CPR, waves, a cool vicar and three cornered sandwiches.

 I tell myself that the dummy doesn’t look anything like Bob.

Possibly in part because it’s only a torso – the basic requirement for demonstrating chest compressions and mouth to mouth.

It glares at me vacantly, its eyeless sockets daring me to kneel beside it and commence saving its life. I regard it with growing horror. What the fuck made me think that this was a good idea?

The trainer covers its plastic mouth with more plastic, and shows us how to apply mouth to mouth. He tilts the head back to free the airway and as the knowledge that I did not do this hits me with some force, my right arm winds itself around my mid section.

The sing song voice of the trainer blurs into a Welsh accented noise. I find that I am crying quietly but helplessly. And I know that I can’t do this.

‘I can’t do this,’ I inform the person sitting next to me. My voice is croaky, tear filled. She stares, embarrassment glazing her features.

The heat of indecision engulfs me, making my armpits and back prickle with panic filled dampness. My chest heaves and I sniff loudly enough to alert anyone who hasn’t yet noticed, that I am crying.

I am no longer in control of the situation.

I don’t know what to do.

So I run away.

As I hiccup my way along the street, I berate myself for my rudeness and then ponder briefly on the alternative. Staying in a room with nine people I barely know and an enthusiastic first aid trainer whose delivery is littered with well used jokes and survival percentages. Explaining myself. Dealing with varied reactions. Carrying on with the rest of the day. I shudder and dive into a welcoming cafe with lots of cushions.

My cappuccino froth is dusted with gold, which immediately cheers me. I take some deep breaths and get out my phone, trying in a very British way not to attract attention to myself.

And now the tears I am frantically swallowing are of fury. Having made the ridiculously bad decision to take part in this training day, I think I should probably have toughed it out.

I text the organiser of the course, apologising for my sudden exit. Within seconds, she replies, telling me no apology is necessary and asking if I am ok. Her kindness reassures me and I relax slightly, enjoying my gold cappuccino.

I plan my evening. Some guitar and singing practice and then drinks and dancing at a local pub. Suddenly I can’t wait to get back to my lovely boat and sit on deck and watch the tide come in. I picture my tiny fridge, well prepped with Friday night beer and feel better still.

It was once pointed out to me by a medic that recovery from illness is rarely a smooth upwards trajectory. She even drew a diagram of a ragged arc, illustrating the dips and holes in its gradual climb.

There is no recovery from grief. No getting better. But there is an easing and a kind of landing. A rejoining of humanity which like the above, is not a graceful arc. Rather it is bumpy and fraught with often breath catching setbacks.

If you wanted to add a seaside element to the situation (and I rather do), it’s like setting up a barbecue, confident that the receding tide is safely out of reach – and then being hit by a last rogue wave, which hasn’t yet got the going out memo. As you see your barbecue rendered useless by salt water and try to grab some of the picnic items floating away from you, it’s worth making a mental note that the tide cannot be trusted. (Appreciate I may have rather wandered off on a salty tangent, but you get my drift...see what I did there?)

With all this in mind, I see now that I was too quick to proclaim my new status of calmness, acceptance. Of pleasure in the feeling of my feet being once more on the ground.

Yet another debate with myself ensues. ‘You weren’t wrong. That’s how you felt. That’s living in the moment.’ ‘Oh fuck off with your pseudo pychoanalysis. You’re a fucking mess. Today proved that.’

The soft voiced lady on my app often warns against self judgement. She says it in a lot of different ways, but the essence is always the same. Cut yourself some slack.

And so after a bit more lively debate, and encouragement from my lovely offspring and some good friends, I decide to do that. And even to take some positives from the day.

Although I didn’t complete the course, I learned a lot.

One of the attendees was a vicar. He was also insightful and amusingly irreverent, which for no particular reason I find encouraging.

The lunch provided – all kinds of nibbles and a wonderful assortment of three cornered sandwiches - was bloody delicious and kept me going for the rest of the day.

Memories

Memory is a strange thing.

One of my strongest childhood memories is the feel of the white plastic coated pole on the edge of the bus platform. I would spend most of the journey to and from primary school clutching its ridged smoothness, shrieking with delight as I swung outwards on each corner, the bus conductor smiling benevolently at the charming sight of a child putting herself in abject danger. Oh those heady days.

I can’t, on the other hand, remember if I paid this month’s parking fee. Or if I replied to the editor querying a sentence on a recent piece I wrote. It’s an old person thing, apparently. Thank goodness for bank statements and the sent file.

My memories of Bob are acute and sensory. The scratch of his two day stubble as he kissed me. The woody smell that clung to him. The dig of his knobbly fingers as he tickled me until I screamed for mercy. The minty taste of his lips on that last terrible night, as I tried to breathe life into him. (He’d just brushed his teeth.)

I remember him declaring firmly that he was too old to live on a boat. And my frustration as I tried to persuade him otherwise. ‘You’re not old,’ I yelled furiously. (The discussion had gone on for some time and involved trying to find solutions to our financial problems.) ‘You’re strong -and handsome.’ And then, seeing that he was calmly ignoring me, ‘And a fucking idiot.’

Whenever I hear the old reggae/dub that he loved so much, I remember his slow smile, the way his eyebrows lifted slightly, and how it made my heart turn over, right up until the day he died. And I know he really was that thing that people often say – the love of my life, and I wish more than anything that he could see me now and my lovely boat and my new life.

‘When did you lose him?’ someone asked me other day. ‘I didn’t lose him – I know exactly where he went,’ I snapped, before I could move into mindfulness mode and moderate my reaction.

The soft voiced lady would be disappointed, but I know she’d urge me to forgive myself, so I immediately did so.

‘He died,’ I added unnecessarily. Later on, I wondered if she thought I meant that I knew he’d gone to heaven. Or hell.

Yesterday, as I donned my fins and kicked out to deeper regions (properly tiring and very good for the thighs) and bigger better waves, I checked the strap around my wrist tethering me to my board. And immediately I heard Bob’s voice. ‘Make sure that fucking strap’s on tight, Dooley. If you get into trouble out there, that lump of polystyrene’s going to save your life.’ I see his always tanned face, frowning as he spoke, his voice for once serious.

The memories don’t get less vivid. But they stab less. They don’t make me cry as much or as often. Unless of course I’m in that kind of mood, and quite drunk.

I still wish we’d bought a boat together though. If only because that would have meant we’d have been much nearer the hospital, which might have saved his life.

But of course we’ll never know.

Games and tides.

My perspective on life has changed since Bob died.

I used to think that life was about love, achieving, and being kind along the way.

Now I know that it’s about love, doing what makes you happy, having as much fun as possible as often as possible, and being kind along the way.

And not playing silly games.

To be fair, I’ve always disliked games. When, after a lovely dinner and lots of good wine and conversation, the host excitedly suggests a game of Pictionary/charades/standing in a line and passing a balloon to each other using any part of the body except the hands (a bit rude and absolutely HILARIOUS), I’m the guest who suddenly realises it’s very late and invents some kind of spurious reason for leaving. (Once, after a lot of wine, I insisted tipsily that I had to get home for the babysitter – a poor choice of excuse as it turned out, since at the time my children were in their teens and twenties).

Now my loathing of games has widened to include the kind of nonsense that people sometimes insist on introducing into daily life. Tripping each other up with clever and not so clever pretenses, causing misunderstanding and unpleasantness and hurt.

I’ve considered this subject extensively, usually when practising my new found skill of doing absolutely nothing except watching the tide roll towards my boat.

Focusing on the movement of the water brings a peculiar clarity. And as I watch it claim every dip and hollow and mound in the sand and mud, I occasionally - with a slight sense of masochism - allow myself to slide back into that other world. The one where I was part of a loving couple who – now and again –played games with others and with each other.

On these occasions, by the time I hear the incoming tide’s watery slap against the boat’s hull, I am drowning in regret and remorse and ‘If only’ fantasies.

‘Deb. Talk to me. Tell me what’s up,’ Bob would sometimes say, frustrated by my pursed lip sulk. And then, as I tossed my head resolutely, thinking seethingly that he should KNOW what the matter was... ‘I’m not a fucking mind reader. How can we sort this out if you won’t tell me what’s wrong?’

My most vivid ‘If only’ fantasy involves a charmingly reasonable me who turns to her imploring mate and explains calmly and clearly why she is discomfited. The response is – of course, sweetly apologetic and before you can say ‘make-up sex,’ we are once more that loved up couple.

I wish.

I am wistful.

Nobody’s really impressed by games. Much better, I think, to tell the truth. To be honest. To be clear. If you don’t and you’re not, your loved one might die or you might die - and then you’ll regret it. If there’s an afterlife. Plus there might be some kind of retribution for fucking people about.

I realise that’s quite a lot of ifs and mights, but there you are. And if there’s a hell, (following on from the whole afterlife thing), I’m guessing it’s likely to be really unpleasant.

So just say ‘fuck your stupid games. I’m going home.’

Scars and straight glasses.

When someone you love very much dies, it’s as though a slice is cut out of you.

And it’s unrealistic to expect that you will ever be whole again. The wound remains. 

As time goes on, it becomes less raw and less painful and although it never completely heals, part of the healing process is realising that, and finding ways to assimilate the scar that is now part of you.

Small, often seemingly innocuous things have the power to jab the scab, bringing fresh pain.

When Bob and I first started going out, pubs tended to favour fat dimpled pint glasses with handles. And if you scorned the idea of quaffing your pint from one of these unfortunate vessels, you had to specify that.

Accordingly, the words ‘In a straight glass, please,’ were an integral part of our meetings. And blow me - who’d have thought it – several decades later, here we are again. Because in the same way that for me, drinking wine from a tumbler spoils my enjoyment of the good grape, I refuse to drink my pint of lager from the kind of overlarge wine glass so beloved by pubs currently.

‘In a straight glass please,’ I say, leaning over the bar for greater emphasis, and trying not wince as – always – I hear Bob’s slightly exasperated and amused voice saying exactly the same thing. I can see his wry smile as he passes me my rum and coke (blimey, those were the days) and as the crush at the bar pushes us together, I can feel the roughness of the old Harris tweed jacket he often wore.

The first cool swallow of lager (usually taken at the bar, to reduce the chances of spillage on other people’s feet) is enough to damp down the ever eager lump in my throat. The straight glass moment passes, lost in a flurry of friends and laughter and dancing. No tears tonight.

Important to say here that crying is fine. I defend the right of anyone to blub and be hugged, at pretty much any time. In fact writing this is making me a bit emotional and I may just have a little weep right now.

Lots of things inflict scars on us, often in a way that can’t be seen, and sometimes in a clear and defined physical way. Personally I find the odd scar quite appealing. It speaks of daring and adventure.

I fully expect to accumulate at least a couple more of both varieties before I die – and living on a boat, with all its various trip hazards has undoubtedly increased that possibility quite substantially. (Unlike the local council, I haven’t felt the need to erect multiple signs drawing attention to said trip hazards, preferring instead to take the ludicrously obvious route of actually doing something to minimise danger. Putting up lights, minimising the amount of ropes lying around etc.)

Only yesterday I tripped over the end of the gangway and bashed my hip, resulting in a spectacular bruise.

It probably won’t leave a scar, but it really fucking hurt.

Watery Woes

I gesture at the lifeguard, pointing at the large man who has just performed the pool equivalent of cutting someone up on a motorway.

It’s not easy to tread water and point and my coughing and spluttering intensifies. The lifeguard, who appears to be not long out of primary school, shrugs and returns to his job of staring vacantly into a space not always involving the pool.

I swim the rest of the length and wonder vaguely if the event of someone drowning would catch his attention.

I catch up with the man who thinks the pool is his alone. He is taking a breather to polish his expensive looking mirrored goggles.

‘Where the fuck do you get off behaving like a complete arse?’ I demand.

I made that up. In fact, I remember the soft voiced lady’s gentle instructions and I say, ‘Your swimming style displays an astonishing sense of entitlement. You practically drowned me back there.’

He stares at me blankly. Then he manages a strangled ‘sorry,’ before ploughing off again, leaving me spluttering in his not inconsiderable wake.

I continue my lengths, avoiding self entitled whale man as much as I can. While I swim, I amuse myself by constructing elaborate fantasies of watery style tortures for him and his ilk.

When this becomes dull, I think about how much grief and water have in common. Both are fluid. Both tend to come in waves, receding and advancing. Both have a habit of engulfing you, often when you least expect it. Catching you off guard. Drowning you.

And before I know it, the other life - the dream one – is beckoning seductively. I think how easy it would be to float back into it. Loosening my newly acquired grip on the real one. Returning to that disconnected existence.

I grit my teeth and change from breaststroke to crawl, which I hate, because it’s difficult and exhausting. But at this moment it does a cracking job of demanding all my attention and energy.

I am abruptly dragged back from the brink of unreality. I am here once again, feet firmly planted – or rather energetically kicking - in the real world. The one I prefer.

I finish my lengths and climb out, thinking contentedly of the long hot shower waiting for me. And then I feel a curious chill around my top half.

I glance down and see that my new red halterneck swimsuit has peeled down and my left boob is partly exposed.

 

 

Bees, Busy and Bob.

 For once, the local council have done something right.

Citing the mooring ropes that stretch across the grass between the boats and trees and posts, they have decided that mowing this area is impossible. Instead they have put up several small notices alerting the public to the ropes as a trip hazard. (All but one of these have now mostly been removed and put to better use – firewood, small weapons, that kind of thing.)

The result of this no mow approach is that the closest section of bank is now a glorious wild flower fest, creating a natural barrier between our homes and over curious individuals – and a kind of bee heaven.

The day is warm and sunny and watching the bees supping from one flower and then another accompanied by the sound of their low buzz has a slightly soporific effect.

This combined with the fact that I was out late drinking and dancing last night, makes me push away my to do list and sink pleasantly into a beanbag on deck, where I pleasurably reflect upon the fact that my name is derived from the Hebrew word devorah, which means bee. (There are all kinds of observations to make here, but probably my favourite is the rather obvious sweet as honey but with a sting.)

I turn my head lazily to the right and see the meadow that the local council have unwittingly created. To the left is the ever changing and endlessly appealing view across the river. I try – and fail – to quash guilt feelings about simply doing nothing – and on a weekday too.

I mentally view my bullet pointed to do list, flinching slightly at the lack of firm lines scoring through each denoted task. I think about the piece I need to check before filing in time for tomorrow’s deadline.

The low buzz becomes more insistent. Louder. Against my wishes, my eyes have closed themselves and now I force them open.

I am practically nose to nose with a bee. He/she/it is perched on the potted sunflower a few inches from me. I quickly decide that she is female. Her body is heavy and voluptuous with pollen and her buzz is slow. Sultry.

I am not entirely comfortable with this bee proximity thing and I move my beanbag back a bit. A second later, she heaves herself into flight and disappears into the meadow to rejoin her bee mates.

I imagine her tiny bee hand checking off another flower on her to do list. She’s a busy bee. I should be busy, I think.

And then I hear Bob’s voice. Amused. Affectionate. ‘You don’t always have to be doing something, Dooley. We’ve got a few days off. Stop buzzing around and come here.’

I re-check my to do list and decide nothing will happen if it doesn’t all get done today.

Nobody will die

My boat won’t sink.

I close my eyes again.

 

Happy

A friend of mine has a tattoo that says ‘I’ve just decided to be happy.’

It’s tucked away near her armpit, so you can only see it if she chooses to show it to you (I feel extremely privileged). And I know that like my Bob tattoo, on the inside of my arm, it’s mostly just for her.

There’s a lot to be said for this sentiment, I feel. Because, as the soft voiced lady on my mindfulness app says, ‘it’s not what happens in life that really matters, it’s how you react to it.’

Of course that theory falls down a bit when someone you love dies. I think most people would agree that choosing to be happy in that particular situation implies serious mental health issues. But once time has done the thing that people always say it will, and the idea of enjoying life, alongside the sadness that is now part of you, has become less of an alien concept – making the decision to be happy seems to me to be the easiest way to live.

Clearly there are going to be times when this approach seems impossible. Days, for instance when you wake up and think ‘I fucking hate this boat and all the things that keep bloody going wrong on it,’ for instance.

Although weirdly, last time the macerator loo packed up, that day’s meditation was on gratitude. And, encouraged by the soft voiced lady, I managed to be grateful for the fact that my boat has two loos. A spare, in fact. Hurray.

And there’s a little blast of happiness right there.

At other times, when the sun is shining and everyone’s smiling and there’s good music and food and drink and dancing on deck, being happy is the easiest thing in the world. Especially if you don’t fight it.

A dear friend died recently. Once again, it feels impossibly cruel. Premature. Unfair.

On the funeral notice, her family are asking people to come and celebrate a life full of joy and love and generosity. They’re asking us to be happy.

It’s a tall order, but I’m going to give it my best shot.

 

Water, Power andMaking do.

Once I’d become accustomed to the limited quantities of everything in boat world, (which took quite a while) I began to quite enjoy being made aware of finite resources. And at a time when climate change is very much a hot topic (see what I did there?) it’s oddly pleasing to know that my own carbon footprint is relatively small.

Living on the grid inevitably leads to something of a disregard for what we are doing and using on a daily basis. Flushing the loo is a magical process, which instantly removes everything you don’t want to see, and washing up, brushing your teeth and having a shower becomes an extravagant water fest where gallons of the stuff cascade gloriously away in a pleasingly perfumed waterfall.

Boat people on the other hand are aware of every precious drop of water, either caught via rain channels on the roof, or collected (and paid for)via a hosepipe attached to a nearby tap padlocked with a dodgy key code.

Seeing a visitor casually leave the tap running as they brush their teeth is enough to provoke shrieks of hysteria, as is a disregard for instructions to pop loo paper into the covered container provided – (you know, like in Greece or somewhere.)

The contents of a hotwater bottle are tipped carefully down the loo in the morning and using a small sinkful of warm water to wash every inch of you becomes not just a skill but an art.

There’s a shower on my boat – and a bath. But the reality is that most of the time, they’re for show (my beautiful gold bath) and storage for vacuum cleaner and guitar case) the shower.)

To begin with, I admit, I grieved not just for Bob, but for the relatively comfortable life I had left, with its flushing loos that never blocked or broke, limitless shower and bath opportunities and constant reliable electricity that effortlessly powered such exotic devices as hairdryers and irons.

That was then. These days, both those electrical appliances are banned from my boat – they blow the whole system – and I manage perfectly well without either.

At this time of year, the solar panels provide amply for my electrical needs. But come October time-ish, the purr and thrum of the generator is a daily occurrence. And constantly checking battery power and usage has become second nature.

‘Not that light, too!’ I find myself squawking at another hapless visitor who hasn’t yet grasped the full contents of the ‘What not to do on a houseboat’ handbook. Because in the dead of winter, despite the hard working genny, by 9pm there isn’t enough power for both side lamps.

But there are fairy lights and tea lights and woodburners to keep me cosy and illuminated. And a local pool with showers which, although aesthetically depressing, provide plentiful supplies of hot water.

And boat life is bloody cheap.

 

Green shoots.

‘I see green shoots,’ said the bereavement counsellor.

That was during our fifth session, soon after Bob died, and at the time, I had no idea what she meant. Today however, there are green shoots of a different kind.

Barely three days after I planted seeds, tiny lettuce and spinach tips are poking through their dark surroundings, nurtured by a timely downpour and gentle sunshine.  I squat down beside their wooden container, to admire them and I am amazed at the surge of joy provoked by their appearance.

I wonder if it is a delayed rush of endorphins triggered by my early morning swim. But since I usually get slightly more of a buzz from the post swim application of hair product, I swiftly discount that idea. ‘You are adorable,’ I tell my green babies. ‘But don’t rush. We have all summer to hang out together. And for me to eat you.

As I go inside, I worry briefly that my last remark may stunt their growth, but before I can further consider the finer feelings of vegetables, I am distracted by the sight of an unusual looking bird plodding about on the mud. I rush to consult my bird chart and tentatively identify it as an Oystercatcher.

And now, as the tide rises and laps towards the boat, other boats meander and power their way up the river. And I put on the Dixie Chicks quite loudly and make strong coffee and switch on my laptop. I sit, straight backed, on the stool that Bob was making a few days before he died – but didn’t quite finish, and I find myself determined to produce some good words today.

I sip my coffee and gaze at the extraordinarily beautiful scene before me. High calm waters, sparkling in the sunlight, decorated with nautical colour. I feel calm – even though I haven’t yet done my daily meditation. And I have a strong sensation that my new life is becoming real. Rather than being a strange parallel universe that I have tumbled into by accident. Or a dream from which I will eventually awake, to find that everything is back to normal.

I like this new feeling. It’s a good feeling. A safe feeling. I hope it lasts.

Inspired by the sight of my green babies, I start to think about dinner. Something involving spinach, I think, smiling slightly at this rather – as I see it –elderly person trait of planning meals several hours ahead.

Cleverly engineered by Ms Spotify, The Dixie chicks segue smoothly into The Old Crow Medicine show singing about rockin’ their baby like a wagon wheel.

I slide off the stool and pick up my guitar and pick and play and sing along, taking care not to spoil the song. Not assuming too much, but raising my voice at the line, ‘if I die in Raleigh, at least I will die free,’ which for some reason, resonates.

And I wonder if growing a little veg is perhaps as good as or even better than counselling.

For me, anyway.

 

Musical power.

Music has the power to accentuate already powerful emotions. Especially when it evokes memories, sharply and without warning.

Spotify sneakily pops in a Bob type playlist, under the heading ‘classic road trip songs.’ And even before I can formulate the logical vision of me and Bob, cruising down the A 30, sunglasses on, our brown skins shining in the sun (after the boys of summer have gone), the traitorous thickening is back clogging my throat, stinging my eyes.

To be fair, since I haven’t bothered to change the name on the account, it could be forgiven for assuming it’s still working for Bob - but suddenly, here we go again. Just when I was talking about time doing its thing and all. And hearing Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash duetting about a true love of theirs, hurtles me back to the kitchen at Sheepwash and the heat of the Rayburn and the rough tiled floor and Bob’s slow smile as he puts his arms around me.

It’s raining hard – and right on cue, with some loud watery noises, my boat reminds me that complacency is the enemy, and I remember that the rainwater filler pipe is in – and that the overflow doesn’t work.

No time for tears here as I dash outside, pick my way out onto the ledge and yank out the filler pipe. Remembering to be careful, I return and, ignoring a few cracking noises from my protesting back, I descend into the engine room to investigate the damage. It’s minimal. Just a small damp patch. And on the plus side, my water tanks are full right up.

Now that all watery situations are under control, I make a mug of mint tea and allow myself to think back to the previous evening and my musical debut. ‘Look around you,’ said someone, in response to my declaration of shaking nerves. ‘These people are your friends.’

And so, to the accompaniment of my pounding heart, I strummed and warbled my way through an entire song.

Everyone clapped and said I sounded great, which is what friends do.

And it felt very good.

 

Moving onto the boat was supposed to be the start of my new life as a hermit.

Fuelled by truckloads of salty snacks, I gritted my teeth as I negotiated the sale of house and business and wept my way along the tricky road of boat refurbishment. And all the while, the promise of peace and time and space beckoned like a beacon in the distance.

I envisaged a life of solitary walks, long periods of staring out across the river and writing reams of mournful words.

All that has come to pass, which is kind of reassuring. But to my astonishment, my new life also includes some friends, music and even some dancing.

Who’d have thought it, I muse, as I check the batteries and take advantage of the newly decontaminated water supply to fill my water tanks. Here I am, actually living on the bloody boat AND having a bit of fun every now and again.

People tire of grief and the grieving. Of course they do. And as time goes on, all but the most stalwart sometimes feel exasperated with the tears of the bereaved. Bored even. (I understand this because I’ve actually become bored of my own tears.) And regardless of how much comfort is given, there’s a seemingly endless need for it, which can be draining and exhausting.

I have a flinchingly clear memory of, some years ago, regarding the approach of a bereaved friend with a kind of heavy resignation. ‘I feel like nobody will ever hug me again,’ she would sometimes say.

And I remember hugging her hard, wanting to squeeze her into real life again. To drag her back into my own safe world, where people laughed and went shopping and got drunk without crying.

Over the years, she began to socialise again and laugh more and get drunk without crying. Good, I thought, she’s getting over it. Having now had a crash course on the subject, I cringe at this memory, because I know that never really happens.

Sadness leads to a kind of madness, I think. A place where the grieving one notices and cares little about anything except their own damaged and tattered psyche.

Like a small child who hasn’t yet realised that they are a tiny cog in a vast world wheel, their grief becomes the centre of not just their universe, but the entire universe. So huge and all consuming is their new existence that everything and everyone is on the periphery.

And then, slowly, the tiniest pinpricks of light start to appear in the blackness and the bleakness.

Very gradually, grief begins to shuffle aside, making it clear that while it will never ever leave, it is prepared – albeit grudgingly, to make space for other stuff.

I first noticed this a year or so ago, when I was persuaded to go out with some friends and I ended up dancing until quite late at night. 

 

 

 

They are a tribe.

I watch intently as they play and sing and move, glancing and smiling at each other, communicating, understanding, encouraging. I see the casual skill of the guitarists and I try not to compare my own stubby fingered fumbling efforts.

The singer’s unassuming presence is at odds with a voice that soars and swoops with no apparent effort. A friend leans over and puts her mouth near my ear. ‘How long before you’re up there?’ she says. ‘About a year and a half,’ I say, expecting some kind of protest. But she nods.

I lift my glass to my mouth but before it can get there someone pushes past me in the crowded pub and suddenly I am drenched in what seems like 5 gallons of beer. The shock of the cold liquid makes me shriek. As he apologises, I have already decided not to be cross, but my words, ‘I’ll have another pint though,’ are unheard or unheeded as he furrows on through the happy people.

The tribe is changing as members come and go. But a few remain constant, like anchors, holding the music together. I smile at the unassuming singer as she leaves the stage area and as she passes me, I tell her that she has a wonderful voice. She looks so thrilled that I am touched.

Now there is a plate of toast on the bar, coated with the loathsome spread this lovely open mic (I see the sense in spelling it like this, but I always want to put mike) night is named for.

I can’t help curling my lip in disgust at its stringy orangeness. It’s clearly an insane choice – especially when Marmite is so readily available. A name change would be easy, fluid even, and the benefits to local taste buds immense.

I think of the cheese tomato and Marmite toast that Bob used to make, always sprinkled with freshly ground black pepper. My lager tasting mouth waters tangily, pleasurably.

Whenever I said I was too busy to stop and eat, he’d cut the slices into bite sized pieces and hold one up as I whistled by, so that I could snap at it like a mad seagull.

The music is ending and I feel sad – and hungry. The driving one kindly offers to stop for chips and so I re-enter my boat clutching a warm and aromatic parcel.

I tipsily congratulate myself for remembering to leave the outdoor fairy lights on, so that I don’t spend five minutes fumbling for my key in the dark.

I have a chatty conversation with myself which sees me though a wave of returning loneliness and I cheer myself with thoughts of chips to come. I light the fire and find an Eva Cassidy CD. The boat fills with glorious music. If there are angels, they must surely sound like this, I think. Or some of them anyway.

My lager soaked clothes are dry now, but a beery whiff reminds me that pyjamas are a good idea. They welcome me, snuggling soft and close and I smile as I remember one of my boys noting my love of a good pyjama and saying wisely, ‘they don’t judge you.’

I flip my little table up and arrange my parcel, condiments and a bottle of beer from the fridge, taking care to get everything just right. I pull up my desk chair, settle myself and for a few seconds I stare at the newly flickering fire. And then I open my chips, and I eat them dipped in Marmite.

 

Solar panels aren’t independent.

Like so many apparently powerful politicians, solar panels are controlled and manipulated. In this case by small boxes which dictate how much power is pumped into the confusing network of batteries, charger, inverter and cables below deck.

Compact and neat, the control box stares at me, numbers glowing efficiently. All is well, it seems to say. This is how things are.

But like a bad politician, it lies. Blatantly and opaquely. And the misinformation it guiltlessly sends has confused the system, with a resulting power deficit.

I sit in my swing chair and glare at it. I should be writing, but my laptop battery has died and because there’s no power, I can’t charge it. I briefly consider using pen and paper and immediately dismiss the idea. My handwriting has become worse than that of a medic hurrying to get prescription dispensed and patient gone.

The solution to the problem depends on the expertise and availability of another. I make a snarly face and then I remember the soft voiced lady’s advice on reacting. I breathe. I blink into the sunshine and gaze away at the glorious ever changing view across the river. ‘Bollocks,’ I say loudly.

A pair of ducks paddle past and look at me reprovingly. I imagine one saying to the other, ‘the much talked about daily meditation clearly isn’t working then.’ But I know it is, because a few months ago I would have screamed and cried and demanded, toddler like, that someone – anyone - come and bloody fix this fucking thing NOW.’

I hear Bob’s voice. ‘For fuck’s sake, Dooley, stop flapping. It’ll happen. Have a glass of wine or something.’ Once again, I feel his arms around me and his knobbly fingers as he tickles me, ignoring my pleas to stop. Making fun of my angst.

The sensation is so sharply real that for a few seconds my carefully nurtured breath jerks and catches. Very deliberately, I do the in-hold-out breathing technique. It works and I am calm again. My yoga teacher would be proud, I think.

I smile and swallow tears. It’s too early for both wine and tears.

I tell myself that the obvious solution to my power dilemma is to go to a nearby cafe, where they do great coffee and delicious food and are smiley and generous with their electricity.

I close my eyes and lift my face to the sun. It feels therapeutic.

Bob loved the sun. And me.

I sit on my newly crafted pallet bench, on the river bank and muse idly that boats are a bit like houses and children, in that they need a fair amount of maintenance.

After a weekend of putting up rails, painting, creating pallet furniture and enjoying a couple of beer and wine drenched late nights, I am tired and emotional. The weekend is nearly over and the beer I am drinking tastes sour. My teeth feel furry and my eyes gritty.

Enough musing, I think. Time to write. Perhaps I can channel my emotions into some readable words.

And so I retire to my boat, pulling down the shades on the land side to send a clear message that I Am Working.

But this has the effect of making me feel isolated. I can hear the noise of children playing on the park and my neighbours working on their boat, and shouting and laughter. I begin to feel sorry for myself.

I force myself to write for a while and then I turn to editing, which, I tell myself requires more self discipline – something I am clearly in need of.

After a distinctly non productive hour, I practise guitar for a while. I am glad when the slight thump of the gangway signals a visitor. A welcome interruption.

My neighbour’s husband has hauled the gangway off their boat, for some repair work. This means she can’t get on it – and she needs a pee.

Once relieved, she asks me what kind of afternoon I’m having. With no warning at all, and rather to my horror, I burst into tears. Unfazed, she listens to my hiccupping explanation. The weekend has been lovely, I tell her, but bit overwhelming. ‘And you’re all so happy,’ I choke, realising too late, how bile filled that sounds.

‘No we’re not,’ she protests robustly. This makes me laugh and we drink tea and talk briefly about being lonely.

She returns home to start making tea for her brood and I consider how best to tackle this latest unexpected malaise, which settles jelly like around me, making my limbs oddly heavy. I sit sternly upright, as if resisting its pull, staring at the greeny clear river scored with waves that wink at the sky, over and over. I feel gloom sucking at me, like a kind of horrible gloom hoover, (gloover?) drawing me towards it, muttering nasty nothings in my ear.

Part of me wants to jump up and start doing meaningful things and exercising and stuff. Remedies. Antidotes. Solutions to this nonsense. Another part wants to lock the door, pick up the two bottles of wine left over from the weekend and make them accompany me to my soft warm cushioned bed. To enjoy them until the whole thing ends in a teary well of self pitying misery, as it inevitably will.

While I am pondering my options, a large angry bee enters through the half closed door.  I am trying to persuade it to leave when the husband variety of neighbour arrives. He helps eject the bee and suggests I join everyone for a drink on the bench, in the evening sunshine.

I follow his suggestion – and soon I feel a lot better.

 

 

‘Keeping busy?’

The question is well meant and the asker is nodding happily at my response before she realises that I have said ‘no’, rather than the expected ‘oh yes, thankyou.’

Busy is the new fine. Busy at/with work, busy doing chores, busy looking after children, busily engaged in fulfilling hobbies. And the word that often goes with busy, but is implied rather than said, is ‘important.’

I reassure my companion, who, now that I have clarified my lack of busyness, is fumbling for the right words.

‘It’s ok. I’m not moping around – I have plenty to do. I’m just not – you know – busy,’ I tell her.

It’s one of the things I like about my funny new life. It’s why I bought a boat. So that I’d have time to write what and when I wanted. So I could learn guitar. So I could read and sit and dream and watch the tide turn from my kitchen window, and go body boarding.

Busyness is expected. And a lack of it can make people uncomfortable. I discovered soon after moving onto my boat that ‘lady of leisure’ is a vaguely negative term. I also realised fairly quickly that I don’t need to justify myself or my lifestyle.

Bob and I were always pretty busy. We both worked all our adult life and we had three children. But I don’t think we were ever the kind of busy that makes people say things like ‘I haven’t even had time to go to the toilet’ (which must be bad for you in all sorts of ways.)

At the height of our busyness, when we were running a busy writer’s retreat, (which was great fun) we carved out regular slots of doing nothing. We’d go away in the van and park up by a beach. Or stay at home and just doss about. Drinking wine, eating deli food, giggling, snuggling and watching films. It was great.

I have a busy weekend ahead. The deck needs painting, I have a hanging rail to put up (thanks DIY course at The Makers Shed, St Paul’s learning centre in Bristol) and I plan to spend some time plotting my next book. I’ll also be drinking beer and eating nice food with the neighbours.

And I’ll probably make a nest of cushions on deck and lie down and stare at the sky for a while.

 

Power and Bodging and Empowerment.

I giggle as I mark the piece of wood on the bench in front of me. My pencil is satisfyingly sharp and I dig it into the pale slab.

I am amused because Bob’s voice in my head coincides with the voice of the instructor. His is exasperated. ‘For fuck’s sake, Dooley, do it properly.’

Hers more measured. ‘Do you think you might use a ruler and a T square? Like I showed you.’

I turn my giggle into an unconvincing cough. I look up and smile at her. ‘I’m a born bodger,’ I say. She laughs. ‘It might be ok,’ she says.

She is an excellent tutor. Ever patient - and a delightful mix of perfectionism and tolerance. Measure, mark, measure again, check – and finally cut/screw. After that, the main thing is that your project stays in place.

It is the second day of my DIY weekend course, which I am enjoying, despite a slight hangover. It is a thoughtful present from my children, who know my aversion to constantly bleating for help.

An added bonus is the cafe in the building, where yesterday, I stuffed my face with some bloody delicious jerk chicken and rice and peas. (The fact that I’d forgotten that in this scenario peas are actually beans did nothing to spoil my enjoyment of the dish).

I am ready to drill and I take time to select all the right settings on my power tool. As I approach the wall, the instructor comes over. ‘Dust mask?’ she says. Reluctantly I drag it onto my face, making a mental note to nip to the loo and check my lipstick.

I take the recommended stance, feet apart, body slightly braced. I tense my core and squeeze my pelvic floor muscles hard. (Why not?).

I eye the wall as if it were an adversary. Its plasterboard exterior regards me coolly. But I know that beneath its bland gaze lurks concrete, viciously unyielding. I have chosen the correct drillbit for the purpose. All will be well, I tell myself.

I place the tip of the power tool against my mark. I hold my breath and squeeze the trigger, flinching as it growls awake. I breathe out slowly, increasing the pressure slightly, feeling the eventual give of the wall.

Fifteen minutes later, I have drilled six holes into my marks. I have not re-measured. I have not checked. The Bob voice has become crosser and more exasperated – and just before I drill the last hole, Bob-in- my-head downs his own tools and leaves the workshop, scowling.

I think fleetingly that he’s handsome even when he’s cross. ‘I can’t watch this anymore,’ he says over his shoulder. ‘I’m going for a beer.’ I make a face at him, which nobody can see, because of my dust mask.

I pick up my shelf, with its unmeasured unchecked brackets. Heart pounding, I hold it against the wall, praying to some kind of Bobgod that the holes in the brackets will match up to the holes I have drilled in the wall. It looks ok, I think.

