If there is frustration at trying to get back to where you left off, this can be solved by entering into the search box ‘January’ for the beginning, or Part Two, Part Three etc.
January takes its name from the god Janus, the Roman god of beginnings and transitions. He is usually depicted as having two faces, one looking to the future and the other to the past. This is the first week of the month of January, 2017 – my book in journal form.
GOOD GRIEF: TAKE ME BY THE HAND
She is Elle, and this is her mother’s story
Jennifer Arter Buckle
A gift to Kate, Isaac and Jude, and
in memory of Greg, who died 15 August 2019
Thank you to all my family and dear friends for the incredible love and support you have shown to Peter, Kate, Greg and me. It has made the journey a little lighter.
The occasional lines from songs are my nod to the lyrics that have brought me moments of joy, and its partner in life, sorrow.
Disclaimer: I consider my book to be truthful to me. Only one name has been changed, no characters have been invented and no events fabricated. But I have only my memory to guide me, and memories are rarely one hundred percent accurate.
All it took was a telephone call and three words to shatter our busy but contented lives. Elle is dead.
I wandered through the next few days, confused and traumatised. It felt as though whoever I believed myself to be, that person no longer existed. A few days later, following her cremation, something I could never have imagined happened. I felt my spirits rising, and something else starting to flow through my veins. It took a while to identify what I was experiencing, and much later I came to understand it as a glimpse of my higher self. But this lift came with a price, and about six weeks later I descended, and found myself wandering through dark soulless passages. Finally, drowning in self-pity, I accepted the unwelcome realisation that either I must sever all connections with my loved ones and the outside world and depart, or choose to pick up this unwanted suitcase and attempt to scale a mountain that was blocking my view. This is how I came to start on an inner journey through the practice of daily writing, which has brought trust, love and learning back into my life, even though I still have moments of doubt and darkness. It’s just that now I know they will pass. I will return to the light.
Elle, our younger daughter, died on 30 August 2016 at approximately 6.20am, before the light that the dawn brings to every day. She was twenty-seven years old. The judge, in closing the enquiry into her death, declared it ‘a result of a tragic accident’. But Elle’s death was a lot more complex than that, just as complex as she was in life.
Initially I started to write as a way to get out of my head, or the to-ing and fro-ing of a myriad thoughts was going to drive me mad. Within a few days I felt a change coming over me, and I started to look forward to alone time with my laptop. The process nudged me to access the story of my own life, as distinct passages started to flow in front of my mind’s eye. It was as if I had pressed an imaginary playback button. This began to happen at regular intervals within days of Elle dying. It quickly became apparent to me that whatever section of my life I was reviewing bore an uncanny relationship with, and relevance to, my new standing in the world. I had a sense that everything I had experienced mattered and had brought me to this point in the timeline of my life. Writing about Elle also kept her close to me, and I have never lost this sense that she will always be close to hand.
Elle’s hold on our family, and more surprisingly, on her friends and even our friends, continues. People still tell me that she enters their thoughts regularly, or that her smiling face often appears in their minds. Over time I also realised that writing was helping me to gain an understanding of what happened leading up to and including the accident, of how she was feeling, and perhaps even why it happened. None of this can ever be verified, but it felt necessary that I at least attempt a better understanding of the circumstances.
As time and writing progressed, I began to feel fundamental changes in how I wanted to spend my time. I was surprised to find myself becoming more interested in subjects like philosophy, comparative religion and all branches of science, rather than reverting to wasting my time on the sofa in front of the TV, watching programmes that I wasn’t interested in. I had always been intrigued by these subjects, but never sufficiently motivated to give them the time and attention they require, leaving me as nothing more than dilettante, and self-disappointment to boot.
I began more earnestly to examine my life stories to see what they revealed. We are anchored to the earth by our memories, and at the end of the day they are all we can really call our own. As we peel away the layers and our eyes start to water, the truths we reach become ever more profound. At the very least, we can see our stories continue as our children live out their lives. With the on-going journey and the reliving of my life’s story, I could feel something stirring in my soul.
Happiness is beneficial for the body, but it is grief that develops the powers of the mind.
Marcel Proust, ‘In Search of Lost Time’
I wrote daily from 1 January 2017, following a Christmas peopled by characters from another life story—a story that still included Elle. There we were, Peter, I and my brother Greg, all from Ibiza, and Elle’s sister, Kate, and her family, who live and work in London. Kate’s family home at that time wasn’t big enough to house us all, and contained too many memories of Elle, so we settled on a holiday rental I came across in Dungeness, the UK’s only official desert, which felt like an appropriate environment, given the circumstances. Not that I thought it through at the time—it was more of an instinctive decision—but we took to the house immediately. The nuclear power station nearby felt strangely comforting, and its sensitive lighting at night felt more like a beacon showing the way home than a disguise for its potentially lethal inner workings.
Normally our Christmases are more like extended family get-togethers, but this one felt like a grief circle in hibernation. We had always planned to do this Christmas differently. Elle had said she was not committed to joining us in London, but I had secretly intended to apply a little pressure to get her to join us, because we had not spent the previous Christmas with her either. Kate made a gallant effort to include Elle by bringing along craft materials so we could create and paint our own Elle presents, but the real purpose was to try to keep the tears from flowing, at least for some of the time. Kate’s baby boy, Isaac, was six months old by then, having been just six weeks when his aunt died, and we all tried hard to keep in mind that this was his first Christmas as part of our family.
According to the Jewish faith, the first anniversary after the death of a loved one is when we need to move on from our grief, both for the benefit of the living and for the departed soul. They believe that after a year of mourning it is required of one not to sink into despair. I remember my battle with despair all too well. There is so much to be gained from having a spiritual basis to our being, not necessarily attached to an organised religion. It could be as simple as just living in awe of all the mysteries that make up our world, to be alert to what can help us know ourselves better, and how to live meaningful lives.
I look back now and realise my own naivety—not a state I regard with fear anymore. I am and always will be naïve, because the me I know is always the version slipping into the past. If I keep up curiosity and intent alive there should always be a less naïve version of myself in the future. I had thought I had earned the right to call myself a grownup. But I see that all I had grown into was the potential to be a conscious version of my higher self rather than a mirrored chimera reflecting society’s vision of me. I had forgotten to keep learning, or rather, I was progressing through a slow, unrecognised and disorganised osmosis without actively looking for opportunities and tools to raise my awareness and thereby deepen my knowledge of life. Now I finally feel I am adding useful tools to my own highly individual carpetbag of surprises. I have glimpsed something of who I have the potential to be, and ojala, I shall gently and steadily make my way towards someone I would be happy to know better.
It is hard as a mother to acknowledge that I could have done so much better at shepherding my children into adulthood. But this is balanced by an all-encompassing cloak of protective familial love that tells me I was nearly the best mother I knew how to be, and that, in the end, things are probably as they were always meant to be. If we take all difficulties, frustrations and irritations away from our children, we leave them without the personal experiences they need to be able to withstand the problems the world will no doubt manifest for them. I also think we need to leave them with something they feel capable of improving on. I feel humbled by my girls’ achievements since leaving home, and humility seems to me a good companion to a mother’s love.
On 30 August 2016, life as I knew it came to an abrupt end. I couldn’t know then where I was headed, but it turned out that what I needed to do was rebirth myself. What I have written reflects my journey through the first year of grief, and as we approach the end of the third year, I can say now that something has shifted within me. I believe this is true of us all. Kate, Peter, Greg and I still feel trepidation and a deep sorrow as we prepare for a special day marking Elle’s thirtieth birthday, but it is just a little easier this time than last year.
More than anything, this is my story as a mother, and it often feels like I am running headlong into the unknown, dodging rockfalls and abysses as I go because the only way is forward. Running backwards in time is not an option—except fleetingly to touch those memories one more time. Out of the chaos of grief and all earthly suffering, there is still hope for a new way of being and seeing. This is my found experience. The hole never closes. But it does get supported in ways I could not have imagined. Joy and sorrow bed down together, and once united, they are far more at peace than I ever dreamt possible.
My writing began as a way to get beyond my multi-layered pain. Wrong or right, knowing that I have made mistakes and taken some wrong paths, I hope I have expressed my thoughts and written about experiences in a way that may illuminate a different view on life, love and suffering. Perhaps I can give hope to someone that there is a new and safe home to be found on the other side of grief. I am sure Elle has often sat with me as I wrote, and I don’t see that changing.
