The Grim Reaper, some wonderful books and a poem. -- Enid Richemont


 Most of us, when we were kids, have played some form of the gruesome verbal game of "Would you rather...?" Would you rather be eaten by a crocodile or swallowed by a whale? Would you rather be drowned in the sea or frozen in a deep freeze? Would you rather be locked up forever inside a chest, like the lost girl in the story, or would you prefer to be thrown from the top of the Empire State Building? For lucky children with kind and loving families, it feels like fun to flirt with terrible things, daring them to come on while knowing they are fantasies, and so we can push the improbable scenarios to impossible extremes. Nobody really believes in their own death, in spite of wills being drawn up (my daughter wrote an elaborate one when she was about nine) and funerals planned, often in great detail. These things feel like theatre, and the fact that we won't be there to watch a bit irrelevant, unless we believe in ghosts.

I have, very recently, had a reality check in the form of an unwelcome bodily guest, the one with the name beginning with a 'C' (but not Covid) which we all dread, and which in my case, seems to be not very treatable. It's odd that acual illness features very little in the horror fantasies of childhood, the gory endings being much preferred. As a child, my own first encounter with the Grim Reaper was via a schoolfriend who must have been one of the last very young people to die of tuberculosis. It was a strange, almost unreal situation. I used to visit her regularly, and apart from being in bed, she looked and acted normally. We shared the nonsense kids share. We ate sweets and giggled. There was no atmosphere of impending doom. I can't remember her parents, but I have no recollection of grave faces and tears, but she did die, and I was disbelieving, because I'd gone round to her house for a chat and to fool around, and was told that she'd died that day. We weren't really that close, so I didn't exactly mourn her, but afterwards I still remember going on a short country walk close to her home, and the colours of the sky that day, and the green of the grass, and the wild flowers, buttercups and clover, and that strange, indefinable silence inside me.

As always, friends have been hugely supportive, with flowers, and especially, books. I downloaded for my Kindle Maggie O'Farrell's short stories: Seventeen Brushes with Death. I'd never read her, but it had been very well reviewed, and seemed gruesomely appropriate. Her writing, predictably, is brilliant, and her life extraordinary, but knowing that each story contained its own horror made me eventually abandon it. One day I must read her "Hamnet".

A friend gave me Jenni Murray's "A History of Britain in 21 Women" which has totally grabbed me - there was SO much I didn't know, and SO many fantastic women to meet, like the early 19th century Ada Lovelace, Lady Byron's daughter, who became a mathematician and one of the pioneers of computer science, actively remembered into the 21st Century, with Ada Lovelace Day to raise the profile of women in Science, technology, engineering and Maths. Most people will have heard of the great astronomer William Herschel, but not of his sister, Caroline, who was possibly more innovative. A learned paper she wrote, however, had to be delivered by her brother to the Royal Society because - well, you've guessed it - she was a woman. Oh, and what made Boudicca really cross with the Romans, before the rape of her daughters etc, was that her husband had died and left her an inheritance, but under Roman law, women weren't allow to own property, so they claimed it as theirs.

Other literary delights have been a return to "Restoration" by Rose Tremain which opens with a lot of erotic naughtiness and "All Among the Barley" by Melissa Harrison, but the most unexpectedly and most comforting  work during this trauma has been an Edward Thomas poem called "Adlestrop", which became almost like an ear worm, repeating itself over and over again during some of the more unpleasant procedures. It's from "A Bracelet of Bright Hair", an anthology by poet (and friend) Frances Thomas, and it was the last two verses that just sang inside my head, providing a island of peace, and I didn't choose it - it was just there for me. If you don't know it, Google it - it's worth it./

Comments

JO said…
It’s a bumpy path we walk, isn’t it, Enid. And thank goodness for books - they keep our thinking going even if the rest of us is falling to bits. Xx
Peter Leyland said…
Thank you Enid. Your post sent me to my files on Edward Thomas, a staple of my Poetry of War course. I love Adlestrop, the poem and have visited there with Sue my wife, although there is no station now. Tomorrow we travel by train to Sherborne for the funeral of her aunt, the grim reaper indeed, but she was 94 and had had a good life. I liked the childhood story you told about the girl who died sad as it was. I hope you continue to be as well as you can be despite the bumps.
Sandra Horn said…
Thank you, Enid - books are the best! I love Adlestrop too.
Bill Kirton said…
I’m not a poet, Enid, but I marvel at their gift of using ordinary words to evoke the inexpressible. The trouble is that leaves me speechless but with so much I’d like to say. So I just send my love.
Griselda Heppel said…
Your account of the school friend who died gave me goosebumps. That is exactly how it is. Because she wasn't a dear friend it wasn't like losing part of yourself but the poignancy and wrongness of that loss of young life among the green grass and the bright sunshine have stayed with you forever.
I am so sorry for what you are going through now. All praise to Edward Thomas who has come to your side just when you need consolation and support. I love his poetry. His use of trees and plants and birdsong brings out a sense of the sheer goodness and calm of the natural world in a way no other poet I know does.

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