me nodding my head in recognition at his experience and some sentences offered great comfort:

‘I was told by someone who worked at the bereavement charity Winston’s Wish, ‘He might forget the memories but he’ll never forget the love.’ What a wonderful thought to hang on to when a child loses a parent.’

‘Naturally, loved ones feel the need to be there when tragedy strikes, but when they arrive it must be impossible for them to know what to do. I imagine everyone who came to visit me felt useless. And the truth is that most people were. All anyone seemed to want to do was put things right or take away my pain, and those things just aren’t possible when you lose someone you love.’

Of particular help to me was the list of ‘Dos and ‘Don’ts’ the author has included at the back of the book that outline how to help those widowed young. I shared these with family and friends when they asked what they could do or say to help.

The Grief of Our Children – Dianne McKissock

Given to me by a children’s psychologist, this book has helped me to understand the profound sadness my children are experiencing and the different ways this manifests itself. It’s been helpful to have a guide through the maze of their experience and suggestions for things I can do to help them, even while coping with my own heartbreak. Particularly helpful were the three pages offering a ‘summary of strategies that can help a grieving child’, including simple tips such as:

- Talk about everything that is happening in simple language so the child can understand and not feel dumb or patronised. Tell them the truth.

- Talk openly about the person who has died, but don’t be surprised if the child doesn’t say much in the beginning, particularly about feelings.

- Continue to make the child feel special and loved.

- Let children help plan the funeral and participate in the service if that is important to them. Build in the right to change their mind.

- Help the child plan simple things to look forward to, so they can reassure themselves that life will go on, that there is a future, albeit a different future.

These are just a few suggestions taken from a long and helpful list. Most of them are quite obvious, but it’s amazing how even the obvious can seem elusive when your world is turned upside down.

Tiny, Beautiful Things – Cheryl Strayed

I’ve been a huge fan of Cheryl Strayed’s writing since I first discovered her anonymous ‘Dear Sugar’ columns on the Rumpus website. She is about to explode onto the big screen with the film adaptation of her moving memoir Wild, starring Reece Witherspoon – another excellent read – but for me, it’s Tiny, Beautiful Things that displays her beautiful, humane writing at its best. Several people reminded me to read Cheryl Strayed after Matt’s death, and I have returned to this volume and found solace in it since. These words are from her column entitled The Obliterated Place, in which she offers advice to a man whose son was killed by a drunk driver:

‘Small things such as this have saved me: How much I love my mother – even after all these years. How powerfully I carry her within me. My grief is tremendous but my love is bigger. So is yours. You are not grieving your son’s death because his death was ugly and unfair. You’re grieving it because you loved him truly. The beauty in that is greater than the bitterness of his death.’

I think it’s fair to say that there have been other books about grief that really haven’t worked for me. I threw one across the room the other day when it suggested comfort could be found in making a nice ‘Oxtail Stew with Madeira’. ‘Serve with mashed potatoes and peas and drink with a big, bold red wine,’ the author helpfully suggests, as if I were about to host a fancy ‘Nigella’ style dinner party. (Only three and a half hours cooking time required!). Each to their own, but that book definitely wasn’t for me.

Books for Young Children …

We are a very bookish family, but having a stockpile of children’s books about death wasn’t something I’d ever considered needing before. Luckily, in those earliest days after Matt’s accident, very kind friends sent me books to read with the kids. Some have been more successful than others in opening up a dialogue about what happened to Dad, or offering comforting messages about death and grief. Here are the ones that have proved particularly helpful to us, amidst the usual escapist books we still enjoy each night. (For the record, my son is six and my daughter is four.)

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Tough Boris – Mem Fox & Kathryn Brown

This is a simple picture book about a rough and tough pirate. When we got to the page where the pirate’s parrot dies my son hesitated. ‘Can we play ‘I Spy’ on this page?’ he asked. We spent ten minutes talking about the pictures showing the pirate putting his beloved parrot in a violin case and floating him out to sea, before we turned back to the beginning, at Jude’s request, to read it again. He’d been in emotional lock-down since I’d broken the news about Matt. This was the story that got him talking.
 
 
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Always and Forever – Debbie Gliori & Alan Durant

Four animals live as a happy family in a house in the woods until one day Fox goes out and doesn’t come back. Through the gentle words and sweet illustrations, we see the three remaining animals grieve and cry and slowly come to terms with Fox’s death. This is particularly popular with my daughter. Every time we get to the page where Fox dies, Gracie sighs: ‘Like Daddy.’

