My husband, Mr T. shuffled off this mortal coil two and a half years ago. I can’t work out who was more annoyed – me or him. Don’t get me wrong, he didn’t ask to go, and I’m sure it was as much of a surprise to him as it was to me. Nevertheless, off he popped, without as much as a “thanks for the memories”. He didn’t wash his plate up either.
Widowed at 40 with 2 virtually grown up children, I had 2 choices. Either I could eat the entire contents of the Bournville chocolate factory in Birmingham, put on my widow’s weeds and abandon myself to loneliness and certain insanity until it was my turn to roll up at St Peter’s Gates, or I could live a life, of sorts.
I found myself single, solvent and harbouring a morbid preoccupation with death – that it could happen to me at any time. I also developed itchy feet. After a visit to the Doctor who assured me that the Athlete’s Foot could be cured with some cream, I realised that my feet were in fact itching to get out of this crazy world that I found myself in. I wanted to run. Fast. And far away. Well, as far as I could get without having Social Services knocking on my door, accusing me of child neglect.
On Wednesday I booked my plane ticket. On Saturday I flew to Florence, Italy. I did remember to tell my children and a couple of friends before I went…
“Ireland was actually producing sufficient food, wool and flax, to feed and clothe not nine but eighteen millions of people, yet a ship sailing into an Irish port during the famine years with a cargo of grain was sure to meet six ships sailing out with a similar cargo.”
Cecil Woodham-Smith, The Great Hunger; Ireland 1845-1849
My family are survivors. On both sides, we managed to either survive or flee from the destruction of the potato crop between 1845 and 1851, the sole means of sustenance for the poor in Ireland.
How could it be that a nation not 20 miles away from mainland Britain, could be decimated within 3 years, losing approximately 2 million of its people through starvation, disease or emigration?
It seems inconceivable that the catastrophe happened on the doorstep of the world’s richest nation at this time, yet it was the result of a complex set of circumstances both political and economic, which had very little to do with the potato and everything to do with ignorance and bigotry.
3,251,907 quarters of corn 480,827 swine
257,257 sheep 186,483 oxen
Ref: Cormac O’Grada: “Ireland before and after the Famine”
So there we are. There was no famine. Only the failure of a crop that the poorest had been forced to rely on as the only food they could afford to grow to feed themselves. Whatever your politics, the situation must be seen as one of the biggest failures of a government to address the needs of its people.
At school, I was taught the very stark fact that in 1945 there was a potato famine in Ireland and lots of people died. As I grew older and learned more about my own family history, I came to realise that we were somehow caught up in this “famine” although I didn’t really know how.
I knew my family came from Roscommon and Mayo, and I learnt that both counties were devastated during the potato failure. So I’m currently tootling around the mid and west counties of Ireland, doing some solo delving into the local history and trying to work out the link between events here and my being born English.
To begin with, I had no idea of the fact that throughout the “famine”, Ireland was actually still producing a large variety of crops and produce such as dairy and meat. The problem was that this was what was known as “cash crops”, for export only.
The potato, which fed the nation, failed.
It would snowball into the greatest social disaster of 19th century Europe.
And what of my own family’s involvement?
The McCarthys were itinerant Travellers in Roscommon. Very little documentary evidence exists other than baptism records in Dysart, County Roscommon however some of them survived the hunger (my existence being testimony to this fact).
Little is known of Irish Traveller history during the time of the Hunger. Indeed, it was thought until recently that Travellers were simply Irish famine survivors who took to the road to search for food and work and simply continued that way of life. We now know that they reach as far back as 17th century Cromwellian Ireland and have a DNA pattern distinct from the settled Irish population.
I guess being travellers meant they had possession of knowledge and the means to adapt and move with the change in circumstances. They would have been used to living in adverse conditions with scarce resources, having the ability to turn their hand to many different trades in order to feed their families. If they were lucky, they could have earned 8d per day breaking stones to build roads as part of the “relief works”, a kind of early public assistance scheme.
Their tendency to keep themselves to themselves would also help to reduce the chance of picking up the deadly typhus or other infectious diseases. Large family networks would enable them to pick up news about conditions in neighbouring counties with a view to moving on if needs be. Whatever the reasons for their survival, the McCarthys were able to get through the worst of it and remain in Ireland until more recent times favoured economic migration to the English West Midlands in which I was born.