I breathe. I alter the settings on the power tool and insert the correct screwdriver bit. I pick up the screws one by one. It’s getting very hot in here, I think. I say as much to the instructor and she obligingly opens a door to the outside. ‘Don’t get flustered. You’re doing fine,’ she says kindly.

But it’s stressful. The powertool kicks and spits, and getting all six screws in place seems a near impossible task.

Amazingly, it works. The shelf is up and apparently solid. The instructor lays a spirit level across it and we see the bubble balance delicately in the centre. ‘Well done,’ she says. I glow – and make an imaginary V sign to Bob-in-my-head. I marvel at the sense of empowerment brought about by wielding a power tool.

While I am in the loo, reapplying my lipstick, I allow myself a few Bob moments, triggered, inevitably, by all the sights and sounds and smells of a busy joinery workshop.

I quite fancy a bit of a cry, but I realise that this would not, at the moment, be an appropriate or helpful activity. And so instead, I sit with the other participants and we have lunch and we chat and they ask me about my boat.

My course was at The Makershed, St Paul’s Learning Centre in Bristol.

Sliding doors and brass screws.

It’s another sliding doors moment, I think, as I slide my heavy front door ajar.

I enjoy the way my electric screwdriver nestles into my grip. I imagine it feels a little like holding a gun, and I turn and take aim at the offices just visible through the trees.

If I’d used brass screws to affix the beautiful sign (www.dappersigns.co.uk) on my letterbox, there wouldn’t now be rust around the steel screws that I did use. But the brass ones I found in the toolbox were too short, I thought, although I wasn’t sure. So now I’ll have to yank out the steel screws and replace them with brass ones. Another half an hour spent fending off interested (mostly male) dog walkers. 

It’s tempting to dream of what life could be like if only we had handled a situation differently. To dream of how things could be if we had chosen another way. But futile.

The past is gone. Obviously. And – sorry to piss on anyone’s parade - although the future’s always there and sometimes looks extremely promising, it’s not a sure bet.

Best then, surely, to follow the advice of the soft voiced lady on my mindfulness app and be present in the moment. Breathe into the now. Enjoy the day.

I can hear Bob’s voice, scoffing gently. Hippie shit. New age nonsense. But he knew. ‘Always jam tomorrow,’ he’d say, listening to another of my extravagant plans. Then he’d laugh. ‘Bit like the old Catholic promise. It may be hell on earth, but heaven’s waiting.’ ‘Nasty bitter Bob,’ I’d say, half amused, half infuriated at his lack of enthusiasm.

And although these days I prefer to think that maybe there is some kind of life after death, comments along the lines of ‘he’s up there watching over you/laughing at you,’ make me cringe, frankly. To the point where I often have to suppress an almost overwhelming urge to hit the speaker.

No, I decide firmly, giving myself a shake. (I’ve seen this described in writing, but I never thought that one day I’d actually do it.) It’s all about the here and now. One day at a time. Maybe a week at a time, if I’m feeling adventurous.

I set the electric screwdriver to reverse, and start the job of extracting the steel screws. While I work, I embark on yet another one sided conversation.

‘Get on that to do list, crack on with whatever needs doing and try and have a laugh while you’re doing it.’

Just in time, I stop myself indulging in that most overused cliché – something about bemoaning life being less than long. And anyway, I think cheerfully, it just might be long enough. Like the brass screws.

We’ll never know.

I am a headline

Home

I gaze lovingly but critically at my boat, basking in the sunshine.

Like a proud parent, I see its beauty and its strengths, while also noting any flaws.

My boat is sleek, like its namesake, but there are some rough patches that need to be smoothed. I make an action plan for the months which stretch ahead, long, light and full of promise. I feel energised and optimistic. This is good, I tell myself, when only a fortnight ago, I felt terrorised and persecuted by endless storms, which, despite their pretty names, were cruel and frightening.

With barely a break, Freya and Gareth and a positive plethora of other stormlets nagged and jolted, shifted and battered, to the point where it felt deeply personal.

‘Fuck off,’ I snarled into the wind, as – yet again – I battled my way around the deck, righting chairs, salvaging box lids, checking ropes. And then, a sudden gift, from holiday destined friends with houseplants and geese.

Rescued from the need to constantly reassure myself, by the offer of a housesit, I spend two weeks in comfort and warmth, cocooned with my borrowed dog and her dodgy hip, savouring the feeling of safety. I feel calm and nurtured. Recharged and rejuvenated.

Visiting my boat on almost a daily basis - another parent like activity, seems essential. I need to check, watch, test.

My boat regards me as yet again I approach the gangway. I imagine it arching a well groomed eyebrow and enquiring if, since I seem to have decided not to sleep on it any more, there is something else it can help me with.

This habit of humanising objects has become noticeable since Bob died. Perhaps grief is turning slowly to madness and I shall eventually wander around chatting aimlessly to lampposts and cash machines.

I know that loneliness is as bad for you as smoking fifty a day and necking a bottle of whisky before breakfast. (I’m sure I heard a clever scientist say that on radio 4). So I make sure I spend time with friends and see my lovely children regularly. I enjoy socialising. I laugh and hug and get hugged.

But it’s a different kind of loneliness. It’s the always empty space where Bob was, which instead of getting smaller, simply becomes more manageable. It’s an illusion that time heals. It just scabs over.

I miss him. I miss my boat too – but today we are reunited. It/She/He looks beautiful in the sunshine.

I am glad to be home.

Another death, beer and cheesy chips. But no tears.

I stand and then sit in the pew. I have come prepared with tissues, but so far, rather to my surprise, I don’t need them.

A woman near me is crying quietly, leaning towards her partner. His arm is looped gently around her waist, and I find myself wondering about their relationship.

I jump guiltily as the man who – confusingly, says he is not a religious person, but whose round white collar says the opposite – reminds us why we are here. I don’t know the hymns, so I don’t join in. But I bow my head during the prayers.

I whisper something to my friend next to me and she gets the giggles. I might have said something funny - but people often laugh at funerals anyway, apparently.

The grave is at a natural burial ground. We are invited to come closer and put in any flowers or mementoes. I wish that I had brought something tangible to symbolise my affection and respect for this lovely man and neighbour now lost to us.

The woman with whom he shared a long and happy life, is dry eyed and smiles a welcome. She reminds me of me on a day three years ago at a place much like this one.

Mouthing the words of the Eric Clapton we had chosen and pulling my coat around me against the bitter February chill, I watched the coffin being lowered into the grave. The funeral director came over to me. I remember her words, the light, almost encouraging tone of her voice.

‘You do know that this is just the beginning,’ she said. I nodded and smiled at her. But of course I didn’t.

Other neighbours and I spend the rest of day together, mostly on a boat so big that it barely floats at high tide. We talk and laugh and agree that in many ways, it is a lovely day.

I drink a lot of beer and eat cheesy chips. In the evening, I walk unsteadily back to my boat, avoiding mooring ropes in the darkness with exaggerated care, high stepping over them like an anxious pony.

Safe inside, I light the fire, make tea and settle down for a long conversation with my borrowed dog. She listens, understanding and wise. I hug her and she snuggles into me, making small purring noises like a contented cat.

I notice that my boat is level on the calm high tide and this makes me feel oddly content.

And still I don’t cry.

Curiosity, compassion, callousness and limpet love.

I was 22 when I first wondered – more with curiosity than compassion, how my grandmother had felt upon receiving a telegram with the shocking news that her daughter had died.

I remember glancing at my six month old son, who had already experienced some ill health, and assuming that losing a grown offspring must not be as distressing as losing a child.

Twenty five years later, as my boy lay in intensive care, his limbs leashed and pierced by tubes and wires, his face covered by a mask pushing air and oxygen into lungs nearing the end of their life, I would certainly have corrected that thought – had I found the head space to revisit it.

‘I am saddened,’ began the consultant, ‘to see that his vital signs are not improving.’

His heavily ponderous intonation grated on my hearing which seemed to have become over sensitive. Attuned to every mechanical beep or whine that might signal a change.

He gazed at me sadly. ‘I had hoped that this would not happen.’

I waited, heart pounding, skin itching, for his next pronouncement. I wanted to cough but my throat was too dry. He sighed.

‘I’m afraid we have some difficult decisions to make,’ he said.

Rage rose inside me. At him, for being a pompous twat, at myself for not somehow preventing this – and at the universe for allowing one of the best and bravest human beings I had ever known, to have come to this terrible brink.

I stood up, turning away from the consultant’s carefully arranged features. The carpet in the small room was frayed at the edges. I kicked at it.

‘It’s all such bollocks,’ I muttered.

There was an exclamation from behind me.

‘Well, if you’re going to be rude,’ snapped the consultant.

And then he was gone, leaving me to find my way back through a maze of harshly lit corridors, to the intensive care unit and my son.

My legs folded underneath me. My sobs were loud and ugly. Callousness had sucked the last drop of bravery from me.

The man wielding the power had chosen his time to talk at me. Bob had gone home to be with our two younger children and I was alone.

When he came back, I flung myself at him, clinging like a wounded limpet finding a friendly rock. He hugged me and listened to my tearful tale. He stroked my hair that hadn’t been washed for several days.

‘The bloke’s a dick,’ he said firmly.

Almost immediately I felt a tiny bit stronger.

When Bob began automatically, to tickle me, a passing nurse glanced at us reprovingly. Another black mark. Their son’s dying and she’s giggling.

Some time – and some major surgery later, Bob and I remembered that day of gloomy predictions and felt cautiously triumphant.

And we watched our boy laugh and run and live and work and fall in love.

And we grew closer still.

This and That in Anger.

‘Hello!’

The woman’s voice is loud and her expression is friendly and excitable. She stands on the grassy bank, perilously close to the edge. She is bending down and waving at me through the glass window of my closed front door.

Now she is saying something which I can’t catch, but her expression implies urgency. Perhaps she wants to alert me to the fact that one of my mooring ropes is loose. Or maybe a giant rat is making its way along my deck. I open the door and peer out at her.

‘Hello? I say uncertainly. She is holding the hand of a bored looking child. She yanks at the hand. ‘See?’ she tells her loudly. ‘I told you there was someone on that boat.’

‘Don’t you mean this boat?’ I say sharply. Actually I don’t, but I want to, with every fibre of my being.

I glance past them, noting vaguely that unusually, our recycling has been collected.

The two of them gaze at me for a few seconds, the child with complete disinterest and the other with the kind of fascination usually reserved for an especially rare breed of tropical insect. They are both too near the edge and I wonder fleetingly how I will react if they slip and fall in.

‘Do you live on this boat,’ says the woman.

‘Yes.’

‘Do you live on it all year round?’

I think for a second. Perhaps two.

‘No. I have a rather palatial mansion on the beach in Barbados. In the winter I go there.’

The woman’s eyes widen. ‘Very nice,’ she said breathily.

Feeling depressed rather than amused at her inability to appreciate irony, I nod and withdraw, closing the door before she can ask me where my poo goes. I pull down the blinds on the land side, to deter any more interruptions and return to my desk.

I sigh and get up again, my limbs twitchy with irritation. ‘Fuck,’ I say loudly. Some days I feel angry. With people who ask questions, with people who say the wrong thing, with agencies who offer professional writers ludicrously low rates of pay, with staff in coffee shops who bombard you with questions. (Stop flinging badly pronounced Italian words around and just make me a fucking cup of coffee.)

Someone I know once told me that anger can be confused with grief.

I suppose that’s/this is possible.

Bob, Miley and me.

 You’re gonna make me lonesome when you go.

Hot on the heels of The Anniversary comes The Other Anniversary. Our wedding date – which neither of us ever remembered.

Only now does it take on a peculiar significance. Thirty two years ago. A shaky day full of uncertain promise and too much beer. And breaking news of the Zebrugge ferry disaster.

I remember the disparaging way in which the registrar looked at me as he explained the significance of the vows I was about to say. As if he could tell that I was not entirely committed to this solemn act.

Having downed two pints before the 11am ceremony, Bob appeared relaxed in his borrowed suit. Leaving me, nervously Laura Ashley clad, an obvious target for official disapproval.

The poignancy in the title of the song I have spent two weeks learning has until now, escaped me. It is only when a friend mentions it in a voice thickened with tears, that I realise – and laugh, inappropriately.

Then I think wistfully that I would like to sound at least a little like Miley Cyrus, because I love the way she sings Bob Dylan. I move the capo down (up?) a fret to make my voice more comfortable.

Briefly wishing that I could pick efficiently, I begin strumming and then, checking that my boat’s heavy, more or less soundproof door is snugly shut, I take a deep breath and belt out the song.

My eyes are fixed on my left hand as it performs finger gymnastics in an effort to produce the right chord sequence. It sounds ok, I think.

This is what I have been aiming for and as I finish the song I do a little twangy strum on the last chord, looking up, smiling for my imaginary audience, pleased at being on my boat, playing my guitar and singing along.

I tell myself how happy I am to have achieved that small goal.

Grumpy, gusty, grievy and farty.

‘Hello Grumpy’, says the email.

It is in response to my – polite - request to be removed from an extended family email group. 

I am minded to try and stop the avalanche of inanane witterings from people I barely know, on subjects that seemed to have little to do with me.

The writer goes on to say that they would love to visit me. I reply swiftly that I am bored rather than grumpy – and that I am ok for visitors.

Freya’s gusty grip is rocking my boat on the high tide in a way that is almost fun. I lean on the kitchen counter, watching the choppiness of the water. Great clouds of spray cascade past me. It is a mesmerising sight.

A crash from above makes me start, as one of the chairs on the top deck is tossed aside. Bracing myself, I fight my way up there to secure chairs and table. As I clamber down the steps, clutching at the railing, I remind myself that I have achieved much. That I am capable. That I don’t need to justify myself to anyone. I can see or not see whoever I choose. I am not responsible for the wellbeing of others.

Blimey, I think, I’m beginning to sound like the soft voiced lady on my app. I sit by the fire and drink a beer and cuddle my borrowed dog. She is a very good listener and agrees with everything I say.

Sometimes I feel like a kind of package, I tell her. Something that people can put away when it feels uncomfortable for them. And then unwrap at their convenience. As if nothing has happened and I will be exactly the same as the last time I was unwrapped.

The dog who is happy to pretend she is mine, for now, makes a kind of purring noise and looks at me wisely.

‘Do they think I’m all better now? Do they even remember what’s happened?’ I ask her.

The boat dips and sways, but more gently now, as the tide recedes. Soon, I tell her, we’ll be down on the mud again. I am mildly relieved at the thought.

My companion pushes her puggy face against me, her eyes filled with empathy, considering my question. Then she farts, frowning slightly with the effort.

I laugh and reach for the lavender room spray.

A day and a death.

I am a headline

A day and a death

It’s only a day, a date, a number.

I tell myself this constantly as The Anniversary approaches, stalking towards me with kind of stiff inevitability.

I wish that I could close my eyes and open them again in March.

Sometimes the soft voiced lady on my Calm app helps a bit. She tells me that life changes all the time. She says it’s not the changes that disturb and upset, but how we react to them. I’m not sure she’s talking about death, but even so, her measured tones are soothing and I can sometimes breathe my way through the nagging wistfulness that tells me things could have gone differently.

If I had a faith I might say that the unseasonably warm and sunny weather has been sent to make this tricky anniversary business a little easier. Which it probably does.

I fill the cracks in the top deck in a bid to halt the drips which worm their way inside whenever it rains. And as I kneel, using my finger to coax sealant into any crevice or pinprick hole, I glance up at the view of sun on moving water and tell myself I am fortunate, really.

A friend emails me, asking ‘is today the day?’ Then she says that in a way it makes no difference because every day is the day. And she’s right.

Instead of making the long trek to the chilly but beautiful spot where Bob is buried, some friends and I have a lovely Sunday lunch together and toast his memory. Which is lovely and fine, until I come home to an empty boat. And then absence descends afresh. And I try and fail to feel the presence that people often say is still there. Today is the day before the day. When I should have seen the writing on the wall. The flushed face, the tiredness.

And still I wonder if there might be some way to magic him back. Some deal to be made with a powerful entity. A swap perhaps, with someone who refused to change their bad lifestyle habits even in the face of an event known as a wakeup call.

I hear a writer on the radio talking about her husband who died less time ago than Bob. She is clear voiced and articulate. She is doing better than me, I think- and immediately I hear his voice. ‘It’s not a contest.’

I tell myself that next year will be easier. But I don’t believe me.

Tomorrow is the day.

I plan to spend it mostly in the waves.

A visit, a picture, and complete bollocks.

 My boat is full of life and laughter, its tiny fridge stuffed with delicious food and drink, the generator charged, ready to power an extra phone and more light.

 

My daughter, here for the weekend, brings with her armfuls of hugs and love and an eagerness to talk and listen and embrace boat life. She sees my home through fresh eyes, exclaiming delightedly over recent improvements and additions, infusing me with her enthusiasm, minimising any negative aspects with a combination of understanding and good sense.

 

We celebrate her arrival by opening a bottle of Prosecco and after only one glass, I ask her to do a small chore for me. A photo of Bob, taken a year or so before he died, smiles above my bed. Unlike other pictures dotted around, it, the glass is dull and dusty.

 

Without asking questions, she willingly cleans it, sparing me the need to get close up to the photographic version of the person I loved so long and so well.

 

There’s a picture of Bob in his twenties on the opposite wall, with the children – and my houseproud hands have no trouble getting that one shiny. Because it feels distant. Whereas the recent one, holding a pint, standing by his much loved Ducati, makes me feel as if I could slip right into it, Narnia like, to stand beside him, looping my arm around his waist, feeling the rough cord of his waistcoat, leaning my head against him, smelling that woody smell. The idea of touching the picture, staring into it as I wipe and polish is astonishingly, breathtakingly painful. Even now. Perhaps more now.

 

My daughter goes, leaving me with a slightly forlorn feeling, which I hastily combat by Doing Things. I decide to allow myself and me to continue some of our memory suffused chats. I smile. I feel a lump in my throat thicken and fade.

 

I glance at the latest ludicrous missive from the local council and sigh. It bulges self importantly with a kind of toddler like contrariness, clumsy, spiky with contradictions. As ever, one idiotic demand chases another in an attempt to align the ever mobile goalposts. It is from someone who apparently has a legal qualification. I wonder vaguely if they might have been on one of those weekend courses, where you pay for varying sizes of alphabetical figures which sit smugly after your name, implying competence.