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The Heart and the Bottle – Oliver Jeffers

We love books by Oliver Jeffers in our house – particularly Lost & Found. This one arrived in the mail from one of my husband’s work friends not long after his death. It’s the story of a little girl filled with wonder and curiosity. But one day, when someone she loves dies, she puts her heart in a safe place … until she decides one day that she’d like it back again … It’s a lovely metaphor which perhaps went a little over my children’s heads, but a very sweet and moving story, nonetheless.

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The Invisible String – Patrice Karst & Geoff Stevenson

A thoughtful friend sent me this book and carefully changed the names of the characters to our own family names – even the cat’s! We read it in bed early one morning together. The kids got such a kick out of seeing it was about ‘them’. The message that we are all connected by invisible strings and that no one is ever really alone is a simple and beautiful one. We all went quiet for a little while after we’d finished reading it, thinking about the invisible string that still connects us to Matt.

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The Paper Dolls – Julia Donaldson & Rebecca Cobb

While not specifically a book about grief, this lovely story was familiar to my children before Matt died, and we have returned to it since, for it’s wonderful and comforting message about how things that disappear from your life can still live on in your memory.

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Beginnings and Endings with Lifetimes In Between – Bryan Mellonie & Robert Ingpen

My son is bug and animal mad and this simple, beautifully-illustrated book offers a no-nonsense, practical explanation to the inevitable rise and fall of all living things. There is no sugar-coating. It just tells it like it is, using clear examples from the natural world.

‘There is a beginning and an ending for everything that is alive. In between is living.’

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Muddles, Puddles and Sunshine – Diana Crossley & Kate Sheppard

This is an activity book for children who have lost a loved one. It offers all sorts of practical support and projects for bereaved children to complete, to help them express their feelings around the loss of a someone special. We haven’t begun to use it yet, but I think we’ll spend a little time this Father’s Day filling in a couple of pages and recording some memories of Matt.

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The Bear and the Wildcat – Kazumi Yumoto & Komako Sakai

This is a really beautiful picture book about a bear whose best friend, a little bird, dies. Bear is bereft, but gradually, through the help of a new wildcat friend, he finds a way to live with his loss.

“This little bird must have been a very special friend of yours,’ he said. “You must miss him a lot.”

Bear looked up in surprise. No one had ever said that before.

The wildcat opened his box. Inside was a violin. He took it out and said, “Let me play a song for you and your little friend.”

So these are the books we have discovered to date. I’m wondering … are there any books that have helped you or your families cope with your own experiences of losing a loved one? If so, I’d love to hear about them in the comments below. Thanks.

Heart is a drum

I find it hard to listen to music at the moment – something about the emotion it conveys is difficult to bear. But a friend recommended Beck’s Morning Phase album and when I went to download it, I found it already sitting there on our iPod. Matt had got there first. The whole album is beautiful but I find the song below, Heart is a Drum, particularly calming.

It’s hard to believe, but today is the 49th day since Matt’s death. There are 49 days of mourning in Buddhist thinking and on the 49th day everyone thinks and lives a happy day, saying prayers and doing all positive things to make a joyful path to the next reincarnation. I’m not entirely sure where my own beliefs lie, but when my agent and friend, Sarah, told me about this practice, I realised I did like the idea of living a happy, generous day in Matt’s honour. It’s been grey and rainy here, but today has been good. We have handed out friendship bracelets and thanked the kids’ teachers with flowers; we have picked-up litter in a favourite park, walked in the rain, painted seed pod boats and filled them with flowers and handwritten notes to float out into the harbour for Matt. We have eaten with friends and family and tried to be kind and patient with each other. Today my heart beats strong, like a drum.

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Life and death

Earlier this week I stood outside in our courtyard, balanced on a wooden bench, picking dead leaves from the vertical garden my husband and I installed just a few weeks ago. It’s been unseasonably warm in Sydney and the new plants are thriving – mostly; yet here and there curled shoots have fallen by the wayside, lost in the shock of their recent transplant. As I stood there with the sun warming my back and a hand full of crisp, brown leaves, my mind raced ahead to a vision of myself as an old lady stooped over a garden, pruning dead shoots and faded flowers. I have been asking myself in recent days how long this pain will last, but standing up there on the bench, I was struck by the sudden realisation that this pain isn’t going anywhere. Many years from now, I will still feel this ache of losing my husband. Wherever my life goes from here, there will always be the love and loss of him. It is a part of who I am. So while I am terrified about memories of Matt fading – the sound of his laugh, his stubble against my cheek, the weight of his arm draped around my shoulders – the one thing I know I will never lose is this sense of loss for the man who lit my world. It’s so hard not to feel robbed of the very best part of me – of the person who made me feel most myself.

