Ashes to Ashes
It was the 15 February 1999. The light was starting to fade across the Severn Estuary. A middle aged couple were sitting alone in a bird hide at the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. Watching the scene developing in front of them as wild Ducks, Geese and Swans descended upon the lake in front of the hide. They were there to find find safety and food for the night ahead. The birds that is. The man knelt down before the lady on one knee and said…
“Will you marry me?”
The lovely lady replied. “I knew that was why you had brought me here. Of course I will.”
They kissed and hugged and sat down to watch the last of the Swans flying in.
“Aren’t you supposed to give me a ring?”
“It’s OK. My mother gave me her wedding and engagement rings before she died and I would much prefer them anyway.”
It was quite unforgettable. After years of anguish and uncertainty, it seemed that finally true love had come his way.
It had all been so different just six weeks before. They had both been dumped by long time childhood sweethearts. She was all but divorced. He was still in the same house as his “wife”. Unable to untangle the mess, they had carried on a false existence where trust had disappeared. The need to hang on to the matrimonial home that was the result of thirty years of marriage had assumed an unrealistic importance. Until, of course, he met the lovely lady. It was a match made in heaven, or sometimes the pub.
In true boy scout fashion he had to be honest and told his errant wife that he too now had a new love. That the time had come for divorce. And then the war started. All semblance of the agreed fair play ended when solicitors became involved. Shortly after Christmas, he ended up at his sisters with a black eye. “What am I going to do, Wendy?” “If I was you, I would run away and let the dust settle.”
And he did. He had packed an overnight bag and that very afternoon drove 300 miles to Pembrokeshire in Little White Van (LWV). Staying at a farm guest house called Lockmeyler. The next day, New Year’s Eve, he walked into the nearby village of Llandeloy to a public phone box. No mobile phone then. Rang the lovely lady and told her he couldn’t cope with all the aggro and was calling off their friendship. The silence was awful. “I am so sorry you feel like that” she said and put the phone down.
Back he trudged to Lochmeyler, feeling even worse for his cowardice. What did he really want? By the next morning, it was obvious he wanted the lovely lady. Once again he trudged to the village to that phone box. Rang in dread of what she would say. “I am so sorry. I am a complete idiot and know now what I really want is you.”
There were tears all round and she made a suggestion. “Come back to me. Don’t go home. You work out where we will go and take me there. You and I are free. Both dumped. What are you worried about? I think you are still scared of the person who has dominated you and still does. She has her friend and now you have me.”
The next day he drove back in LWV. Back for a clandestine meeting in the café of Tesco at Broadbridge Heath. Back with a plan. She could leave her battered old Polo near a friend’s in Horsham and he was taking her to Dorset then and there. A manor house in Ibberton, far from the madding crowd. He had tried to stay there once before but it was full.
Three hundred miles from Pembrokeshire and now one hundred to Dorset in an old white van. As they approach the manor house, the Dorset lanes resembled tunnels through the stark outline of trees lit by a full moon. It was so beautiful. In the morning the landlady asked what they would like for breakfast. He asked her what she liked and she nearly fell off her chair laughing. At 54 years old, he was being “naughty” for the very first time. Or, as Andrew reminded him, “You only had one girlfriend and you married her.”
Six weeks later, it still had to be done properly. Marriage was the only option. After losing all trust in the human race, it had to be commitment. And so it was.
Twenty two years later, it was as though that was when his life really started. When he finally grew up and realised his potential. They were wonderful years that followed. A roller-coaster of life condensed into such a short period. A period he will never forget. Even on his own now he recognises that the persons who wrecked his first marriage did him a massive favour. They are still together and now he can honestly say after all the upset: “Good luck. I hope you found the happiness you wanted so badly. Thank you. I found myself.”
Back in February 1999, she took him to Slad where she had gone to school as a young girl. Asked him to walk up Swift’s Hill. Her favourite place of all. And uttered the immortal words:
“If I die first, this is where you must place my ashes.”
It’s now 15 February 2016. Together with a group of her Cotswold schoolfriends, they climbed up Swift’s Hill and did as she had asked. A beautiful blue sky as they watched her ashes float on the breeze down to The Woolpack. The village pub.
Each February since we have gone back to the Cotswolds. Walked up Swift’s Hill and remembered the good times. Sadly this could not happen this year and we have recovered a photographic record of years gone by.
15 February 2016
Laurie Lee poetry post.
All these special snowdrops are from the wonderful Colesbourne Park, near Cirencester:
15 February 2019 – Swift’s Hill
14 February 2020 – Swift’s Hill
15 February 2020
15 February 2021
Each year we have gone back to the Cotswolds we have “acquired” a small clump of snowdrops from Cherington Lake and replanted them in the Surrey Hills. We couldn’t go to the Cotswolds this year, so we brought them to Surrey.
For Al-Anon, most people have tried everything possible to stop their loved ones drinking. Or they find being brought up in alcoholic families a burden too hard to bear. If they are lucky, they find their way to the “rooms” of Al-Anon. Nowadays, those rooms are all online. The pandemic has had the effect of making the fellowship far more accessible.
You can join numerous meetings in this country and abroad. All you need is to have had your life affected by the drinking of others. If this is you, Al-Anon may be able to help you. Not just in relation to alcohol, but in a whole new way of looking at life. Sometimes members share gratitude lists. It’s snowing outside at Laurel Cottage as we write this and he is grateful to be here in a nice warm house. Never forgetting that we are both here because the lovely lady said “Yes” on 15 February 1999.
You can think long and hard about a gratitude list, or just reel off a few that come to mind. The latter is the case here.
Bobby is grateful:
- to the Legal and General, for chucking him out (redundancy) in 1992 with loads of money. After thirty years there, it didn’t seem like it at the time, but it is the one single event in his life that changed everything forever.
- to the couple who chose invidious behaviour in their desire to form a new life at his expense. In doing so, they set him free from the bonds of tyranny. To grow up and realise his potential. He has no animosity now, but gratitude. Theirs was the second most important event.
- to Andrew and Julia who said… “You are free now, Dad. You could become a voluntary warden on Skomer Island.”. And kept encouraging him until he went. From 1995 to the present day. Something that would never have happened in the old life.
- to the Highways Agency, who employed him for a further eighteen years. Gave him a job that was infinitely more interesting than the L&G. New friends. New interests, that continue to this day. New respect for himself and, eventually, a new wife.
- to the Lovely Lady, who made his life complete.
- to Al-Anon, for giving him friendship and a family that no ordinary family or friends would understand unless they had been part of the fellowship.
- to The Gentle Author and Spitalfields Life, for encouraging him to write and, later, telling him “You are a writer”.
- to the National Trust at Denbies, for the good humour and comradeship of working together in the countryside.
- for friends and family who stuck by him.
- for the birds and the natural world.
- to Swansea Morriston Hospital, for saving his life.
- to Epsom Hospital, for Cardiac Rehab.
- to St George’s Hospital, for looking after his family for so many years.
- to the YMCA Redhill, for Cardiac referred online gym.
- for the friendship of a teddy bear called Bertie.
Lighting a Candle for Diddley