Pulled Pork Baguette with a Side of Grief

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Fearful of mutiny by an angry mob of Striders, I thought it best to reconnoitre the walk route on my own, without pressure, so I could make my mistakes unobserved.  And I had made one or two, but managed to recover and regain the route before long.  So I arrived at the Cherry Tree, nestling in rural Oxfordshire, in good spirits.  I bought a pint, ordered my food and confirmed with the barmaid that the pub would be able to accommodate about twelve hungry and thirsty walkers of a certain age on a Monday lunchtime, subject to reasonable notice.

I chose a small table by the wall, sat down with my drink and fiddled with my phone while I waited for the food.  I was feeling quite contented, but perhaps I appeared lonely: a woman approached the table and addressed me.

“Would you mind if I joined you?  It’s rather better than eating on one’s own.”

I wasn’t sure I agreed with her: I’ve always been comfortable in my own company, and after a morning of walking, with occasionally stressful navigation, I wasn’t in the mood for making the effort to be sociable.  But she was no drunk or weirdo – a well dressed woman in her fifties: it would have been rude to turn her away.

She introduced herself as Clare, rather formally shook hands and sat opposite me at the small table.  We were too close not to talk, and I assumed that she wanted to converse rather than sit in silence.  So we exchanged small talk.  My food arrived before hers, and she gestured me not to wait, so she was doing more of the talking.

She was partner in a firm of accountants in London and she had taken the day off.  She mentioned that her husband was a partner in the same firm, who commanded a huge daily charge out rate.  When the conversation turned, as it will, to the weather, I mentioned that it had been one of those rare summers when I wished we had a swimming pool.  She responded that she couldn’t say that, as they had one at home.

In a wide ranging and superficial conversation we agreed that Lord Carrington had been a gentleman, and that Boris Johnson certainly was not, we discussed our respective careers, and then she asked me if I had any children.  So I prattled happily about our older daughter, smart, diligent, funny, analytical, and our younger daughter, a small force for chaos, art student and singer in a band.  Eventually it was time to return the question.  I was about to step on a mine.

“And you?  Do you have children?”

“I had two of my own.  A son and a daughter.  And a stepson.  My daughter died in a road accident in July.”

“I…oh God…you mean last month?”  She nodded.

“She was 26.  She was driving home from work on a country lane and a truck came round a corner on the wrong side of the road.  She died immediately.”

I floundered at the enormity and horror of what she had just told me, and feebly attempted a few words of sympathy.  She continued.

“She was six months pregnant.  The baby would have been my first grandchild.”

So far she had been composed, but was now making an effort to hold the tears back.  I continued to mutter platitudes and shift in my seat.  After a few minutes we had both finished our meal and I wished her well and we said an awkward goodbye.

I resumed my walk, once again getting gently lost in the west Chilterns, reflecting on her courage in exposing her grief to a stranger in the pub, and hoping she found it somehow therapeutic.  And I thought of some things I could have said which might have been more helpful.  And Clare went home, I hope, to continue her slow healing process.  One day at a time.

Bit Nicer

Vista general del hotel y la piscina

Jessica didn’t want to come in from the balcony, where she was looking down between the rails at something.

“Come on darling, we’re all ready to go” said Robert irritably.

She continued to peer through the rails.

“It’s just…that daddy looks bit nicer.”

It was a gleaming modern hotel in Tenerife, extravagantly fitted out by an award-winning Spanish architect.  Robert still found it somehow oppressive.  He walked onto the balcony to take a look.  Outside a ground floor room, a young dad was settling a small boy into his pushchair.  He could see what his daughter meant: the man was good-looking, and had a friendly and patient look as he attended to his child.

Ouch.  The ways of fatherhood had not come easily to Robert: he knew he wasn’t the most empathic or relaxed dad, and if possible he tended to leave most of the work to Helena.  But he did his best, or thought he did, and this unsolicited piece of feedback was difficult to take.  And “bit”…the affecting childish attempt to soften the blow only confirmed the sincerity of her comment

Well, on we go, thought Robert, as the family headed for the crazy golf course.  This at least was a chance for him to show off his pack leader credentials.  Or it would have been, but Helena was enjoying a lucky streak.  An elderly German couple watched indulgently as Jessica carefully took hold of the full size putter half way down the shaft and prepared to take her shot.  They widened their eyes in delight and applauded when the ball hit the angled bend and rolled to within three inches of the hole.  Then Jessica slumped to the ground.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Robert parked the car, paid the £7.80 parking charge and walked with Helena into the hospital.  They held hands as they approached Jessica’s ward, but let go their grip before their daughter could see them.  Jessica looked tiny in the bed, in her outsize hospital gown.  Her wrist was attached to a drip.  She sat up carefully and gave a small smile of welcome when her parents came in, and they gently hugged her.

“The doctor says they’re going to make me go to sleep, and when I wake up my heart will be better.”

“That’s right” said Helena.

“The girl in that bed over there says some people die when they have an operation.  Is that true?”

Helena stroked a curl of blond hair from the girl’s forehead.

“It will all be fine, darling, I promise.”

Jessica considered this for a few seconds, then bit her lower lip and nodded slowly.  Her mother squeezed her hand.

*    *    *    *    *    *    *

Three months later the family was in Cumbria.  Robert found himself at last getting into the holiday mood, as they strolled round dramatic scenery in the spring sunshine.  Lauren and Jessica scampered ahead exploring the rock formations, and Helena and Robert walked behind.

After a while they heard the scrunch of stones and a wail: Jessica had tripped and scraped her shin.  She hopped back to her mum.  Helena, ever ready with the first aid kit, cleaned and dressed the wound in no time.

Robert looked down at Jessica’s face, and saw how tired she was.

“Shall I carry you?”

She looked up and met his eyes, and nodded.  She reached up her arms, and as he bent to pick her up, she put them around his neck.