“My feet will want to walk to where you are sleeping but I shall go on living.” ( Pablo Neruda)
There was a shift. So subtle, had it not been her very mindset at that very moment, she wouldn’t have noticed it at all .. but there was a shift nevertheless.
Records would show it was the hottest September day for a century. The pair of black awnings outside the pavement cafe she had of late favoured for a lunchtime snack, did little to protect her, the midday heat piercing through the gap between with such intensity that her bare legs reddened in minutes. Moving the table and chair closer to the frontage helped a little, and she envied the clientele outside the Italian opposite, who had had the sense to sit on the shady side of the street.
The couple on the next table taking a moment to rest from trying to shop with the tiniest of newborns snuggled to the mother, barely an adult herself. They looked so young to be a family, to have the responsibility of such a precious new life. She marvelled how relaxed they were, with each other, with the baby and remembered those early days with hers, and she was heartened to see them pause, to see them savour this precious time.
On the other side of the street, a ridiculous attempt at parking a silver run-around in a lorry- sized gap. A woman driver of course, who even asked a man waiting in the next space if he could move back to allow her to manoeuvre, while everyone sitting outside the cafe could see it wasn’t needed. She watched fascinated as the driver to-ed and fro-ed, knowing of course that, if it had been her, she would have just driven past, rather than face the embarrassment of an audience! Funny how it’s never a man struggling to fit a parking space. Are they genetically engineered to be able to park a car? Just as they seem to be genetically engineered to be unable to stay faithful to one woman. She wondered if the biker casually sitting by the side of the road in his leathers, was waiting for the driver, a clandestine lunchtime meeting, since she had appeared to wave at him. Rather too public to be clandestine! On hindsight, the wave was probably just to warn biker man of her appalling parking skills and the vulnerability of his Harley. They seemed an unlikely match anyway, and so it was, for as she turned to sip her coffee, he was gone.
This treating herself to lunch was all part of the looking after herself, of being strong, of moving on. It was still a conscious thing, living life out of curiosity, without fear. Perusing the menu as leisurely as an hour’s lunch break would allow, she had chosen the “special”, just because she always ordered their ploughman’s sandwich and wasn’t about to become predictable, even in a coffee shop. How ironic therefore that the owner, a lovely man whose passion for the blend and commitment to his customers’ individual coffee foibles fascinated her, being basically a non-coffee drinker herself …. how ironic that the owner should mishear her and order her the “usual” anyway.
The heat. The world felt slower, languid, indifferent to the lunchtime rush. Trees lining this old part of the town, perfectly still, dappling the pavement and holding on to their green as if they knew this summer’s day was still to come, when everyone else thought autumn must surely be here.
She felt calm. She felt the world around her and was thankful. For all the hurt and the sadness, just a dull ache now and which she knew from experience only time could heal, she felt glad to be alive and the shift came imperceptibly. It was the clarity of light, the intensity of the heat, and the sudden realisation that right there, right then, she was exactly where she needed to be.
What better for a broken heart than the kind of love that would never let her down … the love of her oldest and dearest friend. Where better for a broken heart than the kind of place that would breathe life and warmth back into her fragile, battered soul.
And so, a month after he’d left, she and said oldest and dearest friend, stepped off a morning flight into the blistering heat that is Crete in late Summer.
It felt as though the tiny family-run hotel just east of Rethymno, had been sent to take her in and mend her. Somehow, on a Greek island saturated with tourists at peak season, they had managed to find a oasis of calm. Right next to the beach, she could, within minutes of leaving her room, feel the fine warm sand between her toes and breathe in the salty air. It was perfect.
They fell into the island’s welcoming embrace, whiling away their days under the bluest skies, discovered that Greek salad tastes three times as wonderful when you are actually there, that sometimes it’s fine to seek out foreign lands and in the end do nothing at all, and that red wine and lazy sun-kissed days can soothe a restless mind to sleep. She talked and cried out her hurt while her friend listened, then listened some more, like good friends do.
