Wednesday, 30 November 2016

Somewhere over the rainbow

I was standing in the hut that you called your music studio. Usually, you came to my house on a Saturday but you'd been working on your new studio for weeks and I asked you if you'd like me to come and see it before we went out for the day. 

You were exuberant on the days when you'd been building, sending me little updates by Messenger, lots of smiley faces: you were always so happy when you were making. I don't really remember how you built it, not being one for details, but you had been hammering pieces of wood and reshaping doors. I think you'd even put the roof on it, fashioning something akin to an animal pen, but soundproofed with carpet tiles and housing synthesisers instead of pigs. I was amazed to see it, so impressed that you could create something so solid with your own bare hands; all I can create are flimsy words from flighty thoughts, pinning sensations with fingertips that dance intuitively across the keys. 

When I arrived you had a heater blasting in anticipation of my presence and the synthesisers and microphones were set up ready; I'd asked you to play me something, intrigued to see in action what I'd only heard recorded. When I got there, I was irritable though. I was tired and grieving for my mum and, in spite of the heater, I was feeling the cold, the kind of cold that feels bone deep in spite of hats and gloves and fleeces. There was snow on the ground out in the Peak District and it was a grey day. I would really rather have been at home. 'Will it take long?' I asked, rather churlishly. 'Three hours,' you said, with a straight face. 'Didn't you get the programme?' You made me laugh, took me out of myself for a moment, as only you could. 

And then you played, although I'm not sure played is even the right word. You described it as 'twiddling some knobs'. You didn't have much faith in having any kind of ability with music but you loved it, really loved it. And as I watched you stroking pads and tweaking dials, there seemed to be something intuitive in your movements and there was beauty in the sounds that filled the air that day. The dance of fingertips on keyboards, feeling their way into something intangible.

Afterwards, you handed me the microphone. 'Sing to me, please,' you said. Maybe you were auditioning me for this band that you wanted to create. You had me down as lead singer even though I had less confidence in my singing than you had in your music. I sang to you anyway, 'Somewhere Over the Rainbow' because it's the only song I feel I sing well having crooned it almost every night to my children for the last eight years. I perfected it in the wee small hours while I rocked infants in my arms, imagining I was Judy Garland in Kansas, with ruby slippers on my feet.

When I'd finished singing, you locked up and we went out into the snow for a walk. There was something wrong with you that day, something really wrong. I knew it intuitively but I couldn't put my finger on what it was. The day was clouded in unease.

The next time I sang to you, you were in your coffin at the undertakers a few weeks later. I hadn't seen your body since I first discovered you lying dead on your bed and we weren't allowed to see you again after the post-mortem. But I rested my head on your coffin and sang, trying somehow to soothe both of us, like I was rocking our distressed souls with my voice.

I sang the song again as I scattered your ashes over the heather and gorse above Redmires, where we first walked together, first touched hands, first felt the possibility in the air. Where we dared to dream dreams that almost came true. 

I think of you now every night as I smooth my little boy's curls with my hand, lying next to him on the bed, holding onto him too tightly, lonely for your touch. I sing those words and understand why they play it at funerals. I wonder if, one day, I will wake up where these clouds are far behind me. And I wonder if there's a place that one day I will find you again. Somewhere over the rainbow. 

One thing is for sure. I'm not in Kansas any more. And there is no way home. 

Thursday, 24 November 2016

I don't cry every day anymore

It is official. I have been grieving for longer than we were together. Somehow, eight and a half months have gone by since you died. We were only seeing each other for eight.

A lot has happened in that time, Blacksmith, much of it directly related to your death. Just on a practical level, it turns out there is a lot to do when someone you're in love with dies unexpectedly. I've written eulogies, helped to sort your possessions, catalogued photos, analysed post-mortems, scattered ashes, planted trees, organised memorials and, finally, managed to arrange a suitable location and inscription for your bench. Who knew it could be so hard to get someone to authorise the placing of a simple seat? Each different location that we've decided on has had to go to a separate authority for consideration and most of them have been rejected. But it's sorted now, I hope, finally, eight and a half months on. I think you will be pleased with it, when it's in place. I won't tell you where it's going to be yet, though perhaps you already know.

