Women in Love
Let me tell you about my friend, CC, and her husband Rob, a charming, witty, cultured cricket-loving man who adored his spirited wife. Other than the fact Rob was a wonderful cook and JS only ever cooked scrambled eggs and lamb chops, and even that was a performance for which he always wanted at least one Michelin star and a round of applause, JS and Rob had much in common. Over the last twenty years, the four of us had some wonderful dinners at lovely restaurants, but the best times involved me sitting in the kitchen of their home in Camden, gossiping to Rob as he rustled up amazing food whilst CC and JS sat upstairs talking about more cerebral subjects.
On Saturday 13th November, 2010, JS and I sat in a pew at St Marylebone Crematorium attending Rob’s funeral. It was a beautiful Humanitarian service, carefully planned by Rob, because for the last year of a torrid four-year battle with bowel and liver cancer, he and CC knew his illness was terminal. It was a second marriage for CC, a third for Rob. At the funeral, one of Rob’s sons said that his father loved women, as demonstrated by his three marriages, but that he had saved the best until last. We all laughed and JS squeezed my hand and shot me a smile; I was JS’s third wife.
A few weeks before Rob died, he requested that the four of us went for lunch to his favourite restaurant in Islington; we all knew this was to be the final goodbye. The thought of that meal still makes me sad. It took forever to get a pitifully frail Rob into JS’s car; the short trip from the kerb into the restaurant was painful on every level; Rob was confused and walked into a glass wall; the restaurant had changed hands; the Patron who had been unfailingly kind during Rob’s illness had gone; the loos were stinky and blocked; Rob couldn’t eat and became anxious; the food was terrible and I had to run out into the street and physically pull my husband away from a traffic warden who was ticketing our car, because JS had used Rob’s disabled badge incorrectly. We got back to their house to find the front door wide open: in all the confusion of getting Rob into the car, CC had forgotten to close the door.
It was a bleak day.
On the 21st February, I went into the West End to get some bits and pieces for my holiday. CC rang and asked if we could meet. She helped me choose some holiday things, and I helped her buy some new bedding, and then she asked if I would come back to her house in a taxi. I didn’t really have the time, but I went back with her, and whilst there, it was obvious that she wanted company. Some time later, I got on the bus and rang JS to let him know why I was running late. He asked after CC. I didn’t want to broadcast my thoughts to the top deck of the 390, so I said I’d tell him when I got home.
JS was in the kitchen when I got back. The moment he saw me, he swung into a well practised routine of, “Red or white?”
“So, how is she?” he asked, closing the fridge door and handing me a glass of something white and chilled.
I remember taking a gulp of my wine and saying, “Lonely. She didn’t want me to go.”
I also distinctly remember feeling incredibly fortunate that whilst I had left CC alone in her lovely but lonely house, I was at home with my husband in my welcoming kitchen, fairy lights twinkling on a giant ficus tree, chatting about the day over a glass of wine, cooking dinner whilst JS did the crossword, throwing out odd clues for me to solve. I always knew how lucky I was. I can honestly say that I never ever took him or our life for granted, not even for a nano-second.
Six days later, JS drowned.
Just after I got back from Barbados, I went to CC’s house. She had invited MB, a friend of hers who’d I’d met a few times before: a lovely woman whose husband was murdered in 1991 after he bumped into a man in a swimming pool in north London. The man followed him in to the changing room and stabbed him. The two widows let me cry and rock in pain, and kept the champagne topped up (some standards must be maintained, even in grief).
On the 25th March, I sat in the same pew at the crematorium that CC had sat in three months earlier. My life not only felt over, I was convinced it was. Scrub that. I wanted it to be over.
I saw CC occasionally after that, but I will admit that her raw grief dragged me even further down. A stylish woman older than me, fiercely intelligent and witty, CC now looked and acted every inch her age. Her husband’s illness and death had diminished her looks and her spirit.
After our husbands died, both CC and I felt we faced bleak futures. I felt doubly doomed; if someone as practical and spirited as CC couldn’t crack widowhood, what hope was there for me? Then, in mid-July when we last met, I saw a change in her. I wrote about this shift in mood in my post, Searching for Clues.
I was early and she was late, so I had plenty of time to sip chilled sherry, eat olives and stare out of the window, grimly reflecting on the last time I was in this street.
The funeral director had asked whether I wanted to put anything in JS’s coffin, and although initially I said I didn’t, as the funeral got closer, I felt I needed to write a letter to him. I kept putting it off as every time I sat at the computer, the pain of writing what I wanted to say was too great. Writing is as natural as breathing to me, and yet I was totally blocked.