Another side of my family, the Clarkes from County Mayo, did not fair so well. Such was their plight that 3 cousins, from which I am descended, left the family in Crossmolina, where there were around 100 cases of Typhus and where starvation reduced the population from 12,000 in 1841 to 7000 in 1851.
I found my 3x grandfather Thomas Clarke on an 1851 census in a barn in Trysull, Staffordshire, England with his 2 cousins, Michael and John. Their ages ranged from 17 to 19 and they travelled around 200 miles to get from home to that barn. Most of this was across bogland and harsh terrain, in inclement weather and with empty stomachs.
They had first travelled to County Cavan, then down to Dublin to catch a paddle steamer across to Liverpool, where they would have worked their way down to the Midlands, eventually ending up in the Black Country area of Wolverhampton, and the metalwork industry.
The England and Wales census of 1851 finds them living in a barn, separate from other farm workers and employees who lived together in a large farmhouse. They would have been comfortable enough, used to living without a kitchen and the usual amenities. They would have spoken Irish, as 80% of people in Crossmolina did at that time and so communication with their fellow workers would have been difficult. None of the other inhabitants were from Ireland.
By the census of 1861, the cousins had split and my ancestor had moved to Walsall, right in the heart of an Irish immigrant population. There is no mention of family members from the old country coming over to join them, and they never went back home to live. It’s hard to imagine what happened to the rest of the family. There are no burial records in Crossmolina. One can only presume that they, along with hundreds of thousands of other people, perished in the disaster.
The McCarthys and the Clarkes met in the traditional metal working industries of the Black Country in the West Midlands. They had endured hardships beyond imagination. They had left behind them families and loved ones to seek a better life. They had left behind their travelling heritage, customs and way of life. They ended up in the grimy urban back to back squalor of a heavily industrialised part of England.
They became me. And for this and their determination to survive, I thank them
I knew I was home the moment my little car drove me from Strokestown in County Roscommon to the wild lands of North West County Mayo. It was the smell.
Smell is extremely important to me. I’ve spoken before about the wild garlic of Northern French hedgerows and the assault of chemical perfumery in the duty free shops at airports. I also get olfactory hallucinations- I smell scents that aren’t there- as one of my symptoms of manic depression. My nose provides cues for safety, danger and remembrances of things past.
The north west of Roscommon was turned over from potato fields in the 1840’s to the more prosperous pasture land for dairy herds. This was another reason for the eviction of masses of people who emigrated either to Canada, the USA or Britain.
I drove 2 hours from the Strokestown Famine Museum up to Crossmolina. I chose the minor roads in order to take in the beauty of the countryside.
The north west pastures of Roscommon suddenly become the wilderness of County Mayo. And the smell. It was a rich smell of soil, stirred up by a recent rainfall and warmed by the sun. A heady, heavy scent of earth, grass and wild flower bloom. Of cows and manure and mould. A smell I wanted to lie down in and sleep forever. And of course it made me think of Mr T.
Seven years have passed since I laid my beautiful husband in the ground. He will now be a part of the land of Sherwood Forest in Nottinghamshire. An English man from birth to death. To this day I miss burrowing my nose into his warm, musky armpits whenever I felt anxious in the night. It was my safe place.
And I wondered how many people lay underneath the land on which I was walking. Those who fell foul of the hunger, those who weren’t lucky enough to be able to get away. And I wondered if their bones were adding to the thick, rich, dark dank odour of the Irish peat, reminding me that I too, one day, will be a part of this land. Because it was at that point that I decided I need to complete the family circle. One day I will come home.
There is no doubt that, travelling alone across this land of my fathers, my connection to the land was cemented. I felt the spirit of my forefathers and their strength and determination to survive. The pull that I have always felt, to return to the motherland was not satiated. Rather, it became stronger as I drove from townland to townland, each recorded in church parish records, with details of my ancestors.
Nothing remains of their homelands. No cabin nor caravan. Just beautiful, rich land. And it’s difficult to imagine the vast numbers of people who lived and died in these counties.
River Suck, Ballyforan
Ballyforan border with County Galway
Ballycroy National Park, County Mayo
In 1841 the population of Mayo was 388,847, by 1851 it had fallen to 274,830; the number of homes in the county had fallen from 70,542 to 49,073 in the same period. Within 10 years the numbers of families halved.