But if some or all of my experiences are imaginings—if all the synchronicities, pointers and clues are illusions, and there is no divinity living alongside our lives—then none of this matters anyway. It is simply a story, and we all are but random and momentary dots of a unique energy force without any connecting threads, waiting for our batteries to run flat.
Good Grief: Take Me by the Hand
1 January 2017
I am sinking, fast and deep, and not because I have dived headfirst into the sparkling, translucent blue sea surrounding our island, Ibiza. No, that was another time. I am instead sinking into a murky and unfathomable soup of self-pity and disappointment. Self-pity has me encircled and there seems no way out. I am left bereft and disappointed because I know what I need to do to help myself. But I don’t feel inclined to…
Elle, my daughter, my beloved second and last child, is gone.
I don’t want to face forward. She is not there. I don’t want 2017. I am not ready to say she died last year. I won’t ever be…
I don’t like you, Time. You are cruel. You stole my girl, day-by-day, hour-by-hour, minute-by-minute, until that fateful second. I will never forgive you for that.
Time continues to tug Elle from my arms, dragging her deeper and deeper into the bleak past until I can hardly see her. I feel torn apart, my life shattered into tiny eye-piercing shards. I am confused. I have no idea where I am going. Just take me, Time, take me now…anywhere but here!
Time, you knew what you were doing as you counted down the hours and minutes on Elle’s life, and then snatched her away from those who loved and needed her. You never gave us a moment’s thought. Damn your clockwork tick tock!
I know better than to allow this dissipation of my life force. It was Elle who showed me the way to heal myself, and how to support those around me to do the same. Just a few months before she died I had an unexpected experience, where I was ‘shown a picture book’ that could have been called All You Need to Know About Time and Duality. Although I kept looking for the accompanying deeper meaning behind the experience, it is only since Elle died that I am beginning to grasp how both are, always have been, and always will be, playing out in my life. It felt like it was Elle, too, who gave me the greatest blessing in that horror of loss that anyone could ever wish for: a glimpse of my higher self.
But now I am engulfed by sorrow, drowning in self-pity, and all I want to do is close myself off from life and from all who are still living: my husband, my daughter Kate and her six-month-old son Isaac, the extended family and dear friends of ours and Elle’s. I am becoming a sad old woman trapped forever in a dismal downward spiral. Where is that strong woman who helped to carry the grief of so many, who felt she could take on the world? The mother, who waved her daughter goodbye as she travelled up into the galaxy of great souls, is missing. The butterflies seem to have all flown away, and the birds no longer sing. Where is my comforting ‘phone box’ now, where Elle sat by my side, talking me through what I needed to do and be? Where is that Jennie who joyously sang along with Sia as ‘Chandelier’ rang out from her Jambox? I hope not lost forever. But who or what can save me, not just for myself, but also for those I love? Kate is worthy of her mother, and Isaac I am sure would love to know his grandmother. Peter needs me more than ever. But grief has become a gloomy fog sticking to everything in my life—love too has lost its way. I know I love Kate just as much as I love Elle. Now I find that even my sorrow is losing its way. Am I missing and longing for Elle, or have I just morphed into sadness?
All that surrounds me has disintegrated into unwelcome sounds emitted by people, friends and family, that I no longer feel attached to. They are all just painful reminders of what, or rather who, is missing. My deep spiritual beliefs remain, but for now they are shoved into a suitcase I would happily dump. Although I feel this disconnect from everything and everyone, it doesn’t feel recognisable as depression. I know how to deal with that. I’ve been there a number of times. This is bleak and aching sorrow. I feel my only hope is to write.
The ‘playback’ of my life starts rolling again in the bioscope of my mind. I know that it is there to help me, but not always do I welcome it. This time I am reminded of a dinner party about forty years ago. With ten or twelve guests around the table, our hostess asks us, ‘If you could have chosen a talent, any talent, what would it have been?’ To my surprise, I answered that I would have liked the talent and motivation to be a writer. But I was savvy enough to know that my school essays showed no imaginative flair or particular literary skills other than being neat and technically adept. I could see that a writer’s life was not to be for me. I still don’t think of myself as a writer, although my life has certainly provided me with more than enough stories to tell and write about. I never envisaged that I would start writing from this place of despair. But, bloody hell, if this is what I am supposed to do, I shall write. I am reminded of the song, If It Be Your Will, written by a hero of mine, Leonard Cohen.
I didn’t choose 1 January to start writing because of its date. It just happened that way, but it feels nevertheless significant. I will write every day and go wherever my mind leads me.
Curiously, as the snippets of my life keep playing and replaying in my mind like a movie that stops and starts, most of the fragments seem to fit seamlessly together like pieces of a jigsaw. Well, they are all pieces of my life, you could say, so they would fit together. But that’s not what I mean. It’s more that I can now see reasons for what appeared to be simply random events at the time. All seems to have prepared me for this moment in my life, as if there was purpose to everything and everyone I encountered as I moved through it towards Elle’s death. Elle said as much to her companion the night before she died, but without the benefit of hindsight, he put a different slant to her statement, “I think that everything I have experienced has prepared me for this moment in time.” Could it be that everything that happens to us is predestined? It is now up to me to pick up and reassemble the shattered pieces scattered around me. But will it help me understand why?
I wish I could find the strength to stay away from cigarettes. I still need to find the key to this addiction. Elle told me that a big ask in this lifetime is to let go of our addictions. She said that they would be tougher to deal with otherwise in the next life. She seemed pretty clear on this, and her words wrote themselves indelibly into my mind.
My teenage years were not my favourite years. I certainly had some fun, and boys found me attractive enough, so I did not feel unlovely. Yet I felt disconnected and alienated from life and my peer group. My friends seemed spontaneous and to be having a lot more fun than me. This is not a new phenomenon brought on by social media, although I can see how social media may exacerbate it. I am always amazed that so many adults have no memory of how they felt as teenagers. Sometime in my early teens I lost my connection to Christianity; it just seemed so out of touch with what I was experiencing. Until age sixteen I didn’t smoke, and I was over eighteen the first time I got drunk. I didn’t start smoking to feel more sophisticated, but to appear relevant to the person I had ‘fallen in love’ with. I needed to learn how to smoke a joint properly! And the way to do that was to buy a packet of cigarettes and practice inhaling! I would have a puff or two before passing it on, and while I had nothing against it, I never became interested enough to seek it out, or any other drug for that matter. Surprisingly perhaps, considering how disengaged I was from life. In the light of the ‘me too’ movement today, I can fully understand my parents’ fears with regard to the man who was my first experience of love. He was ten years older than the sixteen-year-old I had just become. Nothing about the age gap felt wrong to me at the time. There was an element of grooming that took place, and once he had me, he no longer wanted me. He moved on to someone young again. I carried a candle for him until I met David who was a healthy couple of years older than me.
As self-conscious as I always was, I was not traditionally shy. I enjoyed the idea of being on stage, and I played leading roles in two Shakespearean plays in my last years at school. I enjoyed debating and reading aloud, and there were occasional days when a comedic me would turn up unexpectedly in the classroom. But my self-consciousness held me back from initiating new friendships, and I rather left it to others to befriend me. About thirty years after leaving school I met up with a high school friend who said how much she had envied my confidence. She saw me as someone who knew where she was going. It just goes to show how oblivious we can be of how others see us, and how far removed it may be from our own personal truth.
Once I got my driving licence at the age of eighteen, I spent a lot of time driving around in my little blue and white Mini with nowhere to go, but at least I wasn’t sitting at home. I remember once driving over a complex junction on a railway bridge in Claremont, Cape Town, the city of my birth, and as I descended, it felt like my car was motoring along on my own legs. Then it struck me that all the cars around me were also being propelled by their drivers’ legs. It was as if we were no more relevant than ants going about their colony business, driven by other forces, living out our lives like automatons. The image has stayed with me. What are we? Who was I? What was the purpose of life? I began to ponder these questions. I had no great drive or vision for myself—I couldn’t even play a pinball machine with any enthusiasm because what was the point? Nor did I spend time imagining that my wedding day was going to be when my life began. A few years earlier my parents were at a loss with me—what to do with their daughter who was suffering bouts of depression that sometimes went on for months. I would return home from school and lie on my bed, coming out only for meals and school the next day. They took me to our wise family GP who, for a few weeks, listened and answered questions that my parents couldn’t. Many years later, after Peter and I returned to South Africa from Hong Kong, he was present following the birth of Kate. I understand now that those early depressions were the stirrings of my awakening awareness, although the path of naivete still stretched far into my future. I remember coming to a landing at the time that while there was no point to playing pinball, there was also no point to not playing because life was just going to happen anyway, and at the time this made sense to me.
