One of the things I’ve made mine, in the 22 years I’ve inhabited this planet, has been my love of all things cold. I won’t drink water unless it’s absolutely freezing, I keep every fruit in the house in the fridge – including bananas and avocados – and I love nothing more than a sudden spray of cold water when I am in the shower (I have the feeling this is connected to an article I read years ago about it being good for your circulation: it isn’t).
My taste for coldness extends to the environments surrounding me. I don’t like hot weather at all. I stay away from the mood that blankets everyone in college when, with the first few rays of sun showing, they gleefully run to the lodge, take punts out, picnic in parks, lie on the lawn, bask in the sunshine. I’ve been known to draw my curtains whilst people had bbqs outside (which, of course, just makes it worse, given how dark our college curtains are). Yet in these past few weeks in Oxford, with spring starting to show, I’ve never been more grateful to take in some sunshine. It has been an unusually mild beginning to March – the first year I was here, the weather hit its peak at some point around the end of February in terms of warmth – yet I cannot seem to embrace it as I used to, wishing heat away. I long for warmth, this time, slamming curtains aside every morning to let light in, willing the rain to stop from inside the library, ambitiously staring at sandals in shop windows in town for my next pair of summer shoes.
I know, to some extent, why this sudden shift has occurred. This winter has been the coldest I have lived through in a while, one I shivered and endured – something accentuated by bitterness, by emotion, by the inevitability of the events 2016 closed off with. Home and Christmas are a blur, with this cold whirlwind being the only thing that stands out in my mind. My feet were too numb to move when I went to London for the weekend in November, and stepping off the plane in Pisa, I remember hail starting just I lifted my suitcase off the staircase. I don’t think I’ve ever seen hail around that time of year.
I don’t think I’m very good at writing about things that aren’t either dully informative or funny, most of the time. Maybe this is why, so often, my essays leave far too much room for improvement: I get carried away, angry at characters in my theatre pieces, rambling about dictionary definitions instead of answering the essay question – I frequently need to remind myself I should remain concise and confidently argumentative.
It takes a clear mindset and a pinch of defiance to succeed in writing a piece of work that can be read without so much as a pause – a slick string of sentences, all interwoven by sentences that never start with a “Maybe” or a “Perhaps”, convincing your listener, converting them to your opinion. I can’t keep a clear mindset at the best of times, zooming from one idea to another, getting distracted every five minutes. When I write, this very mindset becomes all the more distressing: it sometimes feels as though I have a conference going on in my head, people shouting over each other, my thoughts all running in circles leaving me attempting to grasp in vain at just one of them to put down in words. Too many ideas and no idea how to put them down.
Writing about pain leaves me with the opposite problem: one huge feeling and knowing exactly how I want to express it. I do so reluctantly: what halts me is fear. Writing about pain is one of the most difficult tasks I can think of, an entire sub-entity of its own within the big scramble and confusion that is writing generally: there will always be more things to add to it, and each word will seem too banal to fully express the way you feel. At the same time, nothing’s more liberating than writing about it – even if no one reads it, even if you want to then rip the page out and shred it to pieces, throwing said pieces out of your bedroom window, even if you read them yourself out loud for hours on end, willing them to jump out the page and prove to be of some comfort, only to be left sounding out words that have pretty much lost their meaning, sat alone on your bed. Writing, I have come to accept, is cathartic no matter who your audience is.
In this post, I don’t want to go into details that will halt this being a cathartic act. I will not name the causes behind her loss, nor will I delve into detail about what happened. I will not turn her into December 2016, when she has been an entire lifetime of love and adventure and laughter. I will, however, talk about what happened following December 2016, and what it meant to lose that personified lifetime.
This is a post that is all about love.
