Churchyard (trip 4)

by haywardhelen


A large stuffed moose head hanging high up is my daughter’s favourite. The reindeer head, all alone on another wall, is mine. Stuffed with taxidermy material and covered and stitched in heavy wool, my impulse to buy it and take it home is as strong as my awareness that this would be folly.


We leave the shop with a large stuffed robin, but no moose or reindeer head. The thought of lumping one of these through customs, and stowing it in an overhead locker, wins out over my fantasy of having a reindeer head from the Northern Hemisphere watching over our Christmas at the bottom of the Southern Hemisphere.


My son, who is mad on sailing, has come along in the car solely to look at the boats moored on Lake Windermere. However heavy rain and early dark have made this impossible. Instead, while his sister and I admire the moose head in the shop, he sits slumped in our hire car, switching idly between songs on his phone.


When we get back to Grasmere, with just enough time to cook supper, my father-in-law’s partner asks if they might stay on another night. ‘The roads are so wet, with snow forecast. And your father-in-law, though he would hate me for saying it, isn’t as young as he was…’. Apologising for my thoughtlessness, I immediately agree, and she jumps up and kisses me.


I dream up another meal for us at home, while father and son go out for the evening. I’m terribly aware that although they long for each other’s support, for complicated emotional reasons they seem unable to give it. Perhaps I am mistaken, for they do encourage each other. But not unconditionally. Could it be that they don’t quite approve of each other’s work? It is no business of mine, I know. Yet I’m alive to this eddy, and feel real sympathy for them both as they disappear once more into the rain.


While they are out, my son and daughter slurp soup in front of a DVD upstairs, and my father-in-law’s partner opens up to me. Without probing on my part, she describes her life so far. Her gifted but wounded Russian husband, her two very different daughters, her work in embassies, and her hopeful attitude to life. She tells me all this with such warmth and urgency that I am under her spell. ‘Ah, Helene’, she says as the evening closes, ‘you are such a good listener’. I smile and nod, glad that she has been able to lose herself in me, if only for a few hours.


The next morning, our last in Grasmere, my kids and I pack up the house and meet my husband at the village church. ‘I’m on holiday’, I tell myself, as I lug a heavy bag of rubbish up the steep slope to the bins, and clean up the kitchen out of respect for the housekeeper.


It takes a while to meet up with my husband in the village churchyard. Where, he immediately wants to know, is our son? There we are, standing next to a very old church, within calling distance of Wordsworth’s grave, with my husband stamping his feet, partly from cold, but mainly at not knowing where our son is. But our son, I think to myself, could perfectly well be travelling on his own, has no real need of his parents, and is almost certainly not lost. My daughter, on the other hand, less understanding of her father, leaves the churchyard in a huff and takes a track that skirts behind the village.


After piling into the car I drive straight to Kendal to buy the reindeer head, plus sandwiches for the motorway. The reindeer head is, I feel, mine by some kind of aesthetic right. If, of course, there were such a thing. Then we drive for hours on soulless motorways, getting on each other’s nerves and wishing the miles would magic themselves away, which they don’t. My son punishes us by refusing to play ‘his music’ – which my daughter and I have become dependent on. We don’t even try to play the car games that kept us amused on the drive down from Scotland. Nor do we get off the motorway, except at an ugly truck stop for petrol. I grit my teeth and push on, willing away the ache at the bottom of my spine.


‘Why are we staying in Bath?’ my son asks from the back of the car, as darkness falls and we leave the motorway for the Lake District. ‘Because’, I explain for the second time, ‘it’s your father’s favourite city in the UK, apart from Edinburgh. And’, I add, ‘I like it too’.


Slowly, maddeningly slowly, the traffic snakes into Bath. We find where we are staying and park our car in the busy narrow street. Except for the fact that the apartment, an Air bnb, is inexplicably full of flies, the place is completely lovely. Even my son, who tells me repeatedly that I care about all the wrong things, likes it, and promptly takes the top bedroom.


Early the next morning I awake to the sound of hurrying footsteps. Half of Bath seems to be rushing down our street into the town below, staring into mobile phones as if they were crystal balls. Where, I wonder idly, doing yoga stretches, can they be going in such a hurry, barely looking up from their screens?


My husband departs to work and, after a glance at a guidebook, the three of us head through town and up the hill for The Skyline Walk. When I stop to ask directions from a man turning an old Volvo into his drive, my son pulls out his phone and heads back down the hill, as if to rule out any possible connection.


The beginning of the walk, or at least where we calculate the beginning of it should be, is devoid of signposts. It is also unremarkable. Perhaps it’s the grey sky. Perhaps it’s not knowing if we’re on the right track or not. Perhaps it’s having been spoiled by earlier walks in Scotland, and of course Tasmania.


Eventually we stop for a snack in a deserted adventure playground, at the bottom of a hollow in the middle of a beech wood. At first we just do the tyre swing. Then it’s the ropes course. Then it’s a timed ropes course, which my son determines to win. Before long my son is out of hand on the tyre swing. The silent pressure of being nice to family and friends is flung to the wind and he is his old boisterous self. Only sadly today he is too heavy for me to push to any height on the swing.


The young man who my husband still mentors stays with us for a couple of days in Bath. He has now spent more time at Oxford than my husband ever did, and he seems subtely changed by it. But his throat is sore, and he is taking penicillin. Rather than worry about his weird sounding voice, I make us all a thick chicken soup for supper. Then it’s time for a few games of Monopoly Deal, before turning in early.


In the morning there are familiar scurrying footsteps on the street below. I open the shutters and look out, curious. Well dressed men and woman are walking, some nearly running, down the street. ’Where’, I ask my husband, who is lying in bed, ‘are they all off to?’ ‘London’, he replies, as if surprised that I didn’t know. ‘Oh, I see’, I reply, realising my naivety. These young men and women are rushing to their desks in London, to jobs which finance their lifestyle in Bath. So that, I think to myself, is how the cafes and boutiques keeps their doors open, their lights and heating turned up high.