The old stable was quiet that late Christmas eve night. There was the sheep that had lambed the night before, far too early, asleep in the straw with her skinny and startlingly white twins. The old horse dozing and snuffling gently, occasionally shifting a foot. A couple of half tame farm cats slumbering in the wall-mounted hay rack. And me.
Now that had been a row. Fuelled by the presence of the flaming elf on the shelf, the lack of the Christmas Eve box that "everyone has got, Daddy", the fact that the shop had run out of Brussels sprouts and I should have gone earlier when I was asked, and all the other irritations and tirednesses and not meeting expectations that come along with Christmas, I just exploded. And, so, instead of being lovely-and-cuddly-Christmas-jumper-wearing-reading-stories-in-front-of-the-fire-and hanging-up-the-stockings-Dad, I was in-a-flaming-temper-and-storming-away-from-crying-children-and-hiding-in-the-stable-Dad. And yes, I know, it's not big and not clever and not fair. And I felt horrible. But I knew I couldn't go back in. Not yet. That would show that I was wrong and I wasn't. Well, I didn't think I was. Or was I? Oh, I don't know.
I must have fallen asleep. That's the only way I can explain it. And there must have been a power cut. Because when I opened my eyes the stable was colder and darker, and the light was no longer streaming in from the yard. I sat up; all of a sudden, I'd stopped being grumpy-dad and turned into worried-about-Marion-and-the-kids-dad. I reached into my pocket for my phone, ready to turn the torch on. But it wasn't there. And neither were my trousers. Instead I was wearing some kind of rough fabric tunic, tied round my waist with a piece of cord. I looked out into the yard in the cold light of the moon, and it was my yard but it wasn't. The gates and walls were there but the house was smaller, rougher, more like a hut, and the windows glowed in a soft yellow flickering light, not the harshness of electric bulbs.
I sat back down, abruptly, and that's when I saw her. A girl, she couldn't have been more than 20, holding a baby wrapped up in linen. There were still streaks of blood on his tiny wrinkled face, and she tenderly wiped them away with her thumb. I smelled the tang of blood and shit and sweat and earth and damp straw. The smell of birth. A man was with her, and he looked down with such love and grief at the two faces, one sweat-stained and exhausted and joyful, the other small and perfect and sleeping. I could see the tears on his cheeks and in his beard, glinting in the moonlight.
I looked around, and I swore the sheep and her lambs, and the horse, were watching the figures. Even the cats' eyes glinted green in the darkness. At the door, silhouetted against the frosted cobbles, there was a goat and a cow peering in, and between their hooves there were mice, rats and rabbits, a dove and a couple of hens. The only sound was the purring of the cats.
I stood up suddenly, and hit my head hard on the hay rack. The world flashed white, and the last thing I remember, before tumbling unceremoniously into the straw, was all those sets of eyes looking at me and the sweet sleepy smile of the girl. And then dark.
The cold woke me up this time, and the light – a sharp bright morning, full of frost and sun and farm noises. I was laying in the straw next to the sheep and her twins. I rubbed my head. No bruise. Checked my pockets. There was my phone. And no girl or baby or goats. Just my wife's voice.
"Morning sweetheart," she said. "Assumed that you'd fallen asleep after lambing her – it must have been after two that you came out. She looks fine – daft old girl."
"It's not… Christmas morning… what…"
"You're still asleep – it's Christmas eve, you daft old farmer. Did you have a nip of something to keep the cold out? There's a brew on in the kitchen." She started to walk back to the farm house, and then turned back, a touch of exasperation. "I don't suppose you…"
"Well, we'll just have to…"
The sprouts! And if it was Christmas eve… that was the weirdest dream.
"I'll nip out to the farm shop first," I said, standing up and shaking the straw out of my jumper. Graeme's still got some Brussels, I think. And if not, he can share his. He owes us for letting his tup out early and getting the old girl here up the duff. And how about I get the girls something for Christmas Eve. A book or a game or something? They've actually been quite good, I suppose."
I grinned. And she grinned back. A real grin, rather than the strained smile I've seen a lot lately. As I turned towards the stable door, something white caught my eye. I stooped to pick it up. It was a scrap of white linen, with the fleeting smell of new life. Sometimes, we do get a fresh start. However unlikely it seems.