 

I read it again, carefully. I sit at my desk, enjoying the gentle sway of my home on the high tide, and the view of chilly sunshine on the water. I close my eyes and channel my inner Bob.

 

‘What a load of bollocks,’ I say.


Pizza, Perfection and Very bright colours.

There’s a pizza in my fridge.

 

It looks delicious, scattered with anchovies and mushrooms and anointed with a rich tomato sauce and copious amounts of cheese. All I need to do is take it out, remove the wrapping, put it in the oven and mix up a quick salad to go with it.

 

But it’s been there for four days. Because I haven’t yet found the inclination to do the small amount of prep required.

 

I admire those who regularly chop, mix and stir for just themselves. Having spent most of my adult life making meals for several people, I find cooking for one tricky. Instead I tend to consume a lot of oatcakes and hummus.

 

On the odd occasion that Bob was home alone, he’d either get fish and chips, or spend inordinate amounts of time cooking fish and chips. Every now and then he’d do this for both of us, carefully dipping the fish (occasionally caught by him) in egg and flour. Then, tea towel slung busily over one shoulder, frowning in concentration, he’d fry it until it was just this side of sushi, moist and succulent. In the meantime, painstakingly cut potatoes, smothered in olive oil, sea salt and pepper, would be sizzling in the oven.

 

The entire process always took ages, but when it was finally ready, instant attendance was required – at the properly laid table. And the food, always beautifully garnished with lemon and a sprig of green, was invariably mouth meltingly delicious.

 

He was a perfectionist, my Bob. (Although to be fair, that and a full English were the only two dishes he ever cooked.) He loved real coffee, along with the ritual of stirring and plunging and all that mullarkey. He’d have been quietly appalled at the way I down instant plus coffee mate – sometimes not even waiting for the water to boil.

Things change when you live on your own. A lot.

 

There’s my hummus habit, obviously. (Blimey, if Brexit cuts off the chickpea channels, I’ll starve.) And the way I talk to myself, endlessly, chattily, telling me what I am going to do next, ticking me off for behaving like a twat, reassuring me in soothing tones if the boat is behaving in a slightly scary way and sometimes sharing a joke with me (if there’s a bit of an atmosphere perhaps.)

 

Another habit I have developed is to regularly paint bits of the boat’s interior with bright colours. This is something Bob would never tolerate, even if I sanded and did all the prep, which I don’t.

 

I am surprised to find that even in this small space, painting opportunities continue to offer themselves – window frames, shelf edges, skirting boards etc. And I enjoy the result, my eye constantly drawn to the colour and brightness, like a human magpie.

 

There’s a lot to get used to.

 

I’m doing my best, I think.

 

I take the pizza out, planning to have it for dinner. But as I unwrap it, I realise it has gone off.

A Portrait, a whore’s wash and some hot water.

There is a picture of my grandmother in The National Portrait Gallery.

 

I’m not entirely sure why. Perhaps it was to do with the fact that she was a reasonably successful author.

 

One of her novels, The Hounds of Spring, made the New York Times bestseller list in 1926. I had a go at reading it recently, but was beaten back by an avalanche of adjectives and adverbs.

 

My grandmother was a little intimidating and always glamorous, with her straight back, nipped in waist and red lipstick. She could, it seemed to me, often make things happen by sheer force of will.

 

I occasionally wonder how she reacted when she received the news of her daughter’s (my mother’s) death. I was two at the time, and it was only when my grandmother herself died that I became aware of how odd the whole concept of death really is.

 

My grandmother  was 65 when she died. She had spent the day gardening and striding around issuing instructions in her usual forthright manner and laughing loudly. When I found her lying on her bed, moaning, I was curious rather than frightened. But her lipstick was smudged and a trail of spit gleamed on her chin. This uncharacteristic fall in standards worried me enough to alert the neighbours.

 

She was the centre of my world and when, the next morning, I was told that she had died, I was outraged. How could this be? I demanded furiously. And what on earth were we to do now?

 

I was not allowed to go to the funeral. Nine was too young, said the adults.

 

When I was a child, my sister and I had a stand up wash (also known as a boarding school wash or a whore’s wash – I rather like the latter) every morning, at the sink in our bedroom. My grandmother would fill it with warm water and leave us to wash and dress while she prepared breakfast.

 

As the younger, I usually went second. I recall eyeing the cooling scummy water with distaste and then quickly sloshing it about with the tip of my fingers so that it would sound as if I was washing vigorously, all the while glaring at my sister, lest she was considering telling tales. The idea of pulling the plug out and running a fresh sinkful was too extravagant to countenance - an approach which doubtless laid excellent foundations for my present water aware lifestyle.

 

These days, the whore’s wash is a big part of my life. I have grown almost fond of it. Although of course I do always get first dibs at the sink.

 

My grandmother had a sense of adventure. She would, I think, have enjoyed my boat. I thought about her yesterday, when – oh joy - my new boiler was installed.(Goodbye boiling a kettle for washing and hello hot water tap). She would have laughed with pleasure at my excitement and maybe given me a quick hug.

 

My grandmother’s name was Sylvia Thompson. She was a force to be reckoned with.

 

And this morning, as the boat rocks around in the wind on the high tide and, despite my regular and calming meditation sessions I find myself a trifle nervous, I can hear her voice telling me that I must be brave.


Blood pressure, favourite things and Bananas

 It’s scientifically proven, apparently, that if you write about trauma, you feel better. And your blood pressure goes down.

 

It’s hard to see how they measure all this stuff.

 

I envisage a whole bank of traumatised individuals hooked up to blood pressure monitors, while someone cheerily instructs them to start writing. About death, heartbreak, financial disaster – whatever sank their particular boat. And then...do they, as they scribble or type, begin to experience feelings of release? Do their shoulders relax, their furrowed brows smooth? Does the odd catharsis filled tear escape? Do their BP readings descend to arguably healthy levels? And what happens if some of them have low-ish blood pressure to start with? Presumably they’ll be hitting the deck before the end of the first paragraph.

 

Nobody asked me to take part in this survey. If they had, I would have said that the feeling better theory was bollocks. From a personal viewpoint, obviously.

 

Immersing myself in what happened, which is what you have to do to write a good piece, is immeasurably painful and even now, fills me with grief, regret, despair and rage.

 

I thought it would be a good idea to write a memoir. Maybe it was. But the process did nothing to make me feel better. I haven’t a clue if it affected my blood pressure, but I’m guessing that if anything, the trend was upward.

 

Things that do make me feel good on a bad day (or at any time, actually) include lovely tasting wine, flavoursome chilled lager or a delicious cocktail with a tiny umbrella bobbing about in it. (Admittedly the happiness engendered by any alcohol based remedy can be fleeting and may then be replaced by darker feelings – it’s all about getting the quantities right.) Food (Marmite, mayonnaise and salad sandwiches cut into four, and cheesy chips are favourites). And hugs (as many as I can get.) Sitting on the top deck of my lovely boat admiring the view across the river is a pretty safe feel good bet. As is playing my guitar and sounding half way reasonable. Also squidgy dogs, wonderful music, bright colours, a glowing fire to curl up by and gorgeous clothes. Plus a very good read. Joanna Trollope or JoJo Moyes, for instance.

 

These are definitely a few of my favourite things. (I always thought Bob looked a bit like Dick van Dyke, and I confess to – at one stage in my life- seeing Mary Poppins as something of a role model. Practically perfect in every way.)

 

As shallow as the river Torridge at low tide this may be, but gosh, I feel better already. Just thinking about all this loveliness has created the kind of warmth and happiness that hours of counselling failed to do. For me, anyway.

 

I know it’s good to talk. But at some point it’s also good to shut the fuck up.

 

And when it comes to raised blood pressure, my money’s on almonds, bananas, fish oils, exercise, acupressure and meditation. 

Feb 1. St Brigid’s day.

Until today, when radio 4 let me know that St Brigid is one of Ireland’s three patron saints, I had never heard of her.

 

Apparently St Brigid didn’t want to marry the wealthy man her father had lined up for her. She had her sights set on joining a convent. In the end, with a little help from the almighty, who obligingly removed her good looks so that her intended no longer fancied her, she got her way. She then went on to achieve quite a bit, I understand, in terms of helping people and generally doing good things.

 

If I was going to pray, (I’m not), I think it would be to St Brigid. She seems like a good sort and, despite our obvious differences, quite possibly a good listener, too.

 

I love a good listener. Heaven knows I have reason to be grateful for good listeners over the last three years. And I bow down to the excellence of those who have patiently allowed me to tearfully and repetitively drone on about how miserable I am.

 

Fortunately, I am self aware enough to allow the time thing to kick in and do its stuff and these days conversations are more of a two way operation. Although admittedly a lot of them revolve around the subjects of batteries, water pumps, macerator loos, solar panels. 

 

Bob was a good listener. He was naturally curious and interested in other people. I can see him now, narrowing his eyes, watching a speaker intently, concentrating on what they were saying. Sometimes he’d mutter something uncomplimentary about someone he’d just had a conversation with, so that only I could hear. Occasionally, especially after a couple of pints, he’d just say it. To them.

 

Every now and again, he’d listen to me and then tell me I was talking rubbish. And depending on how my day was going, I’d laugh, argue, hiss venom, or sulk.

 

He was more cautious than me. He’d sometimes veto my ideas, telling me I hadn’t thought them through. ‘But that’s one of the things you love about me,’ I’d trill, winding myself heavily around him. ‘My impulsive nature!’

 

‘You’re being a dick, Dooley,’ he’d say, extricating himself and going off to do something useful, leaving me to decide whether to laugh/argue/hiss venom/sulk.

 

I think he would probably have scuppered the idea of buying a boat, although he would have listened carefully to my arguments. I have a feeling St Brigid would have approved, however.

 

Bob’s not here and neither is St Brigid.

 

Ok, so she’s a saint. But they were both memorable and we remember them both.

 

And it's a beautiful day.



Weddings and wistfulness

The man sitting next to me enquires politely what I do in the Devon town that I now call home.

 

He is taken aback when I reply quickly, ‘as little as possible.’ As am I. So often, these days, especially if I am tired, words just seem to jump frog like out of my mouth.

 

His beard quivers slightly, dislodging a crumb from the excellent meal we have just eaten. He smiles and says in a hearty voice, ‘Good for you.’

 

He is clearly a nice man and for a few seconds I consider apologising for my abruptness. Then I am saved from any decisions by the first of the speeches and my brief irritation is submerged by the blanket of love and happiness that settles on the room.

 

The bride looks as radiant as any bride ever has, her smile lit by the strings of fairy lights lining the canvas walls. She and her groom hold hands, frequently glancing at each other. Their love surrounds them like a force field, protecting them, insulating them.

 

There’s something else too. Relief. Peace. And indeed when the groom rises to speak, he remembers, when the couple first began seeing each other, the feeling of peace that stayed with him after each meeting.

 

I glance around. Faces are joyful, concerned only with this moment. Nothing else matters but the present and its happy glow. We are, I think, a good advert for mindfulness.

 

A young woman at the next table cradles her baby on her shoulder, patting gently. Kissing a tiny hand, she rises to pass the baby over to her partner. The flimsy fabric of her dress, carefully chosen for this special day, outlines the postnatal curve of her stomach. The sight fills me with tenderness and I blink away tears. I reach for my glass of sparkling wine, reminding myself to save some for the toasts.

 

When death comes to visit, it pierces the psyche, rearranging neurons, messing up sensors, unravelling emotions. It leaves a legacy of change. Things that once seemed unimportant require much analysis. Small happenings have the potential to create chaos. Events that previously washed in and out of life now cling and stay, like sticky seaweed. It’s as if something has sneaked in and turned everything up a notch. So that all is louder, more abrasive, more meaningful.

 

The wedding is wonderful. Fun and funny and life affirming. It makes me think about how much I miss.....not just Bob, but everything that he was. That this couple will be to each other. Companion, lover, friend, confidante, rescuer, comforter, safety net. More, probably – answers on a postcard etc.

 

I wonder if I will ever have that again. Or anything like it.

 

Bob and I did actually discuss this subject at one point – and we agreed that whichever of us died first, the other should mourn forever, and be properly and thoroughly miserable. And alone.

 

‘I think it’s only fair,’ Bob pointed out. ‘After all, why would I want you going off with some other bloke?’


Making sense of not believing. Or not.

 I think I may finally have figured out what people mean when they say the dead person is ‘still with you.’

 

Or at least how that phrase could be interpreted.

 

I’ve always considered myself to be a non believer. Unless of course the aeroplane I am on starts bouncing around. In which case I may quickly develop some kind of faith – and hope that the hastily imagined being to which I am directing my pleas for safety is tolerant of my hitherto scepticism.

 

‘When you’re dead, you’re dead,’ I used to think.

 

‘What’s the point?’ I said, when medical staff gently encouraged me to stay with Bob as long as I wanted.

 

‘He’s dead,’ I said, smoothing his thick hair back from his forehead, thinking yet again how handsome he was. But I didn’t really believe my own words. And in a way, I still don’t.

 

The doctor who said ‘Pupils fixed and dilated’ had closed Bob's eyes with that smooth flat handed gesture. I wished he hadn’t. I wanted to see them one last time, even though the sparkle had gone.

 

When I spoke at Bob’s funeral, I said, ‘he’s still here, with me,’ touching just underneath my breastbone. And I remember thinking ‘I hope to hell it’s true.’

 

My sister Nicki was there then, beside me, serious, understanding. Now she’s dead too – and the disbelief that I’ll never see her pretty pixie face again, hear her brisk tones, see her laughing hysterically as she river dances around the kitchen, has become a permanent fixture in me.

 

It’s coming up to the three year anniversary of Bob’s death. I can feel it looming, encircling me with tentacles that are a curious mix of hurt and tenderness. During the final month countdown, I am aware of my moods becoming erratic. I am irritated with myself and my apparent inability to control them. I worry that others may find me self pitying. Boring.

 

Surrounded by old friends, I suggest the idea of a trip to Bob’s grave. And then, almost as quickly, I reject it. Beautiful though the natural burial ground is, with its long view over the river Dart, it is bleak and freezing at this time of year, the glorious outlook often obscured by mist. I wonder aloud what would be the point. Do I feel comforted by visiting the grave? Not really. It makes me cry – which is fine and possibly cathartic - when the weather is warm and we can sit on the long grass and talk and drink wine and eat French bread and cheese.

 

But winter tears are bitter and choking. They do not bring the same relief.

 

Better, we decide, to have a lovely meal in a cosy pub and toast our memories of him. We can eat and drink and tell funny stories and laugh in comfort. Grave visiting can wait for warmer times.

 

I make lists and sort and tidy and organise and plan ever better ways of living on a boat. I find, not at all to my surprise, that everything I do is affected by the thought ‘how would Bob have done it?

 

I attach my lovely new sign(a Christmas present from my talented son - never let it be said that I miss an opportunity for some good PR....dappersigns.co.uk) to my letterbox and frustrated by the hardness of the wood, I sling aside the screwdriver and simply bash in the long screws with Bob’s old hammer. It works – but I know he’d be appalled.

 

‘You’re such a bodger, Dooley,’ he’d say. And then he’d prise out the screws and spend ages redoing the job properly. Perfectly.

 

And so I wonder, as I sit wrapped in a rug, on the deck of my lovely boat, watching the big moon lighting up the water, is this what people mean when they say ‘they’re still with you?’ This ever present feeling that someone isn’t really dead at all?

 

That would make sense. 


Numbers down and number's up.

I am going out to dinner tonight, to some old friends.

 

It will be a lovely evening, I know. Great company and delicious food.

 

There will be five of us.

 

Only a short time ago (or so it seems), there were six of us. And now, however bright and warm the gathering, however nurturing the environment, I can’t shake the feeling of there being an empty place at the table. Or the sense that my new life is strangely unreal. A mistake of epic proportions.

 

In my more bizarre ponderings, I sometimes wonder if there really has been an error. That the entities in charge of death and life assumed that I had a decent working knowledge of CPR. Or that I had a fully charged mobile phone – so that I could have kept the 999 operator with me, listening to his potentially life saving directions. Or that we lived somewhere less rural, so that the ambulance could have reached us in less than 25 minutes. Some or all of which might just have tipped the balance in favour of life, rather than death.

 

I imagine a scenario in which Bob is greeted at the pearly gates by an Eric Idle like character holding a clipboard and pencil.

 

‘Cooper?’he says in bored tones, glancing up and then down again. ‘Bob Cooper?’

 

Tired from his long journey – and the traumatic business of being pounded and shocked, Bob agrees and then asks if the bar is open.

 

‘Never mind that, my son. It says here there’s been a cockup in the system. Turns out it’s not your time yet,’ the other says briskly. ‘Something about your wife’s incompetence,’ he adds.

 

 

Bob starts to grumble about the inconvenience and the pearly gate guarder waves his pencil at him threateningly.

 

‘Most people’d jump at the chance of another shot. Now fuck off back to where you came from before I change my mind,’ he says sharply.

 

On the long road back, Bob wonders if he can simply sneak back into bed and pretend it never happened. He hates a fuss – always has.

 

My new life is all about me and my boat. Rather than me and my Bob.

 

A boat is no substitute for a lover. But it is something to love. To cherish. And it does need a lot of looking after.

Today’s to-do list is long, and full of worthy chores and activities. This means that by the time I go out tonight, I shall be pleasantly fatigued with a gentle glow of achievement.

 

We’ll have a lovely evening and we’ll probably talk fondly about Bob.

 

And my boat.

A Tale of Power

Power can be wonderful thing.

 

It’s true that those in possession of too much power – the local council for instance, tend to wield it randomly in flagrant abuse, bending and shaping their environment and those in it to suit their own desires.

 

But there’s another kind of power. The sort that is stored in the rather charmingly named leisure batteries, in lorry, caravan or boat. This is the kind that boat dwellers spend a lot of time thinking about, conserving and obtaining - from sun, wind and generator.

 

We love having lots of it and when, for some reason, our stores of it are depleted, we may feel anxious and vulnerable. Cross, even. Waking up in the morning and finding there isn’t even enough power to flush the loo can leave us feeling decidedly out of sorts. And putting on the (noisy) generator for an hour, only to find that an hour after that, the numbers on the batteries have once again plummeted, meaning that most of the cherished charge has disappeared, is enough to make any boat dweller weep. As I did, when it happened to me. Repeatedly.