The same happened in Roscommon. West Roscommon lost approximately 60% of its population in ten years, between 1841 and 1851. East Roscommon experienced less of a population decline however and I wonder whether this explains why the McCarthy’s were able to continue living in the area until the mid 20th century. It is clear however that the Clarkes were caught up heavily in the Great Hunger diaspora. I have only details of the three Clarke cousins surviving the famine. I have no records of what happened to the rest of the family. I fear the worst.
If you go to West Ireland, go in June. And leave the car behind, and preferably any friends and relatives. Go in June and go alone. Fully embrace the sounds and smells of a land virtually unchanged since pre-medieval times. A land rich saturated with colour and perfume, beauty and the most awful tragedy. A sublime land of glorious landscape and pitiful sorrow. A land from which I defy anybody to emerge unmoved and unchanged. A land I’m proud to call my motherland.
As a child, Ireland was our guilty family secret. To be fair, the 1970’s wasn’t a great time to be a celtic tiger in mainland Britain, due chiefly to the exploits of the Irish Republican Army, blowing up civilians in my hometown of Birmingham and other English cities.
This and the ever present stereotype of the drunken thick, lazy paddy was enough to drive any first generation English family underground. The family name was changed, the Irish relatives were shunned and our heritage was buried. I couldn’t do much about the ginger hair…
My Granny Kate however, couldn’t quite keep her mouth shut. And I’m very, very nosy.
I always knew there was something “different” about her family. And being a fully paid up member of children’s literature, I fantasised that she must have been descended from an Irish King, complete with a treasure trove and a whole county to rule over (she always mentioned some weird places called Roscommon and Mayo like anyone in Britain had ever heard of such nonsense).
Thanks mainly to Ancestry.co.uk and the publication of Irish parish records, I have been able to discover the family secret…
We are Irish Travellers.
So. Not only did I have what is commonly viewed as the worst accent in the British Isles (Brummie), with ginger hair and a rather “common” set of relatives from the most dubious part of town, but I’m also a gypsy! Since Cher likes to put us amongst tramps and thieves, it’s not hard to imagine why my family decided to “bury” such revelations, become settled and start learning all the words to the National Anthem. I was even given a monarch’s name! (Albeit a German one but whatever…)
Somehow I always knew.
My gran used to sing a strange song about being in a caravan. And she played the spoons. Seriously though, the family worked traditionally with metal, my great grandfather shod horses during WW1 (Irish people did fight for King and Country although some people refuse to believe this). And they were unbelievably poor. I mean, the poorest of the poor. Yet they managed somehow to keep out of the workhouses, instead, living together as family units in one room, fixing stuff.
Ancestry.co.uk has enabled me to confirm that my dna is 96%, Irish, although distinct from the settled Irish population. So there we have it. That, plus the 4% Eastern European (Russian Roma), about puts the rather appropriate tin lid on it…
I’ve always been a wanderer. And a lover of camping. And I’m a dab hand at mending things…
So naturally, I needed to go back to Ireland. To find out where my family came from. And what made them end up in a Victorian slum in the heart of the West Midlands.
…It’s been a while. Over a year, in fact. This doesn’t mean that I’ve been sitting at home ironing (I guess some people sit when they iron but not me). I’ve been to Las Vegas, Red Rock, New Orleans, Lisbon, Glastonbury, Brighton. But it’s been a while since I’ve travelled alone. So today, I’m off to Krakow, Poland.
To get to Krakow I have to first run the gauntlet of duty free at East Midlands Airport. And perfume.
I don’t smell. What I mean is, I don’t smell of anything with a brand name attached to it. I don’t wear perfume. No one ever bought me any – and I guess that’s where most women’s first experience of perfume comes from – the Anais Anais in the white bottle with a pretty flower as a birthday or Christmas gift. However, no one ever bought me any perfume. Maybe I just wasn’t seen as “girly” enough. My daughters both wear perfume. And my grandmother distinctly smelt of eau de something from Avon. But for me, it’s always been soap and water. And an unperfumed deoderant. Obviously.
I have a very strong sense of smell. I am short sighted and ever so slightly deaf in both ears. However I can smell the change in seasons, the sadness in people’s hearts and my hamster’s cage before I even get in the house.
So walking through Duty Free to get to the Escape Lounge at the airport is an assault. Particularly at 04.30. And it’s hideous.