The words, of course, were a challenge. How can a man like you be summed up in the kind of space you'd get on twitter? Brevity is not my strong point, as you know. I remember how it used to infuriate you when we were messaging each other, that I could type so much faster. By the time you'd replied to something I'd said, I was already two steps ahead. In the end, we settled into a familiar rhythm of a three to one ratio. I still miss those messages.

Now, instead of typing messages to you in the evening, I type messages to the bereaved on Facebook and write blog posts about love and death. I can't really write anything else at the moment. Other projects have been abandoned and now it feels like my life's work is to write about you and about loss. I've joined a new, international community of broken souls. There is a comfort to be found in being amongst people who understand. Most people, it seems, really don't understand. And why should they? It turns out that there is a big gap between empathy and experience. Still, empathy is a gift to be cherished and I have found it in surprising places.

If you're looking down on the chessboard of my life, you'll notice that the pieces have all been rearranged since you died. It's not just the King that is missing. People that were close have moved further away and others, that were on the periphery, have moved closer. Some people have all but disappeared entirely. And there are people there that I didn't even know before, some of them your people - your precious mum, some of your friends. And others, those broken souls. I look into their eyes and see myself reflected there.

Grief, you'll notice, has settled itself into the centre of my life now. It is not as scary as it was at first, no longer the unwanted visitor that I sought to banish, battle with, defeat. You can't fight with something invisible, nor run a sword through absence. You can't retreat from Grief either. Even when I moved house, it followed me in, insinuating its way under ill-fitting doors and windows, creeping through the gaps in floorboards, settling into silences and empty spaces, making its presence felt when the world goes quiet. I wouldn't call Grief a friend still, but it is familiar now, comfortable almost. Grief is a haven from the madness of normality.

Normality is creeping back in though, slowly but surely, in little ways. I can bake flapjack now and I mostly eat proper meals. Fragments of my brain are realigning and I am probably remembering fifty per cent of the things I should be remembering, rather than the ten per cent I was remembering back in March. I've read a few chapters of books (not consecutive, not the same books) and I am starting to take on new projects (some of them not even grief-related). And yesterday I tried to watch TV again. I thought I'd start with Neighbours, just twenty minutes of something familiar; I've watched Neighbours religiously for decades. It didn't go well. I was out of touch with the characters and plot lines (a lot can change in eight months even in Soapland). But it wasn't the onscreen drama that that felt wrong, really. It was the step towards more normal behaviour that felt wrong in itself, like trying to return to a place that doesn't exist anymore. The assertion of normality feels like attempting to close a door on this awful episode, which in turn feels like closing a door on you. It is the dance of Grief again: the desire for a future, the lure of the past, the need to keep living in spite of the awareness of dying.

Today, as I walked down the stairs at my daughter's school, having run my lunchtime
writing group, I thought of you as I always do in the gaps between activities and remembered those early days when I would walk down those stairs crying. In those days, appearing normal for an hour was a monumental feat. I could only hold back the pain for very short periods of time. Today I didn't cry at all, just went home and made sandwiches, filled in my tax return. In the early days socialising was impossible. But last weekend I went out for an evening (albeit with really good, empathic friends) and I held it together for several hours. There was just one moment when suddenly the floor seemed to tip and I felt I was underwater, unable to hear what people were saying, when I felt the panic rising. But I kept breathing and held on and it passed. Things are improving. I don't cry every day anymore. In fact, when I look back at my blog, I realise that it is a whole week now since I was last in the grip of a proper grief storm. Without question, the periods of calm are getting longer.

