Two week holidays mean doing a load of washing midweek. It’s a novelty for me to go to a laundrette, even more to have a quiet morning of domestic jobs that give me quiet moments in between. If I went to a laundrette at home, I’d be supervising my washing to make sure it didn’t go missing; here, I’m just keeping it company in the time between starting the washing and coming back from a delightful accident in a yarn shop.
It might surprise you to know that this particular trip to the laundrette will probably go down as one of the highlights of my holiday.
There was an elderly gentleman and an elderly woman in there with me; he looked inviting, she looked (and sounded) like someone too spiky to engage with. I was too embarrassed to open my DS and play in front of them, so I crocheted and, after a while, asked the man what he was reading.
He gave me a gently condescending smile. “It’s a book on eschatology,” he said. “Do you know what that means?” It wasn’t rudely said, but I know he didn’t expect me to know.
“I nearly did theology at uni,” I replied, “but I didn’t.” And off we went.
I love discussing gods with people, I’m endlessly fascinated by faiths and perceptions of faith – but I don’t believe in any religions and the trouble with that is to argue is often to offend, or to risk conversion attempts. I find it difficult that conversations about faith of that type tend to start from the basis that I’m wrong or misguided, not that perhaps it doesn’t really matter what we personally believe.
But it wasn’t one of those conversations. He was 85, a man who preaches sometimes still, a man who was evacuated and left school at 14, worked his way to a BA and an MA at 40 through his own sheer effort to better himself late on. And he was a man who had, with his wife, cared single-handedly for his 3rd child, a daughter who had always needed 100% care and attention and had never left home, who was now 50 and still with them, in their home, looked after by them. We talked, as you do, about making choices and coming to terms with difference and luck and what you might think you would choose in the early days when your life falls apart compared to what you might think later. I told him about Freddie and how we felt about him then – and now – and he didn’t judge me. He said he had felt the same, in the early days, but that his daughter had brought him so much joy. We talked about how Freddie has brought us something I wouldn’t be without, even though he isn’t here and about how I stand by my choices even now.
We snorted, from our own perspectives, about people who say that God wills things, or God gives you what you can handle (deserve?) or God takes children who are too beautiful for earth or who he wants for himself. I don’t believe any of those things. Neither did he.
When the girls, their education and chosen life chewed and discussed, popped in, I saw them be appraised by both my companions – and I saw my choices were not found wanting.
When he left, I thought I had found a friend. It felt good to have had time to listen to someone else. And to have talked, real life talked, to someone unclouded in their head by all that other stuff about me.
I hadn’t warmed to the other lady; she seemed grumpy and mouth sucking and obstreperous (all the things I loved about Max’s gran) but we got talking anyway. She told me about her life, of 20 years of battling to build a life she wanted, of disappointment and trying hard and how she had made choices for her children too. She told me that she wished she had done as we did, how clearly it had worked, that our children looked to her like we’d done okay, that she regretted educational choices. Snippets of a pursed lipped life slipped out but more of a woman – 75 – still building and changing and fighting. Someone I’d be proud to be actually, the more I listened.
And then she told me that she had been a midwife. That she’d seen death, and mistakes and professional who do their best and try so hard and how sometimes, sometimes, you can’t do more than that. And she snorted with derision at people getting sued for that and how she gave up eventually, tired of it all.
I told her we have never sued anyone. I told her that I know, know because I felt it, know because I’m not stupid, that no one neglected us or made a mistake or let us down and that whatever happened, we were cared for and loved and respected and that would have counted for enough, even if something did go wrong.
“Were you monitored?” she asked.
“Yes. They did everything right. We were never alone, there was never a problem. If Freddie died because of my labour, all my girls should be dead too. Besides, I just knew.”
And she replied… “If you knew, you knew. Mothers always do. And if they took care of you, if you know that, what would you have to sue them for anyway?”
I told her about how life has changed, how I’ll always rage but I will never regret and I told her about all those those things that let me know things were wrong, how I was ill with flu and he never felt right after that. I told her how the girls survived and the only time I cried was when I told her how, hearing of Florence’s siblings sobbing at her death, I had just known my girls were going to experience the same.
Dartmoor always makes me want to live here. I want to be settled, bury my son, have a place I watch changing with the seasons for years. Usually it is the stones and the trees and the hills that speak to me. This year it is the people, the pace, the ordinary life. The tiny story of an end of a life being played out close by among people who have been a fixture for us for 3 years. The people who greet our return. The familiarity of the environment.
Most of all, this holiday has pointed out starkly that my life is too sterile now. I see the same people, the same rooms, talk the same subjects, live a repetitive life. I’ve been comforted by that for 3 years but now, now I can see it will throttle me. I learned more – maybe gave more – in the laundrette, than I have for a long time.
I miss people. I miss life.