Over a barrel

An old splintered and rusting barrel with planks bursting in the midriff but still holding together and with young tomato plants growing in the top

What use is this barrel? It’s broken; the wood is cracked and rotting, the frame is speckled with rust. The bloated planks have lost their symmetry: they’re weathered and weary. Why would you keep it?

A decade is a long time by any reckoning. A month can go by, a year, without much changing, but a decade? You can’t call it a stretch of time any more: it’s past its elastic limit. Things have changed, frayed, decayed or fallen into the abyss of memory. Exactly 10 years ago we were given the cancer diagnosis that began the frantic downward spiral to Magteld’s death, 21 months later. It was a compressed, volatile period of hope and despair: the promise of a new start in her country that became a desperate race against time. The shock waves have softened and become less frequent, but this anniversary has weighed heavier than recent ones. The sense of dread has been building for weeks. Memories can weigh like stones. Sometimes her voice sounds so clearly in my head and I think: can an echo carry from so far back? But the evidence is unforgiving: children who reached up to touch her balding head now look down on mine; fabrics and bicycles have worn away, plants have flourished and withered.

Once we were a year and a half apart; now we are separated by eternity. Life goes on, but it’s a different life. Grief is a filter that colours every season, every landscape, every relationship. Not always for the worse – I’ve made new friends, visited new places, gained insights I would have lacked otherwise. I have acquired a kind of morbid expertise I didn’t wish for but that enables me to help people whose eyes are still clogged with the chalk dust of grief. But every milestone takes me further away down the road that we vowed to walk together. Survival sometimes feels like betrayal.

I remember her bringing the barrel home: it was the centre of her graduation piece, the arrangement she had to produce to complete her floristry training. The last act of her education, the start of her working life. The flowers are long since dead, but the barrel, even in its degraded form, survives. And when anyone asks: ‘why haven’t you thrown out that old barrel?’ her mother replies: it’s Magteld’s barrel. It stays. Those rotten planks are stained with memories.

You know the worst thing about grief? People keep expecting it to end. Therapists are fond of telling you to ‘give it a place’. Friends say you should move on. Some of them put it in stronger terms than that. Soon they’re no longer friends, which is what battle-hardened old hands call secondary grief. I use the analogy of a house in a street hit by a bomb: the neighbours might have their windows smashed in or need to repair a wall, but yours is the one that takes the direct hit. You have to rebuild it from the foundations, and however much people tell you the new house looks just like the old one, you can see the difference in every brick.

I’ve given my grief a place all right. A cold dark place in the core of my soul where I can creep away when the light gets too strong. I don’t go there so often any more but it’s there. It’s not a place where you grow or heal or meditate. It’s just somewhere you can step out of the flow of time when it gets too exhausting. I don’t have much advice for people who are newly grieving, but I’d say this: shorten your horizon. People think they’re helping when they say you still have your life ahead of you, but that’s an oppressive idea when you don’t know how you’ll make it to lunchtime. Concentrate on getting to the end of the day, climbing into a soft warm bed and waking up the next morning. Creep into your dark place, feel the coolness of its walls. But take a ball of string so you can find the exit.

Some people have a perverse fear of getting older, even looking older. I’m more worried about the opposite – that I’ll be snatched from this life before my work is done and while there are still people who depend on me. Life is a series of losses, starting with your own youth. Be glad you have the chance. If I make it that far I’ll wear the grey hairs and the wrinkles like service medals.

You’ve been looking at the barrel wrong. The planks are worn and splintered, but they’re holding together. And in the soil, in the top, the plants are thriving. New shoots, burgeoning fruits. It has a new purpose, sustaining and nurturing life, even as it decays. Its planks still catch the light: its shape is more intricate, its colours more varied than before. And inside, where the harsh sun can’t penetrate, it preserves the memories of former days.

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