In some ways I miss those early days when you were the only thing on my mind, when the whole world was a storm. But it is getting easier now. Not better. No less sad. Just easier. I know you would want it to be easier on me.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Fairy wings

I wrote this poem years ago when I was in the wrong relationship. I sent it to you one night in response to your plea, 'send me a poem, Beverley Writer.' You said it was the saddest poem you had ever read and it made you cry. 'It makes me happy too, though,' you wrote, 'because I know my heart will soar with yours.' Oh, how we soared.

I just found this photo of myself amongst your files. I was dressed up as 'Fairy Tale' for a children's writing event. It made me think of the poem. What a sad fairy I look in this picture.  What a sad fairy I am now. Still, I read the poem again and, just like it did for you, it makes me happy and sad at the same time. However sad I am now (and I am unspeakably sad), nothing could be as sad as being that fairy pinned down with the broken wings. I know that now that you have shown me how it feels to be cherished, even if I am on my own for the rest of my life, I will never be in that situation again. I hate the idea that there might be a silver lining to this cloud, but a touch of fairy dust maybe I'll allow. Somehow, I will clean up those fairy wings and I will fly. Maybe, if I fly high enough, I can reach you still.

Fairy wings

I saw a pair of fairy wings hanging in the sun,
like all a girl’s childhood dreams spun
in pink and lilac. When I slipped them
on I knew they were the one.
Like Harry Potter’s wand, my wings chose me
and I believed that with them
I could dance beyond the edge
of reason, fly sky high and touch
the stars, sprinkle the world with
fairy dust and magic charms,
leave gold flecks in your hair.

You laughed at me.
You didn’t believe in fairies
or magic or the joy of flight.
You brought me back to earth
with a bump and I squeezed
back my tears, but I bought
the wings anyway and in my dreams
for a while at least, I could still fly.

Like a butterfly I longed to flit
from flower, to precious, glorious flower,
to taste the flavours of the rivers of the world,
to rest my fairy crown with yours on shores,
and banks and heather and moor.
I thought that’s what life was for.
But you blotted out the colours to monochrome,
you cut down all the blossoms that were not home.
And then you started to pick at my fairy wings.
You wanted me pinned in your collection,
safe and still.
Your capture made me ill.

Dutiful,  I accepted your ban on all the people
I had ever loved and all the places I had ever been.
I did what I was told, stuck to safe topics like the weather
(British of course, no foreign climes accepted here),
didn’t dare to mention that the stars shine like gold
on other side and how I longed to take you there.
It was quieter then, the way you like it
but in my dreams sometimes,
I could still dance, and sing and fly.

'I need to know where I stand.'
So I offered you my hand, told you that I
loved you more than stars and grains of sand,
proffered you a hundred grand, a plot of land
my family, my friends and everything I had.
But you pushed my love away
and you crushed my fairy dreams
and you tore my lovely wings to shreds,
left them scattered across a lonely bed.

But I still believe in magic.
Those scattered threads of pink and lilac
re-form now and again I see my fairy wings.
Like trusty friends they waited for me.
I put them on.
Step back if you will and see me fly. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Everything I ever wanted

I was looking through your photos again last week, putting slideshows together for your memorial and I came across this photo. Sometimes I think I have looked through everything that you left behind, but then I find, perhaps, a hidden folder within a folder and there is something new to discover. I am still uncovering the evidence, discovering new things about you, falling more deeply in love even though you've now been gone for longer than we were together. It is eight months now and counting, always with the counting, still with the crying, still not better, not fixed, not over it. Not over it at all.

This photo was taken at exactly this time last year. Our initial quandaries about whether we could be together had been resolved and we were going out together to a party. It was a kind of coming out. What had been private was becoming a little bit more public. Even though it is a photo of something so mundane, this photo touched me more than most, because I have some inkling why you took it. I was upstairs getting changed and I'd left the card for you to sign. You had evidently done so and then liked the way our names looked next to each other and taken a picture. Beverley and Paul. Side by side. A couple.

