My baby Florence hated thunderstorms. She would come running home to me and hide herself in my skirts, pulling the cloth over her face so she couldn't hear the thunderclaps or see the flashes of lightning.
We get a lot of thunderstorms here in Natchez, and she would know when they were coming, even before the sky got dark. Her poppa called her his little weathervane, and would go and get the chickens in as soon as he saw her run to me. Even the dog – who hated thunderstorms almost as much as she did – knew to hide when he saw her clinging to my apron. The cat – well, you know cats. It was almost as if the cat would shrug and say, 'it don't bother me'. But in the worst of the storms, Poppy the cat would curl up with Florence and they would comfort each other.
Florence is my youngest. All the others, well, they were nearly grown up when she was born. I thought that there would be no more babies. That my time for that was past. And then along came Florence. She was the prettiest baby – hair so blonde it was almost white, and big wide blue eyes like a china doll. And she was so good. Slept right through from the beginning. Never needed telling off – well, not very often. She wasn't an angel after all. Just a lovely little girl. She charmed her big brothers and sisters. Loved her books. And she hardly ever cried, except in a thunderstorm.
Florence said that storms felt like the sky was shouting at her and the wind was chasing her. And the lightning made her eyes hurt. She was so brave about everything else. It was just storms that scared her.
That last time she came running to me, I thought there must be a storm coming. But the sky was a clear bright blue and there wasn't a sign of a cloud. Then I felt the heat of her skin right through my skirts. I looked at her. Her face was flushed, and her eyes were glassy. She said that her head hurt, and everything ached. And that she felt sick. My mouth went dry. I'd heard about the boats bringing in the slaves to pick the cotton. The boats with the dreaded butter-coloured flag that showed they had yellow jack on board.
Dr Parsons came over, and said he thought she might have yellow fever, but he doubted it. And even if she did, that she'd would get better in a few days. She was young and strong. I sat with her day and night, bathing her head with a cold flannel, and on the fifth night her fever broke. She woke up and smiled at me. I gave her a drink, and she drifted back to sleep, her forehead cool and her breathing regular.
I slept for what seemed like the first time in days, curled up in a chair in her room, and my husband must've come in, because when I woke up, I had a blanket tucked over me.
I looked over at Florence, and I saw straight away that the fever was back. She woke and whispered that her belly ached, it ached so much. When she opened her eyes, the whites were just tinged with a little bit of yellow, and I knew. That was the longest week of my life. Dr Parsons came and went. My husband tried to get me to go to bed, to sleep, to eat. I couldn't leave Florence's side. I tried to keep her cool, to get her to take sips of broth. I prayed to God until my knees were sore, not to take away my ten-year-old baby. I pleaded with her to get well. But whatever I did, her skin turned bronze and her eyes became bright yellow. And she slipped a little further away from me each day.
I knew the end was near when the cat, who never came upstairs, curled up at her side. As she took her last breath, I heard the first rumble of thunder.
I wept all night. Wept for my baby. Held her against the storm, just in case wherever she was, she was still afraid. And then in the morning, I wept all the more that I wouldn't be able to comfort her when she was in the ground. My husband held me tight.
I've always loved drawing. And I started to draw. A tiny coffin with a window in the side so that I could see her face. A stairway down to the grave, to a wall with a window. A set of doors at the top of the steps that would shield me from the storm. A headstone that read ' As bright and affectionate a Daughter as ever God with His Image blest'. And so, her grave was built. And I go down the stairs and read and sing to my baby Florence during every storm, like I always have.
I've just seen the clouds coming in. There's a storm on the way. I must go to Florence.
500 g butter
Eating dad's homemade bread in front of the gas fire in the sitting room. Hot bread and cold, cold butter.
1 cup sugar
Using the coffee grinder part of the blender to turn granulated into castor sugar.
The sweet scent of the twisted black vanilla pod in the old coffee jar full of sugar for baking.
Sugar on buttery toast as a treat.
1 tin condensed milk
Dad making condensed milk sandwiches on soft white bread, and us giggling as it dripped down our chins.
Scraping out the last scraps of sweet, sticky condensed milk from the bottom of the tin.
5 cups SR flour
The pleasing soft thump of flour as mum pours it into the bowl, and the silky coolness of it under my fingers.
Mum guiding me as I rub in lard and butter to make pastry, her fingers cold next to mine.
Cream butter and sugar
Gold turning to white in the old orange mixing bowl, and the sound of the electric beaters on the hard plastic, as mum captures the last scraps of butter and sugar.
Dad showing me how if you over-whip cream it turns into tiny golden grains of butter, hard won but tasting so much better than anything from a shop.
The strange glass contraption that makes butter into substitute cream.
Stir in condensed milk and flour to make a firm dough
Scraping the bowl after mum made cakes.
Wrapping my tongue around the not quite sharp edges of the rotary whisk, the one with the burgundy Bakelite handle and the crack that pinches an unwary palm.
Roll into balls and press with a fork, or freeze in rolls and slice
The sound of the knife on the Pyrex plate rim as mum trims the excess pastry, and the indentations left by her first finger and thumb as she crimps the edges to seal the pie tight. Two slits in the centre to let out the steam.
Making jam tarts and little pasties with the scraps of pastry left over.
Cook at 170-180 degrees for about 12 minutes
Mum putting half a Victoria sponge in the freezer and Dad complaining that we only ever got a round cake when we had visitors.
The house filling with the smell of warm sweetness on a Saturday afternoon.
Yesterday I graduated from the University of Derby with an MA with Distinction in Writing for Performance, wearing a glorious pair of red patent leather DMs. Doing the MA was the first big decision I made after Tim died, and it was paid for with money from selling his business.
I started it still in a raw stage of grief, less than 18 months after he died. I studied through the pandemic. My studies took me so far out of my comfort zone and I nearly gave up. I also found that it thrilled my heart and soul, and brought me joy at a time when I didn't think joy existed any more.
It's left me thinking about how far I have come in the nearly four years since Tim's death. In a lot of ways, I am just the same person. Grief hasn't taken away who I am. However, in a lot of ways I am a completely different person. Grief has changed me. I have a different kind of confidence, honed out of grief and hard work and psychotherapy. I have more of an understanding of myself. I have more patience with people who hurt, but I have less patience for fools. I have a new partner, Dee, and am getting married, hopefully next year. But I still carry Tim in my heart and have his picture on my wall.
I am still grieving. I will always grieve. But I am still here. And while I don't use the phrasing 'moving on', because I feel that implies leaving him behind, I will continue to move forward.
I have had a monologue, The Night Witch, accepted for the forthcoming The Queens of Cups November New Moon Monologues: Something Wicked This Way Comes on Sunday 14 November. It's at The Space, at the bottom of the Isle of Dogs, a short bus ride from Canary Wharf and just across the river from Greenwich.
I've created a new blog called The Widow's Handbook - it's going to be short blogs for widows and for the people around them, designed to help people through an awful time.
Here's the first post: Things not to say to a widow
Three and a half years ago, and four months after Tim died, I wrote this in a blog:
"I'm left in the limbo of Life v3.0. I don't want to be here. I liked Life v2.1. I don't know whether there's ever going to be a Life v3.1. But I've decided that if I could be brave before I'm going to be brave again."
And it's not the 'Oh, you are so brave, I don't know how I would cope without [insert name here]'. It's a brave with the stitches showing and the glue not quite set. It's a broken and mended brave. It's a Kintsugi bowl repaired with gold brave, a brave that sees the beauty in the flaws. And while it's a kind of brave that doesn't always withstand a puff of wind, I'm hoping it might be the kind that will stand up to a storm."
Last night I made a Kintsugi bowl, to celebrate where I am now. I have a Life v3.1, and she is planning on moving to Tideswell, to be with me. And that's just wonderful. And I know that I am now (and always have been) more than who I live with. I have completed an MA in Writing for Performance. I will have a performance staged next year. My freelance writing career continues apace. I still have the bees. This isn't the life I chose. But it's the life I'm going to celebrate
"It's a brave with the stitches showing and the glue not quite set. It's a broken and mended brave. It's a Kintsugi bowl repaired with gold brave, a brave that sees the beauty in the flaws."
I got caught up in a Facebook argument the other day (I know, so unlike me) on the topic of violence against women, and got comments from men along the lines of #NotAllMen and ‘I’m not violent so it’s nothing to do with me’. But it is up to all men to do something.
Listen to your partners, daughters, friends, mothers, sisters and take them seriously when they talk about what they have experienced. Ask them how they feel about what is going on. Find out how often they have been flashed at, touched, rubbed up against, shouted at, wolf-whistled at, followed, and how old they were when it first happened (early teens for me). Hear their stories about how they plan ahead getting back to their car, how they map out longer routes in their heads because they don’t feel safe on the shorter routes, how they don’t speak out because they feel afraid or intimidated, or how they walk in the middle of the road with their keys in their hands when they think someone might be following them.
Educate your sons and grandsons in what is and isn’t acceptable and why. Help them see that women are their equals. Give them the tools that will allow them to make a difference.
Call out your colleagues, friends or family members when they make sexist jokes, talk over women, put women down, cat call women, or keep chatting someone up when it’s clear she’s not interested.
Don’t say ‘oh, it’s PC gone mad’. Don’t say ‘you can’t do or say anything these days’. If what you say or do upsets women or makes them uncomfortable, just don’t say it or do it. And don’t say #NotAllMen. Or respond that men get harassed too. I know they do. And I do care – I can multitask on caring. I’m just talking about women at the moment.
Tim was a... I don't know what. He would have described himself as collector, but was he a hoarder? When he died, the house was full of books and magazines. Airfix kits. Projects he was going to do. Newspapers he was going to read. Vintage things with sentimental connections. The first pandemic lockdown hit me really hard. My work dried up and I was more alone that I had ever been, in a house that I had fallen out of love with and was full of things that weren't mine. I fell close to the lowest I think I have ever been. It felt like a full stop. One morning, I made the decision to start sorting things. To move rooms around. To reclaim. And I started with the bedroom, the room where Tim had died. I cleared things out. Moved things around. Filled bags for the charity shop and for the bin. Painted the walls and the ceiling. Moved out spare furniture. And then I started to move around the house. Boxed up kits and cars for sale. Sold a room full of magazines on eBay, which took three van trips to clear. Painted and sorted and cleared. Until the house became mine. And as the rooms cleared, my head cleared, and I took the time to grieve. To take the first faltering steps forwards. So. It wasn't a full stop after all. It was a semicolon. Because after all, a semicolon is used when an author could've ended a sentence, their sentence, but chose not to.
I've had enough. I've never been strong enough before, but meeting you has helped me so much. All those years when he said he was sorry, that I'd made him do it, that it was only to teach me. That I should be glad I have him, as I wouldn't be able to manage on my own. That I needed him to help me make decisions. These were all the same things that my father said to my mother. But this ends today. I'm leaving him, and coming to you. I know I'm not clever. I don't always know what is the right thing to do. You’ve helped me reach the decision. But I know that you will help me, look after me. You will tell me what I need to do. I will be safe with you. You won't have to be sorry. I won't make you do anything, and I know that there will be things you need to teach me. I will be glad to have you. Because I really can't manage on my own. You know, you look just like my father.
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays