A kind of magic

Last night I replied to the letter Celeste had written to “the fairy,” which I knew about two days previously and had done nothing about, despite Elodie’s repeated reminders. 

I used to love writing these letters for Elodie and Juliette.  I vividly remember wanting to recreate the magic I’d felt during my childhood.  My mother didn’t disguise her handwriting like I do but it still never occurred to me or my sisters that she’d written them.  Our fairy was called, Fairy Loose Tooth.  She lived at Cobble Corner, Fairyland, and her letters always thanked us for the latest tooth, and described which piece of jewellry they were to be set in. 

When I was growing up we went to beautiful places, like Cornwall, and my mother would say say that if we looked hard enough we’d see fairies there. When I stopped believing her I told the same stories to my little sister, Dani.

The last time I talked about fairies to my children, it was in a beautiful place near Southwold. We were on our way back to our holiday cottage from Ipswich hospital where Juliette had just had a routine check up.  There was a grassy dip under a tree close to the beach, and I could almost see the fairies dancing there in the sunshine. Elodie, Juliette and Pierre soaked up the magic, and they believed me.  I believed me.

Three days later, Juliette died.  In the foggy weeks afterwards, Saz gave Elodie a glittery fairy figure in a leather box.  The fairy became her talisman, her touchstone perhaps, for innocent times still alive with possibility.  Recently she passed it on to Celeste.  Unbeknown to either of us, Celeste has been sleeping with it under her pillow.

Celeste’s letter was poignant. She’s not a little girl that fits into a standard mould, and she’s the youngest girl in her class.  This seems to make things hard for her in school at times. I should have replied to the letter straight away.  I want to give her the answers, fill her with confidence that the good will survive, to go on spinning the magic that Elodie remembers and wants Celeste to have, but I’m disenchanted. Prayers aren’t answered in this world, and children die.  I’ve been robbed of the enchantment I believed in for 34 years.

I’m not cynical, but I need magic to be where I can see it.  No more blind leaps of faith or escapes into fantasy.  Actually, this is liberating.  I watch my children dancing long past their bedtimes as Elodie’s finger hovers over the iPod, and feel such a surge of joy.  I see their hard work and happiness as they plan and cook for a charity cake sale in memory of their sister.  I’m watching Elodie gradually get better from a horrible illness.  I feel the love they have for each other, and for Steph and me.  These things are golden, and I take none of them for granted. All we have is right now, and that’s good enough for me.

I answered Celeste’s letter.  I didn’t promise to give the unkind girls a fairyland-style rollicking as I might have done in days long gone.  I told her to try and remember what a gorgeous person she is.  Special, loved and without limits.  She’s written out a careful reply (the fairy had complimented her on her handwriting too) and as I kissed her good night she told me what she’d asked in the letter.  I gave her my answer, and she looked sceptical.

“I think I’ll wait and see what my fairy thinks,” she replied.

What am I doing here? (Part II)

I was telling Steph last night how a mother at school mentioned that she liked to read my blog (hello Mel) and how relatively odd it felt that she did – I’m sure she’d be the first to admit that lack of opportunity means we don’t have all that many conversations of an emotionally intimate nature.  It started me wondering what on earth blogging is about, and why specifically I am doing it.   A comment from Gypsy King on my last post about the essence of what this blog is trying to do, added further fuel to the thought flames.

I’ve kept it no great secret (ha) that I have suffered from depression over this past year.  I started receiving the full smorgasbord of medical help from the beginning of October, and started the blog in December.  I know that my mental health is a great deal more robust since then, and I’m not rushing back to read those first posts.

It’s partly about writing, I know.  Anti-depressants, or depression itself have acted as an explosive charge on my creative brain. Just by way of illustration of my artistic failure I use that analogy like it’s a good thing, and it’s the opposite.  My novel, the first draft of which I finished last year, is almost untouched.  I promised my agent that I’d have a decent version to show him round about now, and I don’t.  I just hope he can be patient.

I seem able to talk about my own feelings and experiences at the moment, but to hop on the wing of my creative bird is impossible.  I’ve lost confidence in my ability to do it. Blogging as a form of expression feels more like writing my first book, Watching Petals Fall, which I wrote about the experience of Juliette’s illness and how we survived after she died.  It’s honest, probably too much so, and when lovely people like Mel mention that they’ve read my blog I feel a tiny bit naked, just as I have done when others say they have read my book.  That makes me sounds increadibly naive because if I’m not writing to be read, then what am I writing for?