It was a cold night, that Christmas eve night, as we walked back from the pub. Warmed from the fire and the food and the beer, we hunkered down inside hats and scarves and coats and boots, trying to hold onto the heat as we stepped out of the door. Every surface glittered like diamonds, reflecting the chill light of the distant stars. Behind the long snaking dry stone walls, sheep huddled together, and the night was so still and quiet we could hear them breathing. The hills rose up either side of us, crisp white with snow and bathed in the cold light of the full moon. Etched with the blue-black shadows of the winter trees and the footsteps of the fox.
As we dropped down into the village, the windows of the church glowed with the flickering gold of candlelight and the warmth of centuries-old stained glass. Around the edges of the door leaked light and sound, the sweet melancholy of In the Bleak Midwinter and the quiet rumble of prayer.
Tiny white and blue lights edged the trees, lighting our way as we walked through the streets, our footsteps muffled and creaking in the snow that had only stopped falling a few hours before. We tiptoed into the house, not wanting to break the mood of stillness, and stayed silent, arms around each other, bathed in the glow of the damped down fire and the lights of the tree. And as we stood there, the church bells pealed Christmas through the cold night air.
This was her hourglass, and when I flip it over, I can hear her voice, bickering with me about how long to boil an egg. Telling me I've thought long enough, and it's time to put the Scrabble letters on the board. Asking me to tell her when the time's up so that she can pour the perfect four-minute cup of tea. Laughing as I time her putting up her waist length hair to go to work. Insisting that she was only going to be out in the garden for five minutes, and grinning when she came back to find me standing in the doorway, hourglass in hand.
It was in my pocket that night. I was home before her, and I was getting ready to make bread. I'd mixed the yeast and the warm water and the sugar. The timer was broken, so I'd decided to let the hourglass run through four times to give the mixture time to froth. It wasn't really necessary but watching the sand run through the glass in the sleepy warm afternoon sunshine was soothing, almost hypnotic. The sound of the crash took a moment to work its way into my befuddled head.
It was all done by the time I got to the garden gate. A man sat inside the deep red Jaguar, his hair falling forwards, his face blank and white. And tucked underneath the gleaming front bumper, her bicycle. She was face down, still and quiet, her tweed skirt rucked up around her knees, her white silk shirt growing pink. And a cascade of late cabbage roses and heady sweet peas scattered around her. When I close my eyes, all I can see is her pink lace slip, her favourite, almost frivolous under the hem of her sensible skirt.
The ambulance arrived in seconds, or in days, I'm not quite sure which, and I was shooed away by the capable and set-faced men in uniform. We didn't have a car, but Mr Jenkins, our neighbour, drove me over to the hospital.
They wouldn't let me in to see her. I was only her landlady, the spinster she shared a house with. I found the hourglass in my pocket – it must have been in my hand as I ran out of the door. It was wrapped tight in my fingers when I heard her voice, quiet, tense, asking for me. But still they wouldn't let me in. All they wanted to know from me was whether she had any family, and where they were. I told them what I knew.
They left me alone, and I turned the hourglass over and over, but I didn't hear her voice any more. I must have dozed in that hard wooden chair, because the next I heard was an auxiliary, rubber-soled shoes squeaking on the polished floor, with an elderly woman on her arm. Later, a frantic call for a nurse, running feet, and then a doctor, walking quietly, a man in no hurry. And I knew.
On the long, cold bus journey home, the hourglass turned and glinted under my fingers, under the early morning streetlights, and all I could think was at least she didn't die alone.
Her brother came to clear her things, and he treated me civilly, distantly. No discomfort, just the politeness reserved for staff. He told me about the funeral, and seemed surprised when I turned up. I sat at the back, looking at the grieving family in the front two rows. I said my silent goodbyes. And I never had another… tenant.
I've still got the hourglass, and now, watching the sand running though, it feels I'm seeing my future running through into my past.
I might give it to my niece, when she marries her girlfriend next weekend, in the registry office right next to the beautiful park. We will have a picnic in the sunshine, she said.
I might tell her what I have told no-one else, about the woman who, in a different life, could have been her aunt.
I think she might understand.
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."
Writing short fiction, monologues and plays