 

Bob would have known, of course, that one of my five batteries had gone bad. It had become old and weak and useless. He would have instantly realised that, instead of simply dying, it clung frantically to life, leeching sustenance from its brother batteries, draining them, so that they too became incapable of doing their job properly.

 

Helpless to prevent this pillage of their life force, all the healthy batteries could only watch helplessly as each amp of power they received was greedily sucked up by their poorly sibling.

 

When, eventually, the problem was diagnosed by someone better versed in batteries than I, the remedy was swift and brutal, although clean in its immediacy and effectiveness. The bad battery was disconnected and hefted away to die in a special battery graveyard. A shiny new one was installed in its place. I could almost hear the others sighing in relief as they acknowledged the arrival of one who would contribute equally, allowing them to charge and work at full capacity.

 

My life has been transformed. I have power and I intend to use it well.

 

To celebrate, I tidy up the engine room and sort out Bob’s toolbox. The one I grabbed and filled with various bits and pieces before I left his workshop for the last time.

 

Now it is finally organised and tidy. I have even oiled the saw that he took such great care of.

 

He would approve, I think.


Pain and Perspective

Being away from something almost always brings perspective.

 

It's a chance to stand back. To see things through a long lens.

 

I am enjoying, enormously, endless hot water and the loo which can be flushed repeatedly and down which you can put loo paper – even the nice quilted variety, without fear of any hideous blockage situation.

 

My room is warm and bright, with a wonderful view over the beach. It’s a posher version of the one Bob and I used to run away to occasionally, in a pub overlooking the sea in North Devon.

 

I can’t resist remembering and reminiscing those seemingly stolen single nights, drinking, eating, talking, loving the warmth, watching the waves from our bedroom window, enjoying each other.

 

And I am relishing the chance to picture my boat from afar, with an objective eye, noticing its good and bad points. Good points: sound hull, (possibly the most important aspect of living on a boat) bright, colourful and accordingly difficult to be sad in, easy to clean, cheap to run, lots of outside deck space, proximity to water, brilliant view, great community. Bad points: small leaks in roof, not enough water, no hot water, not enough power, need for constant maintenance.

 

The list somehow spurs me on to make the most of these few days. To rise early and start the editing process, powering on until the waves opposite my window become too tempting – around early afternoon – and then donning wetsuit and taking my body board down to beach for a frolic in the surf. Returning, chilled to the bone, for a hot bath is pure delight and it takes every ounce of self discipline I possess, to recommence the editing process for another couple of hours or so, before going down to the wooden floored bar for a pint or two and some pub food.

 

There’s a lot of me in this writing project. And that sometimes makes it hard. I find myself dancing around the more difficult paragraphs, the ones that are close to me and mine. I am reluctant, sometimes, to dive in and tackle the subjects that hurt. To write about stuff that makes me cry.

 

I decide that this probably means it’s good. And I make the leap. And although it’s painful, in the end it feels good. Cathartic, almost. People often say it’s a process. But a process won’t just happen. You have to get it started, help it along, propel it forwards. Just fuckin’ do it.

 

Glancing at my boat list, I note once again, with pleasure, that the good far outweighs the bad. Something I always suspected.

 

And that the bad is fixable.

Chasms and cold water

Every now and again the chasm of pointlessness exerts its suction like pull.

 

One sure fire remedy for avoiding it is to have children and/or a partner living under the same roof as you and/or gainful employment. The chances are that if you have some or all of these, you will dance nimble footed away from the chasm, probably not even noticing that you were anywhere near.

 

Being called ‘a lady of leisure’ (always by people who don’t know anything about me) tends to nudge me a little closer to the chasm’s edge, where I sometimes teeter for a while, brow furrowed with the effort of digging in my heels, willing myself not to succumb.

 

Last time this happened, I thought about it, wept my way into a pool of self pity, drank some wine and discussed the subject to the point of tedium, with a patient friend.

 

Now I am a little wiser. And less fragile.

 

Of course the why are we here subject is endlessly debatable. But with a bit of effort and a touch of mindfulness, I’ve found it’s possible to deflect, if not actually answer the question.

 

One deflection tactic is to use the two words that actress Helen Mirren says she would have advised her younger self to use more, (especially, I’m guessing, in situations where male interviewers ignored her acting talent in favour of remarking on her shape.) I find that directing these two words either at those who comment on my lifestyle, or at myself, to be surprisingly effective.

 

Another is to go and jump in the sea. Preferably one with waves. Because cold lively water is extraordinarily effective at bringing about the realisation that as long as you can do this, no other point is necessary.

 

And by the time you’ve gone home, tingling and exhilarated and lit the fire and done a few boat chores and switched on all the fairy lights, the only thing that seems pointless is all this self absorption.



Giving up and Going on.

Someone wiser than I am once said, ‘There’s no shame in admitting that you can’t go on.’ And I agree. Wholeheartedly. We all need to rest sometimes.

 

The confusion arises when you’re staring at what seems like a mammoth project and battling the feeling that – to be brutally frank – you’re just not up to the job. Then, it seems to me, you sometimes have to find a way to battle through the desire to give up/sleep/run away/drink copious amounts of alcohol/cry.

 

If Bob was still here (and I bloody wish he was), I know what he’d say. ‘Just fuckin’ do it.’ He’d always listen to my various panics and insecurities and declamations of inadequacy. And then he’d hug me and say ‘Just fuckin’ do it.’

 

Sometimes I felt irritated by this. I thought that he could have been more sympathetic. More empathetic.

 

But Bob was a practical person. He knew that ultimately, however much you talk and listen, in the end, if you want to achieve something, you have to actually do. Something I’ve often thought about in the last couple of years or so, during the grieving process and when I was selling a house and business and dealing with the practicalities involved in buying and living on a boat.

 

If I were tramping through snowy woods on a 100 mile hike, I’d feel justified in occasionally admitting that I was exhausted. And clearly at this point, popping up the bivouac, lighting a fire, reconstituting a dried meal and snuggling into a sleeping bag for a few hours kip, would be a smart move.

 

It seems clear to me however, that the task of turning a 110,000 word manuscript into something readable with a plot free of human sized holes, requires a different approach. Something along the lines of ‘just fuckin’ do it.’

 

It feels like it would be easy if  he were still here. But when I think about it logically, I know that’s not true. The only difference would be that every time I wept and despaired and groaned, he’d laugh and hug me and bring me a glass of wine or a milky coffee or mug of tea with honey. Or a plate of the bite sized marmite cheese and tomato toasties he was so good at. Breakfast canapés.

 

I no longer have my support system for the gargantuan task ahead.

 

So as a second best, I’ve booked five nights in a lovely hotel with a bath and a sea view.


Home and Away

December 27th

 

The nagging desire to be useful and/or to do something I consider to be meaningful every day, leads me to spend a small proportion of the festivities volunteering at a shelter for the homeless.

 

Bristol is a big city. I love it for its diversity, music, food and life. But I admit, (only to myself), that I am a tiny bit scared of it. The shelter is ten times the size I am used to, and the induction talk for the volunteers is long and full of dire warnings, although kindly delivered.

 

Predictably, however, none of the more scary possibilities come to pass, and I spend most of my four hour shift sorting out clothes from the store upstairs, for guests who often have wet cold feet and dry skin.

 

One very slim girl finishes her turkey curry in record time and asks me if she can have some boots and some face cream. She says that she would like some  ‘you know, really nice boots.’ Her Eastern European accent somehow intensifies her vulnerability, and I search and scrabble through the stores with increased focus. But I can only come up with a pair that are a size too large, and some body lotion. I think wistfully of the half jar of Nivea I binned a couple of days ago.

 

The  guest declines the boots. ‘They are too big, darlink,’ she exclaims regretfully, and demonstrates how her feet slide around in them. I imagine how this combined with damp feet could lead to savage foot problems, and I agree, feeling sad as I watch her sliding her feet back into her battered trainers. But she seizes the body lotion and immediately slathers it over her face and neck.

 

I get back to the house tired, but in a sort of satisfied doing-good glow. My offspring and I discuss the homeless of Bristol and other subjects over a long lunch of leftovers and wine. We play Shithead, that well known after dinner card game. And we talk about Bob and Nicki and smile and laugh and I remember – just in time – to stop drinking wine before the laughter becomes teary.Not that it would matter much, really, but I sometimes feel that I am tired of tears.

 

I plan my afternoon in this cosy house that doesn’t move and in which the loo happily flushes at will and there is an endless supply of electricity and hot and cold water. A walk, I think, followed by a film watched on a large screen and then – oh heaven – a bath.

 

Pushing aside Calm and daily encouragement to be in the moment, I picture my return to the boat, the familiar feeling of heaviness wrapping itself around me like crumpled Christmas paper.

 

I remind myself that this time I will arrive in daylight. Much better. This time my new gangway waits to usher me solidly on board. I visualise myself sliding open the heavy door and whisking inside, lighting fires and unpacking. Settling back in. I imagine myself waving at my neighbours and popping over for a glass of wine and to discuss our new year boat festivities. I deliberately recall how, each time I enter it, my boat surrounds me in a colourful embrace. How its cosiness envelops me. Or envelopes me, as my daughter used to say when she was little.

 

Satisfied with my mini self counselling session, I return to the here and now, anchoring myself firmly in the present moment. (Tamara, you would be proud.)

 

Once again I am nourished by the love and support of my family.

 

Once again, I know that all is well.

On the edge

Very carefully, I pick my way along the ledge outside my boat. It is nearly dark and I am holding a small torch in one hand. The other hand reaches up, clinging to the railings above me on the top deck.

 

At the very back of the boat is my goal. The filler pipe for rainwater collection. I have just remembered that it is still in place and I’m worried that it will overfill the tanks in the night and flood the engine room. I need to take it out. Rain makes the ledge slippery, and I waver for a second, but then I remind myself that I am brave and strong.

 

I tense my core muscles and channel the annoyance I felt earlier when I was refused entry to a fitness class because I wasn’t wearing trainers. I don’t own any trainers. I don’t like them. Their sweaty squishiness repulses me.

 

The class involved varying sizes of kettle shaped objects – and, unless I was much mistaken, the young girl leading it took some satisfaction in denying me entry. I didn’t much care. I really only wanted a shower, and since it seems somehow churlish not to use the leisure centre facilities first and the pool was closed, on this occasion a class was my route to cleanliness.

 

But the way she kept repeating the words ‘health and safety,’ irritated me intensely. For at least two minutes, she and I engaged in the kind of pointless and tedious discussion that Bob and I used to dissect and laugh about.

 

When I gave up and left, a few of the women threw me sympathetic glances and one or two looked positively envious. But the large man standing behind me, who had asked me to move ‘in case I hit you,’ looked relieved.

 

Tensing all my muscles as if I am lifting the kettle objects, I reach my target. Still holding on tightly, I put the torch in my mouth and reach down to yank the broad pipe out of its hole. It dangles, dripping crossly, and I stick my tongue out at it.

 

Revenge is swift. As I turn, complacent in the feeling of a job accomplished, the pipe’s corrugated skin scrapes against the side of the boat, snarling and making me jump – and slip. With a yell of fright, I manage to save myself and watch as the torch plummets from my open mouth into the muddy depths between boat and land.

 

For a few seconds, I stand in the dark, on the ledge, like an indecisive suicide. My heart is beating very fast and tiny prickles of sweat blossom at the nape of my neck. The purr of my neighbour’s generator drowns out any sound I have made. And although I am not in space, the words, ‘No-one can hear you scream,’ leap into my psyche.

 

Very very carefully, I edge my way back, jumping down onto the lower deck with a gasp of relief. I fling myself inside the boat, feeling warmth and light wrap itself around me. ‘Thank fuck for that,’ I say loudly.

 

I start to laugh rather hysterically, and immediately repair to my neighbour’s boat for a debrief, where she and I agree that my filler pipe system needs an urgent overhaul. Her husband wonders  why I didn’t ask one of their delightful boys to do the job. I say that I would have worried that he might fall. He smiles.

 

‘But we have three more,’ he says. 




Passing waves

The shrieking wind jostles the incoming tide into waves which cross each other and seem to vie for space as they make their way towards my boat. It’s not a particularly high tide, but the boat flinches as small sections of water bombard it, surrounding it, thumping against its steel hull, so that it feels and sounds as if someone is hurling rocks at it.

 

I sit on my cushion, in my contemplation corner, trying to do as the soft voiced lady bids me and focus on the breath. But it’s difficult, when the noise and sensations of the water are so close and seem so aggressive. Reassured by the soft voice telling me it’s completely normal and fine to be distracted by – anything, really, I obediently bring my attention back to the breath, over and over again. But I feel guilty relief when the session ends and I am free to get up and peer outside, not really knowing what I am expecting to see, or what I am looking for.

 

Twelve hours ago, the weather and water were enacting the same scenario. But then there were other women here. There was companionship and warmth and food. And Prosecco. The howling wind and aggressive water were on the periphery and, with friends and laughter around me, I was unfazed. But today the angry waves seem to be gnawing at my boat, trying to get in.

 

I make a large mug of coffee and hoist myself onto a high stool, leaning my elbows on the kitchen worktop, narrowing my eyes, peering out at the wide river, trying to stare down its broiling greyness. It is almost like being at sea and I turn to remind myself that a few feet behind me, there is land. A bloody good thing too, since my boat has no working engines and no steering system.

 

I glance at my to-do list as I drink my coffee, wondering when high tide is. But even as I reach for the booklet that will tell me, I see that it has already turned. The grasping waves are slipping back towards the centre of the river. I feel strangely reprieved.

 

I take my laptop out to a lovely cafe in town. Cheerfully bohemian in its mismatching glory, there is a ‘dogs welcome’ sign on the door. And sure enough, a charming and smiley Labrador welcomes me in.

 

I sit on a high backed settle, at a wooden table and open my laptop. I ask for a marmite and salad sandwich with mayonnaise, on granary bread, cut into four and a large cappuccino. My request is accepted without comment and delivered with a smile. My cappuccino arrives sprinkled with gold dust, which makes me smile. I ask if this is a Christmas thing and am told that it’s a year round thing. I approve heartily.

 

It takes me an hour to write 200 words and eat my sandwich. ‘I can tell you enjoyed that,’ remarks the waitress as she clears. I am grateful that she doesn’t ask what I am working on. Or if I am ‘all ready for Christmas.’ My two stock replies to the latter are stored, just inside my cheek, ready to slide out of my mouth. ‘I was born ready,’ and ‘What do I need to do?’ I usually choose one or the other at random, although neither are particularly funny, I know. But it’s either that or shrug dumbly, which sometimes makes people think I’m unwell, or worse still, about to cry.

 

As I walk home, I check through what I have achieved today. This is a habit of mine. A way of justifying my existence. And I remember the softly spoken words from my mindfulness session that morning.

 

All things pass.

Safe but not necessarily sound.

When, I wonder, did safety become so important?

 

Is it an age thing?

 

On reflection, I’d say it’s more of a bereavement thing. Something to do with the sudden disappearance of the person who, for most of your adult life, has always had your back.

 

And so it is that the latest happiness in my life is my new gangway. Unlike the old wobbly one, which made you feel as if you were taking your life in your hands every time you crossed its precariously creaking boards, the new one is solid and strong. Double the length of its predecessor, it easily straddles the gap, stretching several reassuring feet onto the bank, scorning the possibility of any slippage into the muddy depths between land and boat.

 

I walk back and forth along it. Used as I am to the steep and slippery slope of my old gangway, I marvel at this gentle angle. It’s almost like walking on solid ground. I enjoy the lack of movement, the thickness of the rails under my hands. The feeling of safety.

 

My new gangway provides a welcome greeting on my return from a visit to relatives. The nourishing warmth of spending time with family and being able to speak freely about loved ones lost, contrasts strongly with the boat life waiting for me. As I leave for home, I feel anxious. I dread coming back to the boat in the dark – and the rickety access that awaits me. After several days in a house full of people and laughter, a house that doesn’t move, I begin to wonder if boat life really is for me.

 

But – oh joy – work has been done in my absence. The first part of my arrival onto the boat is no longer a heart in mouth crossing. And now, as I walk with ease onto my vessel, I feel confidence welling.

 

I stand back, on the grassy bank, admiring my new gangway and how it reaches for the deck of my boat, blond planking sleek and unassuming. Quietly and elegantly doing its job. If it could speak, I imagine it would say ‘I plan to spend the rest of my days here with you, making your life easier.’

 

I traverse it once again, deliberately heavy footed, smiling at the lack of reaction. I fetch my shopping from the car and, a heavy carrier bag in one hand and a bundle of logs under the other arm, I walk across my new gangway. Without holding on.

 

All wobbliness is gone.

 

I feel safe.

Dreams and a boat that knows.

Out of the blue, I have another one of those ‘Bob is back’ dreams.

 

I haven’t had one for several months - something that could be regarded as progress in what’s sometimes called a recovery process. The dream makes up for the lengthy absence by being detailed and vividly real. It sparkles with sharply convincing reasoning for the kind of events usually regarded as unarguable. A certified dead body for instance. A burial witnessed by a great deal of people.

 

As the days pass, my memory of the dream grows blurry, but what I still remember in detail is Bob explaining how this gross misunderstanding came to arise, in a way that makes perfect sense. He smiles ruefully as he apologises for all the upset, chuckling slightly at the gigantic – but for some reason highly necessary - ruse we have all fallen for.

 

Of course my dream persona is irritated – who wouldn’t be? But irritation is eclipsed by the relief and joy of knowing that it has all been a mistake, and now we can finally get back to normal and really enjoy life again. The relief and joy lasts a full minute after waking. Then reality dawns, sludgy and cloying, contorting my dream filled smile. Forcing me to once again confront the fact that He Is Never Coming Back.

 

I am staying with friends. I have someone to talk to. I only cry for a minute.

 

When I come home to my boat, I am glad, very glad, that before I left I set both woodburners ready to light. That I tidied and polished so that the interior of the boat gleams. That it is not yet dark. Even so, right up until the last second before I push the heavy sliding door open, I fantasise helplessly about a greeting from within.

 

Dumping my bag, I bustle about, lighting fires, switching fairy lights into twinkling warmth. Drawing blinds against the dusk. Turning on radio 4, so that voices fill the space, creating the illusion of another presence. I unpack, folding, tucking, rearranging. I check the battery and water tanks, making sure that nothing has gone wrong in my absence. All is well.