We had a lovely evening that evening. The party was at our mutual friend's house. It was really special for both of us to be there together. You danced with me properly for the first time that night and I remember being surprised that you had rhythm. Later, we sat holding hands, in that first phase of love when it is hard to let go. And afterwards, we walked, still hand in hand, down the park in the dark, chatting happily about the evening, deconstructing events, the way couples do. I can still feel the comfort of that rhythm as we fell into step so easily, side by side, a couple. We walked past the space where your tree is now planted and into our future together. We fell a little deeper that night.

Sometimes I am so lonely and missing you so much that I find myself searching for your name again in the list of friends on Messenger (I have to search now because your name is so far down the list of recent messages.) I scroll back through the months, from the messages that you never read to the ones we sent in the early days. It is a form of torture that I indulge in from time to time, to bring you back to life in this way and then to feel the full force of your absence again when the messages run out.

I read again the messages that we sent on the day after the party. I was worrying that you might still have doubts. 'Scary stuff, this falling in love,' I said. You reassured me. 'You're everything to me,' you said. 'I want you to know that. I'm just realising the importance of what's happening.' What was happening was really important. We were falling in love: deeply, completely in love in a way that felt new for both of us even though we were middle-aged. 'Somehow, you seem to be everything I've ever wanted and never quite had,' I said.

And, as I read, a crack opens in the universe and I fall headlong through the gap, tumbling into blackness. The past has vanished and the present and future have merged into a gaping chasm. I am crying so hard that I can no longer see the words on the screen, feeling that I can't breathe, sure that I can't survive this pain any longer. I am falling faster and faster into the darkness, clutching your clothes to my chest as if they are the life raft that will save me. Eventually I fall asleep with my phone cast aside on the bed and when I wake, I feel shipwrecked again, the ground like shifting sand beneath my feet, my body water-logged, the sun too bright in my tired eyes. The tears are poised again, waiting to fall.

I let them fall as I sob my way through my bereavement counselling again, as I talk about how precious you were and how impossible it feels to imagine ever finding that kind of love again. Of course I had known real love before but it was twenty years ago when I was too young to understand what I had. It didn't last for long. And now it feels like it took me forty-five years to find you and just eight months to lose you. The equation is all wrong. I talk again about how private our love was, how so few of our feelings were public because it was still so new. I talk about how upset I am that some friends don't seem to understand our relationship. 'Why do you need other people to validate what you had?' she asks. I can't answer but for some reason, I do. Maybe it's because we never had a wedding or a public declaration, that the closest we came to going public, was a party last November with our names side by side on a card. Perhaps I make our relationship public now because I need someone to understand what we had and what we lost. That this was not something small. That this was monumental. I search your files and our messages to remind myself what it was. I share them to show other people. I am digging up the past, looking for evidence that you lived, that we loved. Thankfully, she, at least, understands. 'You know, the more you talk about him,' she says, 'the more I realise how perfect he was for you.' She is right, you were. You were everything I ever wanted. And now you are everything that I have to live without. In some ways it should be easy; I am used to doing without. But how hard to it is now to live with the knowledge of what we might have had.

Wednesday, 16 November 2016

What a difference a year makes

This week Facebook has mostly been showing me photos of my book launch which happened 'this time last year'. I can't be the first person to wish that Facebook would stop helpfully reminding me of the past.

This time last year, I had two book launches. The first one was in London on the Monday. It was a magical day, partly because I was launching my first book in Waterstones in Piccadilly but mostly because I let my daughter bunk off school to spend the day in London with me. Even more magical with hindsight, was the fact that my mum managed to persuade her two sons that, in spite of having only recently come back out of hospital, she was determined to go. I don't know if she knew that she wasn't long for this world but we certainly didn't. This time last year they caught a different train to me and went out for a different lunch and then we all travelled home on the train together. This time last year my daughter sat with my mum playing Scrabble on the iPad with my brother while I slumped exhausted in the next booth. This time last year, we all posted this photo on Facebook. This time last year she was alive. Three weeks later, she was dead.

