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.

photo-104

Advertisements

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.

photo 4

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.

photo 2

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

photo 1

*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

work shot

“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:

child-44

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.

the-house-we-grew-up-in

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!

longbourn-jo-baker-300x300

 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.

the-lemon-grove

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

February Reads (and a little bit on the side)

Looking back on the past month, I realise two things:

I haven’t read as much as I would’ve liked because I’ve had my head buried in my writing … but what I have enjoyed has been massively eclectic. So here’s a quick snapshot of what’s been entertaining me in February – this time with a little film and TV thrown in for good measure, because well, why not?

the-secret-keeper

The Secret Keeper – Kate Morton

I read Kate’s first novel, The Shifting Fog/The House at Riverton (UK title) back in 2007. I really enjoyed it, but for some reason I skipped her last two books – not because I didn’t want to read them, just that I never got there for some weird reason. So it was time to put things right with her latest novel – a huge, sweeping mystery which darts back and forth in time from pre-WW2 to the present day and unravels the violent secret buried at the heart of one family. I so enjoyed this book. All of Morton’s characters are beautifully drawn and as well as some killer twists, there were also many touching moments, particularly between Laurel and her ageing mother, Dorothy. Morton does an amazing job of conjuring the different times and places woven into her novel – she’s a true master of her genre and it’s no wonder she’s a MASSIVE international bestseller. All hail Queen Kate.

0000159_poem_for_the_day

Poem for the Day, One – by Wendy Cope, Nicholas Albery and Peter Ratcliffe

Given to me by a wonderful friend, I have been dipping in and out of this book all month. It’s an absolute treasure trove of poems and such a fun concept to be able to to turn to a particular day of the year and discover a new poem or meet a familiar, old friend. The collection ranges from modern verse to absolute classics. I’m loving it. I can recommend this as a great gift.

Unknown

Romantic English Homes – Robert O’Byrne

I stumbled upon this book while browsing the shelves of the Macleay bookshop in Potts Point – an absolutely gorgeous store. I’m a sucker for coffee-table-style books with gorgeous pictures of English landscapes or interiors and I hoover them up in the name of research. This book is proving to be fantastic inspiration as I write my new novel.

true-detective

True Detective

OK, so other than the writing, perhaps the other reason I haven’t read as much as usual this month is because I’ve become rather obsessed with the amazing American crime-drama series, True Detective. I have one episode to go and I cannot wait to see how the show wraps up. Starring Matthew McConaughey (so hot right now!) and Woody Harrelson, it’s a very dark, very twisty show about two cops on the hunt for a serial killer. God, that really does boil it down to the absolute basics, but it’s hard to write about this show without giving spoilers or reducing it to something way below the sum of its parts. The dialogue is smart, the filming beautiful, the performances electric, and there is a dark, eerie tension that has me teetering on the edge of my seat each week. Don’t watch it if you can’t do dark and ominously scary. Do watch it if you love American drama at its absolute best.

220px-About_Time_Poster

About Time

Lastly, for a complete change of pace – a romantic comedy! I’m aware I’m probably the last person on the planet to see Richard Curtis’  About Time. To be honest, I thought it looked a tad cheesy and the trailer told me it involved time travel of which generally, I’m not a fan. I find it hard to suspend my disbelief in things like that and prefer my drama grounded in reality. So I waited for a quiet night, home alone, with nothing else on offer to indulge in. However, I take it all back. I REALLY loved this movie. It was sweet and emotional and yes, at times, a little cheesy (but good cheesy, in that way that found me grinning inanely at the TV screen) and so full of heart that I was actually cross my husband came home early and interrupted the properly weepy bit near the end. Yes, it’s full of perfect English idylls and posh, privileged people navigating matters of the heart … but sickly-saccharine and annoying, not so much. I actually think it’s one of the sweetest films I’ve seen in ages and I reckon I’ll be watching it again, someday soon – this time with the hankies at the ready.

So how about you? Did anything great in film, tv or books grab you last month? I’d love to hear your recommendations …

H x

January Reads

I’ve been lucky to start the year with three cracking reads. Here’s what kept me turning the pages last month:

9780316055437_custom-8387e636d286aa86fc16d49b6a17f95c8558d406-s6-c30

The Goldfinch – Donna Tartt

I’m a huge Donna Tartt fan, so was very excited to dive into this 700+ page beast of a book. I’m delighted to say it didn’t disappoint. Theo Decker is a wonderful, complicated and deeply frustrating protagonist (he reminded me of times of Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye) and every line of this novel is perfection. I especially loved the first few pages of the novel, where the author sets up a deep, emotional connection between Theo and one character in particular, whose absence then artfully drives the narrative for the rest of the novel. Tartt is in a class of her own.

Night Rainbow pb cover.291x448

The Night Rainbow – Claire King

I’d heard a lot of buzz about this novel when it was first published last year, I was intrigued by the title, AND I’d spotted a stonking quote from one of my favourite authors (Maggie O’Farrell) on its cover, so there were PLENTY of reasons for me to dive into this debut. I read it over the course of three days and King transported me straight to a long, hot summer in France and into the vivid imagination of her vulnerable young heroine, Pea. While I guessed a twist in the novel quite early on, it didn’t spoil the book for me at all. There was a growing sense of tension to keep me turning the pages and so much to love about King’s exquisite prose and her vivid depictions of the landscape. Brilliant.

the-narrow-road-to-the-deep-north

The Narrow Road to the Deep North – Richard Flanagan

I hadn’t read anything by Richard Flanagan before, but my husband waxed lyrical about this novel over the holidays so I felt compelled to pick it up. The novel follows the story of Dorrigo Evans, a WW2 soldier forced to work as a POW on the construction of the Thai-Burma railway. The book features a poignant love story, but to me the most moving moments of the novel were in Flanagan’s exploration of  fraternal love and friendship amongst the men suffering in the most extreme and brutal circumstances. Powerful and poignant, there are scenes and revelations in this book that will haunt me for a long time to come.

What are you reading at the moment? Do you have anything good to recommend to me? x