When, in December, I lost one of the people I have loved the most in my time on Earth so far, my initial reaction was a handbook stage of grief. Denial. In the days we spent with her before she left us, I would take “walks alone” (trawling the square adherent to her apartment thirty, forty times, each time more frantically) and do my best to stay “normal” as ever, refusing help, sandwiches, hugs. I was, at the same time, mystified by the way people would manage to talk with a certain resolution about her passing away. Now, I know it’s because I was immersed in denial, but at the time, it tasted like surprise, with a peppering of resentment – why lose hope? Why are you doing this? Why aren’t you holding onto the conviction that she’ll be ok? At her funeral, I read the eulogy, written the month before, edited a hundred times, thinking, as I sounded out each word clearly and loudly, I had never written anything worse. One of the episodes I recounted in my letter to her was related to her coming to see me at a school play. In many ways, that entire speech felt like a flashback to that same play.
The year I turned nine, we turned up to school in September having read The little prince over the summer: for once, there proved to be a topic the whole class had enjoyed, and nobody could stop talking about it. It had been an ambitious task to give eight year olds: my Italian literature teacher had most probably assumed we’d ignore her, thinking she could get away with lobbing a few vague questions about the plot our way, only to get on with her Programma Scolastico teaching schedule for the academic year. She didn’t envisage just how much of an interest the same book she had recommended had spiked. Instead, many of my classmates found ways of sneaking comparisons to the work itself in history lessons, religion lessons, even science lessons.
It became omnipresent. The book was bought up constantly, and a frequent topic of conversation as well as the inspiration behind our new (very popular) game. The girls would huddle in groups in the playground, acting out the roses, whilst the boys shoved each other around, laughing loudly, acting out the part of the drunkard in turn. Whilst many teachers found this attitude smarmy at best, and distracting at worst, my drama teacher was delighted in seeing such young children so open to the idea of discussing human flaws and existential angst. She decided – with much disapproval on everyone’s part, and going against what had been a ten year tradition of Nativity plays in a Catholic school – to put on the play that Christmas.
A Christmas concert, December 2003
Every single day, we read chapters out from Saint-Exupéry’s book, everyone trying to be as expressive as possible, longing for a part, any part. It became a real obsession for class 4B. Our drama teacher was rather eccentric and had a knack of getting her way, and she had managed to take over other lessons and convince parents to leave their children behind – way past school hours – to read out from those pages. We were thrilled to be able to sneak into her famous glittery underground room, full of props and scripts and hats, thrilled to finally have access to the mysterious school theatre rather than dully singing out Silent Night in empty classrooms or in the chapel, nuns sat in front of us.
Most thrilling of all, of course, was being able to spend time with her. She was tall and – outrageously – a smoker, wore sunglasses indoors, was permanently draped in velvet and spoke with an open-vowelled, sultry voice that sounded a million miles away from our Southern accent. It was not uncommon to be taught by nuns, and she was the exotic peacock amongst a rather literal grey flock of pigeons. We were envied by the whole school, allowed to do more drama than ever, taking diction classes and watching documentaries about French drama, feeling incredibly sophisticated. We were all, above all, terribly keen to gain her approval: I remember reading that booklet out loud to myself in my bedroom for hours every afternoon – prancing on my bunk bed, acting out the flower; spread-eagled on my fluffy carpet, pretending to be the dying prince. I have no doubt all of my classmates were doing the exact same thing.
Me, the year we put on the play – bottom right
What we took for granted, but surprised many parents, was that the little prince wasn’t the part everyone wanted, even if his was the main part. He was to be “split” into two actors, one for each act: his lines consisted in mainly stating how strange each planet he visited was – how peculiar this drunken man appeared, how greedy to merely want to make money, why oh why are humans so selfish? We found his part not just monotonous, but irritating, too. To us, being cast as him was the equivalent of being teacher’s pet. It was every other part in the play that gave the feeling of being asked to captain a team.
For some reason, I landed the part of the fox, the first real friend that the little prince makes. It must have been my attempt at slow, careful reading that gave the impression I could take on what many of my classmates considered to be an important, albeit brief, and “complicated” part – I was never good at memorising my lines, but one thing I could do was read aloud, expressively. There was a lot of reading aloud in our dress rehearsals, as the fox had to use long, hard words, words that wouldn’t stick in my mind and that I would have to look up in my Piccolo Palazzi dictionary straight afterwards, running to the classroom just in case the word bounced out of my brain.