At the end of my schooling I enrolled at Stellenbosch University for a four-year course in jewellery design and manufacture. It was where my future was set in motion but not quite in the way I thought it would be. What I find interesting today about my chosen course then is that it was Elle’s hands who ended up creating fine pieces of gold jewellery while assisting Natasha, a goldsmith on the island—yet another strange twist of fate. Natasha has a beautiful studio next door to the church in San Miguel, and Elle continued to help her with mounting orders over the high season periods.
A couple of times I had thought I was in love, but it wasn’t until my first year at Stellenbosch University that I discovered the real deal. It came just months into my first year. My roommate and I found a job we could share at weekends at a small private airfield called Fisantekraal. It was between Paarl and Durbanville and not far from the city of Cape Town. It is now called Grootfontein Airfield. I had an opportunity to experience something you don’t forget easily. The flying instructor, who was adjudicating a student’s conversion from a single to a double engine light aircraft, invited me to come along. He gave me no warning of what was to come, and soon we were doing climbs until the engines stalled, and wing drops until the plane slid into its own slip stream. I must have a pretty strong constitution because I remained calm although a little shocked by the end of the experience! One morning I was sitting at the desk, hiding a deeply regretted ‘permanent wave’ under a scarf, when in walked two long haired, louche young men, one blond and the other brunette—David and his housemate, James. I was instantly intrigued by these attractive young men whose friendship I would describe as a constant boyish duel, like they got great satisfaction from measuring themselves up against one another. But it was the twinkle in David’s eyes that made him stand out in my eyes. They were definitely guys that stood out in a crowd, and I had seen David on campus, driving his beaten up Toyota ‘bakkie’, a pick-up for those not familiar with Afrikaans. David returned ‘for another lesson’ later that same afternoon, and for all his bravado he only summoned up the courage to ask me out just before he drove off. I was disappointed that I had another date for that Saturday night, but soon we found each other again.
On our first date, a double date, James was accompanied by Marise. They had been seeing each other for a while, but before that James had gone out with Christina for a few years until she left to study further in Germany for a year. Christina had completed the course I was just starting. Both women became lifelong friends of mine. Looking back none of this seems a chance happening. At the time I didn’t know that we were at the twenty-first birthday party of one of David’s ex-girlfriends, and I was oblivious to the fact that she, like a number of other ex-girlfriends, was not ‘over’ him. He had a way of leading girls on a merry dance and then out of his life. But it was going to turn out differently with me.
I was smitten from our first meeting at the airfield, and I had never felt so at the mercy of emotions before. Our relationship was high jinks, break-ups and make-ups on an epic scale, girls keen to take my place, and me having no idea of who I was and where I was going as long as I was with him. I had become used to the fact that there were three in this relationship—James being number two and me, number three. David was afraid of nothing, a true daredevil. While I have never been a thrill seeker, he loved to live life on the edge. On three occasions he brought me to the event horizon of death—in the sea while trying to teach me to dive, crossing a railway line on his motorbike at nearly a hundred miles an hour, and on a mountain pass in his Toyota pick-up. I doubt he even remembers these occasions—they were not unusual for him.
There was one growing problem though—he refused to come to my family home because, in his words, ‘I am not in a relationship with your parents’. They did not find this an indication of good character, but he never gave them a chance to get to know him. When my parents were unsuccessful in breaking us up, they tried telling me that while they were supporting me financially I needed to accept their conditions. Being headstrong and silly in love, I saw only one way out. Without telling them, I left university late into my second year of study, and found work in a travel agency in Stellenbosch.
I wasn’t going to be able to hide it for long, and while they must have been disappointed in my behaviour, they never showed it. But soon they started to encourage me to go overseas to have an experience away from home, but what they were really hoping was that I would forget about David. But unbeknown to them, we had hatched a plan to meet up in the UK a few months down the line. David was also bored with being a student. There were a few other friends who were travelling at the same time as me, and one of them was my school friend Claudia. As the summer of sightseeing was coming to an end, I wanted to find work, and one of Claudia’s friends said he knew a family in Petworth, Sussex, who ran a children’s home. Again, a time in my life that provided me with a multitude of experiences that stayed with me for life. I loved the work, and made friends quickly with the staff, some of whom had grown up in the home. Many of the children’s stories and faces have stayed with me throughout my life. Until this time, my only experience of childhood was within a loving family, and I had not really thought much about the many children for whom this was not their childhood experience. The parents of these children were not dead—they had either chosen not to bring them up for a variety of reasons, or the children had been removed from parents who were not able to care for them, while others had been abused by parents. The home was not perfect, but it was probably as good as it gets when the power of parental love is missing; the instinctive love that cushions the children from hurts and keeps them nourished in every way and safe.
One day, totally out of the blue, I was told that there was someone to see me. At the front door stood David with a huge grin on his face. I threw myself into his arms, burying my head in his shoulder. I had missed him terribly. I had known that he was coming over to join me but wasn’t expecting him yet. Having something of a family connection with the people who owned the home they saw me as more than just an employee, and kindly offered us their caravan to stay in. January in a caravan, without any form of heating, was no better than living in a big fridge, but we had each other to keep us warm. David, a wizard at anything mechanical, quickly found a job in a garage up the road.
For a while I was on top of the world, and then in a single moment, passion and love disappeared as if a light had been switched off. All attachment to David disappeared from my heart, and as much as I questioned what had happened, and what love was, I couldn’t find the switch to turn it back on. But we had a ski trip planned in the middle of a backpacking tour around Europe. I don’t know how this came around but Greg, now seventeen years old, had turned up in the UK prior to the start of his compulsory army service, and he was going to join David and me. The trip was to go ahead, and the three of us set off with Eurail passes via Hamburg, Munich for the beer festival, Salzburg and arriving for our two-weeks of skiing in Kirchberg, Austria. David was kind and patient with me and showed care towards the young Greg. I found it hard to deal with the situation and also quickly discovered that I had no love for backpacking. I was hopelessly ill equipped for a winter like I had never experienced before—I remember trying desperately to keep upright on the snow in knee-high city boots with leather under soles!
David, meanwhile, was struggling to understand what had gone wrong with us. Converting a lively love affair into a friendship was never going to happen. So I decided to stay on in Kirchberg and found a job with a strange couple who owned various souvenir and newsagent kiosks in the village, and I moved from the hotel into accommodation they made available to me. David stayed on a while longer too but eventually gave up on me and left, while Greg chose to travel on alone, using his Eurail Pass to visit Florence, Venice, Amsterdam and other cities, and returned to Kirchberg when he needed more money from my folks. The stories he related of his extraordinary adventures and sometimes very frightening experiences left me wondering how he ever survived.
My pay cheque wasn’t really a living wage, and I sometimes had Greg to feed as well. So for months I got by on French fries with mayo, and bread rolls pinched from outside the bakery that was above and below my room, with the occasional slab of cheese. Eventually I grew very ill. Too ill to work, I now had no income, and therefore had to give up my accommodation. I was a long way from home, too ill even to think clearly, and without any friends to help out. I can’t help speculating that I could easily have died at that point in my life. But perhaps Peter and two little girls were expecting me to turn up in their lives some ways into the future.
Fortuitously, a young man called Geoff Leggett, whose name I strangely remember, came to visit me as I lay ill in bed. I had met him a couple of times on evenings out, and I will never know why he came to where I was staying on that night. He organised an air ticket for me, and I travelled back to London with him. He left me on a sofa in someone’s living room. I have no memory of the people in the flat, or of him staying there himself, only a hazy recollection of lying watching daytime TV, or often just staring at the test screen. It was a communal flat, and these strangers fed and cared for me as I slowly recuperated.
There is something surreal about this whole episode, as if it took place in another dimension. Perhaps Geoff was moonlighting as my guardian angel! At some point, days or weeks later, I found myself having started a new life in a flat in Balham, working as a silver service waitress at the New London Theatre in Covent Garden. A few months later I tracked down Geoff and thanked him.
