It’s seven years since Richard died. I can’t believe it’s been so long. Every day of those seven years has been in mourning whilst living. There’s been some fabulous times. Times that probably wouldn’t have happened had I not seen at first hand how fragile and short life can be and been the recipient of my husband’s fiscal generosity, which enabled me to travel to places I otherwise wouldn’t have visited.
I was watching Peaky Blinders last night when I was struck by a discussion between Aunt Polly and Tommy Shelby (usually I’m just there for Cilian Murphy’s cheekbones). Aunt Polly was saved in the nick of time from the gallows, with the noose literally around her neck:
“I was dead in that noose. But then I was saved. So everything from now on is extra. But what I didn’t realise is that when you’re dead already, you’re free”.
There’s something to be said for staring death in the face. For watching it take effect. I don’t really talk about it, mainly because I’m not usually in such a contemplative state of mind and also because it’s not what people want to talk about. But we should talk about death. Because, well, that’s life.
When Richard died, he took a part of me with him that has never come back and that will never come back and that’s ok. I can say after seven years that it’s ok.
I stared death in the face like Aunt Polly. I watched life drain away and shiny eyes become dull. It took about one minute. Life into death. Maybe even less time.
Of course, it takes time for everything to shut down, which is why the wonderful paramedics picked up electrical signals in his body. It was just him shutting down. Moving into the next phase. Death doesn’t happen instantly. We might think they’re dead. And they might look dead. But inside, processes take time to stop. More like a steam train coming to a standstill than a light going off.
That minute. We never talk about it. I was reminded of it recently when trying to describe honestly the event to a friend of mine. It was strange to retrieve those events from the place in my memories where they had been carefully folded away, as is the requisite to “moving on”. I was surprised how easily I was able to transport myself back to that minute. Yet…
I was watching myself. It wasn’t a PTSD moment of actual transplantation back into my previous existence. It was more of an observation. I was able to really scan dispassionately around the event. I stared into my husband’s features. His gentle features. His grey eyes, that had so often winked at me from behind the bar when he thought no one was watching. His skin. Lips looking for all the world as though he had taken some cyanide, bluish. But as always with Richard, it was his eyes.
Eyes are wet. That’s what makes them shiny. Like fish on the ice in Tescos. Shiny eyes are good, chefs will tell you. A sign of freshness.
If I’d have kept Richard on ice, would his eyes have stayed wet?
As it happens, he was on a bed, it just wasn’t of the ice variety.
He looked at me. Like in a film. But I don’t know if there was any consciousness behind the look or if my face just happened to be in the right place. I like to think he saw me tell him I loved him. I like to think it’s the last thing he heard. I suspect it was more likely to be my frantic: “Richard! Richard! Fucking wake up! Fuck! Breathe! Fuck! Where’s the fucking phone? Your fucking phone is dead! Shit where’s my phone? Richard! Richard can you hear me? Oh fuck. Shit you’re too heavy I can’t fucking move you!”
Funny how you never see that in films….
He was making funny noises. No, not the usual funny noises that raise the duvet to the ceiling. The throaty groans of the death rattle. It’s when liquid begins to settle in the lungs and the person can’t cough them up. Actually, that was what initially woke me up. I thought he was snoring. He was apt to snoring, particularly after a red wine or 4… which we’d both had that night, having enjoyed the company of some friends and the pub quiz attendees.
Sadly he wasn’t snoring.
So that was that really. But the time that remains with me is that minute. That transition from existence to …
So profound. So…. matter of fact. Within the urgency of the moment it was just us two. Like when we realised we loved each other and shouldn’t. Like when we made our marriage vows.
And in that dying he gave me freedom. Everything since his death has been extra. A bonus time until my time.
And this is where Aunt Polly comes in.
Because when you’ve watched death take your soulmate away, well, there’s nothing else to be scared of. You’ve faced your worst nightmare. And you survived.
And I do feel a kind of freedom. Richard’s death has given me a devil may care attitude that I never had before. I used to worry about consequences, about what people might think of me. And then when he died, I stopped caring (so much). After all, what’s the worst that could happen?
So I started to do stuff that I’d longed to do but lacked the courage. I bought a decrepit old house right in the heart of the city, with an old lace factory attached to it, damp, and the occasional eau de corps from the ex-rats in the cellar.
I went on crazy dates with unsuitable men and lived to tell (or not!) the tales.
I drove by myself around France for 3 weeks, and then recently around Ireland for a week. I flew to Poland. I flew to Italy. I flew to the States. I discovered I love and need solitude.
I lived a millionaire lifestyle… and left after 18 months when I decided it wasn’t me… later to become a lowly paid care worker in the community. And it made me happy and fulfilled for the first time in years. And I still do it.
I travelled to places I’d only read about in Enid Blyton stories.
I cut all my hair off and dyed it blonde.
I found out I’m quite a good photographer.
I went to Glastonbury.
I got a tattoo.
I’m a gypsy.
After seven years, it’s ok. I’m single. By choice. Because I’m not really single at all. I’m still married. It’s just that he died. That’s all.
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…
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.