Why do people want to smell of these vile, chemical concoctions? None of them smell pleasing. None of them smell of sheets that have been dried in the wind on a summer’s day, or freshly mown grass, or a frosty morning. They are sweet, sickly and over ripe. And that’s just the aftershave…
For a child growing up in the 80’s, Poland seemed a strange place. Western propaganda had done its thing. I never in my wildest dreams imagined that I would one day visit. Or that I would ever actually want to. Poland seemed to me, to be a drab and dangerous place. Cold, hungry, with men with strange names (Lech Walesa was continually on the news).
A place where the Government made you do strange things on pommel horses, suspended rings and with ribbons; bending your body into all kinds of awkward shapes to perform for the Olympics. A place where no-one smiled. And all of this was before I read 1984 and Animal Farm, which just compounded my prejudice.
Eastern Europe seemed remote and unfriendly. A place to fear.A place that had its finger on the nuclear button with its warheads pointing straight for West Bromwich (my place of birth). The 4 minute warning was imminent. I’d read “When the Wind Blows” and watched “Threads”. And I’d eaten enough over cooked cabbage to know why Eastern Europeans always looked so miserable on our tvs. (As a child the vegetables for Christmas lunch were put on to cook when the turkey went in the oven). I joined CND and campaigned to ban the bomb. (I am still a member and unfortunately I am still campaigning).
So today is my firstvisit to Eastern Europe. And I can’t wait.
Ten years or so ago, I began teaching English to speakers of other languages. My very first students were a Polish couple who worked in a local factory and wanted to improve their conversation skills. I charged very little for the lessons as they were almost guinea pigs for my fledgling teaching business. I was also very nervous. Would we have anything in common? Did I have to avoid the word “communism” (As if it would come up in everyday conversation anyway!) Would they shout at me if they didn’t understand me? Would they make me perform triple backflips whilst explaining the past tense? Yes, I actually was that naive about Eastern Europeans.
Needless to say, I’d needn’t have feared. Theresa and Bolo were a wonderful couple of students. They were so kind. And very quickly we discovered that hey? Guess what? We laughed at the same things! We shared the same interests – our children, travel, food. We had the same worries in life. We are the same.
I’ve met many Polish people since Theresa and Bolo. And many Eastern Europeans. Most of them have been too young to remember Lech Walesa and the struggle for democracy, however some have expressed regret at the fall of Communism. All however, have been in the UK. Today, I travel to Poland to finally meet people in their own country. This time, I will be the tourist, the visitor, the one with the language barrier. And I finally get to find out if they eat anything else other than cabbage (I rather suspect they do…)
I have a love/hate relationship with flying. I love the sense of adventure I feel when I climb onboard the plane, bound for destinations that my ancestors only dreamed of, full of promise and excitement. I love the feeling of escape as I walk through the Departure Gates, leaving behind all thoughts of work and home, alone to self indulge and gorge on the unknown; new places to seek, new foods to taste, new languages to misunderstand,new history and art, new smells. I love the little indulgences. Time is irrelevant. When else would a glass of wine with a bacon butty seem reasonable at 05.00? I love the camaraderie of being with other passengers, this merry band of pilgrims on our way to pastures new (except the screaming kids. And the drunks. And anyone who tries to make conversation with me).
But boy, do I fear flying. Well, it’s not flying that I fear. It’s crashing and dying.
Yes, yes, I know that statistically, flying is the safest form of travel. Yes, yes, Mr Richard Branson, I know that I have more chance of dying in a road accident on the way to the airport than actually on board the flight itself. And yes, yes, I have made vague attempts to understand the technicalities of flight, thermal dynamics, jet engines and wingy things that move.
But I still just don’t get it. My brain cannot rationalise how such a big, heavy, metal box full of people can stay in the sky.
So my travel plans are always a mixture of fear and excitement. And a few days before my plans come to fruition, my stomach begins its downward spiral of dread, preparation for doom (the will is in the box under my bed, girls) and self reproach for putting myself in yet another state of panic. For me, flying is like playing Russian Roulette. Yet how else can I fulfil my travel dreams in such a short time?
My first thought when planning a new journey is: “Will I have to fly?” And if yes, then for how long? So far, Australia, New Zealand and South East Asia have not made it onto my fuckit list. Not because they have little to offer me – on the contrary – I would love to visit. No, it is the thought of spending 12+ hours suspended in mid air that puts me off buying a round the world flight ticket. If I could sail then I would. If I could walk, then I would. Maybe train?