Having taken on a new life as an adult, it seemed appropriate to change my identity too, and I settled on a new hairdo—that iconic 70s hairstyle, the Afro perm. It wasn’t the first hairstyle I instantly regretted. To this day the smell of perm lotion makes me retch. But short of shaving my head, I was going to have to live with it. So I bought an Afro comb and loads of hair clips, and after washing away the smell of the perm I swept back my damp curls in a halo of clips, and this I could live with. I slept like this too, and it only took a few flicks of the comb for them to spring back into place in the mornings.
Where exactly Greg had been during my illness I cannot remember, but he showed up again soon after I moved into my Balham flat. I have no idea of how we found each other. Considering I lived more than half my life before mobile phones came on the scene, I still suffer blanks as to how we all managed our lives perfectly well without them. Somehow Greg became romantically involved with the girl who rented a room to me. I was still unaware that Greg was homosexual, and I suppose he was trying to run away from it. Girls queued up to be his girlfriend, and although we had been close as children, in our teens we got caught up in our own dramas. Not long after, my mother dispatched my dad to London to bring Greg back to Cape Town to fulfil his army service. That must have been a very scary prospect awaiting him, and I am sure he would have wanted to avoid it. Why did he agree to do it?
My working hours usually lasted into the early hours of the morning, and the management paid for us girls to take dodgy radio taxi rides home. I slipped into a pattern of sleeping the days away until there was only time left to get ready to leave for work again. All my friends had returned to South Africa, and I had no one to socialise with on my days off. As I said, I was hopeless at initiating friendships—a chronic form of self-consciousness or a fear of rejection, I suppose. After about three months of this endlessly repetitive daily routine, it was only natural that I would sink into a dark and dismal place. Thank goodness I was sufficiently familiar with depression and I knew I had to do something about it.
I decided to contact Mr and Mrs Ellis who owned the children’s home in Sussex, and I asked if I could return. These two periods of working with the children had a powerful influence on the rest of my life. Each child taught me something valuable about life and the importance of love, and what the loss of love has the power to create. Those of us who are privileged to grow up in a family environment where we are wanted and loved, very rarely appreciate this fact. So often we spend much of our early life focussing on the negative parts of our family life—I suppose it is hard for us to see ourselves as anywhere but in the centre of our worlds. And perhaps it can equally serve good purpose. I learnt important lessons about what it means to be human and the responsibilities this entails. I had never experienced anything like the hardship these children knew, lacking the support so many of us take for granted. I remember nearly all of them, and I can still see many of these children who have remained just that in my mind’s eye, but some got well and truly under my skin. Five-year-old Claudia was there with her seven-year-old brother Roger— beautiful children in every way. Their parents were drug addicts who lived in a commune on an island in the Thames River. The children were neglected and running wild, but I sensed that they had felt loved. Roger had definitely learnt early in his life that he needed to look after his sister who was a beguiling free spirit of a girl. Claudia found words to sing her way through all she did and thought about. I still wonder what became of them, and whether they would have been better off left with their parents.
I enjoyed building relationships with the children and the people I worked with, and life felt good again at the end of that summer, and I was finally able to trim away the last of my disastrous hair defining decisions! If the owners of the home had been able to pay me a living wage, I would probably have stayed in the job far longer than just three months again.
The reason it became important to recall so much of this year of my life, my twenty-first year, was so that I could give a context to two of the most important and life-altering events that shaped me forever. They were actually a single event that repeated itself a few months apart and in different hemispheres.
Anyone who knows the countryside around Petworth will be familiar with its beauty. I was nearing the end of my time at the children’s home, and on a beautiful late summer’s day I took a walk through the surrounding woods. There wasn’t a breath of wind, and the sunlight filtering through the trees was magical. I became fascinated by a cluster of leaves high in a tree just ahead of me. They were shimmering with excitement while all the other leaves on the tree were still. Then my eye caught another huddle start to shimmer on the other side of the tree, as if a conversation was starting up. At that instant my body seemed to melt away; it was no longer ‘wrapped around’ me—it was transparent, and no more or less than everything else that was witnessing this event. I felt like just a ‘self’—something akin to having no ego. It struck me that everything was the same size—a strangely powerful sensation. I then felt an incredible wave of love. I knew in the moment that I loved the tree, but what was surprising was that the tree actively and powerfully loved me back. Everything felt tangible, because my mind was not ‘ticking over’—rather, I was wholly in the moment and I felt at one with all nature’s knowledge. Tears streamed down my face as I experienced love like never before or since. I have no idea whether the moment lasted for seconds or minutes but when it passed, I was left with a deep sense of wellbeing. I had not been in any way prepared for this experience.
A month or two later I was home, and just in time for my twenty-first birthday. My parents had organised a party for me, and it was good to see so many of my friends again. Even David and his friend James were there. I still had no idea though of what I wanted to do with my life, and no burning ambition to throw out any clues. I joined Christina one Sunday for a drive around the seductive Franschhoek (French Corner) winelands, and on our way home in her yellow VW bug, and as I gazed out of the passenger window at a beautiful mountain range over to my left, I had the same experience again. But this time it was the mountain I was loving, and it loved me back with even more passion than I could ever give it.
Others may well have their own explanation of these strange events, but there were no drugs or alcohol involved. At that time I had only heard whisperings of TM (transcendental meditation) so no knowledge of mystical seekings. Many years later I came upon a written description of an experience that sounded just like mine, called a universal experience. Again many years on I read about a mystical experience called a ‘unitive experience,’ described as the intimate union of the contemplative soul with God. So I learnt it was not unique to me, but I still had no idea why it had happened. It wasn’t as if it led to some great awakening, but perhaps it had opened up a path to a gentler one. At the time I was not seeking a mystical experience, and nor had I ever heard of an ordinary person having one—and it was also not caused by some natural high in the brain. My state of mind just before both events was as dulled as my mind was heightened after them. It is not an experience that one ever forgets, and at times, when doubt has overtaken my faith, those two events quickly come to mind. I knew they meant something—that there was more to life than amoebas and primordial swamps. I now understand why it happened twice, linked across a short period of time. Had it occurred just once I might have discarded it as a freak event. No wonder I found it hard to replicate that heart-felt love in my earth-bound relationships, but I suppose that has something to do with our required spiritual quest for divine connection.
My hands and eyes need a rest after today’s marathon write! While it is not difficult for me to recall memories of my early life, it is much harder to reconcile that young girl with the aging model of me today. That’s when it starts to feel like it was another lifetime, mine but also not mine. I shall continue because it feels comforting to step aside and forget that I am writing to forget.
All in all, I had spent a year in London, and I needed to decide on what to do next. It made sense to return to university and finish my course. My long suffering parents agreed, and soon all was arranged for me to restart my second year in February. It helped knowing that Christina was the assistant lecturer now, and she agreed that it sounded like a good idea.
In my first term back at university I rented a room in Marise’s home, Niewetuin. It was a single-story Victorian Villa with a typical front ‘stoep’ that looked out across the winelands, framing the iconic view of Table Mountain approximately thirty miles away. It was a house that many a friend of Marise’s had lived in, and there were always comings and goings and spontaneous parties happening. While socially exciting, it was difficult to settle down to my studies and also quite far from the campus. Christina had found a cute two-bedroom cottage situated in a quiet part of Stellenbosch, and for my second term I decided to move in with her. Over the years she has become one of my closest friends, but in the early years of our relationship I was somewhat in awe of her. She could be abrupt in her directness and had an ability to read a situation quickly. It would be accurate to say she didn’t suffer fools lightly! I think I intuited that she was something of a good mentor for me, and she hadn’t been my first. As our friendship grew over many years we landed on a more equal footing. Today I have a good understanding of why people come into our lives, and the value of keeping close to them.
Just before the start of the new term, and shortly before I met Peter, I had persuaded my father that a dog would help me feel more settled, and we found a female Basset Hound puppy. It was divine love at first sight. She was the French version of her breed, and therefore not as heavyset as the English version. Abigail was my first experience of unconditional love but, as with all dogs of the hound breed, her nose was her Achilles Heel as it took control of her mind, and most likely it played a role in her early death.
From a young pup she went everywhere with me and would often spend the days under my jeweller’s bench in our workshop studio until the Dean of Faculty told me she had to stay at home. I can still see and feel her next to me in my little blue Mini or feel her sleeping alongside my body each night. In the car she would sit on the front passenger seat, always alert and gazing through the windscreen. Whenever we passed something that interested her, she would jump to the back seat and follow the object through the back window until it disappeared from sight, and then return to her post in the front, glancing at me as if to say, ‘Wasn’t that fun?’
