1. The opening few pages …
When I ran out of the house I don’t think I had any real idea where I was going. Although I must have had an inkling that I was doing more than just popping out, or I wouldn’t have packed a bag.
By the time you get to my age you pick up your keys, purse, specs case, etc., quite instinctively whenever you set foot out of the front door. But I’d also managed to grab a couple of fistfuls of clothes and stuffed them into a hold-all, so I must’ve known that I didn’t intend to be back for at least a day or two.
Great chunks of the journey are decidedly patchy. But I do remember winding down the window at one point and screaming. I was having trouble breathing. No – that’s not quite right. I felt as if I was losing my mind. So I wound down the window and put my head out, in the hope that the wind in my face would help snap me out of whatever terrible and terrifying place I’d got myself caught up in. Then I remember screaming, long and hard, out into the night.
I’m just relieved I didn’t cause an accident. Honest to God, I could have easily killed myself and anyone else who happened to cross my path. That stupid Jag is too bloody big and too bloody powerful. I’ve never liked it. But I’d left my lovely little Audi round at Ginny’s, so the Jag was all there was.
That’s the word I imagine the police would have used if they’d encountered me. ‘The crazy woman in the stupid car was driving erratically when we pulled her over,’ is what they would’ve written in their report.
I remember finding myself on the M11 – a motorway for which I hold a fair bit of affection, if that’s not a totally ludicrous thing to say, since I also have tremendous affection for other things, such as old brooches and small furry animals and even one or two people. But one way or another I found myself heading north on the M11. Then it was just a matter of whether I stopped off at Cambridge, or turned right and headed over towards Walberswick and Southwold or carried on up to the north Norfolk coast. And it was clear straightaway which option I’d take.
Prior to that I’d just wanted to get the hell out of London. I’d somehow managed to find my way onto the M25, then headed east. I remember that series of soulless underpasses near Waltham Abbey. Then off onto the M11. Then up here.
I filled the tank somewhere just short of Cambridge and asked for directions. And perhaps because he was dealing with a woman – and, come to that, a woman with a puffy, tear-stained face – the young lad in the garage simply suggested I follow signs for Norwich, then pick up signs for any of the towns along the north coast. Then I left him to his magazine and the two of us carried on with our lives.
So by then I must have been a little more coherent. Although I’d be hard pressed now to say with any confidence whether it was eight o’clock or midnight – only that it was probably somewhere in between.
If the rest of the journey is vague it’s a different sort of vagueness, born out of exhaustion. Emotional exhaustion, perhaps, but quite different from the lunacy of that first hour or so. I remember reaching the coast road and turning west along it and, a little later, pulling off into the village and squeezing down the narrow lanes. And suddenly being aware of little houses all around me, with their lights out and, presumably, people sleeping in them. I remember pulling up by the quay, yanking on the handbrake and turning off the engine. And how incredibly quiet and dark it was. I didn’t even get out to stretch my legs or fill my lungs. I just sat there and listened for a good five or ten minutes. Then I climbed into the back seat and pulled my coat over me and apart from turning over once or twice in the night the next thing I remember is waking up about six o’clock this morning, with the sky just beginning to lighten and me dying for a pee.
I’ve never been particularly big on breakfast. A cup of tea and a ciggie and I’m fairly happy, so this morning was a regular breakfast, just without the cup of tea. I’d snuck out onto the saltmarshes to relieve myself. Then sat in the car for a little while. I strolled up and down the quay a couple of times. And eventually headed up into the village.
I suppose by then I’d decided to see about some accommodation. My original plan was to book myself into the hotel, for nostalgia’s sake – just for a night or two. But as I was wandering up and down I saw the little letting agents. And I thought, why the hell not? So I went back to the car and checked myself in the mirror, to see precisely how deranged I currently looked. Then, on the stroke of nine o’clock, as soon as the girl flipped over the ‘Open/Closed’ sign, I sauntered in.
She showed me round three quite different places – one huge, very swish and terribly minimal . . . one ramshackle affair on the edge of the marshes . . . and this rinky little place in the middle of the village, which was by far the cheapest but the price was really neither here nor there. The reason I plumped for it is the fact that it’s tucked away. Which is rather strange, given that I only legged it out of London last night because I felt so dreadfully hemmed in. But clearly being tucked away up here in Norfolk is quite different from being hemmed in down there.
Back at the office – or shop, or whatever you’d call it – whilst the girl was tapping away at her keyboard I slowly leaned forward to have a peek at her screen. As far as I could tell, the cottage wasn’t booked for a clear month or so. The girl did her best to stop me looking, as if she had personal access to the mainframe of the bloody Pentagon, but I’m long past giving a donkey’s dick about what some girl her age thinks of the behaviour of a woman of mine.
I’ve taken it for a week. God only knows what I’ll be up to seven days from now. I’m currently finding it difficult getting from one minute to the next. It was only when I’d shut the door behind me and dropped my bag on the floor that I finally felt as if I’d landed. Then promptly burst into tears. Which is possibly some kind of record of restraint, on my part. I’ve usually had at least a couple of crying jags by mid-morning.
The only thing on my to-do list right now is to get my head down and grab a little shut-eye. I don’t want to hang about. Don’t like waking from a nap to find it any darker than when I closed my eyes. I find that troubling in the extreme.
2. Roadside / floral tributes
I can’t help but notice the continuing proliferation of roadside floral tributes. Either they’re actually on the increase or I just tend to notice them more these last few months. I passed one earlier this week, just down the road from here. Some sorry-looking, garage-bought bouquet, still in its cellophane wrapper, slowly turning to dust.
Do the people who lay these flowers imagine they’re performing some public service? That their sad little posies are going to prick people’s conscience and improve road safety? Or are they just hoping to provoke in all the passing motorists a few brief moments of empathetic sadness? Either way, they’re deluded. Perhaps, suspecting that no one else actually gives much of a monkey’s about their ‘loss’, they have gone out of their way to draw attention to it. As if, by spelling out their loved one’s name in petals, they could make the world sit up and take notice, and that this might somehow siphon off some of the pain.
The first floral tribute I remember seeing was out near Barnes, a good thirty years ago now. A few flowers tied to a tree out on the common. I hadn’t a clue what they were doing there until some friend explained that the previous year some pop star had been killed in a car crash at that particular spot. It was just some teeny-boppers laying flowers at the site of the death of their idol. I’m sure they were very upset, and that they thought they loved him. But I mean really.
I imagine it’s the same misguided instinct that was at work after the death of Princess Diana. When half of central London seemed to be carpeted with flowers. I can’t be alone in thinking that that public outpouring of emotion was quite obscene in its magnitude. At the time, I’m sure, there was much talk of some shared sense of sadness, but I thought then and still think that whilst there might have been the veneer of unanimity, beneath it simmered something almost sinisterly self-involved.
But at what point did the whole flower-laying concept shift from being something one did for famous people and become something one did for one’s own brother or daughter or son? I must have missed it. Although, if people are laying wreaths for complete bloody strangers it’s only reasonable that proper mourners be allowed to create a shrine for their own flesh and blood.
But now everyone’s bloody well at it. A teenage boy is shot dead in some faceless city and before the police have finished cordoning off the area there’s a gaggle of girls hugging one another and clutching single roses and grieving for the cameras. The body’s barely cold and they’re already mumbling their cretinous testimonials, about Darren’s love of life and Darren’s generous spirit. I think to myself, I bet you were never this kind to Darren when he was breathing. I bet you made Darren’s life a living hell.
Call me old-fashioned, but, personally, I think floral tributes should be confined to the graveyard. Or the homes of the mourners. I think the front-room curtains should be drawn, according to custom, to signify loss, but also a desire for privacy. This is my grief. And my pain is not your pain. Go and get some pain of your own.
Everyone seems to want in on the emotional action. All I can say is, Give it time. Before you know it you’ll have more grief than you know what to do with. And not the self-conscious, superficial variety for some TV princess you never got within half a mile of. Or the boy from the year below. But the sort that takes a hold of you and inhabits you, like a sickness. That possesses a body so comprehensively that you’ll feel yourself obliterated. And so profoundly, utterly peculiar, that you’ll want to keep it to yourself.
3. Lonely Hearts
I bought a couple of the Sunday newspapers this morning, primarily for the crosswords, but also to provide me with sufficient distraction on what has so far been a day of perpetual rain. Unfortunately, having had a first stab at the crosswords and a cursory flick through the magazines I made the mistake of pausing briefly at the Lonely Hearts section which did nothing to improve my mood.
I can honestly say I’ve never previously read, or even considered reading that particular section. And I can’t come up with any reasonable explanation as to why I looked at it this morning. Curiosity, I suppose. And curiosity directed more towards the female entries, rather than anything to do with what was on offer, man-wise – perhaps just to see how the contemporary woman presents herself.
Well, I have to say that the news is pretty depressing. Despite the fact that most of the women are, by their own admission, in their forties, fifties and sixties the tone is relentlessly and exhaustingly upbeat. The word ‘fun’ jumps out from almost every entry, along with every possible variation, such as ‘sparkly’ . . . ‘vivacious’ . . . ‘feisty’ . . . etc.
To be fair, with only four lines in which to present your case one can’t help but be a little reductive. And I’m not sure quite what adjectives I’d use to describe myself right now. (‘Unhinged’ . . . ‘desolate’ . . . ‘heavy drinker’?) But who in their right mind would kick off their list with ‘Sexy’? Or even, excuse me, ‘Foxy’? I was under the impression that foxiness had been laid to rest some time in the 1970s.
The entire page, it seems to me, smacks of desperation. Or worse, subjugation. The acronyms don’t help. It eventually occurred to me that ‘WLTM’ in all likelihood stood for ‘Would Like To Meet’. But ‘TDH’ . . . ‘SOH’ . . . ‘LTR’? And ‘GSOH’?? They remind me of those idiotic things we used to write on the envelopes of love letters, such as S.W.A.L.K. But in our defence we were probably about eleven years old at the time.
Euphemisms abound. ‘Petite lady’ is, I imagine, meant to imply ‘on the short side’, but hints at being a little bit French. ‘Rubenesque’ presumably means curvaceous, and possibly even ‘the larger lady’, but suggests that given the right circumstances she might be talked into lying naked on your settee. Sadly, in such exotic company, the few women who try to maintain a little dignity come across as simply frumpy. What, I wonder, is the shorthand for ‘I have a PhD’? Possibly plain ‘PhD’. But I doubt that’s going to fill your mailbag. Not when you’re competing with women of the foxy and Rubenesque variety.
Romance, it seems, is not dead. It’s merely dated. All country walks and fireside chats. Now, as I’ve already noted, I currently do a fair bit of walking. But I can’t say the saltmarshes are exactly chock-a-block. Most days there are fewer than a handful of other figures between me and the horizon, which is just how I like it. Most people, I would guess, are probably at home, watching the telly. Or shopping. Or down the pub. I’m not making any judgement. People can do what they like. My only point is that when presenting themselves in a Lonely Hearts column people will always revert to what they think is expected of them. Clearly, people who read that page are looking for Romance. And what do Romantic People do? Go for Long Country Walks and have Candlelit Dinners. Followed, of course, by a Fireside Chat. Come to think of it, that pretty much sums up my day right now. Minus the Chat and the Candlelight.
Friends and acquaintances have recently begun to enquire, sotto voce, whether I might ever consider leaving myself open to meeting ‘someone new’. The word ‘companionship’ is offered up, like some wafer of hope. But if all I’d wanted was a companion I’d stick to Plan A and get myself a dog.
I’ve witnessed Ginny and other single women discussing prospective partners and it’s pretty discouraging. Within seconds the conversation turns into a pretty crude assessment as to what proportion of the man’s hair and teeth remain. The implication being that, unless you make a supreme effort, or Lady Luck happens to be smiling down on you, you’re likely to end up with something resembling a cadaver.
The funny thing is, if it’d been the other way around and I’d gone first I’m sure John would’ve got remarried in next to no time. If anyone would’ve had him. And, strangely, I think someone would. John was one of those men who never quite understood women – he just knew that he needed one about the place. It wasn’t even that he was incapable of doing the cooking and cleaning. No doubt in my absence he would’ve had a bit of a shock and probably appreciated me a little more. But within a couple of months he would have got to grips with most things. And the things he couldn’t be bothered doing he would’ve paid someone else to do. Female company for him was simply an anchor. A point to fix his compass by.
Actually, I’ve just this minute worked out what LTR stands for. Presumably, Long-Term Relationship. Although I have to say that it’s a little beyond me how anyone can make a public announcement that they are seeking an LTR with someone they’ve yet to meet.