Mr T and I lived in a pub. He ran the pub and I drank the wine and taught foreign students how to speak English (not at the same time). There are now countless numbers of Chinese and Arabic students wondering around Nottingham asking strangers “D’yow no the wayi te thi airport?” I digress. One of Mr T’s more irritating habits was to disappear. He could be anywhere in what was a very large pub. I spent most of our 15 years together asking people “Have you seen Richard? I’m going to bloody tag him”. When he was buried I at least thought that I would now know where he is… not so.
One day last year, I visited Mr T at Tithe Green, http://www.woodlandburialoxton.co.uk/, but spent 30 minutes trying to find him. This part of Sherwood Forest is a meadow, which is left to grow wild flowers and has no headstones (only slate plaques laid flat on the ground). Mr T and I had accidentally stumbled upon Tithe Green Burial Ground after a visit to Rufford Park, where we escaped from the stress of pub life by taking a flask of tomato soup, ham and mustard sandwiches and a bag of bird seed. We were driving home when I spotted a road sign advertising the place. “Ooh look, an ancient burial ground” says I, always the geek and always eager to visit a new place of English Heritage. Perhaps a long barrow would be found, or a circle of ancient stones. It turned out that the “burial ground” is just that. A part of Sherwood Forest that is laid aside for modern day burials rather than for our fore fathers. Nevertheless, we took a couple of leaflets from the handy container in the car park and read through it at our leisure in a nearby pub. This was about 3 years before Mr T died. We kept the leaflets and later put one of each inside our wills. If and when we died, this is where we’d like to go. When Mr T died, it was assumed that the funeral would be at the local crematorium. We had already made other plans. He was off to Tithe Green.
A tree is planted in memory of the loved one (Mr T’s is a Rowan – lovely berries in the winter), and as they’re all young trees, they look the same. The land looks so different in winter and summer. My husband had been buried in November 2011, so that by the time I finally went back to visit after the funeral (couldn’t bear to visit for ages afterwards), the whole place had changed. Trees covered in leaves and flowers everywhere. No bloody husband.
I wandered up and down each row, reading the names on each plaque. I found Mr T’s neighbours; a lovely lady who was a music teacher was somewhere nearby. As was the doctor and the plumber. In November 2011 As Mr T was a local pub landlord, we figured that this little community would be in need of someone who could pull a mean pint and decided to put Mr T and his “basket casket” in with these other fine folk. Yes, when choosing someone’s grave, it is vital to consider all of the variables. I didn’t want him hanging around with n’er do wells, and a plumber was always useful when the public toilets blocked for the tenth time so I figured Richard would be appreciate of one for a neighbour.
I found all his neighbours, but Mr T surely had disappeared. I even thought of ringing the local pub at one point, convinced that he’d nipped out for a Stella and lime.
Finally, after much frustration (had they actually dug him up and moved him somewhere quieter – he did get rather vulgar when he was pissed and I could imagine the neighbours complaining about his stupid jokes), I spotted the estate manager chatting to a lady who was holding a box, so I wandered over to them. “Can I help you?” says the awfully helpful Steve. “Er, I appear to have lost my husband” says I. “Oh, I can certainly help you with that. I just have to inter this lady’s ashes and I’ll be right with you”. Cue mortified look from me, who promptly shuffled off muttering “so sorry to disturb you”. Eventually I did find Richard, who no doubt was having a huge Sid James like guffaw at my expense. He now has fat balls hanging from his branches which the birds love and I can find him at a moment’s notice.
One of the things about being a widow- or any type of singleton I guess- is the joys of being able to keep weird hours. Bed at 18.30. Awake with tea and cupcakes at 03.30. The only thing that keeps my circadian rhythms within some sort of normal boundaries is my part time job at a pet shop. And that’s a weird job anyway, given that I either start at 06.00 or work until 20.30, with copious amounts of rabbit poo and customers wanting massive goldfish in tiny tanks…
It’s safe to say that I’ve had approximately 4 normal nights of sleep since Mr T left. Admittedly, some of this is due to age and my bladder’s inability to hold onto liquids for longer than 3 hours through the night. However, most of it is due to a restlessness I’ve acquired. I live in my head most of the time, unaware of the latest trends in music, tv programming and Pokemon crazes.
Apart from world news for which I have an obsession, I have lost interest in people and what they get up to. I have a running commentary in my head where Richard tells me exactly what he thinks of the state of the nation. We chat inside my head about the minutiae of life. And so I’m never alone. He took me step by step recently, through the redecoration of my staircase (“don’t forget to put dust sheets down and get the Hoover under the hole you’re drilling to suck up the dust”), and eases my anxieties by making me list what is wrong and then drawing up action plans. He even reminds me to take my pills.
What a pity he can’t spoon with me at the end of the day, the way that we used to…
Widowhood is different to other losses. It’s the loss of the other half of a partnership that’s so close, each person can speak for the other, can think for the other and completes the other. The loss of a partner involves the loss of a half of oneself. I kind of thought that the other side of me would regrow with time, or that I would find another Mr T to fill that hollowness. Well, it’s 5 years in November. And in the Venn diagram that is life, I have still been a lone circle, wandering around in a confused state, waiting for the other circle to come along, merge and form and new whole…
Then I met Buddy…