I realise now that death is all around us. Of course it is. Life goes hand-in-hand with death. Yet somehow it feels as though I have been walking around wearing blinkers. It is Matt’s death (and my cousin’s last year) that have ripped them from my eyes. I feel raw to it now – exposed. My senses are heightened to the inevitable cycle of nature, the tragic news stories, and the friends and strangers sharing their own stories of pain and loss with me. I am a new member of a very big club. So many of us, I see, are moving through the world bearing our losses, silently grief-stricken. How did I never notice this before? Why don’t we talk about death more? I find myself watching people, wanting to run up and urge them not to take a moment for granted.

Yet even with all this agony and all this uncharted loneliness and fear, there is still life in our house. It butts up insistently against the death. The plants in the vertical garden are already sending out new shoots that will transform to flowers this spring. The cat noses my laptop out of the way so that he can curl in a circle on my lap. Friends are dropping by with warm hugs and plates of food. And always my two children, their laughter and tears pulling me through the days.

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There is so much I would like to tell Matt about this strange life we are living. I long to pick up the phone and chat to him. I would tell him about Gracie’s new sleep spot on her bedroom floor, and the game she now plays, dressing up in his belongings – sunglasses, shoes, a hat – before crowing with delight: ‘Look! Daddy’s home. Look Judey, Daddy’s home’. I would tell him about his daughter’s new talent for anger and how his son wears his grief differently: in his downturned mouth, his pale face and the purple shadows under his eyes, so stoic until just before the lights go out and the questions come in a rush. ‘Mum, where do you go when you die? Mum, what does it feel like to be dead? Mum, does anyone still love me? Mum, why can’t we all be immortal jellyfish?’ And hardest of all, ‘Mum, is Daddy ever coming home?’.

Like the kids, I am learning new skills, too. I am the incredible skin woman – empty – hollow – nothing real or warm left inside. I am a sham, pretending at life. I am master of the silent scream; a Munch-esque response to the quietness of the house in the evenings, when the children have fallen still and I find myself alone with my thoughts. When I feel like this, I try to draw upon the mantra my grief counsellor has given me: This is a moment of pain. Pain is a part of life. I wish myself peace.* I try to pull myself back into the safety of the moment with the mindfulness techniques she teaches me. I attempt to focus on the simplest, most immediate details. My hands wrapped around a warm mug. The distant sound of a plane traversing the sky. The sunlight falling onto the last of the Japanese maple leaves. The steady rise and fall of my chest. In these moments I remind myself that I am sad, but I am safe.

And what is perhaps most startling of all is that even amidst the unrelenting pain, there are flashes of light and love, breaking through like flowers rising up through cracked asphalt. Spinning on my husband’s expensive reading chair – the one we were always so careful with. A rainbow breaking over the bay as I walk with friends in memory of Matt. Precious words written by my husband, found in secret places. The ‘Frozen’ birthday party we hosted at home for Gracie’s 4th Birthday earlier today. Even amidst our misery, there is still the urge to keep going, to keep putting one foot in front of the other, to keep breathing, to keep celebrating life’s important moments.

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So here I sit now, with the paper snowflakes drooping around me, balloons slowly deflating and a half-eaten Birthday cake (which the kindest friend made so I wouldn’t ruin the batter with my tears) attempting to pull myself into this moment. To the familiarity of these computer keys moving beneath my fingers. To the low hum of the fridge in the kitchen. To the cat sighing and stretching on Matt’s chair. To the heavy ball of emotion expanding in my stomach.

This is a moment of pain. Pain is a part of life. I wish myself peace.

Thank you for reading. I hope my words don’t make you sad, for I wish you peace in this moment, too. x

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*Since first posting this piece, I have found out from my counsellor, Louise Adams, that the mantra she gave me was created by Dr Kristen Neff. You can find out more about both these amazing women by clicking on their names.

Matt Richell

On 2nd July 2014 my world changed forever when my husband, Matt Richell, was killed in a surfing accident at Bronte beach.