This time last year I did a fashion show in my kitchen for you. For some reason I was a nervous wreck about this stupid book launch and about what I was supposed to wear. I tried on different outfits and you took photos of me, pretending that having photos would make it easier for me to decide, although really, you just liked taking my picture. You said the purple dress was your favourite but that you didn't want other people to see me in it because it would make you jealous. So I picked two other outfits, one for the Monday (the one we thought my mum would like best) and one for the Wednesday. I love looking at the photos that you took of me, not because I love looking at me but because I love looking at me looking at you looking at me. I can see your presence in my eyes.

On the Wednesday, everyone was there again and this time you came too, in disguise as a friendly photographer. My children were there and I hadn't told them about you yet so you hung about casually taking pictures. You were wearing the dark blue shirt and trousers that you wore every time you needed to look smart. You wore short sleeves even when it was freezing, partly because you didn't have anything smart to wear on a top of your shirt and partly because you were a raging furnace all day long. It was as if you'd absorbed the heat of the forge into your very being. In Waterstones I managed to surreptitiously introduce you to a couple of friends who loved you immediately, observing something that I loved about you too, that you were a man who was comfortable in his own skin, who made other people feel comfortable in theirs. I didn't need to take care of you; you were happy in the background observing. I kept thinking that I should introduce you to my mum but my mum was on cloud nine, running around taking her own photos, feeling proud and liberated, happy to be out on the town, happy to see her daughter finally succeeding at a dream. The moment never arose.

The children remember you from that day though, even though they didn't yet know who you were. My little boy, jumping about excitedly with his shiny blue balloon, let it go so that it sailed high up onto the ceiling of the bookshop. You climbed up onto the table and fetched it down for him, handed the string to him in the manner of a magician, your big hand meeting his little one just for a moment. 'Paul fetched your balloon for you?' my daughter reminded him the other day. 'He was really kind.'

You never showed me the photos that you took of my book launch for some reason but I found them after you died. They were the best photos taken that evening. This one is of me and my friend Anni. You liked Anni from the moment she shook her finger at you and told you that you must look after me. She liked you from the moment that you shook her hand and promised her you would. It's not a great picture of Anni but it makes me smile to see the light in my eyes as I'm smiling at you.

In all of the shots of that evening, there are none of you and none of my mum. You were both behind the camera. Neither of you would be around for long, not nearly as long as you should have been. But this time last year, you were both alive and I was in love and things were good. What a difference a year makes.

Monday, 14 November 2016

In which we plant a tree

I think you would like your tree. It's outside an old shared house that you lived in, the one where you played hide and seek with the landlord when he came for the rent. It's an oak, not an ash. I know you wanted to be an ash but I think you would understand that we couldn't plant an ash because of the problem with ash die back. You should understand; you planted trees for the last couple of years of your life, just on Thursdays and Fridays. It gave structure to your week and a regular income. You enjoyed the camaraderie and the being outside in nature, though you hated getting up early and the restriction of your freedom. You were a man who needed to be free. 

It was something both of us have struggled with in relationships, this desire for intimacy and the need for autonomy. Living with partners hasn't worked out well for either of us and you weren't sure you could do it again now. I wasn't sure that I needed you to, although I told you that I was sad to think that by spending my life with you I might never have that again. It was a work in progress. 'I just know that I want more of you,' you used to say. The last time we discussed living together was when you'd come with me to look at a house that I was considering buying, the house that I am now living in. We joked that if we lived here together, you could have a camp bed in the cellar or a hut at the bottom of the garden. No character from fiction reminds me of you so much as Hagrid and a hut in the garden would have suited you fine. When we got back to mine, we discussed it more seriously and considered the idea that you could keep your own place (you would have needed a workshop anyway) and sleep there occasionally but spend most of your time with me. It was a compromise we were both happy with, perhaps the compromise that we would be living with now, if you were still living. Just in case you are wondering, living without you is no kind of compromise at all. 

I remember discussing your need for freedom early on. We were in my campervan. I'm not sure if we were even a couple yet. You said that sometimes you found relationships difficult because you had things that you needed to do. 'What is it that you need to do?' I asked, wondering if it was something I could accommodate (I struggled with the partner who needed to play computer games and watch TV and the one who needed to go up mountains). 'I need to make things!' you said with obvious delight. And I beamed at you. The need to create is a need that I totally get, it's just that I use different tools. 