Peter is unquestionably the man I was meant to be with. My bones knew this not long after meeting him. We would have recently had our twenty-second birthdays. My two good friends, Christina and Marise in Stellenbosch, and Claudia, my school friend in Cape Town, were never far from the story of my life. Claudia even ended up spending a lot of time in Stellenbosch because of her current love interest. I was living with Christina and our two dogs in the cottage which we had given a distinctive look with paint effects—our kitchen looked like it came out of the brightly coloured pages of a comic book, while our bathroom was up in the clouds. One afternoon Marise telephoned us and said that she had her cousin visiting from the UK, and she wanted to introduce him to a few people. Would it be OK to bring him over to visit us that night? Many years later she admitted to me that, within moments of meeting him, she had decided to introduce him to me. And so, with a few hiccups and false starts, we began a relationship that grew its own legs. The love we share is knowledgeable and robust. We have always known to take care of it through all its many stages, even when we thought it was over—a time before Elle was even a twinkle in our eyes.
But at that time, Peter and I only went out for a few months. His intention had always been to travel on from South Africa to the Himalayas and Pakistan, and I was happy with this because even though I felt something strong and intentional existed between us, I was not ready for a long, steady relationship—and nor was he. He may have sensed that there was a storm brewing on the horizon, and he decided it was time to set off for Johannesburg in his white Toyota van with the mattress in the back. We had had a lot of youthful fun travelling around the Western Cape accompanied by the only music Peter would play—Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon—and for my part, I imagined that perhaps we would meet up again sometime in the future.
During the time that Peter and I were going out, Christina, I and a few other students moved to a new house—this time nestled under the majestic Hottentot’s Holland mountain range and surrounded by vineyards. Our little cottage in Stellenbosch was part of an area that was to be redeveloped. Life was beautiful and I was settled and happy. Not long after Peter’s departure I returned from university, and as usual I called out for Abigail. Depending on how far Abigail’s nose had led her that day, she would normally appear within minutes of my call. But this time she didn’t. I started to panic. Christina said she hadn’t seen her since early that morning and had assumed I’d taken her with me to art school. More panic. My housemates all joined in to search for her. The obvious direction was down the kilometre-long track to the highway between Somerset West and Stellenbosch. As we descended, I had a sense of moving towards an unwanted destiny. And there she was, on the other side of the road, dead, knocked over by a car. It is an inbuilt trauma still. This was the first time my world truly and deeply fell apart. I lay on my bed and cried for five days. I wasn’t prepared to stop because I knew that would mean that I had to accept that she was gone from my life forever. I remember being conscious even back then of the workings of my psyche.
Peter spent a couple of weeks in Johannesburg preparing for his onward journey before realising that he didn’t have the will to continue with his original plans. He wanted to return to ‘us’, and without contacting me he drove back to Cape Town.
By the time Peter turned up unannounced on the farm, I was not the carefree girl he had kissed good-bye to. My world had fallen apart and there was no space for him inside my bubble of sorrow. Not surprisingly his return did not work out well, and within a few days I broke up with him. We saw each other a few times during the next few months, and eventually Peter was joined by his friend PC for something of his own African adventure. Peter sold his van, and with some money in his pocket, they hitched to Johannesburg, having many adventures, some risky, on route back to the UK.
By then I was a term into my third year, but after the loss of Abigail I again entered the realm of ‘no point to anything’. I could see no reason to keep moving forward. The only way was to drop out and go home. My lecturer suggested I take time out and return when I felt ready. But my depression went deep and lasted a long time, and by the time I resurfaced, returning to my course was not an option. My parents were not wealthy, and I felt I couldn’t ask them to pay for my studies a third time. I know how disappointed my dad was, after giving me an opportunity he’d never had—he lost both his parents before he was thirteen, and he and his brothers had to keep his father’s engineering business running to support the family. But neither he nor my mother passed any judgement.
The reason this event entered my playback is easy to understand. I recognise the same unwillingness to accept the loss of Elle. I don’t want to turn around and face the future. I don’t want to have to be in a world without her. But I also know that this won’t do. My earlier life experiences keep on gate-crashing my mind with the reasons why.
Strumming my pain with his fingers
Singing my life with his word
Killing me softly with his song
Killing me softly with his song
Telling my whole life with his words
Killing Me Softly With His Song, sung by Lori Lieberman
Slowly I picked myself up. I had a British passport now, and I felt an urge to leave South Africa for good. The unyielding and disturbing political situation was a factor in my decision, but not the overwhelming reason. Perhaps it was my destiny, or a pre-birth soul contract drawing me northwards, and towards Peter. I felt isolated living in South Africa, and that somehow I belonged in Europe. So I took on as many jobs as I could, and started saving so that I would have some money to start a new life in Britain.
I booked a passage to Southampton on the Pendennis Castle mail ship, on one of its last journeys. The travel agent who made my booking was my age, and she decided to join me, so we packed our worldly goods and snappy outfits, turned our backs on Table Mountain, and after waving goodbye to our parents and friends, we sailed off into the future. At twenty-four we were looking to have fun, and we soon found it. But in my more pensive moments, I would make my way to the stern of the ship and sit staring out at the wake of this huge heap of iron as she churned her way through virgin water, so much more certain of where she was going than I was. I remember reflecting on the droplets of water as they bounced into the air that some may have come from distant glaciers, and that I may be the first person to know them individually on a molecular level. I felt conscious of how small I was in this awe-inspiring universe we call home.
When I boarded the Pendennis Castle I had no idea what I was going to do when I disembarked, other than travel up to London. I had at least done a course in touch-typing so felt I was better equipped to get a job. I have no memory of anyone on board ever mentioning the island of Ibiza, yet I arrived in Southampton knowing I would make it my home. Why an island? Why Ibiza and not a Greek island? I didn’t even know where it was or which country it belonged to. But first I needed to find work and save as much as I could before setting sail for Ibiza.
Initially I joined a temp agency and went miserably from job to job. My brother Greg had also left South Africa after completing his compulsory army service, and he had arrived in London before me. My travel agent friend and I stayed in his shared flat until we found one of our own in Holloway with a bird’s eye view of the women’s prison. Eventually I found a more agreeable long-term temporary job at Heal’s furniture store on Tottenham Court Road.
Peter had stayed on in South Africa a few months after we broke up and then returned home. I decided to write to him and as a joke I addressed my letter to Peter ‘Peephole’ as this is what we all called him. Marise must have given me his home address. We arranged to meet up at his family home in Surrey. I met his mother Tinker, and also his father Bryan—the one and only time he and I would meet. I felt a strong connection in the flash of a moment as he and I locked eyes, and there seemed to be a silent acknowledging of one another. I sensed he approved of the person that was me. I was grateful for this short meeting as Bryan died a few months later, and having met him helped me to understand some of the heartaches of Peter’s family in which he played a big part.
Peter and I embarked on a new relationship for a few years—I can only describe it as ‘friends with benefits’. It felt natural. We enjoyed each other’s company on the occasions when we got together, the lovemaking was good, and perhaps paramount was a subconscious knowledge that one day we would make a life together anyway.
But for now I was determined to start a new life in Ibiza and I wasn’t thinking about making a life with Peter. And a new and sad situation had been developing—my brother Greg had become mired in a cycle of heroin use. It was serious and he had made an attempt at taking his life and was admitted to a psychiatric ward in Hammersmith Hospital. My father came over to London and decided to take both Greg and me to this island of Ibiza, where he would help us set up a home from home, far from the temptations of heroin in London.
On the day of our departure, Peter helped dad and me break into the squat where Greg was living and lift him out of the arms of the girl he was snuggled up with. I have no memory of where it was or how we even knew where to find him, but I can still feel the desolation of that darkened and deserted basement. We then said good-bye to Peter and set off across Europe to Barcelona in a dinky little Suzuki camper van bought for the trip, my father and I up front, while Greg lay on the back seat with no luggage of his own, quietly going through cold turkey. We were fast learning the lingo of drug-addiction. Throughout the journey Supertramp Live in Paris was pumping non-stop out of the van’s tinny speakers.
And so began our family’s long connection to the island of Ibiza.
My dad scraped money together from wherever he could find it and bought a house in the old town of Ibiza just below the fortified town walls, called Sa Penya. He hoped that having a new home would solve all our problems. Our neighbours included a genteel retired prostitute, gypsy families who had moved into many of the empty properties around us, and various bohemian newcomers, from both the mainland and beyond, who had restored some of the houses around us.