The scene of their friendship developing was meant to be seen as a crescendo. The fox would meet the little prince after hiding behind a rose bush, and teach him about loyalty, and what it meant to have a bond, what it meant to trust someone to the point of accepting, in his case, the idea of being tamed. It was ultimately a scene that was meant to convey what would happen to both parties when said bond was broken. The little prince had to remember that they would be united so long as he recalled the time they would meet each afternoon. One of the most important scenes was the monologue the fox would embark on, explaining the way that a connection could be nurtured. We would practise it for hours at a time, as I struggled to stay as emotionally involved throughout the whole thing.
“If, for example, you come at four o’clock in the afternoon, then at three o’clock I shall begin to be happy. I shall feel happier and happier as the hour advances. At four o’clock, I shall already be worrying and jumping about. I shall show you how happy I am! But if you come at just any time, I shall never know at what hour my heart is to be ready to greet you . . . One must observe the proper rites..”
The scene required me to cry, following this speech, as the little prince left me. When asked about why on Earth such an attitude would, as the fox claimed, “do him good”, there was a very simple answer: the colour of wheat fields. There would always be the connection of the place they first met, wherever in the world either might be.
The reason this scene resounds so well in my memory is the way the reactions of either character juxtapose completely, from an emotional point of view. The fox leaves, slowly, heartbroken, fully aware that their bidding farewell to one another is a goodbye forever. The prince, on the other hand, repeats the fox’s last words to himself, confused, not quite sure what to make of them, struggling to make sense of the entire situation. The scene would, at this point, from a dimly lit, incredibly hushed and intimate situation change to a loud, obnoxious meeting with a railway switchman. We had blaring train noises played over this meeting, something that seemed to accentuate just how inappropriate this kind of rendez-vous was when compared to the beautiful one that had just ended.
When reading that eulogy, I felt like the scenic effects and the naive prince that doesn’t grasp his situation and the loud, irritating railway switchman, all at once. She had told me she wanted something celebratory, but I felt I was doing it all so wrongly. It was too silent, yet not intimate enough, noisy inside my head to the point it felt like white noise, whilst the only noises people were really making were shifting in their seats and accidentally rustling paper. The environment didn’t help. The church felt enormous. I felt as though the whole service had been the railway scene, and now that I was the fox again, teaching people how bonds break and what they mean, I was acting out my part in the worse possible way. I remember the way that my voice echoed, its clipped, somewhat distanced words bouncing off those whose first language wasn’t English. I felt like I was reading the news or announcing security procedures on a plane. I didn’t cry, but I didn’t smile, either. I read just as expressively as my nine year old self had done and just as determined, yet the part felt like it should have been set out differently. I never could decide whether it was me that was the problem or the day, the weather, the lighting, maybe all of these things together with this horrible reality, set out directly in front of me: loss. The fact I was later told some of the hand-outs with the translation on didn’t reach Italians made that feeling all the more acute. I felt pretentious, stupid, and arrogant all at once. The feeling faded after a few days, but still, to think about it, brings back that theatre scene I acted out aged nine into my mind. I got an applause for both, but was angry at the way I had handled them both times, too.
One of the things I felt the soonest was a complete loss of what it meant to feel a sense of anticipation. When an event was boring, her presence would convince me to go. When I knew we’d be dropping things off at her house that she’d left at ours, I’d want to climb out of the car and up into her huge flat, the corridor long enough that we’d pretend to ski down it for hours. The sense of anticipation behind Christmas has always been my favourite part of the Christmas season itself, and the lack of it this year made me feel like a different person. What was the point in being excited? So Christmas and New Year came and dissolved as rapidly as my first term as a finalist had. Phonecalls, photos, flowers framed the whole two weeks. Her contact lenses in my bedroom, her silly celebrity gossip magazines in the dining room, the Clarins perfume bottle she’d forgotten the previous summer nestled into the corner of one of my shelves. These details accentuated denial. I really, genuinely believed she had gone off on a holiday and left us behind for a while. She’ll be back. She was only active on Whatsapp last week. While people crumbled around me, I remained resolute and, upon boarding my flight back to the UK in January, somewhat determined to heal myself. I have healed before, I thought, and I can do it again. People do it all the time. Things hit us, and we have to wrench ourselves out of the centre of the tornado we’ve been hurled into. Yet whilst I thought all these things on the plane, I was also aware that beginning a new year without her was the confirmation that this would not be possible.