 

Except that all is not well. Not really. Because the feeling of incompleteness is stronger than ever. And now I wonder if the fault is with me – and that I am subconsciously perpetuating this feeling. That another would simply gather herself, reject all these ‘I am so alone’ thoughts and bundle them back out into the universe. I remember a conversation with my sister on this subject, a few months before she died, and how her words were a balance of good sense and empathy. I wish she was here now, standing next to me.

 

I put on the kettle – more for something to do than because I want a hot drink. And then the shrill whine of the inverter alarming cuts through my ponderings, rescuing me from further pointless self analysis, forcing me to engage in more productive activities.

 

Locating the inverter switch, turning it off, starting up the generator, switching on the inverter again. I scramble down into engine room to check a connection, aided by a super bright rechargeable battery lamp, a wonderfully thoughtful present given to me a few days ago by some old friends. I smile with pleasure as it illuminates the gloom, making life instantly much easier.

 

Later on I construct a rather delicious supper of baked beans on oatcakes, with sliced tomatoes. Studiously trying to be mindful, I resist the temptation to read or watch Netflix while I eat. I gaze into the fire and savour every beany bite. And the idea pops into my head that perhaps the boat noticed that I needed a distraction, sending a gentle malfunction to fulfil that need.

 

A whimsical thought indeed.

Buoyant and Bacon

I had planned an early swim at the nearby pool this morning.

 

Beaten back by dark and frost however, I am still guiltily pyjama clad at 8am. Snuggled in bed, with a huge mug of coffee, enjoying the glow of woodburner and fairy lights. But the need to be present and correct for breakfast at our writers’ retreat has instilled some kind of permanent alarm inside me, making me twitchy and unable to concentrate on my book. And so I propel myself out of bed, intent on getting myself and my boat in order.

 

The morning routine is curiously grounding. Taking out the ash from both woodburners, cleaning the glass doors, laying a small stack for the next lighting and brushing up. Switching on the inverter, (turned off during the night to save power) checking the batteries and starting the generator if needed. Today I see with satisfaction that the bright sunshine melting the frost is already feeding the solar panels, charging the battery. Maybe there’ll also be a downpour later, to fill up the water tanks. I feel a surge of hope at 

he thought and note how much pleasure I derive from small things. This is good, I think.

 

I wrap up warmly and take another mug of coffee up to the top deck. Settling myself in the low rocking chair, I gaze with pleasure at the sunlit view. A family of mallard ducks potter around on the mud, their broad beaks scooping and foraging. A long legged bird arrives and surveys the scene with disdain. Bob would know what it is. I consider going down to get my bird book. I sip my coffee, the sun warm on my face. I am too lazy to move.

 

I think about yesterday’s visit to a dear friend and boat neighbour who is dealing with a recent and savage diagnosis. He and his wife are resilient and pragmatic, exploring alternative treatments and facing whatever may come with calm determination and glints of humour. I came home from the visit feeling uplifted and strangely optimistic. And – inevitably, pondering on my own relationship with mortality. Would I be less than this? Was I?

 

Later that day I have a routine eye test and the optician tells me that there is nothing to worry about – BUT...I have the beginnings of a cataract in one eye. Hugely buoyed by the discovery that all her clever equipment shows that everything else in my head is healthy, I tell her that this bothers me not at all.

 

On the way home, I stop at the cafe boat and celebrate my newly confirmed head health with a bacon sandwich. The chewy saltiness of the bacon combines eagerly with the wet crunch of tomato and lettuce and there has been no compromise in the mayonnaise department. I bite into the thick white casing with closed eyes pleasure. And now I am doing that thing of being in this moment. The only one that matters.

 

And it is bloody wonderful.

Tears and Fears, but no Water.

She has a quite extraordinarily long job title, this girl who, we have been led to believe, is a junior member of the legal profession. It includes the words interim and monitoring and officer and manager. Her email is also long, but says very little.

 

Without apology, she writes that the water we were promised by her employers, the local council, will not be forthcoming ‘for the foreseeable future,’ despite the fact that there is apparently considerable commitment involved. I and the other boat owners have kept a careful eye on the rogue standpipe but have seen very little evidence of said commitment or indeed any activity at all. We are disappointed but not surprised at this.

 

I frequently wonder, since the move, how long we will be emailing and phoning on almost a daily basis in pursuit of basic facilities. Water, recycling collection, post - streetlights, even. Where did my plan for a peaceful life go wrong? It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

 

I embark on a long and repetitious inner dialogue, which culminates in a yet another dark replay of my failure – two years and nine months ago – to keep Bob alive. Another dissection of my too slow dash to an uncharged mobile phone. Of my attempts to resuscitate him.

 

The hard pressure of my lips on his, so familiar, is an un-erasable memory. Likewise the desperate belief that any second he would sit up and laugh, making me yell at him for terrifying me. Yet again, I tumble back through time to watch myself pushing away the truth of what was happening, told by the dull glaze of his half open eyes.

 

And then the ghastly calm of the hours and days and weeks that followed. Nodding, smiling tightly, getting through, doing what needed to be done.

 

Before I know it, anger and sadness are all over me, pushing their way inside me. Terror follows – at past events – how could this possibly have happened to me?- at the present – what am I doing here? – and of course, at the prospect of an uncertain future. I sit at my desk, drowning in self pitying tears, pouting, pushing my laptop away, rejecting today’s words like a toddler refusing food.

 

And then, as it always does, the crying stops and I remind myself that everyone’s future is uncertain – and that I have a lunch date with two of the boat girls on the cafe boat nearby. Cheesy chips and a beer makes everything a little better.

 

I take a deep breath and decide to do a 15 minute meditation. I do my best to follow the advice of the soft voiced lady and simply notice thoughts and emotions without creating a story around them. At the end of the meditation, I resolve to ride the waves of life, as she suggests - without letting them wipe me out.

 

This turns my thoughts to body boarding and I check the tides and surf. I shake out my wetsuit in preparation for a watery outing. Things are looking up, I think. And then I pick up my guitar and start to strum and hum, enjoying the feeling of producing a surprisingly pleasant sound.

 

And everything seems quite peaceful.

Words and workmanship

The man is red faced and he wears his angry expression resolutely, as if intent on finding something to be cross about. My rubbish parking has made him very cross indeed. It’s also made him slow down as he negotiates his way past my car’s rear, which protrudes inelegantly into the road. He winds his window down and comments rudely as he crawls past.

 

Swallowing the desire to say, ‘oh piss off, you miserable fucker,’ I smile and tell him that we can’t all be good at everything. ‘I have other qualities,’ I say, waving as I nip across the road in front of him and he smiles, despite himself, like a toddler whose determination to have a tantrum has been sabotaged by a loving parent.

 

Dashing back from the laundrette, laden down with clean washing, I ponder briefly on how easy it is to assume that yours is an island of grief upon which you are the only inhabitant. Death touches us all eventually, some sooner than others.

 

The tide is low and my gangway slopes precariously. I eagerly anticipate its new look – twice the length, with large wheels on the end, salvaged from a golf trolley at the recycling centre. I am confident this will make getting on and off the boat delightfully easy. For now though, I inch my way down it, one hand clutching my bag of laundry, the other firmly on the handrail.

 

I imagine Bob inspecting the gangway, and the look of disgust which invariably crossed his face at the sight of poor workmanship. ‘Useless wankers,’ he’d mutter, squatting down to examine a joint or fixing. Frowning, running his fingers over and around the offending part, as if he could improve it with his touch.

 

I smile as I remember him dismantling a crudely made chair at one holiday home we stayed at and remaking it. ‘Just looking at it pissed me off,’ he said, coaxing the rough edges together and smoothing them into submission. I marvelled at how his hands, starfish like and nobbly knuckled – could work with such skill and produce such beauty. And as always, I couldn’t resist getting close, stroking his neck as he worked, feeling his warmth, laying my head against him.

 

It is a chilly afternoon and I light the woodburner, giving myself a mental pat for cleaning out the grate and re- laying the fire that morning before I left. You even polished the glass, I tell myself with a satisfied air. Then I think a trifle ruefully that these kind of conversations with myself are becoming the norm.

 

I see that the battery is low, but I can’t face the thrum of the generator, so I decide to manage for the evening with fire and fairy lights. More than anything, I’d love a bath. But for the time being the lack of water and in particular hot water means that my lovely gold bath is purely ornamental. It’ll happen, I tell myself firmly. All will be sorted in time.

 

I have spent the day at a local drop in centre. I volunteer there one day a week, dishing out hot meals and making sandwiches for anyone who’s homeless or just down on their luck. The clients are charming and appreciative.

 

I sit by the fire, thinking of how one client, noticing my wedding ring, asked me what my husband thought about me working there. Immediately and miserably defensive, I said, ‘He doesn’t think anything. He’s dead.’

 

His face fell and I regretted my sharpness. ‘I loved him very much,’ I said.

 

His eyes held mine. ‘I’m so sorry for your loss,’ he said simply.

 

And I was warmed by his words.


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Birthdays and boats.

November 5th is Bob’s birthday.

 

Should that be was Bob’s birthday? I’ve always had trouble with tenses and now more than ever. 

 

The children send me a funny picture of one of them standing alongside the impossibly enormous rocket they have bought, pointing at it, with the caption ‘This gonna get lit.’ I laugh. A lot.

 

I find myself thinking and reminiscing. A lot. The usual distracting thoughts that swarm around my meditation practice are even more cloying than usual. Even as I push them away, they simply swim back, like gentle boomerangs, refusing to relinquish their place in my head. The lady with the soft voice reassures me that it’s ok, and I try to focus on the breath.

 

I sit down at my desk to work on my book, reminding myself of how, in my previous life, I would often tell would be writers to ‘just write.’ But now as I stare at the screen, exhaustion overwhelms me and I wrestle with the thought that perhaps I am not capable of something so big.

 

Growling, I jump to my feet and embark on a set of boat chores. Checking, tweaking, tightening, sweeping. It’s raining and the steady drip of a persistent leak in the roof galvanises me to make a list of Things That Need Doing.

 

Bob liked lists. He loved the feeling of being in control of a situation. I could see it in him as he ticked things off, his face aglow with satisfaction. I remember the feeling of being happy that he was happy, his glance that said everything was working out well, and the feeling of being in thoroughly in love and being loved.

 

The day creaks to a close. I force myself to practice guitar, persuading my left hand into the gymnastics that are barre chords and smiling slightly as they ring out true. Gritting my teeth, I do a line edit on a few pages of my book. At least that’s something.

 

That evening, the children send a video of the rocket exploding in the sky, hot red rain cascading back to earth. There is a soundtrack of shrieks and laughter and shouts of ‘call the fire brigade.’ There is a card for Bob too, a funny cartoon covered with messages of wistful love and scrawled kisses. Their affection and stoicism overwhelms me and I feel almost ashamed of my tears, although I remind myself that these days there is a gentler quality to them.

 

I light the fire and switch on the fairy lights, feeling the space soften around me. The bottle of white wine in my fridge beckons, a chilly seductress. Telling myself that the promise of feeling better is a lie, I resist. I make myself some delicious cinnamon tea and remember with some pleasure that House of Cards is back on Netflix. I decide to spend the evening seeing if Robin can fill Kevin’s tarnished shoes.

 

Settling down on the sofa with tea and a soft rug, I look again at the pictures and video. And predictably, I laugh and cry. Again.

 

Half an hour later, having made a distress call to my boat neighbour, she and I are out in the wind and rain, battling to save my gangway, which, prompted by the very high tide, seems intent on plunging into the river. Between us – I on the boat and she on shore, we manage to wrestle the bloody thing back to safety. Laughing rather hysterically, we shout well done at each other and I thank her profusely and offer her a drink. She points out that getting on or off my boat is currently risky/downright dangerous and I wave as she disappears into the darkness.

 

I wish there were photos. Our children would be proud.

Moment to moment.

‘Being in the moment’ is one of those phrases I used to scoff at. Like ‘touching base’ and ‘moving forwards’.

 

Thanks, however, to my little app of Calm, this phrase is starting to ring true. And weirdly, I realise it’s something I’ve been trying to do for a while now.

 

If you think about it (but don’t over analyse it) being in the moment makes perfect sense. Because continually fretting about the past and future, or making plans for the days and weeks and months ahead, means never appreciating the present.

 

This doesn’t of course mean that you can’t have memories.

 

On that last evening, I remember Bob standing at the sink, washing up, a spotify reggae playlist thumping softly from the laptop in the corner. I left him there and went to bed. I wanted an early night, but I ended up reading for two hours. Unsurprisingly, the thought that I could have spent those two hours with Bob has planted itself in my mind and I don’t think that any amount of counselling or meditating will ever shift it. But maybe – eventually, I can view the thought in a different way, so that it doesn’t jab at me quite so viciously.

 

‘Thoughts are just that – thoughts,’ says the lady with the gentle voice. ‘If they frighten or worry you, remember that has much more to do with the scenarios you create around the thoughts. So just let them go and focus on the here and now.’

 

I rather enjoy visualising thoughts – especially troublesome ones - as clouds, which can be given a gentle push. I watch them floating off into the sky and return to the present.

 

There’s a lot to be said for living in the moment. When I hear people planning for a time in the distant future, I want to urge them to enjoy the now. Seize the day and all that. Bob and I occasionally discussed future plans and how much fun we were going to have, and once or twice, when he was tired, I remember him saying something about jam tomorrow.

 

The final peaceful seconds of my morning meditation is rather tarnished by a sudden shrill noise from the engine room. My eyes fly open. Longer hours of darkness means less solar power and the batteries have dropped too low, making the inverter alarm. Its whine is ear piercing. Cursing, but calm, I grab a torch and clamber through the low opening, made for pixies. I head for the red glow of the box that cleverly converts 12 volt to 240 volt. I press the switch on top of the box. For a few seconds, I squat there, savouring the silence. I congratulate myself on remaining in the moment.

 

As I re-emerge, I bang my head hard on the corner of the pixie door. It hurts. A lot. I blink back tears, grit my teeth and remember that now there’s not enough power in the batteries to flush the loo. I switch on the generator, which, in the quiet of the early morning, sounds like a volcano erupting. Half an hour and two cups of coffee later, I switch the generator off. Blessed silence.

 

It is getting light and the sun is coming up, mingling with the swirls of mist across the river. It is simply beautiful and, wrapped in a big fluffy cardigan, I go out onto the top deck, perching on the edge of a frosty chair, to sip yet another cup of coffee and just gaze. This, I think, is a moment worth being in.

 

I find myself smiling as I enjoy the view and I think of a conversation I had a few days ago, when someone asked what kind of pension I had. I told them that I didn’t have one, and that it didn’t matter.

 

Because I have a boat.

wordless rope

The noise of words and boats.

It is obvious that this woman wants to talk. And since I am the only other person in the changing room, I am going to be her target.

 

She tells me how lonely life has become for her since her husband has begun working long hours in his new job. He is often away for ten or more hours every day, she says, leaving her to find other company. It is, she tells me, very difficult. ‘Some days he’s so late, I wonder if he’s ever coming back,’ she confides.

 

I hear, rather than listen. Eventually, when she pauses for a second, I say, ‘My husband’s dead.’

 

She says, ‘Oh!’ in a shocked tone and an expression very much like disgust crosses her face. Then she says, ‘Well he’s definitely not coming back.’

 

For a moment I think she’s going to laugh at what could, I suppose, be perceived as a witticism. Then she continues, piling sentences on top of each other - until I began to feel mildly concussed. It’s as if she is creating a wall of words, opaque and impenetrable.

 

Quickly, I finish dressing, apply more lipstick and leave with a half hearted wave. I hold the door for an elderly lady entering the changing room and knowing what awaits her, I can’t help smiling in a slightly pitying way.

 

At 2.20 am I am woken by a loud creaking sound, right above my head. It makes me think of the noise made by huge wooden slave ships, as, in the not so distant past, they carried their exhausted terrified cargo across stormy seas. I know it is the gangway, its wooden planes and joints scraping and groaning as the incoming tide forces it to move in unnatural shapes.But that doesn’t stop me going out with a torch and checking the  mooring ropes.

 

The full moon shows me that the coils of rope holding my boat bind snugly to the mooring points and each other. I remember the words of an old fisherman I once worried to, some time ago, as he settled his own boat next to mine. ‘They ropes’d hold the QE2,’ he said cheerfully. I am comforted.

 

Shivering, I go inside and check that the battery hasn’t dipped so low that the inverter could alarm. If it has, I will have to turn on the generator, a purring noisy beast. It is fine, but I continue to prowl restlessly, listening to check that my new water tanks haven’t overflowed. They are fine. All is well.

 

I settle myself into my contemplation corner, drawing a soft rug around me and select a short meditation from my Calm app. As I listen to the narrator’s soothing voice, I try to focus on the breath, as she suggests. I notice worrisome thoughts – and let them go, as she directs.

 

Fifteen minutes later, I climb back into bed, snuggling deep into its pillowy embrace and falling instantly asleep.

Contemplation corner



Cushion Comfort

One of my children thinks I have too many cushions. It’s true that cushions are not in short supply on my boat. But now there is a new need for them. Who would have thought that in this small space, I could discover an area that clearly pleads for the squishy solace they provide.

 

Such is the power of the eye that given time, roves around and sees possibilities where before there were none. A shift of a few centimetres, a quick rearrangement and another space appears, brimming with potential.

 

Filled with the energy that comes from a good day’s writing, I set to, extracting stowed away rugs, draping and pinning them to give a sort of luxurious tent like feel. More cushions, rich coloured and sensuous, nestle in as if they have been waiting for this moment all their cushion lives. Golden orbs and a cascade of autumn and rust, in the form of fairy lights, frame the tableau.

 

I pull down the blinds and light the woodburner. Moving slowly, savouring the moment, I switch on the fairy lights. Then I sink into my new nest, glancing around me, luxuriating in the glow. I feel happy, but also suddenly sad because as always, I am frustrated in my need to share with someone who isn’t here.

 

He’s still with you, they say. Even non believers spout little sayings which I know come from a desire to comfort. Hold him in your heart. Carry the memories with you. Often I feel ungrateful when my rejection of these platitudes is obvious. Self pitying. Grief is a selfish emotion. I wonder if they see me as wallowing in my grief. Prolonging it unnecessarily.