Living in Ibiza was all I hoped it would be, and I had so many adventures; enough to fill a whole other book. Once again, I was learning fast about the complexities of life. One day I received a telegram from Peter telling me that he was going to arrive in a few days. Although it was a little inconvenient because I was romantically involved with a French tourist, we somehow made it work for us all. We have often laughed about it and how I also tried to set him up with French man’s sister!
A couple of doors down from ours was a tiny bar called The Madhouse that served a variety of teas, alcoholic drinks and a few bar snacks. A couple from Germany had rented the property and they stocked the bar by lugging everything up our alley on foot. When the husband broke his leg, he asked me if I would run the bar until his leg healed. I had never run a bar before but I did not find the idea daunting, and I enjoyed every moment of being in the hospitality business albeit on a tiny and intimate scale! It had previously ticked over with just the odd German guest or two at any one time, but mysteriously, and just for a few days, it became the place to be. Greg sometimes helped out or made bar food, and on those nights we found ourselves running up and down the alley taking orders. Quite likely only half the drinks we served ever got paid for because we never kept proper bar tabs and people would usually only pay at the end of a visit. One evening, when it had quietened down to just a trickle again, two late-night guests came in, and we talked well into the night. Both had somehow managed to do part of their final practical year as doctors at our local hospital, and I felt an immediate strong surge of emotions with the dark-haired young man whose name was Jorge. We had a short but special relationship for a while before he returned to Germany.
Greg tried hard to build a new life for himself on the island, but it turned out that we had brought him to the worst possible place—drugs were more than easy to find in Ibiza. So almost two years after arriving, Greg was suffering and lost again. In between times, he had followed someone he’d fallen in love with to Morocco, been deserted, and ended up suffering another breakdown, found wandering around Spain, and been repatriated to our sister in the UK. He spent a couple of months with Marion, and her family until he was well enough to return to Ibiza. My parents had separately visited us on the island, and so had my younger sister Heather. Everyone could see that Greg was not doing well. In the end my parents decided to spend some time in the UK in the hope of helping him to regain his health and find some direction in his life. He and I left Ibiza together, took a ferry to Barcelona and from there a coach to Dover where our parents met us.
My intention was always to return to my life in Ibiza, but in the end it was a couple of decades before I returned to the island’s pine-covered hills. A few years after we left my father returned to the island to complete on the sale of the house. In the meantime I found work again in London. I enjoyed joining Peter on occasional weekend visits to our friends, Barbara and John, in Marlow which is an hour’s drive from London. We all loved playing bridge, and these shared weekends with them always left me feeling happy and contented.
On one particular weekend, Peter and I were travelling in his old grey Toyota Corolla to yet another weekend of cards. He had just received his final accountancy results, and it was a pass! With a car filled with beers and wine, we laughed all the way to Marlow. In a moment of time I looked at Peter and something coursed through my veins—Cupid’s arrow had done its job! My destiny was finally mapped. While a part of me knew Peter and I were meant for each other, I had a strong notion that I didn’t want to marry an accountant. My heart was in the bohemian camp, and I wanted to marry an artist, musician or writer.
But in this moment I accepted that I loved Peter. I knew he had always loved me. He had put up with plenty of shenanigans from me and stayed close always without losing his dignity—I knew it was true love. His plan, on completing his accountancy exams, was to make a trip to the Himalayas. Deja vu! This time, however, it was booked and certain to happen. But this time, I did not want him to go! The plan was that after his six-month overland trip, starting off with his mother in Egypt, then Kenya, Pakistan and Thailand, I would join him in Hong Kong, where he had accepted a two-year contract with the accountancy firm he worked for in London. So Ibiza was out for now; there was no future for an English chartered accountant on the island.
For the next two decades I had a recurring dream in which I wandered about the island anxiously searching for my home. I would find myself trapped by the bewildering number of similar buildings, but occasionally I would actually make my way to my home just for a moment, only to find other people living in it. Then Peter and I visited Ibiza on our twentieth wedding anniversary in 2001. He liked the warmer weather as much as I loved the island, and we decided to build a home from home there until we could move in permanently on his retirement. From that time onwards, my dream never returned.
Just a few days after Elle died, Claudia, my close friend and godmother to Elle, put her arms around Peter and me and told us we had given Elle the best gift ever by bringing her to Ibiza. In fact it wasn’t really a case of bringing her, but of opening the opportunity to her. She accompanied us here on countless holidays from 2002 onwards, and at the start of 2011 she chose to move to the island permanently. At times she thought about other possibilities, but about a year before her death she told us how happy she was to be living on the island—it felt like home, and she couldn’t see herself living anywhere else.
When Peter left for his six-month trip in 1980, he gave me a list with dates and poste restante addresses for the duration of his travels, and we wrote to each other regularly on those blue fold-lick-and-stick aerogrammes. I received his loving letters with joy, but over time I noticed a change in his tone. He was evidently losing confidence in our relationship, but I knew all would be fine when we got together again.
Just before Christmas 1980 he arrived in Hong Kong, and settled into a large studio flat. I called him to make arrangements for my journey over to join him. He was a bit cool, but didn’t tell me not to come, and definitely looked happy to see me at the airport. The flat was above a multi-car garage servicing rather grand colonial style apartments, set in expansive beautiful gardens with a magnificent view of the South China Sea. So far he had only managed to furnish it with a bed made for the Cantonese—far too short for his long legs—an easy chair and an expensive sound system. Finally he explained his coolness. He had not received a single letter from me throughout his travels! He had not one letter to show for the fact that I had written at least once a week. He said he had been getting more and more angry with me, and had decided to ‘ditch’ me as soon as he arrived in Hong Kong. But rather oddly, or perhaps not, he continued to write to me anyway.
Months later, a bundle of about fifteen blue aerogrammes, held together with an elastic band, found its way to us. To this day we have no idea how they all got collected together from the various countries he had visited and ultimately landed up with us. But their arrival went a long way to putting his mind at ease as he read them.
I hate cigarettes—where do I begin and the cigarette ends? I hate that I love smoking. Kate does not want us to risk shortening our time on this earth, especially now, as she feels alone without Elle.
Today is Kate’s birthday and I want to write about her. But first I want to describe something that just became apparent to me as I settled down on my bed to write.
Ever since Elle died I have been reading anything and everything that can expand my knowledge in general, particularly my spiritual understanding of life. I have become open and alert to investigating interesting little twists and turns that crop up in my day. It keeps my mind busy. Today, as I was about to discard some newspapers and magazines that have been lying on my bedside table for some time now, my eye was caught by the strap line ‘Martin Scorsese on joking with the Pope and preparing to meet God’.
In the article, Martin Scorsese mentions the final scene in his latest film ‘Silence’ about Jesuit missionaries who travel to seventeenth century Japan. He then mentions the German philosopher, Walter Benjamin, who wrote of Paul Klee’s Angel of History painting, that the angel was ‘gliding backwards into the future, eyes staring with horror at what has been and gone’. (Jonathan Dean, 11 December 2016, Sunday Times international version.) I looked up the Klee painting, and the German Jewish philosopher, Walter Benjamin (1892–1940), a cultural critic who had, interestingly, spent a few months in Ibiza in 1932, and later committed suicide in Portbou in 1940 at the age of forty-eight while trying to escape to the US to avoid being repatriated to France by the Spanish. Only after his death did his works reach a wider audience. There is something in the following words that I want to take note of, and perhaps their relevance will become apparent later.
This is what I read on Wikipedia:
In the ‘Concept of History’ Benjamin also turned to Jewish mysticism for a model of praxis in dark times, inspired by the Kabbalistic precept that the work of the holy man is an activity known as tikkun. According to the Kabbalah, God’s attributes were once held in vessels whose glass was contaminated by the presence of evil, and these vessels had consequently shattered, disseminating their contents to the four corners of the earth. Tikkun was, or is, the process of collecting the scattered fragments in the hope of once more piecing them together.
Apparently, Benjamin struggled to reconcile the idea of progress in the present with the apparent chaos of the past, continuing:
A Klee painting named Angelus Novus shows an angel looking as though he is about to move away from something he is fixedly contemplating. His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe that keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurling it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.
I like the idea of progress being no more than a storm on the horizon. I, too, have begun to think of modern times as a backward propulsion rather than forward progress, and of people as smaller and more superficial than we were two to four thousand years ago. Perhaps the Internet is a divine intervention to bring about a change in our direction of time travel. I know Wikipedia as a source does little for my integrity, but the words are from Benjamin’s own work so in this case it suffices. Then something amazing became apparent, illustrating precisely why synchronicities should be noted for what they can reveal to us. The magazine along with the newspaper article on my bedside table was my first copy of ‘Tikkun’ from a multi-faith organisation in the US headed by Rabbi Lerner and dedicated to healing and transforming the world. Discovering the concept that is tikkun in the Kabbalah, has emphasised what had already begun to interest me before Elle died. I remember saying to Peter one day that I was beginning to think that the Jewish faith held the keys to creation. But the most pertinent point of this ‘collision’ was to bring my attention to the importance that synchronicity can reveal deep and often concealed knowledge. For those not sure of the meaning of synchronicity: it is when two unconnected events occur simultaneously, and in doing so they reveal an independent and greater meaning, and therefore a deeper understanding of something that could be viewed as fundamental to one’s life. It was Carl Jung who first identified it in this way.
I see now the relevance of ‘road signs’, and so I learn more about my soul’s inner workings and the journey I have always been on, the ‘playback’ of which seems now to have speeded up considerably. But one road sign is enough for today, and the magazines can now stop cluttering my bedside table! I will look into the Kabbalah more deeply.
But back to the happy memories of the birth of my eldest daughter, Kate. She was born on 4 January 1983.
Peter and I, after an exciting two years in Hong Kong, relocated to Cape Town, South Africa, when I was about three months pregnant. That would have been around June 1982. It felt good to be back on home turf again, close to family and reconnecting with many old friends. Kate was not in a hurry to make an entrance but eventually early one morning my waters broke. It was a long, hard labour following an easy pregnancy, except for Kate being an extremely active foetus night and day. According to the doctor and twelve hours into my labour, he told me that I had a ‘sluggish cervix’, and I was given pills to dissolve under my tongue until I fully dilated. Unbelievable pain seemed to go on for hours! Peter stayed by my side for eighteen hours, administering gas and air according to a needle jumping around on a graph that showed when the next contraction was about to start. My mother had told me many years before that she had spent three days in fruitless labour until relief came in the form of a Caesarean, without which she and I would both have died in childbirth. But at last a baby girl emerged without a Caesarean and without emitting a sound. She lay on my still-heaving chest, her dark brown eyes seemed to be seeking knowledge from the her first moment of life, gazing back and forth, first at my exhausted face and then at Peter’s. Nothing could ever match the highs of those first hours holding our baby girls in our arms. The next morning I sent Peter and Christina off to have a coffee, and told them to come back when they had decided on a name. Peter didn’t like my choice which was Georgina, and I knew that between them they would do a good job. I was clear in my own mind that it would not be Kathryn, a name I had secretly given to a baby who had not gone to full term, but neither of them knew that. When they returned Peter and Christina proudly announced that she was to be called Katherine, and I could only accept that it was meant to be.
Katherine quickly became Kate for evermore. She set off at a brisk pace, and it was clear this was how she meant to go on. Days were not for sleeping. She wanted to learn, and fast, and was only happy if one of us was talking to her, all the while maintaining full eye contact. It made it difficult to get anything else done. For weeks I don’t think I managed to get fully clothed! From seven weeks she slept through the night to make up for her sleepless days, which I filled with attempts at breastfeeding and a belief that if I ‘shushed’ her enough, eventually she would fall asleep for more than five minutes. She liked to get the feeding over quickly so breastfeeding soon went out of the window. But because of an immature pyloric valve, what went down soon came up again, so I smelt like puke until she was about seven months old, when we purchased a walking frame. The doctor had said that once she spent more time upright the puking should stop, and he was right. She propelled herself around the apartment at high speed, and soon graduated to a wooden wagon with a push rail, filled with blocks and anything else she found on her travels. By then it was spring and our apartment under the mountain in Green Point faced the setting sun. She loved to be naked, with a tea cosy on her head, pushing her little wagon endlessly up and down the passage. By nine months she didn’t need the wagon to get from A to B, but lacked the spatial awareness to deal with obstacles, and was forever sporting bruises.
Around the age of two, I remember consciously marking a moment in my memory and saying to myself that one day, when she was much older, I would think back to this time, and I consciously stored a memory for the future. It makes me smile that I don’t remember the actual memory, but I do remember attaching that marker and where exactly I was standing when I did. It feels like I created a portal to time travel back through memories!
And so she grew, always looking and learning from all opportunities that came her way. When she tired of our stories she would seek out responsive strangers to engage with, and even before the age of two she was fully conversant. Her dogged determination kept her ahead of her contemporaries on so many levels. When I bought her one of those wooden puzzles with shapes you remove and then try to fit back into the right spaces, she couldn’t do it on her first try, so she pushed it aside. But when she returned to it a few weeks later, she set every shape into its correct hole. I recognised then that Kate didn’t like to be in a state of confusion. She would go away and quietly work things out in her head, and only when she was confident she could take on the task successfully would she proceed. Still today this is Kate’s preferred mode of being. Studying came easily to her and I never needed to remind her to do her homework. Her first degree was in French and Spanish, and after a year of considering going into art and fashion, she returned to her original idea, and completed a two-year conversion in Law.
Peter and I left South Africa in April, 1985, and after a few months of staying with his sister and brother-in-law in London, we bought a home in Walton-on-Thames, a town in the commuter belt surrounding London where Peter worked. One evening Kate asked what I was making for supper, and I said chicken, and she said, “The birds on the farm that go cluck, cluck? I’m not eating them!” Another night when it was lamb she asked the question again. ‘The ones that go baa, baa?’ And so, at barely three years old, Kate became a vegetarian. But on the night I cooked mince she couldn’t think of an animal called a ‘mince’, and so enjoyed her supper as normal. Relieved to be able to get her to eat some animal protein occasionally, I held back on telling her that it was meat, and she only found out years later. When I explained that this was out of concern for her health, she forgave me!
We had barely been back in the UK for a year when Peter and I found ourselves drifting apart. I was floundering in the big pond that is suburban London. Peter was rarely home before nine or ten o’clock at night. By then I had cooked Kate’s dinner and ours, bathed Kate and put her to bed with a story and a cuddle, and finally dropped onto the sofa in front of yet another banal TV programme. Invariably, Peter would arrive home right in the middle of a programme, reheat his own food and sit alongside me in front of the TV until bedtime, with nothing but a repeat performance the next day to look forward to. I recognise now I was suffering a low-grade but persistent depression, as I felt no motivation to achieve anything else for myself. I was not making new friends and there were only a few people I knew who lived close enough to visit, and life had become so monotone. I had lost all of me, other than being Kate’s mother and Peter’s wife, and I wasn’t even sure I truly existed.
One night, Peter finally said the inevitable. We were no longer making each other happy. He told me he was bored, and that he thought we should split up. After a restless night, deeply fearful of what this would mean for us and Kate, I admitted that I thought he was right.
So we began to plan our separation. I would need a little car of my own. Where might I be able to rediscover who I was? The only place I could think of was the country that felt like a home from home, Spain. I don’t know exactly why I ruled Ibiza out, but it was either because there was too much history, or I felt that I may lose myself there and that would be detrimental for Kate. I was sure of one thing though—I needed to get away from the grey skies overhead if I was ever going to have a chance of bringing back an appetite for living consciously.
Kate was just three and a half. I don’t know how either Pete or I found the strength to tell her. We were both so aware of what it would do to her world. Thinking about that moment creates a chill in my heart still. She took it all in and asked no questions. We didn’t imagine she would fully understand what we meant, but many years later she was able to describe to us how much she had grasped and exactly how she felt .
We agreed not to get our families involved or allow them to give their views or pass judgement. Instinctively, perhaps, we understood that it was important to keep all doors open. But both my parents and Peter’s family were angry and disappointed in me. Even my friends saw me as the responsible party. I believed it too. It was as if I had been the instigator of the break-up. It was true that I longed to drop out of this predictable, conventional life and find a different way of being. I was only a shadow of the person I believed I had the potential to be. I just hadn’t yet understood that life is what you make of it.