It seemed like seconds I’d been back when my birthday came. For my 21st, a year beforehand, we had spent a weekend together in Munich. I found it hard to believe that on the same day a year earlier, we had been sprawled on hotel beds, eating Hungarian soup in strange restaurants, gazing at cuckoo clocks in window displays, stocking up on dried fruit at the Viktualienmarkt. Still, I pushed it out of my mind, distracted by more friends than I deserved to have around me, given how much I was starting to resemble a robot in attitude. After more than a month of freezing emotionally, on the evening I turned 22, I finally cried because I had lost my bag in the bar. The real panic wasn’t having lost my silly Monsoon clutch – it was the fact that the earrings she had given me for my 21st had been tucked into its inside pocket, as I had taken them off because one caught onto my hair. My poor friends, confused by the sudden shift from birthday cake, photos and singing to utter despair, stood around looking both preoccupied and slightly embarrassed. I hadn’t cried with make up on in public in a long time, perhaps since falling off my bike in first year and wailing in agony on Iffley Road on the way back from a rowing outing, and I must have looked a sight.
I found the bag, the earrings still inside it, within an hour, but somewhere, a switch had shifted. Once the watersheds started, I couldn’t halt them. Nonetheless, I continued to keep tears to myself as much as possible. I cried in Zumba classes, at the back of the room, cycling on the way to lectures, blaming tears on the wind if someone asked, at career fairs when I thought about the fact she wouldn’t see me graduate and walks around Christ Church meadows, when I wished I could send her photos of the river view. I cried in pub toilets, Tescos’ loo roll section, Paperchase, the post office, in my college room, in the Taylor Institute, in the canteen, in Itsu and when I looked at cherries in the Covered Market. I cried in more or less every place I set foot in on a regular basis. At some point, I cried because I saw a woman wearing a fur coat. I had cried onto my phone in November, damaging it because of the amount of salt that had penetrated its already semi-open screenside, and at the time, I had seen the funny side of it. It would have almost been hilarious this time, too, had I not felt as though I was being switched on and off emotionally constantly. Cry, write essay, sleep. Wake up, cry, go to tutorial, sleep. Play Elton John’s Tiny Dancer twenty times, cry twenty five times, sleep. It was absolutely fucking exhausting.
One small comfort lay in the back of my head: you’re back in Oxford, away from where it all happened. You’ll be able to get into a routine that will distract you, with Finals looming on the horizon, friends around you, too much to do to think about this. Your birthday was always going to be hard. But it’s over now, and you can carry on. Life had managed to trick me, as I had forgotten about past me’s poetry module choices, the module that would lead to a hand in of coursework based on two selected essay. When I received an email in January asking me what times would suit me best for tutorials on the topic, I realised, a cold shiver going down my spine, I had completely forgotten about it. I spent five days cramming poetry into my brain and reading the submission regulations. I have never written coursework in my life, and the idea was terrifying. In retrospect, this was most probably why I had pushed it to the back of my mind.
Before the holidays, I had decided to write about Holocaust poetry. You will probably have begun to see where this is going: drenched in pain that was both poetical and my own, I dragged myself through a term of blankly staring at ceilings, cancelling commitments, going for power walks in thunderstorms with the idea that perhaps if I got struck by lightning my pain might finally, finally burst out and let itself be felt, embraced at long last. This wasn’t a death wish – it was a need to feel.