It was an interesting assortment of people that assembled in the park on Saturday to plant your tree. Many of them were the same people that congregated at your funeral. I have never in my life seen such a broad spectrum of society at a funeral; millionaires side by side with makers and hippies, battered campervans parked next to sports cars, tracksuit bottoms next to cashmere coats. On Saturday, we wrote messages on tags and planted bulbs around the base of your tree then held hands in a circle and remembered you. I think of the stories people told later and imagine their heads full of those memories as they stood there, gazing at your tree and remembering the different aspects of you: 'mullocking' Paul, stripping pipes out of derelict buildings; Glastonbury Paul, attracting crowds with a loud-hailer, wearing nothing but a cardboard box; Blacksmith Paul, showing countless friends and family the alchemy of metal; tree-planting Paul, who could lift and dig and banter while he worked. To most you were a friend, to some you were a brother or father figure. To me, you were something else. You were the centre of my world. As I stood amongst the crowd of people who knew you, in some ways I felt more alone than ever. The centre of the circle was just a tree and the people in the circle are not really my circle. No-one remembers you the way I do. No-one knows what we shared. I felt again all the same old insecurities, imagining that your friends must look at me and think that it could never have worked, that it must have been a casual thing. We know that it wasn't. We know that it did work. We might not have looked it but we were so alike on the inside. 

Aa people shared their memories later, I saw aspects of the Paul that I knew though and aspects of me too. 'He was a man you could tickle,' said one friend, which made me laugh, picturing you laughing with me as I pinched your cheeks 'like Auntie Ethel'. 'He was great at crosswords,' someone else said, and I saw us one Saturday, holed up in a cafe, racing to fill in the grid, blissfully content together. 'When he went on holiday, he just packed books,' said your sister and I remembered myself as a child, trying to ram just one more book into my bag. 'He would give you things that he thought you'd like,' said another friend, and I thought of all the things that you gave to me and the things you gave to my kids, even though they didn't know you. You were endlessly generous with your possessions and your time. The last thing I remember someone saying was this: ''The thing I loved about Paul was that he made his own way'. I smiled and nodded. 'That's why I loved him,' I said. 

Today, I found myself mindlessly looking again at dating profiles, not because I'm ready but just because I was trying again to imagine loving someone new. I swiped left over and over again on Tinder until there was no-one in my region that I hadn't discarded. It all seems so hopeless. Everyone is unique of course but there is no-one like you. I don't want to spend my time with someone whose profile shows them holding a pint, or standing by a fancy car or bungee jumping off a mountain. I don't want someone who watches TV or plays football. I really don't want one of those people who doesn't take life seriously; we're just not going to get on at the moment. I want a man whose face lights up when he thinks of making something, who delights in words and clouds and derelict buildings. I want a man who doesn't worry about what other people think, who is full of love and kindness. I wanted you.

At the end of the day, I read a bit of my blog to the people who were left at the memorial to you. It took some courage. I wondered, as I often do, if your friends thought I'd lost the plot, reflected that I probably have. 'I worry that people think I'm weird,' I said to your friend as he was leaving. 'We're all weird,' he said. And I thought then that maybe people do get it. Maybe it's the thing all of your friends have in common. They all walk their own unique paths. I am reminded of the list of Dr Seuss' 'Rules to Live By', that I used to have stuck to my office wall. The last one feels fitting:

'We're all a little weird and life's a little weird and when we find someone whose weirdness is compatible with our own, we join up in mutual weirdness and call it love.' 

Our mutual weirdness was the best. I don't know if I can ever find that kind of love again but I download those quotes again and realise that I am still left with the others. They can still be my rules for living. I stick them back up above my desk:

Be who you are and say what you mean, because those who mind don't matter 
and those who matter don't mind. 

(Who cares if writing a blog about you is weird?)

Today you are you, that is truer than true. 
There is no-one alive that is you-er than you.

(The me I am is the me you loved. I'm ok with that person.)

You have brains in your head and feet in your shoes.
You can steer yourself in whatever direction you choose. 

(It is still true. I just need to choose a new direction.)

I can't go where I wanted to go, but I can speak my truth and walk my own path, as you did. I don't know where the path will lead me but I know that sometimes I will walk to the foot of the oak tree and imagine that you are moving like the wind in the leaves.  

In the end, you were getting tired of the tree planting and the moving people and the odd jobs. You wanted to make things again. 'Break free, Blacksmith!' I said to you the night before you died. You did. You are a free spirit now. And so am I.

Tuesday, 8 November 2016

They will not give you back

They will not give you back
though I have prayed to gods that I don't believe in
and screamed from the top of the highest hills.
Though I have sobbed until my pillow
is soaked with tears from rage-filled clouds.
No, they will not give you back.

They will not give you back
though I have tried my best to rewind time,
turning clocks back further,
just a little bit further still
as the nights draw in.
No, they will not give you back.

They will not give back to me
those days when love was an endless river
and time stretched long like summer shadows.
They will not give back your arms,
your eyes, your smile, your voice.
They say they have no choice.
They will not give you back.

Though my arguments are valid,
though it is clear and understood
that I do not want to live without you
and that if they could just please return you,
I will be very, very good,
there is no loophole,
the verdict is final.
They will not give you back.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Remember Remember the 5th November

The men are out on the green outside my new house building a bonfire.They are hefting logs around, dragging bags of leaves across the grass and the air rings with the sound of hammer and nail as they erect a structure fit for the king of all the guys. I walk past and wave, picture for a moment, you amongst the group, hoisting old kitchen cabinets on your shoulder, hammering with mock vigour, laughing in camaraderie with the other men. How you would have loved to be there, I know. I kick a pile of leaves, talk to you in the clouds again, and walk on with the dog. I phone your mum, call to see your friends. As usual none of them can fill the gap.

I remember last year. I was sad that the children were with their dad on this, my favourite day of the year. I shed a few tears on your shoulder while we tried to decide whether to go out to a bonfire anyway but, in the end, we just lay in bed in my attic room, watching fireworks explode over the city from my window in each other's arms. I remember us listening to Jamie Lawson's song, 'I wasn't expecting that.' It wasn't our kind of music but those words resonated for us both. We hadn't expected to find ourselves so deeply in love, not at our age, not with each other. We weren't expecting the ending of the song when it came either, it was so abrupt, the way she dies and the song stops. We weren't expecting it to happen to us.

I didn't go to the bonfire with your friends the night after, though the kids and I were invited. I was too scared to introduce them to you. I knew they would love you, like they loved the last one who left. I didn't trust you yet to stay. But I remember that you sent me photos of the bonfire and a video of your friend juggling fire and that you learned to Facetime. I can still picture your face looming into view, your laughter over the crackle of the fire, the wonder of you, marvelling at the wonder of it all.

Afterwards I said, come round, the children are in bed. And we sat on my sofa and you smelled of wood smoke and sparks and all was warmth. How lovely it was to see each other unexpectedly, we said, on a Sunday night.

Tonight I will watch the bonfire go up in flames and watch the guy collapse and I will remember, not the man who wanted to blow up parliament but the man who lit up my life with a spark that burned so brightly, then fizzled and died, leaving just a trail of love like smoke in the air. I will imagine the feel of your arms around me in the darkness and write your name across the night sky.

Tomorrow, I will go to the bonfire with your friends and, this time, I can take the kids. Together we will remember you, the blacksmith, builder of bonfires, a man of fire. On this day, and every day, I remember you. On this night, and every night, I miss you.

