‘We can ask and ask but we can’t have again what once seemed ours for ever — the way things looked, that church alone in the fields, a bed on belfry floor, a remembered voice, a loved face. They’ve gone and you can only wait for the pain to pass.’ J L Carr, A Month in the Country
It was a blighted time. In the two years when the grandmother who helped raise me was not-dying at the far end of Devon, I was up here in the town I’d taken root in, not-conceiving, not-working and not having an affair (that is to say, I was channeling all my attention into an intense, sexless friendship with another lost soul and away from my good husband, whose quiet kindness couldn’t balm the scorched earth feeling I lived in now I had put her away).
When I arrived at her house the day after the fall, she told me she wanted to die but couldn’t get it done. Had been trying for weeks – lying in wet fields, walking in front of lorries. I believed her: it happens among farming folk of that almost-gone generation: when their strength goes they sometimes put themselves down. She asked me to help her do it.
Instead, after a last week living there again, I waved her away from the house and off to a ‘home’. I doubled over once the car was out of sight, winded by grief, by guilt, by the inversion of the uncounted happy times she had waved me off to school. It was thirty miles away; she had rarely travelled more than ten her whole life: moving from her birth farm to the one she married onto, and then, when she was widowed, to this bungalow with its necessary view of sheep.
Why didn’t I stay with her? This had me sitting, stricken, back up on the Sussex Downs, long hours on park benches. I would stay out of my little house on the street below in all weather, hating it for being an impossible place to bring her to. Why was I here again? I would forget and remember that we were waiting for a baby to happen: we were on a list, we needed to work hard and save to afford more attempts if the first failed.
Two years. She kept not-dying, I continued not-conceiving. My husband handed me a note with a calculation on it: ‘The percentage of our married life thus far in which you have been emotionally absent.’ I ran away and sat in more public gardens. Knitted, fed the birds – some primitive attempt to be her.
Finally, it was our turn. The IVF began; a cold new year. A voice from behind me on a park bench said into my left ear (one of the two times I’ve heard a voice without a body): ‘She will die and it will work.’
The day they extracted my little crop of eggs I got a call to say she was going downhill, could I come? No, I could not. A double desertion. The next day I lay on my back and watched a screen show our single, fertilised egg divide from two cells into four before it was sent on the next and last stage of its improbable journey. I cried for the first time in two years. She died that day. It worked first time.
A good last line that, but it wasn’t over – the strange lending of her life to mine. I went into labour on her birthday and then – a fortnight after my son’s safe arrival – I suffered a sudden and devastating arterial hemorrhage. A mistake had been made. I was told to say goodbye to my husband and son in case I didn’t make it. I saw the light; believed my life was ending.
It didn’t, evidently (as Hughes’ Crow might say). I came out of the coma and eventually returned home but knew I would not come back from the sudden end of life perspective I’d had. I couldn’t work full-time as I’d planned and leave my son in someone else’s care. The rhythm of my young years with her, I wanted for him. But how to live? There was money to earn, as always.
On the mat inside the house I’d left, upended on a stretcher, a fortnight before was a letter and a cheque from my grandmother’s solicitors. I had always understood her whole estate to be going to my estranged father and half-brother (her attempt to right an old wrong), but her going into care had triggered a codicil in which a portion of the residual estate came to me.
I looked at the cheque: a quarter share of what remained from her small bungalow (half my whole world as a small girl). It freed me to take care of my son all day, every day, for as long as I wished, as she had cared for me.