The appointed morning arrived. The car was packed with a few belongings and some of Kate’s most precious toyslike Benji, the tiger, and her Barbie dolls. We said a painful goodbye, and then I set off for Portsmouth to board the overnight ferry to Brittany. Saying goodbye to Peter, with all our worldly goods packed into our tiny car, was the most painful experience yet of my life. I could barely look at Kate’s face. I wasn’t sure what I was supposed to feel, although I remember at least feeling that the dreaded moment of departure was at least behind me. I had organised to share a cabin with another woman and her son, and as we were all getting ready for bed that evening, the woman asked if I was also a single mother. Caught off guard, I hesitated, and then said yes. ‘No, mommy,’ Kate cut in, ‘you have daddy!’ Even now her words sting. Soon after we arrived at the little house we had rented near Moraira, I was talking to the builder who was still doing finishes on the house when Kate tugged at my clothes. She was looking up at me with great concern. ‘Tell the man he’s not your boyfriend!’
It was daunting to arrive in a strange town with no idea what was to become of us. Kate never complained even when I took her to a little nursery school a few mornings a week. Eventually we met another mother with a young son from The Netherlands and at least we were now not alone. It was certainly a pretty part of the Spanish coastline, and there was lots to see and do. As Kate played with her toys I enjoyed knitting and sewing more clothes for her doll, and when she went to bed I had plenty of books to read. My parents had decided that my mother should join me from South Africa, and try to drum some sense into me. I heard later that she cried all the way to London and on the next flight to Spain too. That’s a lot of tears! We had never been particularly close. She had always found me hard to fathom. But when she came to our wedding in Hong Kong I began to see her not just as a distant mother but as a person with her own fears and longings, and I even glimpsed her sense of humour for the first time. Now we hugged and cried together, and in the end she showed great sensitivity towards me. Years later I came to understand and love her very much, but by that stage I seemed to have become the mother and she the daughter, with a few moments when we were just friends.
I am feeling less haunted these last few days. I may even attempt some handwork, perhaps make something for Kate or Isaac. The thought of doing things around the house feels less insurmountable. I feel like I’m being given a lift again, and perhaps it is a gift from my girl. I will continue on my daily journey up this steep and daunting mountain and see where it takes me.
For months now I have been on the verge of tears, forever going back in time to when Elle was with me. I am dogged by a deep sorrow and a painful longing for things to be normal again. Nothing appealed; I just want to stay home and zone out. Friends and family regularly remind me to give myself time—that time will lessen my pain. I recognised and accepted that time may yet become my friend, but for now it is the enemy. For it’s Time that is carrying my Elle further and further from me, and I feel angry that there’s nothing I can do to reverse it.
I think back to an experience I had with Elle just a few months before she died, which was all about time and duality. I remember clearly that it was 25 April which is my parents’ wedding anniversary—numbers and dates have always been meaningful to me, and now more so than before. I had been reading up on the health benefits of CBD oil (derived from cannabis but without the mind-altering THC component), and decided to take a few drops each day as a precaution. It couldn’t do any harm, and it might do me some good. It’s not hard to obtain in Ibiza, ‘the island of healing’, so when I forgot my little brown bottle in Italy, I told my brother Greg that I was looking for some more oil. I rent studio space in his house, and was there doing some painting while a friend of his was visiting—a shaman lady. As I made a cup of tea she asked if I was looking for some oil, and I said I was. A few moments later she asked if I would like to try it, and I agreed. I noticed it was darker and thicker than my oil as she put a drop on my tongue. Before leaving the kitchen I checked with her that this was the oil without THC. ‘No,’ she answered in that two-syllable version, as if she expected the question. But I thought no more of it and continued painting while she and Greg left to get groceries in town. Later I made another cup of tea, and as I left the kitchen I had a weird sense of walking at an unusual angle. Uh oh! Something inside me was shifting, and I knew it had to be the oil. But if this was the start, I was in for quite a ride. I also felt a stirring of panic—how was I going to take care of all the people in my life and I needed Peter to take me home where I would be safe. I tried Greg’s mobile. No answer. I tried Peter. No answer. By now I was sitting down on an outside step. I then tried Elle, she would come and fetch me—and she answered!
I managed a smile as I told her, “Darling, I never thought I would have to say this to you but your mum is stoned.” There was a pause. “I’ll be right over.” She hadn’t even asked where I was.
Things were moving quite quickly and I started to relax. I let go of my worries and fears, knowing that nothing could stop what was about to happen. I remembered a long time back being given an orange to help me come down from a marijuana cookie I had eaten, and found one in the kitchen. About half an hour later the whole orange came up again and the message was clear: you can’t get away from this experience that easily! So I remained on that step for a long time, or was it a short time? Time was starting to make weird shapes in this experience. Greg and the shaman lady returned. I felt comforted that they were back, yet it felt strangely important not to make any eye contact, as if this experience was to be a private one. The lady sat next to me and asked if she could do anything to help. ‘I am fine,’ I said, ‘but I want to be alone.’ Again, after a short or long while, Elle arrived. I was there and aware, but also not there, as if I was both the subject and the object of this experience, whatever it was meant to be. I knew what was going on around me but couldn’t or wouldn’t engage with it. I just felt myself leaning more and more sideways until I was half lying on the step. I felt I could stay like this forever, as if my body had melted away. A blanket was laid under the palm tree, and Elle encouraged me to move over to it. But my body was of little use in helping to move me. They had to support me, and I crawled very slowly onto the blanket. Again I lay on my side without moving for a long while. Elle sat by me, stroking my legs and arms and brushing the hair off my face. I was aware of her hands passing over my body, and of moments when it felt as if my organs were responding to the movement of her hands. A few hours later, when it grew cooler, she encouraged me again to move to Greg’s sofa and tucked a blanket around me.
Throughout this time I was constantly observing what was happening around and to me. It all seemed to be about duality and time. The tree above me would reach up and touch the sky, and then instantly be on top of me. I felt I was inside my body and yet separate from it. I was both aware and disconnected at the same time, everything was both, in whatever way I considered things. Time existed and yet it didn’t—it seemed to be passing slowly but also quickly. All I could do was observe. Throughout, it was as if I was standing back and observing my own experience. I was aware that Elle was with me all the time, but she seemed to know instinctively not to speak to me or anyone else, and I deeply appreciated the silence around me.
About six hours later I felt myself returning to the room and to reality. It was a gentle sensation, and I was ready to reconnect with those around me. Elle had already called Peter, who didn’t seem perturbed, and when Elle brought me home he listened in amusement. I was grateful for the experience, and I believe it was beneficial in some way. While I would not consciously have sought out this experience, I didn’t regret a moment of it. Something had shifted in me, as if I was released from a constriction. I felt somehow lighter. The shaman lady said she had never known anyone to have an experience like mine with less than three times the dose I took! There was also no way I could hold anyone else responsible for what had happened—I had walked myself into this one!
Now, more than ever, I think back to this experience. Duality has been a constant in my mind since Elle died, and is regularly mentioned in the books I am reading. And definitely not forgetting the power of time. Boy, how that word seems to go everywhere with me these days—it is like a fuel that propels me.
You may say that that was just a chance experience—things happen. But I say, all is written.
We have just returned from a walk with our dogs, the black pug Kito and pavement special Zac. Earlier we met up with our good friends Martijn and Mimi who we last saw at our dinner table on 30 December, exactly four months after Elle died and just after our first Christmas without her. I was aware that the following day I would be forced to let go of 2016 and have to say ‘my daughter died last year’. By the time I put the roast on the table, all I wanted was to crawl under my duvet and cry forever. I couldn’t imagine letting go of my sorrow, and didn’t want to be happy ever again. So yesterday, knowing they were concerned about us, I called Mimi to reassure them, and we arranged to all meet soon on a track near our old house where Peter and I regularly walk now because Elle loved those woods. .
Elle spent long periods in these same woods, finding the perfect place to draw or a special spot to write, always accompanied by her dog Betty, another pavement special. Betty ‘found’ her at Pike’s Hotel where she worked, not long after arriving on the island. (Intriguingly, although the dog was named by someone else at the hotel, ‘Betty’ was also Peter’s nickname for Elle.) Close friends of Elle who had sometimes accompanied her on walks had said they wanted to plant a tree here in her memory. As Peter and I walked, I got the idea to mark one of these trees in a special way. A couple who had known Elle through the retreat where she worked more recently, had carved a beautiful wooden heart with her name on it and placed it on a tree near where she died. It was painful to read her name every time we drove past so they agreed we could move it. We want to create a special Elle spot in the garden of our next home.
But now, in these woods, we spotted the perfect tree which would give us a special place to visit—a place that evokes the living Elle rather than her passing. And Angel, the carpenter of the original heart, offered to make us another.