12,000 miles too far

Living on the other side of the world definitely has it’s low points and not being at the burial of my Grandmother’s ashes in Dorset today is one of them.

My sister texted me earlier. She’s in the car on the motorway, heading to the cemetery now. My Dad is driving. My lanky brother probably lounging on the back seat, choosing the music. It’s pissing it down, apparently. I texted back and asked her to throw a pebble into the sea, drink a Coke from the bottle with a straw and find a cow pat to stand in – for me. I know they’ll be playing the same game our parents used to distract us on the long journey down there as kids: first person to see the sea …

I wrote down a few childhood memories of times spent at my Grandmother’s house in Dorset, for the funeral. It feels good to remember the happy times, amongst the sadness. I only wish I could be there today to stand beside my Dad, brother and sister as they bury Gran in her final resting place. Some days 12,000 miles really is too far from home.

When I was a young girl my Grandmother lived at H. House in Chiddeock.

It was a house that fired a child’s imagination. Nestled at the top of a muddy single-track lane, perched on the side of a hill. You couldn’t see the sea from there, but I used to lie in bed imagining I could hear it, amidst the rustle of Granny’s starched white bed linen.

It was big. Full of clocks that ticked and chimed like living creatures. It smelt of furniture polish, and roast meals, and prize-winning flowers picked from the garden.

Breakfast was always in the dining room. White tablecloths and the best polished silver. Mini packets of cereal to squabble over. Who gets the top of the milk today? Toast aligned in the rack, homemade marmalade dolloped with the best jam spoons, and cups to rattle in their saucers. Gran always liked to do things properly – every morning felt like a child’s fairytale tea party.

I remember evening board games in the back drawing room – Granny’s ivory mah-jong set, musty with age and darting silverfish; the wooden solitaire block that could amuse me for hours; pick-up sticks and cards bent with age and handling.

Upstairs – spooky. A dark landing, heavy wooden furniture creaking and groaning as the house settled in for the evening. But then, at the end of a long corridor lay a mysterious, colourful room. Granny’s bedroom, with its enormous bed and bobbly blue bedspread. And a pink bathroom separated by a hanging waterfall of emerald green beads – exotic and wonderful to wrap yourself in. Coloured crystal perfume bottles and a box with endless jewels and strings of pearls – an eight-year-old’s treasure trove.

Then outside we went, for croquet on the sprawling lawn or hide and seek among the orchard trees at the back of the house; Easter egg hunts among the flower beds; wheelbarrow races and dam building in the stream that ran through the jungle of bamboo canes – damp earth smells, dark and mysterious. A greenhouse that churned out fresh tomatoes year on year, turned into jars of Gran’s delicious green-tomato chutney. My sister and I cantering madly over high-jumps built from garden canes and flower pots, our baby brother following at a distance.

But not always the house, or the gardens. Sometimes a treacherous summer walk, down the laneways, amidst the tourist traffic, to Seatown. Past the house with fossils and shells set into the concrete begging ‘touch me’. Wellington boots clumping rhythmically on tarmac until we reached the sea. Pebbles to collect. Coke from the bottle drunk with a straw and a packet of crisps. ‘Don’t ruin your lunch!’

My grandmother’s house was a place of secrets, of treasure; a box of delights, waiting to be re-opened at every visit. A place of hugs, of laughter, of warm cooking smells. A place where, even as the clocks ticked on, for a few days here and there time stood still. And we were a family.

Those days are gone now. And we are grown. My brother no longer a baby but a tall man of 32. My sister a mum to three beautiful children. My own babies growing and so many of us living on the other side of the world now. And Gran is gone too. At the ripe old age of ninety-six she went peacefully, a painless death, with her son and grandson nearby, surrounded by photos and flowers and the tears of the nurses who were touched by her courageous spirit in the six short weeks they knew her.

My Gran is nowhere now, and yet she is everywhere. She is in the memories of those days spent at that beautiful house, she is in the blue-grey of my father’s eyes, she is in the careful hands of my sister as she kneads, mixes and bakes, she is in my brother’s gentle manner, and the independent spirit of her great grandchildren as they learn and grow and thrive. And I think she is here now too, in these words that I have written, and in your faces, her friends and family, gathered to celebrate her life.

My grandmother was a kind-hearted woman, who showed us generosity and dignity and love … and how to bake the perfect cheesecake … and without whom, none us would be here today.

We love you and miss you Gran.

I am being haunted by a book

I finished Julie Myerson’s Then over two weeks ago and it just won’t leave me alone. It creeps up on me in quiet moments, its final, devastating scenes crashing into my head at the strangest times.

It is a serious piece of writing. Julie Myerson is a serious writer, and I raced through it in less than twenty-four hours. I’m just not sure if I actually enjoyed it. What it did do was leave me blubbering like a mad woman on the sofa, my heart in bits. Then moved me more than anything I’ve read for a very long time.

I’m a girl who likes a happy ending … or at least a glimmer of one, so I’ve been searching for something redemptive, something good to take from the experience of reading Then. What I have come to realise is that this is a book that has made me grab my family that little bit closer; it’s a book that has made me grateful for the comparative sanity of our world. Yes, we live on a pretty fucked-up planet, but compared to the landscape Julie Myerson paints, this is truly Disney Land. What lingers though, and scares me the most, is the portrait she paints of the dark places we can go to in our own minds, when everything else falls apart.

My advice? Don’t read it if you like books with happy endings. Do read it if you want to cry ugly, messy tears like a wild thing. Then by Julie Myerson is quite something.