 

(In the spirit of fairness, I sometimes discuss this with myself, chattily, thoughtfully. It’s not as if I spend my days weeping and wailing and breast beating. I’m pretty normal and happy-ish a lot of the time. This conversation inevitably ends in a glaring lack of resolution.)

 

I decide not to give in. I swallow the lump and sit a little straighter. My cushion obligingly adjusts itself to better support me. Will it always be like this? Probably.

 

The next day my neighbour and I are having coffee and I show her my meditation corner. She cleverly re-names it the contemplation corner, completing my delight with what I have created.

 

Later that day, I try to explain to my own non believer that, like fairy lights, cushions are something you can never have too many of. But even in the face of pictorial evidence, he remains unconvinced.

 

I resolve to continue this discussion another day.

Gold bath

Going Gold

My bath is gold.

 

Gazing at my finished paint job, I am reminded of a piece I once wrote about an Olympic gold medallist, who, to illustrate the piece, allowed herself to be sprayed gold. Half warrior, half goddess, she glittered on the page, every line of her body imbued with metallic glory.

 

Unlike my bath, she was immaculate. No drips or streaks sullied her golden limbs. But I rather like the slightly battered effect. Wabi sabi. It’s as if some kind soul glanced at my little white bath in passing - and decided to brighten it up by chucking a bucket of gold paint over it.

 

The recent high tides and stormy weather have played havoc with boat life. Leaking decks (not mine), ropes that constantly need checking and adjusting, tilting angles, rocking strong enough to tip things from shelves, loud banging noises in the middle of night and gangways that go walkabout, (making access to the quay something of a challenge) produce a toxic soup of anxiety and stress for boat dwellers.

 

And even as I tell myself I do not want to be – have never wanted to be – a whingeing widow person, I find sometimes find myself thinking – and occasionally saying, ‘But at least there’s two of you/them. Everything’s a little easier when there’s a warm body next to you.’ And then I hate myself for becoming the person I swore I would never be.

 

 

The tides are low now, barely touching the boat, and the wind and rain has retreated. Along with other boat dwellers, I sweep and retie and pick up and mend. I tidy and clean inside and out. The battery is low, so I switch on the generator for an hour, quickly acclimatising to its purring vibration. I check the water tanks, which, after the recent deluge, are full.

 

Like a kind of human magpie, I find I am drawn to ever brighter colours, particularly in response to stress. The vivid reds blues and sunset yellows daubed throughout my boat are no longer enough. I am, it seems, entering my gold phase. Are magpies naturally happy, I wonder – or prone to depression?

 

This morning I wake with another Bob dream fresh in my head. As usual it leaves me readjusting, after an all too brief few seconds of life having gone back to normal. I leap out of bed before any kind of mood can claim  me, and wash and dress with abrasive speed, as if battling an unseen force. I scrub and floss my teeth and bare them at my reflection in the mirror, a stern disciplinarian.

 

I meditate for ten minutes before sitting down to write and, rather to my surprise, I finish the practice calmed and invigorated. Just before I leap into the world of words, I take another look at my gold bath. It is beautiful.

 

The sun is out and I decide to postpone writing for an hour in favour of taking my neighbour’s delightful dog for a walk. And - as it goes, that works out well, because as I walk, I write in my head.

barre/bar chord vehicle

Barres and Bars and Bugs

Barre chords are a complete bastard.

 

I take a perverse pleasure in thinking that I may not have spelled bar/barre correctly. Knowing how I hate it when people get my name wrong – Debra, Debbie, Deby - I anthropomorphise these tricky chords, taking revenge on their awkwardness by sabotaging their name.

 

Three fingers curl so that that my now nonexistent nails tip over the strings, creating a line of knuckles I never knew I had, while my wonky index finger attempts to create the bar/barre. My hit rate has gone from almost never, to about 50 percent, which I suppose is progress. Gritting my teeth, I persevere, as my calm ever patient teacher, advises.

 

There is a standpipe at our new berth. It is metered, of course - but handy for those dry periods when my rainwater collection is inadequate. And also for clean drinking water. Alas, the first time I and a neighbour dial in the padlock code and fill a container, it produces water that is a murky beige and smells strongly of what we agree is sewage.

 

The local environmental officer comes out to test the water, which is now running clear and has no odour. Shaking his head dolefully, he insists that what I am saying is virtually impossible. He seems to be implying that I have fabricated the stinky water story – as if I am suffering from a bout of Object Munchausen’s by Proxy. I am taken aback and tell him that I have a witness. He tugs at his high viz waistcoat, making me wish that I had one, too.

 

It is a warm day and I offer to fetch a glass, so that he can have some water from the tap in front of us. He declines and gets on with the business of testing for all kinds of bugs. We shake hands and he leaves, promising to let me know the results within the next day or two.

 

Sitting down at my desk, I continue the editing process of what I now call my writing project. For an hour, I doggedly correct typos, rephrase and delete small swathes. All the while knowing that much more than this is required – and constantly pushing away the tidal wave of negativity that screams ‘YOU AREN’T UP TO THE JOB. IN SHORT, YOU CAN’T FUCKING DO THIS.’

 

At midday, I sigh loudly and deeply, telling myself that I am expelling negative energy. I take my guitar from its hook. I strum the song I am learning, humming along and half way through I hit the bar/barre chord clear and true. I finish the song, my voice louder and more confident. I wonder at the fact that this small happiness can produce tears. Especially from someone who, less than three years ago, sometimes proclaimed almost proudly, ‘It takes a lot to make me cry.’

 

The next day I get an email from the environmental officer. The water system, which also supplies the local council offices, next door, is contaminated. It will be shut down immediately so that the pipework can be disinfected. He thanks me for bringing it to his attention.

Jubilation and Despair

Once again, the journey from water tanks to taps is proving too much for the system. Even though it is less than three hours since the new pump was fitted, replacing the old burned out pump. My recently arrived guests display remarkable fortitude in the face of this news and one of them drives off to buy some canisters of water. We discuss techniques to flush the loo, wash, etc and despite the lack of mod cons, we have a lovely evening.

 

Next morning, after waving my visitors goodbye, I decide to shimmy down into the engine room and have a look at the pump. Just, you know, in case the problem is obvious. Trying to pretend that my back is supple, I wriggle past engines, generator, battery, charger and inverter, cooing at them sweetly, encouragingly.

 

Arriving at the back of the boat, in close proximity to my cruelly full water tanks, I see the pump. I marvel at its small size. How can it possibly cope with the enormity of the task in hand?

 

Then I squeak with the realisation that the problem couldn’t be more obvious. The pressure has pushed one of the valves completely free of the pump. Instead of guiding the water into the pipes, up and out of the taps, it hangs uselessly, dripping into its dark surroundings.

 

I jam the valve back onto the pump and excitedly crawl upstairs to the light. I switch on the pump and turn the tap – and precious water gushes forth. My joy is only marginally curtailed as it becomes clear that the valve is intent on popping off. It is a repeat offender.

 

Upon consulting, I learn that I need a Jubilee clip. Jubilee is a joyful word. A party word, full of celebration. I can’t help thinking it’s an odd name for a small metal clip. But then, I muse, if it does the job, there will indeed be cause for celebration. Resisting the urge to write a piece on the simple joy of taps that produce water, I go shopping.

 

‘What size?’ asks the man in the hardware shop. I frown and say small.

 

Once again I am squatting in the dark, only prevented from swearing out loud by the torch I am holding in my mouth, in order to have both hands free. For some reason, I can’t get the screwdriver to tighten the Jubilee clip properly, and I can see that this remedy isn’t, as it stands, going to work.

 

For possibly the millionth time, I wish two things, hard. One, that I had paid more attention when Bob was attending to the numerous repair jobs he did on a daily basis. Jubilee clip is a word I heard often over the years. But until now I didn’t even know what one looked like. And two, that he was still here. So that he could sort out the stupid pump. And because I miss him.

 

I crouch, aching backed, clutching screwdriver and happily named clip, pondering the problem and fighting loneliness. And almost before I know it, the toad that is grief has waddled over and is clasping me tightly, heavily, so that I can’t shake it off.






A Tilt and A Triumph

 

The man with the strange stare is back. He stands by my boat, one hand on the railing of the gangway in a proprietorial way. Since I am aware that ostensibly, he is here to help,  I conquer the urge to tell him to take his hand off my property.

 

Pale and goat-like, his eyes rove over my boat and the bed of mud it sits on. His stomach protrudes importantly and he wears his high viz waistcoat like badge, comfortable in the knowledge that it confers authority. He says something I know to be incorrect and I bite back a contradiction, knowing that it might further reduce the small chance that he will sort out the problem. Namely the tilt of the boat, which now means that the overflow on the water tanks is running uphill. Accordingly, when the tanks are full, the excess water has nowhere to go, except into the engine room.

 

I discovered this a few days ago, during a downpour, when I realised that the watery noises I was hearing were coming from inside the boat. Ever alert to the fact that the sound of water is fine - pleasant, even, but only when it's coming from the outside - particularly when a boat is involved, I grabbed a torch and hot footed it down into the engine room. There I found a gushing flood as the water tanks unburdened themselves.

 

Even as I dialled for help, panicky fingers missing keys, I was already solving the problem. Clambering outside onto the boat's wide ledge, still pointlessly clutching my phone, reaching for the filler pipe, yanking it out, so that the  precious water spilled into the river. Back inside, turning on all six taps and flushing both loos repeatedly. Peering down into the engine room and seeing the gushing slow and stop.

 

The man with the strange stare looks thoughtful and makes a couple of suggestions, saying he will be back later to re-assess the situation. I can't see the point of this, but I nod and watch his yellow back as he moves ponderously away from my boat.

 

I think again about how I dealt with the near flood and it occurs to me that for the first time, I didn't automatically whirl around, searching for Bob. And that although the solution was admittedly simple, I fixed it myself. I muse that this may be what some people call progress. I allow myself to call it a small triumph.

 

The next day I receive an email from the man with the strange stare, saying that he and the organisation he works for will endeavour to assist me, going forwards. This does not inspire me with hope for a straightened boat. He concludes the email with a 'rgds' and then his name.

 

I consider various responses, but in the end I don't reply.

 

Mail and the Moon

 

I repeat my new address in what sounds like a hiss. Too late, I try to moderate my tone and explain the similarity to my old address, for the third time. Sea Otter houseboat - Sea Otter houseboat. But the Royal Mail operative is already recoiling from my snake like delivery. She informs me briskly that I am giving her insufficient information and that she can no longer continue the conversation. While I am protesting, the line goes dead.

 

I stare at the phone and take a deep breath. The thought of once more negotiating the various options and being forced to listen to tinned Vivaldi depresses me immeasurably. Instead, I scroll through the weekend's pictures. A family picnic at the natural burial ground, in unexpected sunshine. Food and wine around the firepit, set a short distance from the reason we are there. The grave, unassuming with its small brass plaque set flat into the ground. An oval shaped grassy mound, which we trim with clippers, laughing and talking.

 

My new skirt is swishy, brightly coloured and satisfyingly pocketed, and the red boots I wore to the funeral go well with it. My hair is freshly cut and highlighted and I am wearing the kind of makeup that requires tongue chewing during application. I am surrounded by my family. In many ways it is a perfect day.

 

It is only as we leave and I pause by the grave, thinking to wave a cheery goodbye, that tears descend with lightening speed. There is not even the slightest throat lump to warn me, and the intensity of emotion makes me dizzy. Forever reality hits and denial is cruelly pierced. His name and the dates are blurry but I can read them and I know what they mean. He. Is. Not. Coming. Back. Fresh misery wraps itself around me, hammering me into the ground until I feel as if I may join him. I wonder briefly if I will fall sobbing onto grave, ruining the day with unwelcome melodrama.

 

I am hugged by more than one person and I hear myself saying, 'I wish he was still here.'

As laments go, this is not a memorable one, but my huggers are instantly empathetic. They say nothing. They don't need to. The wave passes, as always, and once again I have not drowned.  

 

That evening as we sit on deck, the full moon looms impossibly large and low. It lights a broad path across the river and we marvel at the theatrical scene. I squint at it, likening its half smile to Bob's sarky one. Any minute, I think tipsily, it'll ll say, 'Stop necking Prosecco, Dooley. You'll feel shit in the morning.'

 

I smile at the pictures on my phone, enjoying the colours that seem brighter than real life. My boat tilts gently towards the sun in its new berth and I take my coffee on deck, lifting my face skywards and closing my eyes, like a cat. After a few minutes, I sigh and go inside to phone Royal Mail again.

 

Jumper love.


Love and water.

 

I am in love.

 

I gaze at myself in the mirror, seeing how my eyes shine with happiness and my mouth curves contentedly. The object of my adoration embraces me softly, caressing my skin and fitting to my body in a way that says 'We were made for each other.'

 

Green, a glorious sea green, the colour of mermaids hair, opaque but also translucent, the sweater settles lovingly around my shoulders and I lean my head sideways, so that it can whisper to me. I close my eyes, savouring the feel of it against my cheek. It is smooth but fluffy, light but cosy, loose but fitted. It is the queen of all jumpers and now the thought of life without it is unbearable.

 

The tag on my new love tells me it is French, and that the price is roughly a week's minimum wages. Gently, reluctantly, I peel away from it and return it to the shelf, folding, smoothing. I explain to the smiling shop owner that I really can't afford it and she nods understandingly. But when she says, a trifle sadly, that the colour really suits me, I know it's true and a dagger of regret pierces me. For what is life without true love?

 

That evening, I am crouching crossly in the engine room, trying to persuade the water pump to work (with Bob's hammer) and now my two loves are vying for space in my head.

'If you love it, get it. You work hard. You deserve it. It's only money.(Bob)

'I make you happy.' (The jumper.)

 

The first was once a familiar refrain, the second a perfect complement.

The next day I return to the shop. I am greeted without surprise and told that my jumper is still here. I try it on once more, checking that the delay has not diminished the charm of that first meeting. But if anything, 24 hours apart has increased our passion and I watch, transfixed, as my green seductress wraps herself around me. I sigh with pleasure and hand over my card.

 

Carrying my new love in a bag that is thickly expensive looking, I stop to buy 5 litres of water. Even the need to lug water onto my boat - when the tanks are bloody well full - cannot dent my happiness. Carefully I put away jumper and water, each in their place. And then, just for the hell of it, I press the switch on the water pump and turn both kitchen taps full on.

 

The system gurgles like an IBS afflicted elephant on a bad day - and water gushes out. As I frown and then smile, my brain attempts to find words of explanation for this phenomenon. Although it manages only two, 'air' and 'lock', more generic ones swiftly follow. 'Hurray.'  'The pump's working again.' and 'Thank fuck for that.' 

 

Today is a good day.

 

 

Simple seat.


Moved to tears.

The woman in front of me is worried about her shoes. Or rather the muddily grassed area that is our new mooring spot, and the damage it might cause to her shoes.

 

In view of the damage to one of our boats, caused largely by poor preparation of the berth, my fellow boat owners and I find her shoes not at all concerning and I tell her this. She glances at me. Distaste flickers across her expertly made up face.

 

'My dear,' she begins, her voice exaggeratedly patient. I quickly explain that even her elevated position as head of a local council doesn't entitle her to patronise me. The mug of tea in my hand lurches and I walk away, aware that although hurling the contents would bring momentary satisfaction, it would certainly worsen the situation.

 

I glance over my shoulder and see that she has been persuaded to overcome her worries and is picking her way across the grass to inspect the damage. The circus of people in high viz waistcoats continue to argue and blame each other for the fiasco, drawing back and parting to allow her to pass. Alert to any deference, however slight, her back straightens a tad, giving her a regal air.

 

Two minutes later she is safely back in her car, muddy shoed.

 

Feeling slightly sick, I look away from the sight of my lovely home being dragged across the water. My boat pauses in the middle of the river. Its sleek lines are blurred and it is ungainly, helpless, surrounded by smaller boats peopled by men shouting and tugging on ropes. I feel oddly invaded and when it is safely moored up again, I snap at one chap taking a well earned rest on the deck. 

 

The move has been traumatic. Seismic in its power to shake and destabilise. I try to be grownup about it, to pull myself together. I still have a lovely view, I tell myself sternly. It is pretty here. Better, in some ways.

 

When everyone has gone, I climb aboard and start to tidy and replace objects on shelves. But the boat is tilting as it settles in the mud. Uphill. Suddenly all the early terrors are back. I try - and fail - to push away an image of the boat executing a lumbering backwards somersault. I can almost hear the screeching of steel as, Titanic like, it slowly implodes. Tears of fright and self pity sting and well, and I mourn my lack of Bob with renewed vigour. He would have made everything safe, somehow. But now I feel unsafe and, shaking with outrage and fear, I scramble off my boat via the wobbly gangplank, swearing at it and giving it a final kick. 

 

Several hours later, after a stormy visit to a friend, I am back and my boat family is there, reassuring, adjusting ropes, coaxing the boat back slightly, so that it sits better, making the gangway secure, pouring wine. One, having listened to my unreasonable rant about muddy boot prints on the decks, brings me a bright red mop and bucket.

 

When the tide goes down, the scary uphill tilt is rectified. Now I am tilting slightly to one side, but I and the other boat people are used to that. And it's quite fun to put down a glass on the worktop and watch it slide gracefully towards the river.

 

The next day I use my lovely new mop to swab the decks until they are pristine blue. Then I spend an hour using Bob's saw to cut a green-stained pallet in half, creating a seat for the deck. I work methodically, carefully, oiling the teeth of the saw when it sticks, remembering to extend my forefinger, guiding it. I am polite but chilly in my rejection of an offer from a passing dog walker to 'do that for you.' His reply is drowned out by the noise of the saw.

 

It is a meditative exercise and the end result is satisfying. Wide and low.

I sit on my new seat and drink a cold beer, staring at my new view. I stretch my legs out in front of me, watching my feet do a little pitter pat dance of triumph. I think of my sister and her funny river dances and I smile as I picture her leaping around our kitchen, her shrieks of laughter mingling with the music.

 

I feel calm. And safe. The sun comes out unexpectedly and I tell myself that this is a good omen.

 



Lessons and waves.

'Just to let you know that the law in this country has nothing to do with what's right or wrong, and it has nothing to do with fairness.'

