I was forty-four when we met. Or should that be when we met again? A friend of ours had tried to get us together when we were younger but, though we liked each other (really liked each other), our paths only crossed occasionally and ultimately they took us in different directions. It’s what happens in life, isn’t it? We can all look back and reflect on the twists and turns of fate, the roads taken and not taken. We hope it’s all for the best. Sometimes it’s not.
On our second date we wandered over the moors alongside each other, occasionally hand in hand, both of us wondering where the thing between us was leading. He captured the day with his camera. I wrote a poem about it. I can’t speak for him (he’s dead) but I think it was probably the best day of both of our lives. I called the poem the Road Less Travelled after Robert Frost; it was the road we’d both been down.
He was a blacksmith and a bachelor. He lived alone in a tiny shack on the moors in the Peak District, an eccentric who cobbled together a living by planting trees and doing odd jobs, occasionally making something in his forge. He walked the hills at night, read poetry to the bulls, searched the skies for distant planets with his telescope and made music in the studio that he built with his bare hands. He’d loved of course and been loved before but he’d never married, never had kids or a mortgage. He lived a simple and unconventional life.
And I? I lived a complex life. A middle class suburban life as a single parent with a chronically ill child, a mother with a terminal disease, a hostile ex-partner, a portfolio career as a freelance writer and facilitator and a distant memory of what it felt like to really love and be loved. Recently heartbroken, I wasn’t sure I could risk my heart again. But I did. We both did.
From the day we reconnected we spent every moment of our free time together. It was a faltering start. He thought I was out of his league. I wasn’t sure I could ever live with someone who only had one shirt and ate garlic sandwiches out of antique tins but we loved each other, really loved each other. Day after day it just got better and better. ‘One day,’ he said. ‘We’re going to have a bad day.’ But we never did. Until the day when, overnight, the best days of my life turned into the worst.
It feels like the stuff of mythology now. It ended like it began, with a poem and a photograph. I sent him a poem that I’d just written about clouds and he replied by sending me a photo of billowing skies above the heather. The beauty of his photograph made me cry. ‘Do you like my poem?’ I asked. ‘I love the poem, I love clouds and I love you,’ he replied. They were pretty much the last words he said to me.
And then he went quiet. It wasn’t uncommon. He was slow to join the modern age, erratic in his habits, quick to lay down his phone and to forget to pick it up. How could I commit to a man who could be out of touch? Who didn’t answer his phone? I left him messages, screamed in tears in the rain at his door and eventually called one of his friends. I’d never met his friends and yet I found myself on the tenth of March 2016 out in my pyjamas watching two of his friends bash his door down with a fire extinguisher. We found him lying three days dead on his bed. ‘I’ve never seen a body three days after death,’ said my GP as I sat in her office months later with an inconclusive post-mortem in my hands and a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress. I can tell you, it’s not something anyone should ever see.
And how does it feel, to lose love when you’ve only just found it? How does it feel to meet your partner’s mother for the first time to plan his funeral? To stand in a pulpit and give the eulogy for the man you love and to walk away from his coffin knowing that you will never seen him again? How does it feel to have your hopes for the future ripped apart? I’ll tell you. It feels like your skin has been torn off and your heart dragged out of your body. It feels like you’re an exposed crab, desperately scuttling about searching for a home to hide in, feeling all the time that the last shell on earth has been crushed to smithereens, whilst the waves of grief pound relentlessly over your head threatening to drag you under. I wrote a hundred thousand words in a blog about it and yet I’m still not sure I can really capture the indescribable pain. It was like nothing I’d ever experienced before. I wasn’t a widow, just a girlfriend and it felt like people thought I should get over it quickly but I didn’t. The grief went on and on and on. It was worse than when my dad died of brain tumours, worse than when my mum died of terminal cancer. Losing someone overnight when you are deeply in love is like coming off drugs cold turkey. It was a life-changing experience.
Two years later, I’m doing ok. I am working again and writing again. I have even tried my hand at loving again though it’s been so hard to trust, so hard to plan a future knowing that the future is unpredictable and out of our control. For better and for worse, everything is heightened now. I know how precious life is and how suddenly it can be taken away, how suddenly it was taken away.
Scared to introduce another inappropriate lover to my children, it was eight months before I let Paul meet them. They made stone circles in the front garden together and burnt rosemary in a ritual to the Greek Gods my daughter was obsessed with. They wrote on paper lanterns, one to their lost grandparents and one to Hephaestus the blacksmith god and they sent them off into the twilight sky. ‘I really like Paul,’ said my daughter. ‘Can he stay?’ Later I held him tightly in the hall, swaying in his arms, still feeling the glow from watching him with them, feeling like maybe, just maybe, there was a happy ever after for me after all. ‘I love you,’ I said. ‘I love you too,’ he replied. And we kissed goodnight and then he left with the move that was uniquely his: the twist on the ball of a foot, one foot on the step, one on the ground, graceful like a dancer, hand raised and his voice tossed into the darkness saying ‘goodnight’. And that was the last time I saw him. Our love story was the end of his story and just a chapter of the life that I now have to live without him, the life that I try to live for him, the road less travelled that I continue to walk.
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