It reminds me of an older writer friend of my parents years ago who said in a rather forthright fashion when I reluctantly answered that I hadn’t written anything recently I felt able to show anyone, “Why Geves, writing and then not sharing it is akin to masturbation!” I think I was about eleven at the time.  Freddie (Daniel) Green wrote books now out of print about an imagined ancestor of Billy Bunter’s, and factual books about William Cobbett, and growing vegetables. I was very fond of him, despite his inappropriate sexual anaologies.  He would read my inevitably pathetic offerings and be endlessly critical, and yet he encouraged me. And I think he was probably right, about writing I mean.  It’s all very well honing away, but sooner or later you stop being a writer unless anyone actually reads what you’ve written.

I don’t know what I am at the moment however, as blogging is really the only writing I’m doing.  I think part of this episode of depression came from the fact that working on Juliette’s book was a driving force for me over some critical years of grieving.  It was my touchstone, the good thing that had come out of her death. I used it I realise now, to escape feeling the full impact of her death and when I finished it, there was nowhere left to run. Valiant efforts by my agent to ignite committed interest in the publishing world having stalled for the moment, I wondered why I had written it at all.  

I don’t wonder any more, because I know that the reason I began it was not for anyone but my own children to read.  It was an apologia for the way I had been when their sister was ill, and the way I had acted after their sister died.  Only when I’d been writing for a while did I imagine I had anything worth saying to other readers, bereaved parents or otherwise.  It will still be there for my children, whether it’s published or not.  There are stories in it that will remind us all of happy times we might otherwise have forgotten.

I’ve always been a confessional diary-type writer, a dubious, self-regarding art form I ‘developed’ from writing your actual diaries.  I do wish that I’d kept the tortured travelogue of the four love-lorn months I spent as a student in the States.  I saw and experienced many beautiful and interesting things, but mainly I eked ink over the page in description of my broken heart.  On second thoughts, maybe it’s a blessing that the whole lot got binned, together with school photos and old love letters after an argument with my mother.

I have an idea for a new novel, based on my experience of losing Juliette but taking it to the nth imagined degree.  The question is, do I have the courage to write it?

The real answer as to why I’m doing this, is the little girl in the picture below.  She taught me that no matter how long you live, life is too damn short to be afraid.

18th July

I’m sitting here in front of a candle I lit for Juliette tonight.  She left us nine years ago today.

Every year other than the first we’ve tried to do something special for this worst of days. The original idea was Elodie’s. She hated being around emotional adults so we made a rule not to cry, but to celebrate Juliette’s spirit by having fun for a few hours.  It sounds quite desperate put like that, and probably was.

Juliette was a little girl who looked for adventure in everything.  Television bored her.  Her morning mantra was, “I want to do something exciting today.” We couldn’t always manage it, but then her definition of exciting was thankfully wide.  “Exciting” meant making fairy cakes with Mummy, or turning the house into an obstacle course with the furniture, painting the box Papa’s new wheelbarrow came in and making it become a wendy house.  Exciting was out of the ordinary – a day to remember, mark and look back on.  She gave us lots of those. She nagged us till we knocked the old garage down so we could lay some grass.  We prepared the ground ourselves and that day, long after the rest of us were bored and tired, she was out there in the dusk raking the earth.  She was unstoppable, until she was stopped.

On previous anniversaries we took breakfast and games to the beach, saw West End shows and climbed the Trafalgar Square lions, drove miles for a music festival weekend, queued at a theme park where Papa was spun upside down till he went green – that sort of thing.  This year we didn’t plan anything.  Perhaps after this year of the black dog’s faithful shadowing, I’m no longer convinced that placing a colour filter over dark times is wise.

I woke up this morning worrying that not marking today was the beginning of forgetting. It’s nine years now, after all.  Do I still have the right to mourn the lack of her in my life?  I ask this question but the answer is meaningless.  I still miss her every day, and I know that I’ll never not remember.

People say with the ease of the unbereaved or detached that “Juliette wouldn’t have wanted you to be sad. She’d have wanted you to have fun and remember the happy times.”  Well, yes.  It’s comforting to think of the dead as generous and magnanimous, but if my daughter is in death as she was in life, a little bit of her would have been annoyed if there were no tears after she left the party. “Why aren’t you taking pictures of me?” she demanded at Raphi first birthday, three weeks before she died.  My egocentric, stage-hugging, beautiful, charming, funny, wise and delightful daughter that was here for too short a time.  Yes, why didn’t I?

