House – a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers

We will never fight again, our lovely, quick, template-ready arguments. Our delicate cross-stitch of bickers.

The house becomes a physical encyclopedia of no-longer hers, which shocks and shocks and is the principal difference between our house and a house where illness has worked away. Ill people, in their last day on Earth, do not leave notes stuck to bottles of red wine saying ‘OH NO YOU DON’T COCK-CHEEK’. She was not busy dying, and there is no detritus of care, she was simply busy living, and then she was gone.

She won’t ever use (make-up, turmeric, hairbrush, thesaurus).

She will never finish (Patricia Highsmith novel, peanut butter, lip balm).

And I will never shop for green Virago Classics for her birthday.

I will stop finding her hairs.

I will stop hearing her breathing.


About two years afterwards, far too soon but perfectly timed, I brought home a woman, a Plath scholar I met at a symposium.

She was funny and bright and did her best with a fucked-up situation. We had to be quiet because the boys were asleep upstairs.

She was soft and pretty and her naked body was dissimilar to my wife’s and her breath smelt of melon. But we were on the sofa my wife bought, drinking wine from glasses my wife was given, beneath the painting my wife painted, in the flat where my wife died.

I haven’t had sex with many women, and I only got good at it with my wife, doing things my wife liked. I didn’t want to do those things, or think about whether I should be doing those things or thinking about the thinking, which meant I bashed her teeth, then knelt on her thigh, then apologised too much, then came too quickly, then tried too hard, then not hard enough.

But it was good, and she was lovely, and we sat up smoking her strong cigarettes out of the window and talking about everything we’d ever read that wasn’t by or about Sylvia or Ted.

She left and I felt nervous about feeling cheerful. I walked around the flat as if I’d only just met it, long strides and over-determined checking of surfaces. I looked in on the boys.


When I came down Crow was on the sofa impersonating me pumping and groaning.


Permission to leave, I’m done.

Shall I final walk the loop, the Boys/Dad boundary, hop/look/hop/stop.

Shall I final follow hunches, mourn hunt with pack lunches?

I dreamt her arm was blue when I found her, Red where I touched, reacted, peck-a-little, anything?

Nonsuch matte podginess gave way to bone,

Accident in the home.

She banged her head, dreamed a bit, was sick, slept, got up and fell, Lay down and died. A trickle of blood from an ear.

Hop/look/sniff/taste/better not. Total waste.

Lifeless cheek, lifeless shin, foot and toe. Wedding ring. Smile.

The medics arrive, the kids at school are learning, learning.

As you were, English widower, foliate head, The undercliff of getting-on, groans, humps, huffs and puffs, Wages, exams, ball-drops, lies and ecstatic passages, All dread dead as the wildflower meadow.

Starts again in proper time.

Some dads do this, some dads do that. Some natural evil, some fairly kind.

Pollarded, bollarded, was-it-ever-thus. Elastic snaps, a sniff and a sneeze and we’re gone.

Coppiced, to grow well.

Connoisseurs, they were, of how to miss a mother.

My absolute pleasure.

Just be good and listen to birds.

Long live imagined animals, the need, the capacity.

Just be kind and look out for your brother.

Max Porter, Grief is the Thing with Feathers, 2016.

In 1960, an American friend of ours, then a young writer in London, found herself, after lunch at the Travellers’ Club, sharing a taxi home with Ivy Compton-Burnett. At first Compton-Burnett talked to our friend, in a normal conversational tone, about the club, their host, the food, and so on. Then, with a marginal shift of the head, but absolutely no shift of tone, she started talking to Margaret Jourdain, her companion of thirty years. The fact that Jourdain, far from being in the cab with them, had been dead since 1951 made no difference. That was who she wanted to talk to, and did so for the rest of the journey back to South Kensington.

This strikes me as quite normal. We are not surprised when children have imaginary friends. Why be suprised when adults have them too? Except that these friends are real as well.

Bonnard used to paint his model/mistress/wife Marthe as a young woman naked in the bath. He painted her like this when she was no longer young. He continued to paint her like this after she was dead. An art critic, reviewing a Bonnard show in London some ten or fifteen years ago, called this ‘morbid’. Even at the time it struck me as the opposite, and entirely normal.

Ivy Compton-Burnett missed Margaret Jourdain with 'palpable, angry vehemence’. To one friend she wrote, 'I wish you had met her, and so met more of me.’ After being made a Dame of the British Empire, she wrote: “The one I miss most, Margaret Jourdain, has now been dead sixteen years, and I still have to tell her things… I am not fully a Dame, as she does not know about it.’ This is true, and defines the lostness of the griefstruck. You constantly report things, so that the loved one 'knows’. You may be aware that you are fooling yourself (though, if aware, are at the same time not fooling yourself), yet you continue. And everything you do, or might achieve thereafter, is thinner, weaker, matters less. There is no echo coming back: no texture, no resonance, no depth of field.

Julian Barnes, Levels of Life, Jonathan Cape 2013.