Matt was a brilliant light in our lives – a wonderful father, a son, a brother and my best friend and husband. The days following his death have been dark and difficult. The children and I are navigating a whole new terrain of grief and sadness. We miss him desperately.

The support and love that has been shown to us by family, friends, colleagues and strangers has been astonishing. It is comforting to know how many lives my husband touched, and what an impact he had in his lifetime. Thank you to those who have reached out to us at this terrible time.

I also want to express my gratitude to those who were with Matt on the day he died and who tried to assist him. Many people went to heroic lengths to help him – several putting their own lives at risk.

Engaged! 2005

Engaged! Western Australia, 2005

Others far more eloquent than me have written beautiful tributes to Matt. If you search for his name online, you will find them. I could have written pages and pages for him … I wish I could write more. No words I write will ever do justice to the impact he had on my life, but the ones printed below are the words my grief-stricken brain could conjure for the memorial service held in Sydney and London on Friday 11 July. They will never be enough.

Rest in peace, Matt. We love you. xx

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“The irony is not lost on me that I stand here before you, a supposed writer and wordsmith, now struggling to find any words adequate enough to sum up the beauty and brilliance of Matt Richell – the man I love. But I shall do my best. Forgive me if I stumble.

I first met Matt in 2001, on a sunny autumn day in London’s Kings Cross. He breezed into the offices of Pan Macmillan to take-up a Marketing Manager’s job that I secretly coveted. He was tanned and relaxed from a year of backpacking and wore turned-up jeans, Raybans and Birkenstocks. I took one look at him and thought he looked pretty up himself.

It was mere days before I fell headlong in love with him. His creativity, his innate sense of style, his loyalty to his friends and family, his dry sense of humour, his lovely green eyes and that huge smile … they were all utterly irresistible. I was lost in him.

Our London years were golden. We were in our twenties and full of the giddy freedom that comes with being young, in love and working in jobs we adored. I shared my days with a man who lived for books and words, good coffee and bacon, pints with friends and clubbing until the sun came up. In the words of his favourite Saint Etienne song, we sat in Mario’s Café in Kentish Town ‘dreaming of all we had to live for’.

It quickly became clear that he was a man full of integrity. He had a strong moral compass instilled in him by his wonderful parents. He loved his family and missed his mum, cruelly taken from him too soon. The week he took me up to the Isle of Skye to stay in his father’s house was the week that convinced me that here was a man to build a life with.

Our passion for travel brought us to Australia in 2005. We spent three months camping across WA where he surprised me on Christmas day up at Ningaloo reef with his marriage proposal, a plastic ring off a dusty tarpaulin in place of a diamond. Cheapskate.

And then came Jude – named after Matt’s mum – and Gracie. Our children were his proudest achievements by far. His devotion to them was boundless. He cuddled them every morning and, without fail, checked on them sleeping each night. He was proud of their every achievement, full of love for their gentle spirits. Whether it was belting out ‘Let it Go’ with Gracie in the car or sharing his favourite children’s book, Danny Champion of the World, with Jude, he was a father who was present and real with his emotions.

Matt was, at heart, a nurturer. Without his tender encouragement, I never would have begun my writing career. Even while juggling the pressures of an enormous job and a young family, he encouraged – and often insisted – that I took the time to make space for my writing. He was the shoulder I needed to lean on and the ear I needed to bend, the cook in the kitchen and the neatest freak I’ve ever met.

Some things you may not know about Matt: he played the guitar, badly. He loved country music and … Taylor Swift. He hated reality TV, bad manners, and cushions on the bed. He was a lifelong Spurs fan and had a sneaky tattoo on his left arm. He was fantastic to go shopping with. He championed the underdog and was generous to a fault. He rarely took the good things that came his way for granted. He was the most present and caring man I ever met.

Before I slip into hyperbole, Matt wasn’t perfect. He would have been the first to admit it. He could be impatient and fiery – particularly when hungry – and sometimes he wore a certain look on his face that earned him the nickname ‘Shark Eyes’ with one group of friends. Matt was an introvert, pretending to be an extrovert. He had a big job, with big responsibilities and bearing all the pressures and internal conflicts that can bring. Within this room today, I see many of the friends who propped him up and kept him strong, even if you didn’t know it at the time.