 

The barrister seems pleased with himself as he damns his own profession. He has the glossy plump necked look of someone who has done well for himself and he appears comfortable and confident in his role as mediator between a handful of houseboat owners and the local council.

 

Predictably, proceedings are swift. Even before this mediation meeting, court orders have already been served, in the form of officials appearing at our boats and hurling bundles of papers at us while taking photos and shouting, 'you've been served. (This makes me feel rather as though I am in a Netflix legal drama.) If we aren't already aware that the whole sorry game is pretty much over, the mediator's opening statement has made this blindingly clear.

 

He tells us that he is pleased to have dissuaded the other side from claiming several thousand pounds from us in legal costs. Unaware that this was ever a possibility, we agree that this is a good thing, although he seems disappointed at our lack of effusiveness. He winds up the session an hour early, leaving us to seek solace in the form of beer and cheesy chips at a nearby cafe.

 

We contemplate the impending move from moorings on one side of the river, rendered free by an ancient harbour act, to fee paying ones on the other side. The view won't be as good, but it is still beautiful. There will be a water supply available (for a fee). The moorings will be secure, up to a point. We agree that there are positives.

 

But today's lesson, that the law is essentially something for those with money and power has shaken me slightly. I can't help feeling a bit like a child who has just discovered that Father Christmas is a fake. Or someone who has  realised  that the police are not always your friend.

 

In a way, it's another loss. Of something that I thought was solid and dependable. Always there to catch me. A safety net. An anchor.

 

The day of mediation is hot and sunny. I come back to my boat, do a few chores and write a bit, gazing fondly at my view that will soon be different. But the words thud heavily onto the screen, lifeless and dull. Depression claws at me, making me feel once again as if everything is pointless. Bereavement is opportunistic. It subsides when times are good and flares up again when they're not so good, in the way that malaria does, or glandular fever.

 

I am pleased, however, that I know what to do.

'You can fuck off,' I tell it,  loudly. Google voice activation on my phone is still on and the sentence leaps into life, brightly, euphemistically. 'You can f--- off!' exclaims my screen excitedly.

 

I laugh at it and collect swimsuit and towel. Ten minutes later I and my board am ploughing through the surf. It isn't long before I catch a good one and as the wave lifts me, my spirits rise too. 

 

Glow.

Music and Loss.

 

 

'Does she think she's the only woman ever to have lost her husband?'

The resident of the pretty village where Bob and I used to live spoke tetchily. All that going about with a face like a wet weekend and bursting into tears in the street had clearly made him and one or two other people uncomfortable. And let's face it, when confronted with a sobbing woman, what on earth do you say? What do you do?

 

When I hear the words, I want to crack a tasteless joke about how careless it was of me to lose him, but how easy it is to mislay something. Only the other night I left my mobile phone on a bench at the pub. But I also want to shriek, 'Yes. That's exactly what I think. I also think that nobody but nobody has ever felt this kind of awful grief. This wrenching pain, this terror of the future. This dreadful hopelessness.

 

A self centred reaction, certainly. But that's grief for you. And when the clever funny good looking chap who you'd adored for several decades and with whom you'd assumed you'd grow old happily, dies very suddenly, it really does take the wind out of your sails. And it takes more than a few weeks to pull yourself together and crack on.

 

During my second session at the choir I have joined, something odd happens. We are singing and harmonising and suddenly there is something about the sweetness of the harmony that makes my throat sting and swell so that singing is impossible. Feeling a fool, I leave the room, teary eyes down, still clutching my song sheet. I lock myself in the loo and sniff and sob for a few minutes. I curse my lack of resilience, two and half years after Bob's death. Why? Why? I don't even know the bloody song. Hearts in a jar or something.

 

When I return, it's tea break time and nobody takes much notice of me, although a couple of  people glance at me and smile. I take my seat again and pretend to check my phone (although there's no signal.) A woman near me leans across. 'It was me leaving the room a couple of weeks ago,' she says softly. I look at her questioningly. 'Music gets you like that every now and then,' she says.

Later, someone else tells me that the woman's husband died five years ago. So now it's official. I am not the only woman ever to have lost her husband.

 

When I get home, I light the wood burning stove in my bedroom so that I can fall asleep watching its glow. And I put on Bob's old cashmere sweater over my pyjamas, because for the first time in months, it's a little chilly. Then I snuggle into bed and think of him, and I try to believe that he really is never coming back.

 

And another.

I made a table

Making space and tables

A cloud of scented talcum powder makes me cough, and a large bosom belonging to the woman next to me smacks me in the face as she turns to investigate my splutterings. Staggering slightly, I accept her fulsome and charming apology and drag on my swimsuit. Note to self, avoid changing room for 15 minutes each side of the aquaerobics class.

 

I envy them their camaraderie. They shout and laugh and squawk at each other, like a clutch of happy hens, filling the changing room with well intentioned noise and clutter, cheerfully towelling and anointing their splendidly lush bodies. I feel rather as if I am in a latter day Reubens painting.

 

'How's your husband?' enquires one. The concern in her voice brings a lump to my throat. 'Not so good this week,' nods her neighbour. Then she leans closer, smiling. 'But the hospice staff say he's a perfect gentleman. Even apologises when he farts!.' The two of them laugh uproariously and the lump in my throat grows and rises at this unselfconscious stoicism.  

 

I swim doggedly, paying attention to my recently learned technique. Finish the stroke, point the toes, listen to the water. Soon it'll be time to increase my thirty two lengths by another four. I spend ages in the shower - possibly longer than I did in the pool - shaving my legs, deep conditioning my hair, generally taking advantage of the plentiful hot water.

 

Back on the boat, I sit at my desk and surrender to thoughts planted by the word hospice. A year ago, a few weeks before my sister died, a year ago, the move from hospital to hospice signalled the official end of hope.

She was funny and sharp, my sister. And although she was 51 when she died, I always thought of her as about 17. She made me think of a pixie. Pretty, waif slim, agile, restless. And very good at Riverdance – especially when she'd had a couple of drinks.

 

The last time I saw her, I worried that she would spill the mug of black coffee she was holding and burn herself. She was irritated by my neurotic flapping and told me so. I hugged her goodbye and said I'd see her in a week or so. I needed to go home and check that my boat was still floating, I said.

 

A few days later there was a flurry of messages and while I was making arrangements to come back, she died. When I got the phone call, my immediate thought was of when, as I was preparing to read my piece at Bob's funeral, I scanned the people around me, searching for her face. I saw her and said her name and she picked her way towards me, gliding through the crowd like a dancer, to stand beside me.

 

Another person to inhabit the crowded space inside my head. But these days I notice that there's more room. It's as if to start with, grief insists on taking up  all the space, bloated and unyielding. And then, as time does the thing that people love to tell you it'll do, grief goes on a diet. It slims and shrinks. It still cuts and bites, often when you least expect it. But it becomes more accommodating. Grief moves over.

 

With this in mind, I channel my inner Bob and, (with a little help) I make a table for my beautiful boat. And then, using the golden propellers left in a corner of my boat's engine room, I make another.

 

Food and love.

My lovely daughter worries occasionally, that I am not eating properly.

 

Today has been fraught with thoughts of pointlessness. What is the point of me? Accordingly, I have not eaten properly and as early evening sunshine floods my living space, I resolve to correct this.

 

I chop an onion and some tired looking carrots and sizzle them in a little olive oil. I rummage in the storage unit rescued from Bob's workshop, which doubles as a seat, and find a tin of tomatoes and some red lentils. I dump both in the pan and add a lot of smoked paprika. Stirring the mixture, I decide it looks a bit too red and I slosh in some Tamari soy sauce. Now my meal is a kind of rich terracotta. A good boat colour.

 

Half an hour later, I sit down to a bowl of smoky dal-ish soup, topped with nutritious yeast flakes and plenty of pepper. It is surprisingly delicious and I feel almost smug. I am reminded of a radio interview I heard recently with activist and food writer Jack Monroe, when she talked about easy, few ingredient recipes and self love. Here is a force for change, I think. I make a note to buy her new cook book. Cooking with bootstraps or something.

 

I take a photo of my food and send it to my lovely girl, with the caption, 'Nutritious and yum.'

 

Ten minutes later my phone burps and I am rewarded with a smiley face and a 'Looks delicious, Ma. Well done!' The few words are soaked in warmth and love and I remember with a jolt that there is a point to me.

I finish my soup and eat a banana.

 

Sunset sky

Angry, or sad?

The man astride the bicycle in front of me is pale with anger. His face is 3 inches from mine and I can see the beads of sweat on his top lip. Rage is making him quiver and twitch. Quietly horrified, I try to remember my punch bag sessions of long ago. Step back and to the side and bring the whole body weight round as you punch. But I'm not wearing gloves. It'll hurt.

  

Snarling, he yanks his bike away from me and rides off, up the riverside trail, preparing to turn again and circle me once more, for another verbal assault. This has been going on for ten minutes or so. Ever since I called his teenage son a cheeky little fuck. Mistake. Wrong. I know. But when the boy responded to my request that he use his bicycle bell - and not run me over, he was rude. Very rude. And the red mist that is never far away, plummeted on and around me at speed. My bad luck that his dad turns out to be a few yards ahead and really really doesn't like people swearing at his son. Even though, as I tried to point out, I wasn't actually swearing at him.

 

The angry dad demands to know who the fuck I think I am strutting around as if I own the place. I tell him that's just the way I walk - I'm dance trained. And then my one swear word is rendered almost benign in contrast with the stuff he comes out with. He is well spoken, which makes his words more cutting. More intimidating.

 

Eventually, just when my traitorous bottom lip is starting to wobble uncontrollably, he shouts 'You paedo!'. This last insult is so ludicrous that I laugh, and my bottom lip miraculously stabilises. Enough, I decide. Turning away from my aggressor's furiously twisted features, I see that the owner of another houseboat, moored just off the little beach to the side of the trail, is working on the deck, with a mate. I shout, asking them to come over and help. By the time they have jumped down onto the beach and crossed to the trail, the lycra clad thug has cycled off.

 

Over a restorative mug of tea, we discuss the extreme reaction which seems  more than natural parental protectiveness. 'You shouldn't have called his kid a little fuck,'  says one of my rescuers, gently reproving. I agree. 'If he comes back, I won't hit him,' he tells me gravely. I am glad to hear this. 'We'll just talk it over,'  he says reassuringly. I nod doubtfully.

 

After fifteen minutes or so, I thank my boat dwelling knights, and I and my borrowed dog set off home, fairly confident that the coast is now clear. The teenager probably tired of watching his dad terrorise me and persuaded him to come home for tea. I walk faster than usual, casting nervous glances over my shoulder. My boat has never felt like such a refuge and I hear myself sighing with expelled tension as I slide the heavy door shut. I resist the urge to bolt it and content myself with pulling down the shades landside.

Who said 'I sat with my anger long enough until I learned that its name was grief.'? They may well have had a point. I pour myself an early evening glass of white wine and think about what happened. How angry the dad was. And how angry I once was - and still am, a lot of the time. With people who don't seem to know the right thing to say, who behave in a way that I find difficult. Who are still alive. Why are they still here?

 

I sip my wine and watch the incoming tide creep towards my boat, and I wonder if the angry dad's wife has recently died. And then I notice that the sun has come out in time to promise a rather lovely sunset. So I take my wine outside to the top deck.

 

 I settle myself on a bean bag, with a fluffy rug around me and as I watch the sun bleed red across the sky, I think that although Stephen King says you should wait 7 weeks before returning to your first draft, 4 weeks might be enough. Emboldened by alcohol, I decide - albeit guiltily - that I will flout the advice of an undisputed genius and get back to it without further ado. And I smile and drink more wine.

 

Bright and colourful.

Brightening and lightening.

 Even when the wild nightly sobbing finally abates, grief is always there, crouching in the corner like a virulent toad. Ready to lumber over and clamber aboard, tugging at limbs, clogging the throat. Heavy, ponderous, yet unpredictable.

At other times, my mood is buoyant, carrying me through the day and evening, poking fun at my melodramatic declarations of those early days.

'I will never laugh again. Never dance again,' I declaimed tearfully, like a latter day Ophelia, forcing the unfortunate recipient of my woes to gently argue that I might one day feel differently.

And then there's the boat. Its cool blue and white exterior gives way, with a hefty push of the heavy sliding door, (not too hefty, or the bloody thing leaps off its runners. And while I did once manage to lift it back on my own, it cost me more in osteopath fees than a new door would have set me back..) to a room made daylight bright by windows all around.

I've tried to create a space that its impossible to be unhappy in. Of course it doesn't work all the time, but it's often surprisingly effective in the spirit lifting department. Smooth boards, glowing satisfactorily with the patina of age covered by bright rugs. A low sofa dotted with multi coloured cushions, red blue and yellow crockery stacked neatly, strings of fairy lights, a small woodburner, jugs of sunflowers - all help boost the psyche. There's only space for one bookshelf, but it's crammed with my favourite books. An omnibus of fairy tales from my childhood, the works of Dickens, (not quite complete), a book on mushrooms, a Screwfix catalogue and woodworking manuals cosy up to several much loved paperbacks by Maeve Binchy, Joanna Trollope and Jojo Moyes. Bill Bryson's The Lost Continent and My family and other animals are there for on tap laughter, and Stephen King's On Writing keeps me from wandering too far from my writing path. As does the view from my desk, across the river. My lovely desk which cleverly turns and opens like a transformer toy, into a long narrow table that seats eight.

 I love the smallness of my surroundings. It's the thing I like best about my funny new life. Small somehow makes things seem manageable, even when at the same time they are overwhelming.

 

Wheelhouse kitchen

Trouble at sea

Living on a houseboat is NOT fun. Or at least it's only fun sometimes, when everything is working. If it's also warm and sunny, that's a bonus, but these days, having power, water coming out of the taps and a loo that flushes, all at once, is enough to make me feel life is definitely worth living.

My brain is scrambled and fried from trying to understand the workings of batteries, battery charger, inverter, solar panels, generator, and how they all link up, coaxing one another to provide a living environment that works. Red and green lights wink across the gloom of the engine room and cables snake in and out of the machines and boxes, sending messages that all too often become confused, missing the recipient and causing shutdown. Clutching a torch, I clamber through the tiny door, bent double to avoid bashing my head on the lumpy metal ceiling. I shine my light around, slowly, carefully, examining plugs and sockets and connections, trying to see if there is an obvious problem causing the current loss of power. A loose cable, perhaps, or a tripped switch. Something that I could fix myself, without having to once again run bleating to one of the helpful boaty blokes in the vicinity. I mutter to myself - again - that I need to learn more about all this stuff, so that I can be more self sufficient. I'm a reasonably intelligent woman, I tell myself. I should be able to cope with a bit of extra knowledge. I curse the years I spent wilfully ignoring any practical skills. I can hear myself trilling, 'I can't even change a plug!' As if it was something to be proud of. 'I have other qualities, I'd say. Or 'We have a good division of labour.' But that was when I thought that the person who always did all the practical stuff was going to be there for ever. Which makes me wonder...am I really that intelligent - when I apparently didn't have the brain capacity to acknowledge that one day I might be on my own? I wonder too, if my brain has become addled. Cooked and twisted by the myriad of emotions that make up grief. Anger, frustration, bewilderment, denial and more, leap in and out of my consciousness on a daily basis - even now, more than two years on, when, according to some, time should have done its job and healed my poorly psyche. Would a brain scan show that where once I was capable of logical thought, my brain is now incapable of working out simple equations? Was it, from the second I began blowing breath into his lifeless mouth, destined to become mushily impractical?

Once, when the boat loo wouldn't flush and there was no water coming out of the taps, I managed to locate a melted fuse, change it and hey presto, everything worked again. And for a brief period, I felt invincible. I was queen of the river. I phoned a friend and I proclaimed my cleverness on the family whatsapp group. I could fix stuff. There was hope.

 

 

top deck

Buying the boat.

It's a project.

It's a distraction.

It's exciting.

It's a fresh start.

It's so funny.

When I bought my houseboat, people voiced all kinds of opinions. At the time, exhausted and reeling from the sudden death of my husband, I could barely be bothered to say that it was none of those things. It was just a cheap house. Selling our house and business and paying off debt left me just enough for a small house or flat. But a houseboat was half the price, and I wanted some financial breathing space.

Two years on, new acquaintances ask me if I've always wanted to live on a boat. And now that grief's claws have become less sharp, and I have a bit more energy, I tell them no - and that it's just a cheap house. Sometimes I see disappointment clouding their hope that I will spout starry eyed childhood longings of a life on the ocean wave. But the idea of being surrounded by water horrifies me. Occasionally I give the huge red engines squatting below decks a brief pat as I edge past them on my way to check the water tanks or battery. Even though you're currently useless, you're still pretty, I tell them. And maybe one day, someone else will hook you up and switch you on.

The thought of my house lurching through the waves is pretty terrifying, but also funny. I imagine sitting on my top deck, on a beanbag, glass of wine in hand, while the crew rush around down below, tightening and loosening ropes and shouting a lot. Or maybe I'd be at the wheel ,skipper's cap tilted fetchingly over one eye, waving to landlubbers left on shore and half heartedly consulting maps and charts in an effort not to steer into the path of other sea craft.

I worry that my small space isn't big enough for two. Even though there's only one of me. I love my futon sofa and its bright cushions, but at the same time I disapprove of it because I know that he would have hated its low seat. He would have grumbled that it made his back ache, irritably chucking the cushions aside. Where could we put the tv, I wonder, as I balance my phone on my knee and prepare for another Netflix session. He loved a bit of telly - and he thought the screen on the laptop was small.

The river is tidal, so at least half the time my beautiful boat sits, flat bottomed on the mud. When the tide comes in, it creeps across the banks, gurgling into gulleys and filling dips and holes, swirling around the feet of the seabirds who stalk, grumpy faced across the mud. I often watch it, mesmerised by its advance and welcoming a way to lose a couple of hours. Sometimes I drink wine while I watch and sometimes, if the tide is a high one, the boat lifts and sways, which I enjoy, but which also scares me. What if the mooring ropes break? I check them. What if the boat leaks and sinks? It is sound. Steel and pre-purchase vetted.

I can hear his voice teasing me and telling me everything's fine. I can feel his knobbly fingers tickling mercilessly. I wish he was still here, reassuring me, making me laugh, hugging me, telling me everything is fine.We had so many plans. We would have had such fun on my boat.