In the end, she could talk and cry no more. She would rise early every day to sit at water’s edge. The tears she’d determined she would not cry for him, fell in rivers onto the sand as she searched for him where the sea met the sky … he was not there, and finally, as Crete’s magic worked its Aegean charm, she felt her heart starting to let him go.
“Perhaps this is what the stories meant when they called somebody heartsick. Your heart and your stomach and your whole insides felt empty and hollow and aching.” (Gabriel Garcia Marquez)
He was gone.
She always knew, of course, that he would leave to follow his dream – he’d told her that right from the start. He never said he’d stay because of her … and even if he had, she would have told him to go anyway. This was something he had to do, and though they’d talked of her following him one day, for now he had to do this alone, to find himself, to find his path. It was a difficult time, an emotional time, when he needed space to prepare for the journey ahead. She found herself caught in the no-mans-land between the life he had and the life he was going to, and as her vulnerability grew, so did the distance between them.
She knew how it would end … yet she loved him anyway. The waiting game moved to a new chapter, one where she did not know if she would ever see him again. His leaving broke her heart.
The difference this time, she reasoned, was that she knew she would be fine, she had survived this before. She knew how it would play out, the journey from loss to hope. She was stronger now. She would not let it pull her down to the depths of despair, fear, longing and sadness she had felt before. She would not give it the head space. She would be kind to her soul, her very essence of being, and laugh again. She would accept that he had gone, and live her life to the full, without him. That was her plan.
But her heart did not hear. There is no short cut from loss to hope. Days of despair and fear cannot be shortened to just one day, sadness and longing do not give in to hope without a fight. He had taken a piece of her with him, and so, like before, heartbreak wrapped its icy fingers round her soul, and she lived her life as best she knew how, while she waited for the thaw.
“Ours is essentially a tragic age, so we refuse to take it tragically. The cataclysm has happened, we are among the ruins, we start to build up new little habitats, to have new little hopes. It is rather hard work: there is now no smooth road into the future: but we go round, or scramble over the obstacles. We’ve got to live, no matter how many skies have fallen.”
(D H Lawrence, “Lady Chatterley’s Lover”)
A year since he had broken her heart, almost to the day.
A year of finding her way through an emotional whirlpool of desperation, anger, devastating sadness, fear, loneliness, self-doubt … let no-one say that letting go is easy. It is not.
Nonetheless, she’d made it through. Where once the thought of just getting through a day seemed more than she could bare, at last she found herself looking forward instead of wondering what could have been. She no longer needed to wear the mask that told the world she was fine … because she was. She had chiselled away at the mountain of hurt with a courage and determination that she would no longer let it stand in her way.
They say you have to love yourself, before you can love someone else. She understood that now, and perhaps that had been the problem all along. While she struggled to find out who she really was, she’d looked to him to fill in all the gaps, to show her the way, to prop her up as she dipped those first tentative toes into her new life. May be it had all been too much to ask.
The past cannot be changed, so the only way forward is to accept it, learn from it, and find out a way to mend. She was still finding out, but she’d come a long way in a year… and it showed.
She could feel the life she’d imagined pulling her forward and she ran to it , arms outstretched, with the hope and belief that it was hers to live, right there, just in front of her grasp. She had come through, trusted in her journey, and her heart was open. She felt a force coming towards her, so strong that it would change her life.
So when, a few days later, she saw him for the first time, she knew …
“The World is a book, and those who do not travel read only a page.” (Saint Augustine)
The thing about the travel bug is that once you’ve caught it, it becomes a life condition.
He had always teased her that she did not have a list of places she wanted to see. Now that list was so long, she wondered where to start. He had introduced her to places Arabic, and pre-packaged Mediterranean was familiar territory from family holidays. Northern Europe, however, remained uncharted territory. The fashion was for the likes of Budapest, Prague – she was not about to follow the fashion. So, in Spring 2015, Vienna it was …
She imagined a sophisticated city of imperial palaces, classical music, hearty food, snow and mountains – it was all those things … without the snow and the mountains, for Vienna sits on a plateau to the west of The Danube, the surrounding hills covered not by snow, but vineyards and dense undulating woodland.