Most mornings, he woke early, slipped on his running shoes and hit the streets, rain or shine. Just this May he ran a personal best in the Sydney Half Marathon, raising money for the Sydney Story Factory. And, of course, there was the surfing too, a bug he caught quickly and fiercely. Many Fridays he would rise in darkness, drive up to Freshie and sit on his board watching the sunrise … and he’d still make it into the office on time. He spoke frequently to me of the lure of the ocean. I think it was the place he felt most happy and free. It was the place that helped him to forget himself, and it never failed to put that beaming smile on his face. You couldn’t have kept him from the ocean even if you’d tried.

So while this is the very worst thing that could have happened, I take comfort from the fact he really did go out on a high. At the peak of a brilliant career, on a beautiful Sydney day, doing something he absolutely loved. In his last few days he shared sweet and poignant moments with the three of us – a walk through the park with Gracie – a soccer game with Jude – and on his very last morning, at his suggestion, he and I enjoyed a rare early morning coffee at our favourite cafe. It was just the two of us but while we sat there, he delved unprompted into a glimpse of a possible future – perhaps a downsizing of our lives after a few years, when we would retreat to the coast, where I could write and he could walk the kids to school and potter about the house and surf. He mentioned a favourite book he read to the children – Magic Beach – and a particular scene of an entire family snuggled up in bed together. He reminded me of our own family moment we’d shared like that, that very morning. Then as we left, we kissed goodbye in the sunshine. He turned and threw a last joke and a smile at me and we went our separate ways. For a goodbye you never want to come, it was pretty perfect.

Matt, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Your plan was to grow old, become a bearded man, living on the coast with a favourite seat in a pub, a collie dog warming your feet, a pint, a book and a battered surfboard at the ready. I think this is how I shall imagine your future anyway and perhaps I shall live it for you instead – a wrinkly old lady living your dream by the ocean somewhere, although hopefully without the beard.

I know the children and I will find you again – in the ocean you loved, the books you read, the sunrises we shall wake to and in the hearts of all those whose lives you touched.

To everyone here today, his family, his friends, his colleagues: thank you for your amazing outpouring of love and support. Thank you to the many friends who have gone to such extraordinary lengths to help us navigate these dark, dark days. Matt and I always thought Hachette felt more like a family than a company and I want to thank Tim, Richard, Malcolm, Louise, Justin, David, Auriol and all at Hachette both here and in the UK for being so extraordinarily generous with their support and assistance. My heart goes out to the team at Hachette Australia – whom he loved and felt so immensely proud of – and to his father Peter and brother Martin – and to our two beautiful children Jude and Gracie. The person I most want to thank though is Matt – for giving me the most amazing 12 years of my life, and more importantly, the two beautiful little people who carry his heart and his smile within them. I am so comforted by the fact that what he and I shared really was the truest of loves. Not perfect but so, so real. Matt, I shall never forget you.”

How I shall remember you: happy, in your pjs, watching a beautiful NZ sunrise.

How I shall remember you: happy, in your pjs, watching a beautiful NZ sunrise.

A secret garden

wendy whiteley garden

Just beyond Clark Park in Sydney’s Lavender Bay, down a set of unmarked steps, and on past a tall white house with an intriguing turret room stands a little piece of heaven. I think it’s thanks to Frances Hodgson Burnett that I find it hard to resist the idea of a secret garden, and yet it’s taken me eight years of Sydney-living to make it to Wendy Whiteley’s beautiful creation.

According to various internet sources, Wendy, wife of the artist Brett Whiteley, honed the garden from a derelict, refuse-strewn piece of public land beside their home (the aforementioned white house) to honour her late husband. She poured her grief and her love into its creation and it is a gorgeous welcoming spot –  less neat National Trust perfection and more rambling, natural artistry. Below the huge Morton Bay figs tiered steps and paths lead you up and down and around into the lower glade that eventually butts up to a railway line. As you meander, there are glimpses of harbour and city skyline, as well as benches and sculptures to discover.

I sometimes look to nature for inspiration and the overwhelming feeling while wandering about this unpretentious space was one of patience and love. There was a sense of deep and personal intimacy about the garden, even though we stood there on a plot of public land. (As if to emphasise this, just as we were leaving I felt my husband’s gentle nudge as he pointed out Wendy herself, elbow-deep in a flowerbed pulling weeds.)  If you find yourself on the north side of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, I highly recommend a visit.