We all went to see the new Harry Potter movie this afternoon.  When Steph and I were running earlier I remembered a forgotten link Juliette. Juliette loved Harry Potter, or “Harry Po’er” as she preferred.  She thought it was funny to speak with an Essex accent, mostly because it annoyed the snob in me…  She’d talk about birthday “coike” rather than “cake.”  When I asked her to say it properly, she would mock my accent.  “Keek. I’d like some birthday keek, Mummy.”  The month before Juliette died, Dido was here with her children. They were all gripped with Harry Potter fever and had fantastic games in their grandparents’ garden.  Elodie remembered today that both she and Annie had wanted to be Hermione.  Juliette wanted to be a character no one had heard of.

Elodie, Harry, Pierre, Juliette and Annie with wands aloft at Tatty and Grandpa’s, June 2002.

There was too much death in the film for today, but it’s ok.  Afterwards we ordered Chinese in a hungry, bad-tempered way but then Steph and I opened a bottle of rose, I lit Juliette’s candle and we all talked and laughed about lines from the film. That was the moment she would have loved.

We stopped by the churchyard after our run this morning.  Although Juliette’s grave is across the road from our house, we don’t often go.  She’s not there, amongst the ancient skeletons of people loved by others who are themselves long-dead. Today her plot was flowerless and overgrown with weeds, and the weather was chill and damp. I was struck at how this should have made me sad, especially today, but that it didn’t.

The stone has weathered since we placed it there.  The letters are not as sharp, and green lichen has taken a foothold in the grooves.  I know I still find the words and carved images beautiful and uplifting, but why did it make me almost happy to see it like this?  Perhaps weathering is the starkest of all reminders that my loss is no longer fresh. 

The carved crab represents Juliette’s courage. We went crabbing and she picked one up, after studying how some boys near us managed it. The rest of us were too frightened of being nipped to help.  This fearlessness and sense of adventure sums her up, in that nothing scared her or stopped her from having fun. Not even leukaemia.  The shells echo a long walk we took between Walberswick and Southwold a few days before she died.  We both collected them.  She put some in my coat pocket, and I found them only after she died.  She also found a stone with a hole all the way through on that walk.  “That’s really good luck, Mummy!” The ‘lucky’ stone is on our bedroom windowsill now, put there in a mood of bitterness but I can’t take it down.

In the end today was just another day without Juliette, but a day with fringes of sadness because it marks another year that she hasn’t been here. I think that’s the best that can be expected, isn’t it?



I’m feeling very emotional tonight.  Dido left this afternoon and although I’ll see her and the children again this weekend, she won’t be in my house again this trip.  Knowing that soon she’ll be flying back to the States and I probably won’t see her until the next time she’s over (two years) is horrible. I know the feeling scrapes against those illogical emotional reactions I’ve had since Juliette died, where every meaningful goodbye feels like a death. 

I don’t want people to go.  I didn’t want Juliette to go, but she went. This time nine years ago we were enjoying heavenly holiday days in Southwold, innocent and blissfully unaware of what was about to happen.  Then a chain of medical events took our little bronzed girl with sand between her toes and pink nail varnish on her fingers and killed her without ceremony.

I’m feeling sorry for myself and ashamed for doing so.  I’ve got so much to be grateful for, but right now I’m angry at the unfairness of what’s gone on and what’s going on now. I can’t even talk about what’s really happening, but I’m sick and tired of it. I want the family life we should have had, not this one of grief – each one of us with visible, and not so visible wounds from our war. 

A better day tomorrow.  Please.

Mood sponge

I’ve become a mood sponge. Well, I’ve become Elodie’s mood sponge.  If she wakes happy, and (rarest of rarities these days) feels rested, it lifts me into hopeful orbit. 

Unfortunately, the converse is also true. I know I have to be positive to support her, but when she’s exhausted, down and despairing at what her life has become, I want to weep.  She’s my little girl and I’m not sure how to detach myself. Perhaps it’s just not possible. 

I find myself remembering how this was easier with Juliette because of her relatively young age.  If she felt rough, I comforted and looked after her.  Over the nineteen months she was ill I never had to answer questions like, “What if I’m not better in six months?” or “Am I ever going to feel the way I used to?” 

I’m grateful I never had to deal with these difficult questions from Juliette. If she had been old enough to ask me whether she could die, I really don’t believe I would have been strong enough to give her the right answers.  Her condition was a part of her, and she accepted it.  In fact, the only time she ever even seemed to resent her illness was on a day I wrote about in my book. I’ve copied and pasted the section below.