Last year I flew to Reykjavik, Seattle, Las Vegas, Dallas, New Orleans, Washington and back to London in the space of 10 days. I fervently thought that such plane hopping would cure me of my fears. After all,Americans use planes like buses apparently. Alas, no. This morning, on board my flight to Krakow, the kindly flight attendant provided me with a paper bag in which to vomit. And no, I hadn’t drunk wine at 05.00…
…as though it had been administrative buildings, or maybe a factory. The truth of course, is that it was both. An organisation whose principle purpose was the extraction of labour and then the extermination of people who were “surplus to requirements” and who seemingly posed a threat to the regime.
I wasn’t sure how I was going to feel about visiting the Nazi concentration camps of Auschwitz-Birkenau. As mentioned in previous posts, twentieth century history was sadly lacking in my education and all I knew of the Holocaust was what I’d read in Anne Frank’s diary as a child and from programmes I’d listened to on the radio. It all seemed such a long time ago. Would my visit provoke wailing and gnashing of teeth or was I just too divorced from the events that happened, to feel anything?
I arrived on a bitter cold January morning. Minus 17 degrees celsius. My first thought was for the inmates of the camp and how on earth any of them managed to survive the extremes of temperature. Clearly most of them didn’t. To begin with, many people weren’t even registered upon arrival. The elderly, infirm, pregnant and children were gassed straight away which is why it’s difficult to ascertain exact numbers of victims. Exposure, starvation and disease killed those who weren’t murdered. Of an approximate 1 million prisoners, only 7,000 were liberated by the Soviet Army on January 27th, 1945.
Of all the facts that I had learnt about Auschwitz before coming to visit, the one thing that I couldn’t comprehend was just how it was logistically possible to kill so many people. Coming to visit answered the query for me. Auschwitz-Birkenau and the other components of the concentration camp relied on other methods of killing than just the gas chambers.
Many victims existed with such little food (approximately 1400 calories) and worked in such physically demanding jobs for 11 hours per day,that starvation and exhaustion killed them. And this was a deliberate part of the “Final Solution”, not a mere consequence of unseen events. Not everyone was destined to go to the gas chambers.
Wandering round both camps, it was impossible to process what exactly had happened here all those years ago. The buildings looked so regular. So institutional. The documentation in the exhibitions looked so efficient. Everything was devoid of emotion. So matter of fact. And I think that’s how it was arranged, and how it was executed. There was a “problem”. It needed a solution.
There was nothing to suggest any sense of humanity. This was not built as a place to live. This was a place whose purpose was to dispose of an unwanted problem in as efficient a manner as possible. Identities were removed along with souls. And if money could be made out of the labour of those lost souls before they met their miserable demise, then all the better.
There was a war on, after all.
Trying to rationalise this train of thought is impossible for anyone who has any sense of humanity and greater people than I have debated and will continue to debate how it could happen. All I know is that I felt such sorrow at the seeming “ordinariness” of the place. The displays of human hair, suitcases, crockery, shoes, spectacles and prayer shawls made me feel wretched. Possibly because such atrocities continue to happen in the world; it seems we have learned little since the Nazi genocides.
When Mr T died, I made it my mission to become an A grade widow. I have always dealt with “stuff” in a practical way. I’ve passed every exam I’ve ever sat, got every job I’ve ever been interviewed for. Surely there would be a book or a website that would tell me what I needed to do, in 5 easy steps. Once I passed the “widow” exams, my heart would stop breaking, my stomach would stop churning, my neck would stop aching and the fear of everything would go away.
The only books that I could find contained guides to law, finance, practical housekeeping (I seem to remember reading about ensuring that I made delicious, nutritious soups to freeze, ready to eat on the days I felt unwell. Soup? Food? Freezing bags? The only thing I prepared in advance for the shit days was a constant supply of cigarettes and a barrel full of sherry. God knows why sherry. I hate the stuff but it seemed to be the only thing in the house, it being Christmas and all) and, eventually, dating again. “Don’t compare your date with your husband.” LOL. They didn’t tell you how to get through the long, lonely hours of the night, when the bed’s too big. They didn’t advise on what to do when the yearning came to lay on his grave (as I did one night), or dig him up for one last hug ( I actually asked if I had the legal right to do this. “No”, was the unsurprising answer).
They also didn’t touch on how to deal with the “skin hunger”, a phrase which I came across on Google, to explain the need for intimate physical contact with someone. Anyone who could love me the way that Mr T did. I stalked people on internet dating sites and eyed up anyone new who came into the bar. I wore a huge hat with “I’m a sad, desperate, lonely widow who’s going mad, please fuck me”. No one offered (possibly the frog eyes, fag breath and drunken slur put people off. Possibly the fact that they cared enough about me not to take advantage of me). I made the bit up about the hat but I might as well have worn it, I was so obviously needy.
