The Picnic Blanket – Val McGregor

Now this is something very different to a children’s story.

Verdant, that’s what he called this landscape… verdant. Ironic really, considering my level of ignorance. I had to go home and look it up in the dictionary, he was so clever; his language, his humour, he had such a massive influence on my life… He was such a terrible loss… When I lost him I felt so isolated, I had no-one to talk through daft ideas, no-one to understand how my brand of madness worked… Of course there were other people who knew me, but he always seemed to make sense of those daft ideas, understand why silly things were important…can you hear the crows, shrieking their warning of the chill in the air. The landscape isn’t verdant today, too far into winter; a watery sun trying to generate some heat but failing… It’s so cold I have to concentrate on breathing, the crisp air is hitting the back of my throat. Is that age?…

The branches are bare and spiky today…. But you know, they are starkly beautiful, and that cold mist lying in the valley reminds me of watching heat hazes… reminds me of the sun growing hotter and lifting the moisture right out of the ground… It may not be verdant today but the scenery is just as beautiful as the first time he brought me here… When was that?… It must have been forty years ago.

I didn’t intend to be sitting here a week before Christmas… absolute madness, sitting on this picnic blanket out in the cold countryside, I’ll catch my death… sometimes I wish I could catch my death, I am becoming bored with life. I’ve always thought I would live a long and happy life, and I have. Still relatively fit and healthy for 80, and still able to drive myself wherever I want to go, what more could I want?

This year all I wanted was a quiet Christmas on my own, sometimes the loneliness is worse with others around you. People don’t always understand the need to remember things and cry if you want to… and laugh if you want to without guilt. But my sons would not hear of it.

I can still hear the laughter of those Christmases when we had the house full to bursting, carols playing on the radio. The memories of Christmas are always strong, I think its hearing the carols, I would play them all of December, the whole family groaned as I sang along… Every Christmas morning my sister walked through the door, asking if the bottle was open. She’d spent two hours in the car with our parents I could never decide whether she needed a pick me up or a calming draft. Always full of fun our Marie, still is on the rare occasions we can get together. My Dad loved Christmas, we all love it because of him, but not this year… too soon after Harry’s death, it’s too cold, too lonely, the house is too empty first thing in the morning, the lights artificially cheery… I try to hide it but I can’t summon up the enthusiasm for all of the jolly bonhomie.

“You can’t stay alone this Christmas” my sons worried, “Dad would turn in his grave”… to spite everything I still love and miss him and it started the crying off again. My Harry secretly loved all of the fuss… as long as he didn’t have to do anything. He professed to hating the decorations, but as we got older and I said I wouldn’t put up the big tree he got really upset. I always dressed the tree, even when the boys were little and wanted to help, the minute they were in bed I stripped it and started again, taking care to put all of the old ornaments to the back, wanting to keep the memories but not wanting to spoil the perfect symmetry of shape and colour. When the grandchildren came along, they helped to dress the tree and again the minute they went home I redid the whole thing… What did it matter… I should have left the plastic lanterns from their grandmother’s tree in the front, I should have left their twirls made in reception class wherever they put them… Such a waste of time.

I am grateful my children want me to be part of their Christmas celebrations. I am such an old fool… But I’m lucky my children still call to see me, not all of my friends are so fortunate. Their children live away or are too busy. There were times when I thought that I would lose them, I was very careful to keep the secret, I am good at keeping secrets, practice perhaps… but I was afraid of making them hate me. Thankfully it never came to that. The secret was… is safe.

“We’ll make the meal,” my family said, “and we’ll bring all of the table decorations and food, all you have to do is let us in and sit back…” They have no idea how hard it is to sit back and let others do everything for you. I loved making the meal, feeding my family… it made me feel useful… needed. I could still cook the dinner but they think I am too old and I’ll exhaust myself.

Oh God, how I would like to be exhausted… exhausted to the point of sleeping all night and waking rested and refreshed. Instead of waking every two or three hours thinking of what could have been… wondering about decisions made, about roads taken. My friends all say “I wouldn’t change a thing” well bloody lucky them I say, there are so many things I would change if I were honest… but that’s back to dwelling and wishful thinking, and which of us is truly honest even with ourselves.

