It took place on a warm May day, some bluebells were still out, I would have denied her that little extraif I could have, but nature shows up regardless of people’s feelings, just like Cath herself used to.
My mouth twitched at this irony, even as her ashes, all that remained of Catherine Anne Bailey, were shaken from the urn into the woods. I held my breath, I didn’t want one speck of her entering me.
The dust looked like the contents of my vacuum or the ash from my fire I thought grimly, I certainly didn’t recognise Cath from her ashes.
Her children were struggling through a poem, I felt a squeeze on my hand, perhaps one that was meant to help me through this most difficult of moments. I squeezed it back and I managed a tear, but really that pearly drop was for myself, not for her, or him. And actually it was rage, rage from the soaked sponge inside me that squeezes out a drop whenever I hear the name Cath.
No one knows, that’s the extraordinary thing.
It was over a year ago that Cath’s daughter rang out of the blue. ‘Jane? It’s Jess, Cath’s daughter.’
‘Oh hello Jess, how are you?’ I said and I knew instantly that something was wrong with Cath.
‘I’m okay Jane, thank you, but mum’s not well and I just wanted to let you know.’ I heard the catch in her voice.
It was cancer, of course it was always going to be cancer, it ran in her family, she smoked heavily, she drank spirits and she lived on her nerves.
‘Oh I’m so sorry Jess, so very sorry.’ We chatted and caught up and I told her to keep me posted. And she did, phoning about once a month with updates. The cancer was vicious and the rounds of chemo and radiotherapy were stripping Cath of her looks and vitality. Cath had been asking if I would visit, Jess put to me delicately during one call.
I had things going on in my own life, not least that my husband had died and there was one hell of a mess to sort out. He hadn’t had cancer and a warning, he had had a massive heart attack while playing bridge and had fallen sideways from his chair still clutching his hand as declarer.
Cath and I had been best friends since the very first day of school. I had liked the look of this tiny girl with long plaited hair like a squaw’s and I wanted her to be my friend. She had liked my pink glasses. I hated those pink glasses, free on the NHS.
Then she had vomited during our very first assembly and I had been chosen to take her to the sick room and wait with her until she felt better. We held hands as we navigated the huge corridors we found ourselves in, giggling nervously, feeling scared.
She said, ‘I like you. I wish I had pink glasses.’
And I said, ‘I like you too, your hair looks like an Indian squaw’s.’
Cath put her hand to her mouth and went ‘woo woo woo woo’ just like the Red Indians do in the movies and the noise was so loud in those cavernous corridors that we took fright and ran off until we found our way to the sick room, rosy cheeked and laughing.
Cath married too young, he was a doctor who slept around. We fell out because of him. I refused to be her bridesmaid and begged her to rethink it all, but love, young stupid love!
Five years passed when I didn’t see her then she turned up on my doorstep, a small leather holdall in one hand and the other resting on a very large belly. Jessica.
Then she married again, my cousin David, a handsome dentist and they had a son, James. She was happy, I was happy.
In the mean time I had met the love of my life, Rowland, with a ‘w’. He was a farmer of 500 Sussex acres. We went on to have three children, boy, girl, boy.
Row did the work, I did the books. David and Cath and their children came down from London to stay all the time.
Those days were, how can I say, ambrosial. The children ran feral on the farm from morning to night, building camps, dams and fires. They found and nursed injured and poorly animals. They climbed trees and fell. But they always came back to be fed and watered. There were always cuts, bruises and broken bones.
The adults drank tea, coffee and wine all the days, we talked and laughed and ate and the days weren’t long enough. We shared Christmases and early mornings and late nights.
What we had was special.
Fifty years of friendship, three marriages, five children, a million laughs, a million more minutes on the phone, and then one mistake.
But what a mistake.
Row was a man of solid earth not of ephemeral things like the internet that came along and he got caught out, by it and by me.
He liked a tweet and that tweet was Cath’s and it was of a meal she called “scrumpalicious” in a top London restaurant, somewhere I had never been and, living in Sussex and being poor as we were, would probably never go.
But he had, Row had, and then he’d liked her tweet. The tweet and the date matched an entry on his credit card andhe had been away that night. A call to the hotel on some ruse of my ‘boss’ having left something there and it was confirmed, the two of them had spent the night together.
I went silent, that’s what I do, while he pleaded and pleaded. Months passed by with strained moments of passing on the stairs, simultaneously reaching for the salt and withdrawing, a brittle politeness was shattering us.
We never recovered and then he went to bridge.
I began clearing out the house. I’d drift through the rooms of our dusty old farmhouse with a bin bag stuffing this and that into it. Cathartic you might say, purging I’d say as I began to throw away ever more stuff.
Cath then gave up her fight, Jess called. She had just slipped quietly away. They had all been with her at the end. There would be a cremation and thanksgiving service, did I think I would come? I said gently that I didn’t think I was up to it, not right now.
On the day of the service I was at peak purge. By then it had developed into a full blown obsession. I wanted to be surrounded only by my own stuff. This was the only way I could move forward. I wouldn’t listen to my children telling me to slow down, that I might regret what I was doing. I was a woman possessed. Only when the last item of his was gone could I relax, I felt this so strongly inside me.
I hired a skip. Books, clothes, shoes, all of it went into the skip.
Then I came across our albums and sleeves of photos and I sat with them for several minutes weighing up the consequences of throwing them away and keeping them. My fingers twitched with indecision. Who would I be keeping them for? I hummed and hawed and bit my lip but only for a moment.
I lugged them outside and tossed them into the skip whereupon packets and albums fell open. I couldn’t help but see a montage of photos in that moment.
I gripped the side of the skip and looked in. I have to say it brought me up short and I questioned the sanity of what I was doing. I reached for the nearest photo. It was of me and Row at his 50thbirthday party in our dining room. I had cooked an enormous chilli. ‘Were you shagging her then Row?’ I asked him, because it was as if he was there, and I tossed the photo back in and went to find more stuff to jettison.
Some weeks passed, the skip was gone, the house hardly seemed any less full and I was facing widowhood. The phone rang, it was Jess.
‘Hello Jess, how are you, how is everyone?’
‘We’re all good thank you, there is so much to sort out isn’t there, no one tells you how much but I guess you know that don’t you?’
Jess, she always was such a poppet. I wondered what she could want.
‘So I wanted to ask you something, I don’t know how you’ll feel about it so please be honest.’
‘Ask me anything Jess, please, whatever I can do, you know that.’
‘Well it was sort of mum’s dying wish to be scattered on your farm so I wondered how you felt about that, we know it’s a lot to ask, but it was such a special place to all of us and it would make us so happy to think of her there, amongst the bluebells, down by the stream.’
Oh no, I thought. I don’t want her here, I thought. I hate this woman, this marriage wrecker, this traitor.
I said yes, what else could I say? I also said something else, a lie, a big one. I said I had scattered Rowland there too, but I hadn’t.
I had scattered him somewhere else, somewhere else entirely.