Yoga, exercise, meals out with friends, worthwhile causes were all suggested as ways of getting through the day. Which all sounds well and good when you’re not actually trying to get through the day. I was rigid with fear and pain. I couldn’t even be bothered to open my eyes. I lay on the bed and existed.
My wonderful friends adopted me and my girls and literally dragged me out of my bed, poured bottles of wine down my neck and rocked me until my sobs subsided with exhaustion. We were all exhausted.
Finally, the books didn’t explain the extreme self- centredness that would come with this horrible new world; one in which I couldn’t communicate with my children, let alone help them to deal with their grief. On top of my own grief, I felt remorse, sorrow and guilt at my inability to deal with anyone else’s pain. I turned into a selfish, self loathing individual. I stared for days out of the window. I drank anything I could get my hands on, smoked everything that would light and wailed. Above all else I no longer wanted to be here. I resented my children for keeping me on the planet . They were going through important exams at the time. Did I care? Did I fuck.
I can recommend “A Grief Observed” by C S Lewis as being the closest I ever came to relating to someone’s reactions to the death of a spouse. He never got over the loss of his wife. His emotions were raw, ugly and irrational. How anyone carries on with their normal jobs and their normal lives after such an event is beyond me. I knew from the moment my husband died in my arms that I was never going to “get over it”. I couldn’t be the demure, majestic Jackie Kennedy. I was snotty, spotty and a bore. I knew it and couldn’t get out of it.
My husband was dead and so was my life. It’s difficult to write without using the usual cliches about losing a half of you, feeling like you’re free falling, having a limb amputated but all of these and more are true. The grief that I felt was indescribable but – annoyingly- completely normal. No matter what books I consulted about bereavement, widowhood, grief, I couldn’t get around the fact that my feelings were totally normal. GP visit? “It’s perfectly normal for you to feel this way”. Bereavement counsellor: “You must get out more. Try going back to work, get some routine back into your life”. Surely my grief was the greatest griefs of all griefs that have ever been felt. Noone could possibly have gone through this living hell in the way that I was? It hurt to realise that I was just one of many who were grieving for someone or something, and that everything I was feeling was “normal”. “Sorry Mrs T but you’re no one special. Yes we understand your husband’s dead but that’s life”. I read the posts of optimism and hope that people posted on my fb page and I tried. I really tried. But my soul was lost. Nothing mattered anymore.
I felt detached from the world. I watched cars go by when I was queuing for traffic and hated the fact that, for these people, normal life was carrying on. I listened to conversations on the bus as I went to register his death – in particular a conversation between two elderly ladies who religiously analysed the funeral that they had been to the day before “It was a lovely do but I didn’t like all that chicken stuff. I don’t like eating with my fingers. They needed knives and forks”. I wanted to scream at them: “My husband is dead! Fuck the fucking chicken!”
When I got into town to register my husband’s death, I had to run the gauntlet of “chuggers”. Lovely bunch of guys; I’m sure on any other day I’d smile and maybe even donate. But on this day, I kept my head down and ploughed through. It was Christmas 2011. The Christmas market was in full swing, people were present buying and a young guy approached me with his charity tin. “Hi madam, would you be interested in donating to…. (some charity, I forget). “No thanks”, I mutter, head down, no eye contact, desperate to escape to the sanctity of the register office where my marriage would officially end. “Why the long face, let’s see a smile”. “Well, I’m just off to register my husband’s death, so forgive me if I don’t smile” I spit at the poor unfortunate guy. I’m ashamed to say I felt glad to offload some of my anger at him. He’d done nothing wrong. I left his forlorn expression and marched off. My world was shattered and woe betide anyone who came near me with glad tidings of joy.
At the Register Office, I was met with the usual sympathetic words and kind acts from well meaning people. I read the Coroner’s report on the post mortem in silence. There was nothing wrong with Mr T. In fact, they had to do a second series of tests to try to find out what the hell he died from. Natural causes. And a propensity for the finer things in life: wine, cheese, me. “Have you any questions?” asked the kindly Registrar, after I’d filled her in with the details of my husband’s demise -“He just looked at me and died”. “Well, can I still say I’m married?” came my desperate question as I looked into her eyes. She leaned forward and sadly informed me that, as my husband had died, my marriage was now over and I was no longer a wife. I had fought for years to become my husband’s wife. It lasted five.