A love of the arts, which drew her and her girlfriend together when they worked side-by-side in publishing in the 80’s, became the focus of their trip. So there could only be one place to start. Within hours of unpacking, they entered the magnificent doors of Vienna State Opera for the evening performance. Climbing the vast marble grand staircase to take their seats high in the auditorium, they marvelled at the well-heeled Viennese ensconced in their tiered boxes, classical music running through their veins. Spellbound by Schwanensee (Swan Lake) performed under glittering chandeliers. Such a privilege to be there.
Vienna oozes the arts through its every pore. Klimt’s “The Kiss” at The Belvedere, took her breathe away … much reproduced on greetings cards, nothing could take away the magic of seeing the real thing. And with immaculate timing, Vienna’s naughty boy, Egon Schiele, had just opened at The Leopold.
A city of imperial palaces – the magnificent complex of buildings that form The Hofburg, Vienna’s former Imperial Palace – the obvious place to start to dip into Austria’s history, with a guided tour of the state apartments, room after room of porcelain and gilded candelabra, and a special exhibition about Sisi, Princess Elisabeth of Bavaria, and wife of Frank Joseph I. Then to the south, the stunning Schloss Schonbrunn, former summer residence of the Habsburgs – reminiscent of Versailles with its grand mirrored rococo ballroom and formal gardens, laid out in the reign of Empress Maria Theresa.
Vienna, city of cake and chocolate – Demel tearooms, the heady sweetness of chocolate hitting the taste buds, Sachertorte and a cup of tea sitting at the bar in it’s dark mahogany interior. And city of a cuisine which exceeded any preconceptions. At Figlmuller, famous for its schnitzel large enough to fill the plate. Rich beef goulash at Weibel’s Wirthaus and the faded romantic “Kleine’s Cafe”, sitting in the kind of cobbled square so reminiscent of WWII movies, where the Gestapo screech to a halt on a side-cared motorbike. Tucked into a corner of this tiny cafe, with its smoke-yellowed walls, eavesdropping lovers in earnest conversation, their first taste of apfelstrudel. And Cafe Pruckel to mingle with the locals, drink late evening coffee, listen to piano recitals and mingle with the locals.
This was the life she imagined …. a culturally rich life. Her appetite satiated, for now …. she was living that life ….. and she had only just begun.
“When we hold on too tightly to our attachments we are trying to keep them just as they are, to make them permanent. But nothing in life is permanent.” (“The Restful Mind”, Gyalwa Dokhampa)
She always liked to feel it found her, just sitting there, waiting for her to pass by and pick it up.
It happened one afternoon on one of those days.
When she left her marriage, she had, of necessity, taught herself to embrace solitude, though still the thought of a day on her own had the capacity to leave a dull thud in her stomach and an uneasiness which she couldn’t quite put her finger on.
Some people have it all worked out, her daughter being one of them. She embraces her alone time and uses every opportunity to feed her soul, be it reading, creating, walking … an inspiration.
For some reason, it did not come to her so easily. In those days, after him, and before she knew the life that was waiting for her, she filled the empty hours between work and sleep with a determination to show the world she was getting out and moving on, a determination not to look her solitude in the eye. But there were days when there was nothing, no-one … and nowhere to hide from the panic that squeezed the life from her resolve. Those were the hardest days. The not-knowing-how-it -would-all-turn-out days. The too-much thinking-time days. So, so hard.
On that day, with no plans to speak of, she decided on fresh air and a walk.
The library was less than 10 minutes away …. so not much of a walk …. but something drew her in, perhaps being amongst people but not having to talk or make an effort to pretend. And there is was, on a table by the door, beckoning to her … a book, “The Restful Mind”.
Later, snugged back home, she read it cover to cover and for the first time in months, it felt like she truly understood how to mend. It’s all in how we think, she knew that. This book, written she later realised by a Buddhist, really showed her the road to acceptance of change, and how her busy, busy restless mind, so frightened of silence, could become calm, restful …. and truly move on.
Finally, her heart was ready to let happiness back in.