For someone who has always been incredibly emotional, feeling this way was a real novelty. I hated the way I couldn’t get absorbed into news and gossip and anger any longer. The idea of having cried at Brexit felt pathetic. Feelings all melted into a single one: numbness. Whilst bad news bounced off me, numbness also meant caring very little or not at all about my work. I would read Celan and weep, with none of this emotion coming out in my essay writing. Every tutorial I went to was worst than the previous week, and I felt increasingly angry at myself for not being able to make the most of my sessions with a fantastic tutor. In between all of this academic chaos, I was reading books that were supposed to help me feel- Grief is the thing with feathers, for instance, which only left me confused as to why I hadn’t picked up on Ted Hughes’ imagery. I knew the crow was black grief, but was there any point in personifying him? What was the point in all these stupid allusions, really? Couldn’t people just talk about the raw, horrid, blistery thing that pain was? Finally, a week before term ended, my breakthrough came. I decided to stop trying to write about pain. I wrote, instead, about anti-conformism in political poetry and the innovations that come with contemporary poetry. After a countryside retreat to my friend Margherita’s house, I finally finished the portfolio. Done and dusted. Handed in. Gone forever. I wrote to my incredibly patient tutor, thanking her for having seen me through a difficult and teary term, and that was that.
Handing in coursework
Here is the thing: things don’t go forever. Just as my coursework was signed off this Tuesday, hurled into the darkness of Proctor boxes, but continues to plague me (“Did I ACTUALLY reference that article? Oh my God, I didn’t put a full stop after any of my footnotes”) places change and people leave, but our surroundings and behaviours and mannerisms continue to be shaped by them. I will find myself laughing at jokes she made at the most inappropriate of times, or want to ring her up to talk about my ball dress. I will make mental comments in her voice to myself and hum her favourite songs and talk about these things to people knowing they don’t quite get it, but should listen nonetheless, not even because they are my friends, but because while we are all only here for our allotted time, bound to vanish, our actions and peculiarities shape others. You cannot ever close up the hole a loss has caused, but one thing you can do is decide which flowers to plant around it.
I thought grief would be a big, huge black hole, but I think there is no emotional stereotype that is less true. Because it does sometimes feel that way, especially in the early aftermath, but I believe grief does not come to stay with you forever in that form alone. Grief is not a mood or a stage of life or a phase, even. Grief is a huge sack, then an oversized suitcase, then a big rucksack, then a handbag. Grief is something you hold onto for the rest of your life but learn to embrace and understand and, to a certain extent, even to appreciate, because there is much to appreciate about having known love and what it means to be loved, rather than to have never known it at all. Grief is not just tears and regret and emptiness but it is also wistfulness and half-smiles and “I wish I could tell you that Bradley Wiggins has retired”. Knowing this now makes me feel grateful that I can both sob and read our texts and laugh out loud.
It is now April. I write about her in my journals constantly. I think about her most of my twenty four hours a day. If I don’t talk about her, I’m talking to her in my room. About her lunch spreads, her love for all things kitsch when it came to Christmas, the way she once found a gecko in her bathroom and kept it as a pet. The car she had that parked itself, her being incapable of having a poker face, her love for lychees.
I know that every year to come will be weighed down by her absence. I know that I will be telling my children and brothers about her for the rest of my life, because she was brave, and kind hearted, and generous. She was a goer, a doer, a party animal, she couldn’t leave a market without having bought at least four pairs of shoes, including the time she bought gold Yves Saint Laurent shoes and they were a size 2 and would never ever have fitted her, but it was too good a bargain to leave them there.
I have loved and love her still more than you would think is possible.
This blog isn’t meant to be an idyllic portrayal of happiness. Life doesn’t work that way, and I don’t see why we should pretend it does. This blog documented my fears in Germany and my loneliness last year and my self-doubt, on more occasions than one. It did also, however, talk of things with optimism and self deprecation and hope. She loved reading this blog, and was probably the only person that read it weekly – I know this because I caught her snooping in the blog archive when I was at her house in the summer of my second year at university. My views had at least two counts a month, and they were both from the town she lived in. While I know I won’t get those for this post, I can hope that you, in reading this, have picked up on just how missed she is.
Tomorrow, she would be celebrating her birthday. I know that to continue screwing up my face and voicing how unfair life can be to us would irritate her. She always told me I needed a kick start when I told her I was feeling sad. So this is my kick start, a way to start not only my godforsaken revision plan tomorrow, but a way of loving her and appreciating her that goes beyond tears. As I write this, it comes to mind how she used to tease my uncle because he would mix up their anniversary date and her birthday. She’d always trick him, tell him one was the other. I used to find it so funny. It is somehow a relief to discover I still do.