My first experience of travelling solo came 6 months after my husband suddenly died. It was less of a rational decision and more of a subconscious uncontrollable urge to run away. The urge came on a Wednesday, built up through Thursday and by Saturday I was in Florence, Italy. By myself. In a country I didn’t know with a language that I didn’t speak.
I prepared well for the trip. I went to the hairdressers and dyed my hair blonde. I then rang my sister and told her the news. She was more shocked about the hair than the sudden trip to Florence. “Why?” she asked to both. “I just needed to” was my response. Lucky for her, I hadn’t done what I really wanted to do, which was to shave my head completely, in a outward display of the inner pain that I felt.
Anyway. Solo travel to Florence. Why Florence? Well, firstly it was a place that I hadn’t visited with Mr T so there weren’t going to be any memories. Keen to secure a First Class Honours in Widowhood, I had read and promptly acted on the idea that, to cure oneself of constant reminders of the past, it is necessary to create new memories. Secondly, it was a place to do things. I dreaded being alone and having nothing to do but stare at happy couples, in love, or even not in love. Everywhere I went, people were in couples. Meh…
Having a love of Art and Art History, I knew that if anywhere was going to soothe my aching soul it would be Florence, city of Renaissance Art and Architecture, where I could get lost in history, culture, anything. I also love Italian food so I knew I wouldn’t starve. It’s only 2 hours from home so it was practical, in case anything should happen at home and I needed to rush back. It was only 2 hours from home so that if I should have an attack of mad cow’s disease I could be returned back to my local psychiatric unit, which was keeping a close eye on me at this point due to my manic depression.
It wasn’t so much the practical issues of travel that concerned me. I was always the one to book the holidays, arrange the transfers and pack the cases. Solo travel meant being alone. Having no one to share my thoughts with. No one to enjoy a glass of cold wine or beer with. No one to share the joy of visiting places only previously seen in books or magazines. No one to say “I can’t believe I’m standing in front of ….” for the umpteenth time. Was it really going to help?
How does one travel alone without feeling isolation and like everyone is looking at you, feeling sorry for you and wondering just what you did that was so bad that no one would go on holiday with you? When I’ve spoken to people about solo travel, they tend to fall into one of two camps. There’s the “oh yeah, I do that/would love to do that”. Or, more often, there’s the “God, I couldn’t do that. What? Just you? No one else? I wouldn’t have the guts”. Is it guts or lack of choice? Or just a desire to be hidden amongst a multitude of people who didn’t know my story and frankly, didn’t care. I needed to escape the cloud of despair. I needed to forget what had happened for just a short time and be somewhere where no one knew Mr T. I seem to have been married to the most well known landlord in Britain.
It began that fateful night when the lovely police officer, whilst taking my statement, recognised my husband and said “Is that Richard Taylor?” “Yeah”. “Blimey, I was only in the pub a week ago”. The following day I had a phone call from a local Funeral Director. “Hi Vickie, I don’t know if you remember me but it’s Debbie from the pub. You know, Gill’s friend”, “Hi”. “Er, I hope you don’t mind but the case came through about Richard and I wondered if you would like me to organise the funeral”. “I didn’t know you were a funeral director?” “Yes, would you mind?” “No, that’s a great idea”. Mr T was off to meet his maker with the help of a friend. What could be better?
Over the course of the next few weeks, I came into contact with: a random AA guy because my bloody car broke down (still in Mr T’s name) “Oh, I heard about Richard. Great guy, so sorry”. A taxi driver who happened to start a conversation as we drove past the pub that what was my home and now wasn’t (I moved out) – “Poor bloke had a heart attack”. “No he didn’t.” “Oh, how do you know?” “Because I’m his wife and I was there”. The teachers at my girls’ school knew what had happened before we had the chance to tell them – they used to have lunch every Friday in the pub. My eldest daughter was having her hair cut at a local salon when one of the other customers started gossiping: “Richard from the Nurseryman had a heart attack and died” (No he bloody didn’t!) I couldn’t get away from him.
This still happens albeit on a less frequent basis. I learnt very quickly how much my husband was loved and respected. This had increased my anxiety about the funeral. What if people thought it was rubbish? What if we forgot the cutlery and people had to pick up the chicken with their hands? By May I’d had enough. I was off.