 

 

 

March Reads

March was a great month for me. I got lots of writing done, spent some time with my London-based agent over here in Sydney, then spent two weeks travelling around New Zealand’s south island with my family. Our days were filled with fresh air and mountains, lake-swimming and amazing wildlife, while the evenings were spent holed up in the campervan, drinking great NZ wine and reading books while the kids snored loudly in their bunks. A perfect holiday.

Here’s what made it onto my holiday reading list:

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Child 44 – Tom Rob Smith

I think it was promotion for Tom Rob Smith’s new book, The Farm, that reminded there was a copy of his debut novel tucked away on our bookshelves. I threw it into the suitcase on a whim and I’m so glad I did.

Child 44 is Smith’s debut, a gripping crime thriller set in Stalin’s Soviet Union. The novel follows Leo Demidov, a state officer who begins to uncover the trail of a particularly nasty serial killer. The problem for Leo is that he lives and works for a regime that dictates no such crime can exist and anyone seen rocking the boat is either sent to the brutal labour camps or simply ‘vanishes’ forever. Leo will be risking his own life, and that of his wife, if he pursues the killer.

I haven’t read any fiction set in this period of history before and I found it brilliantly compelling – not just for suspense but also for the historical detail. I’m a little more squeamish about serial killers since I became a mum, but that aside, I found this book dark and utterly gripping. Apparently the novel is being turned into a movie starring one of my favourite actors, Tom Hardy, so I’m glad to have read it before its release later this year.

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The House We Grew Up In – Lisa Jewell

It’s been a while since I read a Lisa Jewell novel. I have no idea why. Ralph’s Party is one of my all-time favourite chick-lit books, so I can only put it down to oversight on my part. Since then, Jewell has cemented her spot as one of the biggest names in commercial women’s fiction, producing a string of  bestsellers, the latest of which is the divine The House We Grew Up In.

I love a sprawling family saga and The House We Grew Up In is, for me, contemporary family saga at its best. It features a beautiful Cotswolds house, a bohemian, slightly unhinged mother, a mysterious tragedy casting its shadow over an entire family and a heavy dose of edgy realism. I loved the clever structure of the book, the way each character reveals their story, the slow and careful unveiling of truths, the often surprising directions and choices each one makes in the course of their life. It felt so relatable – as if the Birds could be any vaguely dysfunctional family spiralling out of control and Jewell weaves her story with such darkness and tension that I raced to get back to it each night. I certainly won’t be leaving it so long before my next Lisa Jewell novel!

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 Longbourn – Jo Baker

‘If Elizabeth Bennet had the washing of her own petticoats,’ Sarah thought, ‘she would be more careful not to tramp through muddy fields.’

I’m not one of those die-hard Austen fanatics. Re-reading Jane Austen reminds me a little too much of those hideous hours of swatting for school exams, and yet I couldn’t resist Jo Baker’s new novel, Longbourn, pitched with a quote on the front cover as ‘a reimagining of Pride & Prejudice from the point of view of the servants.’

It sounds a bit gimmicky, but trust me, Jo Baker’s delicious novel is so much more than a straight re-telling of a well-loved story. In fact, what’s so clever about it is that Pride and Prejudice hangs like a mere shadow over this novel. Here is a new and thoroughly enticing tale with wonderful characters to fall in love with, whose fortunes are of course destined to rise and fall with the Bennet family’s. There’s a lot of fun to be had in spotting moments from the original novel and how they impact on those working ‘downstairs’, but Longbourn stands on its own two feet, and then some. I absolutely loved it.

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The Lemon Grove – Helen Walsh

I found this novel thanks to a significant amount of twitter chatter. A husband, his wife and their teenage daughter are joined on holiday in Majorca by the daughter’s young, Adonis-like boyfriend. His arrival upsets the proverbial apple cart and changes all of their lives in the process.

Walsh’s sparse prose brilliantly evokes the heady atmosphere of a European holiday (at times I felt like I was floating in the Med, or smoking illicit cigarettes out on the terrace under the stars) and she expertly captures the joys and irritations of spending intense time together as a family. The push-pull dynamic between Jenn and her daughter is great and there is a taut, sexy suspense that kept me turning the pages late into the night. The book is laced with sex but it’s to Walsh’s credit that she pulls off the racy scenes with style – no bad sex awards for this author! My one word of caution would be that if you’re a reader with a slightly sensitive disposition or someone who really needs characters to empathise with, this might not be the novel for you. Personally, I thought it was terrific.

What were you reading last month? And do you have a favourite holiday read I should check out? I’d love to hear…

H x