Wednesday, 2 November 2016

Grief is like snakes and ladders

You start at square one in a state of shock and disbelief. Time is a blur and you move along in a horizontal line, counting days like squares. And then one day, you land at the foot of a ladder and you start climbing upwards, out of the gloom and towards the light. You start to feel that maybe you're making some kind of progress in this new world of grief. You feel you're heading in the right direction, you've started taking short cuts and have zoomed forwards. You start to imagine that you're winning. And then something happens and you step on the mouth of a snake and go tumbling backwards. Sometimes you are right back at the start again. This happened to me yesterday.

When I set out yesterday, I was really doing pretty well. I had plans for how to spend the day and, for the first time, plans for the future. It had even been about three days since I last sobbed my heart out which is definitely a record. But then I decided to call and see your mum because I was round the corner from her flat and I thought I'd pick up your phone while I was there. It came back from the police station a little while ago but we've not been able to get it working. After I'd seen your mum, I took the phone to the shop down the road to see if they could bring it back to life. They said it might take a few days but by four o'clock they had fixed it. So I drove back to collect it.

I thought about waiting until I got home but I couldn't bear the suspense, so I sat in the car and opened the screen. I was hoping to find some photos that I took of you on our trip to Brimham Rocks but there were hardly any photos on it at all. It turns out that when you were telling me something about your two phones and the relative quality of the photos and the cock-up with the two contracts, you were probably telling me that you had decided to keep the old phone for taking photos and were just using this one for calls. It looks like the photos I have of you will stay in my memory and never be shared. Instead, I just have the one of the rocks. Who wants a photo of rocks? Rocks will be there for all eternity. You were not.

I knew what would happen if I looked through your calls, but I did it anyway. Seventeen missed calls while you were lying dead, about six of them from me. I couldn't listen to the messages because there was no signal anymore. But it was the text messages that did it. And there it was: the last message that you sent. It wasn't a message of love. Instead it was a message about an eBay transaction. You were cancelling an appointment to collect something that you had bought. You said that you couldn't make it that Thursday evening because you were feeling really ill and that it was getting worse as the evening went on. 'I'm not sure I'll be better tomorrow, either,' you wrote. And that was the moment when the snake swallowed me.

I was back at the beginning again, like I'd slipped through a portal and gone back in time, picturing you lying ill on your bed all alone, willing you to pick up that phone and call an ambulance or call me, wondering what you were feeling, what you were thinking, if you knew, at any time, what was happening to your body. The next message in the list was from me. Just an everyday, late at night 'hello' that you never received. It seems likely that somewhere between seven and ten, you died.

I was shaking so much that I couldn't go home to an empty house so I went to see a friend. While I was parking I reversed into a lamp post and then I must have opened my door into a passing car because there was a man shouting abuse at me as I got out. I had no idea what he was talking about or why he was shouting at me. At first I didn't even realise it was me he was shouting at. There was just an angry voice coming out of a car telling someone to be more careful and to think of the kids and did they want to get killed? I had a cup of tea with my friend and when I got home I sobbed to myself in the bath and later I sobbed down the phone to a friend again. I started re-reading your post-mortem trying to understand, again, how you could have had a headache and memory loss but have died of heart disease. I still don't understand it. Today I have walked around with panic echoing in the background, fear rising. I have been casting about again for something to hold onto. I am back at the beginning, like it just happened yesterday. I can't bear the thought that you died alone and that there might have been something that someone could have done to save you. I tell myself that it's pointless thinking these thoughts. Nothing can change what happened. But I do it anyway.

I found myself thinking again about a friend of yours who said that it was inevitable that someone like you, who was independent and lived alone, would die alone. But I wanted to argue with her. You weren't a single man. You were with me and deeply loved. I just wasn't there when you needed me. I don't blame myself anymore, there is nothing I could have done, but it still it hurts beyond belief to not have been there when you died. I know though, that you weren't truly alone. It consoles me and destroys me at the same time to know that you were carrying me in your heart when it stopped. A part of my heart died with you, though somehow it keeps on beating.

I am back at square one. I roll the dice and edge forwards again, hoping for a six, praying for another ladder, knowing that there are snakes round every corner.