The funeral was on Thursday morning, and I needed to get something for the coffin by Tuesday evening. On Tuesday afternoon, I wrote a short note at speed in longhand on one side of a card, and copied a poem on to the other. Paul, the wonderful Chaplain of Highgate School, let me into their private Chapel and left me alone with my tears as I stood under the stained glass windows and read aloud my letter to JS. Afterwards, waiting for Paul to collect me, I looked around the walls of the Chapel studded with stone memorials to ex-pupils who had been killed in action during the World Wars, eighteen, nineteen year-olds, practically children. I cried for so many people, many of them long dead. To be honest, I still cry buckets for complete strangers and their grief. Later that evening, I wrote instructions to the funeral director as to precisely where I wanted my letter placing in the coffin, got a cab to Levertons, and in the dark, put the envelope through the door, and came home.
Sitting in the tapas bar waiting for CC, nursing my drink and thinking back over the last eight months, I mused that I often feel that everything that has happened has happened to someone else, that it couldn’t possibly have happened to someone like me, even though I now know The Grim Reaper is an indiscriminate b*st*rd and there is nothing special about me which means I can protect those I love from The GR and his scythe. Sometimes, I feel as if I am dealing with what has happened, with what I saw, as if I am in a movie or a book, that I am playing the character of the woman who wore The Bikini of Death. I am terrified that one day my coping mechanism will fail and I will tumble head first back into Hell, whereupon dark shadows will circle around me to the sound of cackling as the voice of The Grief Monster mocks: You thought black humour and writing would see you through? You stupid girl! Welcome back to the pit of despair! You won’t be getting out this time…
CC arrived in a flap apologising for London Transport making her late. She looked AMAZING: there was light in her eyes and a smile on her glossed lips. We chatted for a bit, and then she said she had something to tell me. She wasn’t sure whether she should, her friend MB said she shouldn’t because I would be upset, that I wouldn’t understand. CC felt that we’d been friends for so long she had to tell me what has happened which is this: She has fallen hopelessly and deliriously in love with a man who lost his wife to cancer two years ago. It was unexpected. He had emailed her after a friend of a friend (who had also lost his wife) had suggested it. She knew from his first email there was a connection. They met (as she tells it) at 8pm on the eighth day of the eighth month, and from that moment both of them were smitten kittens. They go to the theatre, to restaurants, to art galleries and yes, CC giggled, they go to bed.
I burst into tears.
CC was concerned, but as I fished tissues out of my bag, I assured her that I was crying with joy that she was happy again. I want everyone I know to be happy; other people being unhappy makes me unhappy. I wanted to ring JS and tell him that CC was happy again. Not being able to ring him made me unhappy.
It was a glorious girly emotional gossipy lunch. There were tears of all varieties from both of us. Just because CC has found love again doesn’t mean she is immune from breaking down when she talks about Rob; she did it with me, she does it with New Man, but he has been there too, and knows that it doesn’t diminish how she feels about him. CC is an independent woman who doesn’t need a man to look after her financially or emotionally, but she likes one to look out for her, and I can understand that. Her new man sounds wonderful. His four children like her too and have welcomed her warmly. Rob’s children, her grown-up stepchildren, are divided. Their father’s death is one year on November 2nd, but they have lives and families of their own. On the 2nd November, CC will be symbolically removing her diamond wedding band.
We walked up Camden High Street together, laughing.
CC practically skipped home. She was cooking for her new man who was coming round. He would be staying the night. They’re going to Malta for a week on the 7th November. They’re going to drink wine in the sun. She can’t wait. She’s been buying lots of new clothes for her holiday. There’s a trip to New Zealand and Australia planned for early in 2012.
After we parted, I went into M&S Simply Food and bought a microwaveable meal for one.
On the 21st February I was in my kitchen, the heart of my home, with my husband, cooking, drinking wine, new clothes for my holiday still in their bags in the hall, thinking how glad I was that I wasn’t CC, alone in her beautiful souless house, but instead, looking forward to going to Barbados, to sitting in the sun, eating good food and drinking wine with JS. Tonight, I was in my kitchen hanging around the microwave for three minutes waiting for it to ping. The fairy lights haven’t been on since JS died, nor have I sat on the sofa or at the kitchen table in the extension which at night is in darkness. I spend as little time down there as possible: it’s a room to feed the dog, top up the wine glass and get food to take to the TV or my desk. The longest I spend there is the time it takes to unload the dishwasher. I’d like to go away, sit in the sun, drink wine, but given that The Grim Reaper came with me last time, I can’t imagine going on holiday ever again, and anyway, it would mean I’d have to unpack my suitcase which remains alongside JS’s case, under his desk.
I am genuinely pleased for CC, really I am. I know how much she loved Rob and what a toll his illness and his death took on her. On my dog’s life I wish her and her new man every happiness, and I never lie when it comes to Boris. I just bloody well I wish I could stop crying tonight.