My memory plays tricks with me, some days I look back at a fantastic life without want, without needs and totally blissful. Other times I look back at days of misery and longing… I remember the rainy days stuck in the house with two small bored children. Then I remember the sunshine, especially when Philip and I could escape together, but that’s a secret… They were warm halcyon days lying on the grass looking up at heaven.

In the end I relented and thought a fresh Christmas tree would be best, the boys would think I was entering into the spirit of it all. What else can you do when your children are worried about you? You try to allay their fears… Chopwell Woods I thought, that’s the place to buy a good tree, but I couldn’t make the car turn at the sign… it seemed to just keep going on its own… that’s how I ended up here … sitting in our spot behind this barrier of rocks on the old picnic blanket… I love this old blanket. I’ve carried in every car for the past forty years. I think I can still smell him in the fibres… in the early days of my loss I would hold it to my face breathing in his scent… Oh how I missed him… miss him still.

This blanket was so precious… he made me feel so beautiful… so sexy, on this blanket. Of course it was just becoming acceptable to say the word sexy, now you hear Jamie Oliver saying food is sexy. It was consider uncouth to think of anyone as sexy… desirable, he made me feel desirable. Throughout our time together that never once changed, Philip was so handsome, so clever, so sexy… Yes, even then I thought of him as sexy without shame… like a Greek God, like a film star, he made me smile every time I looked at him. I can feel myself smiling now just thinking of him; dark curly hair, green eyes twinkling with wicked humour, soft lips always warm and inviting.

The first time he brought me here to his favourite spot, it was one of those warm, sunny days with big white fluffy clouds you could lose yourself in. Not like today with the diminished lustre of the sun attempting to climb into the clear blue, a hue only found in winter skies. Its pale orb only managing to skim above the low bruised clouds that are warning me not to stay too long… it will snow tonight I can smell it.

We laughed a lot in those early days, laughing because it was liberating to lie there looking up, making pictures in the clouds, we lay looking at the azure blue sky. He told me that was the colour. In those days I had not thought much about words. Philip taught me so much… he taught me something every time we met… he opened my eyes to the beauty around me, he opened my mind to new things, music, poetry, art, things I had not considered as important before him. We spent many afternoons on that blanket, loving, talking and laughing. He was so fit and beautiful I felt privileged to be with him… he always made me feel as if I was doing him a favour being there. The last time we met turned into a summer afternoon of uninhibited pleasure… that last afternoon I experienced sensations I had not felt before, the intensity of the pleasure and the desire it engendered in me made me grateful for his touch… the sad part is I have never felt such pleasure since. I had no idea it would be the last time he would make love to me, make me feel like that… To be honest I don’t think he knew it would be the last time either. I don’t know if that is me wanting to think the best of him, but as I said which of us is truly honest, especially with ourselves.

The funny thing is I have always been a positive, optimistic person who looks forward, even after he’d gone. But lately… lately… all I seem to be able to do is look back; this has worried me somewhat… I waited for such a long time for a call from Philip before it became apparent I had lost my love, I thought my heart would break, I cried for weeks, it took everything in me to keep this private… crying in secret, locking myself into the bathroom and sobbing into my bath water, no-one wants a misery around them. I wanted to scream at people, “You don’t know what I am going through”. I walked around like a zombie for a while, Harry thought I was ill, at times it became difficult to function in the real world… but like everything you get over it, you learn to put the thoughts into a box in your head and bring them out in private… it felt delicious to examine the contents now and again, savouring the memories, savouring the misery, remembering the sensations, the touches, the conversations. No-one would understand how I felt… They couldn’t know the loss I had experienced, the beautiful world that dulled and tarnished without him.

I remembered this spot earlier today… I don’t really know why we never came here in winter… I haven’t thought about it for so long… If I am truthful I haven’t really thought of him for so long. It was so strange to turn the car into the car-park. I was always a passenger… now the driver it was an odd sensation… I felt I was being pulled back to something past and gone but real and relevant at the same time.

Over the years I have often wondered whatever happened to him…. He’s probably dead by now, could have been dead for years… Well time for home and reality, back to the mundane and banal, that’s what life has become… But first I must choose the tree, and for a while, join the exuberant world of the family Christmas, more of his words… a small legacy of pleasure.

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