We were incredibly proud and humbled by Juliette’s attitude to all the things that happened to her during her treatment.  In fact, there was only one occasion where she even mentioned her condition in a negative way.  At her weekly hospital check up, we had got into the habit of buying sweets either before or after the appointment.  Once, I was alone with her and had forgotten to pass the shop.  As we neared the car, she reminded me.  Tired and keen to get home, I told her that I thought we would give the sweets a miss, just for this week.  Her face broke with disappointed tears. 
“I never wanted to have leukaemia Mummy!” she raged, and as she said these words, I collapsed inside.  She had always been sanguine, and this was the first time that the disease was not her friend and happy companion.  That hateful, dangerous word had always spilled off her innocent tongue like something dearly loved.   “LooKEEEmia!”  It was her own, but for us it was the enemy she had welcomed into her heart while we could only watch and feel afraid.   I picked her up and kissing her, carried her straight back to the hospital shop.  On the drive home, I watched Juliette in the rear view mirror quietly eating her chocolate bar.  My shoulders shook with the effort not to cry.
Elodie knew that her sister might die.  She was five, for crying out loud, and had to carry the burden of this information that she could never share with Juliette for over a year.  Then she lost her beloved sister and somewhere along the line, gained a depressed mother.  Really, how surprising is it that her poor mind and body need a break?

Four good things…

Dido said yesterday that reading my blog always makes her cry. I realise I tend to express the gloomier of my thoughts here but I don’t like the thought of upsetting my sister. Today I’m going to focus on the good things.

Well, she is one of them. Dido’s my younger sister by thirteen months but since she moved to the States over fourteen years ago with her lovely American husband, Mike, I don’t get to see her all that often.  Right now though she and her family are over on a month-long visit.  We’re different in lots of ways, but alike in the important ones.  Dido is beautiful, solid and pure.  Her children are Harry (15) Annie (12) and Sophie (9).  Spending time with them all feels like having to unwrap gifts quickly and enjoy them, before they’re taken away.  You can’t linger over the presentation for too long.

Another good thing is that Elodie had a couple of consecutive “well” days in this past week. I allowed myself to believe that she had turned a corner which wasn’t very clever of me, but at least I’m prepared for the next time.  Both of us realise that she did too much on those days – shopping for new clothes to wear at her college induction day, then the induction day itself.  Pacing seems to be the watchword for this wretched condition, but it’s hard not to want to make the most of the moments where she has some of her old energy back.  She has more acupuncture this morning and in three days time she’s meeting a homeopath in London that my other lovely sister, Dani, has found.  That must be the third good thing – my sisters as an entity and as individuals.  Their love and support are the timber in my flimsy raft.

As Elodie hasn’t been up to much, when her cousins were staying with us last week she suggested watching a DVD of their shared younger days.  This was the fourth thing.

We used to have an old video camera and hours of recorded film. At some point after Juliette died we got a professional company to put the whole lot on DVD for us.  Some of the later sequences I’ve watched a handful of times, for the exquisite pain of seeing Juliette as I knew her, but I have never watched them all the way through. Elodie put on the disc that included a trip to see Dido, Mike and Harry in California when she was three, Harry eighteen months and Juliette, one.

It was gorgeous seeing the children so little, at San Diego zoo, at Sea World and just running around Dido and Mike’s house. Then, in one of those taped over moments that are usually so annoying, an older Elodie, Juliette and Pierre appeared on the screen.  They were all in swimming things.  Juliette was bald, laughing, mucking around, her hickman line packed away in the aquarium print bag on a red ribbon around her neck.  She came up close to the lens and addressed me, laughing in a way that was so familiar, and yet I had forgotten.  I had never seen it before.  Nine years after she died, I have something new of hers.

I don’t take things for granted like I used to.  In the wrong mood this gives an edge to life which can be uncomfortable – it touches on paranoia at the fragility of matter – but when life assumes a precious hue, I weigh happy times like gold.  I feel their value in a way that is new.  Losing Juliette has done this to me.  I can’t be glad, but in the absence of choice I can admit gratitude for that small but important thing.

So I watch through the window as Raphi plays cricket with my father. Aged 71 and with two hip replacements, he can still bowl the hell out of a ball.  I will lock the image of my father’s pride in his grandson and of Raphi’s steely determination in my mind and know it’s mine to keep, whatever happens.