I had trouble sleeping last night. I lay, in the small hours, watching stars shimmer through the window as frost crystallised on the grass outside. When I slid, finally, to sleep, I dreamed of another life, of a lover, whose love turned out not to be love after all. As I negotiated my escape I deciphered upside down timetables, scrabbled for change in pockets full of holes, feeling a surge of relief, of release, when I woke.
And then a day of fighting sleep at my desk, of trying to remember how to care. As the day stuttered towards 5 o’clock and darkness drew around the house I reached for the lights and the dog lead, shrugging on the feather-filled coat that had belonged to my son, grown now to the size of his dad. Each time I put it on I remember the way, the last time he was here, he’d draped it around my shoulders as a gift before he left. I wear it like a hug, feeling his recrimination when I wear it in the rain, struggling to remember why THIS IS NOT ALLOWED, unable to give up its enveloping softness, its overlong arms.
Outside, the air is cold for the first time, even though it’s November. The courtyard has put on its coat too, transitioning to its wintry self; shiny and black, slippery with moss and leaves. It drips and sulks, stretching out a foot to trip us with a twisted grin. Water gushes down the sides of the shed’s new oak post. It seeps into the earth below the cobbles and redstone, under the house as we sit inside, the damp creeping up the walls, the fire cladding everything with a fine black dust. Winter has begun. But when I return from walking in the evenings the newly painted house throws up a yellow well of light from the courtyard into the dark.
Tonight there is still a band of light in the sky as I reach the walled garden and the watery sun spills down behind the house. I watch two diamond shaped clouds, purpley grey, a hangover from yesterday’s dramatic cumulus, float, like pools of melting ice cream, in the blood-orange sky. Birds flit from the flowerbeds, spiked now with fractals, darkening stems, spectral seedheads. A blackbird, ferreting for worms and woodlice in the leaf litter, rises up with a flutter, making a startled call as he swoops over the wall. Last week I let the chickens in here, watching, half-amused, half-horrified, as Alice chased a large cricket across the lawn in a cartoonish sequence of stops and starts, runs and hops. Above me pigeons bounce the yew branches, black-fingered silhouettes against the sky, pecking off their scarlet berries like so many midget gems.
In the settling dark I walk with Coop out into the field where the egg-yolk light follows me, dipping the valley and glowing the house bordering the field. The hedges have been flailed, summer’s outlandishness chided into submission like a berated child. The fields feel stilled, like so many tidied rooms. Ahead of us, down the path, I can see a figure. Cooper recognises her immediately, and I realise, from the way she is walking, her hands cupped low behind her back, that it is L. Beyond her the black shape of K, watching us, poised, ready to run.
We walk together, L and I, smelling the cut green of the hedges, their white naked ends, like chewed hair, twisted and woody. As we walk, something about the shift of light leads our talk to death and dying. I tell her about my childhood terror of it, of its unendingness. “Are you still afraid?” she asks. “Yes,” I tell her, “I am still afraid.” She tells me about her father’s death, his acceptance of it, in the 3am room as she held his hand, about the way his face softened, “He looked so happy,” she says, “I think he was glad to be released.” She tells me about a time when it felt as if everything was lost. How she hadn’t known how to go on. Of how, in that moment of despair, she had felt an enormous wave of love wash over her, enfolding her, telling her that there would be a new beginning.
“I’m going to hug you”, I tell her, as we reach the point where our paths divide, “because we’ve been talking about the big stuff.” She hugs me back and we hold each other, feeling the warmth of a friendship forged in fields and lanes, on doorsteps and in back gardens, as the dogs stand by, looking on.
I turn back towards the gate, Cooper following behind, stopping to look at a star shimmering on the horizon, to listen to the bedtime churr of the birds, feel the cold, clean air on my face, smell the damp earth. And I begin to cry. I don’t know why. From tiredness? Love? Fear? Relief? “Do you love me, too, God?” I ask the sky, before picking up the path that will take me back to the puddle of yellow in the dip, to the dripping courtyard, to the house where I’ll find Glen, and a fire, twinkling lights and dinner.
Light is life. The sun illuminates our corner of the universe where we create poetry and art, science and music. One day, trillions of years from now, it will swallow us up, and the dark will become unending. Until then, each winter, with the turning of the seasons, we practice the transition from light to dark, finding the light that dwells there, remembering that spring will come again and that, until then, we have each other.
As astrophysicist Carl Sagan puts it, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.”
Hear me read ‘Only Connect’: