Intermission

I leave John in Brighton to attend to business and catch a train for Devon, to spend a few days with Mark before John is ready to ride again. Mark is heading off to the US (Fresno California) for a visit with a friend in about 10 days. She is recently diagnosed with pancreatic cancer, the disease that killed my mother. I remember how quickly she went after she was diagnosed, and I hope Mark’s friend is in one of the earlier, more treatable stages.

He’s shipping his bike over, planning to ride around the Pacific Northwest and the western states before heading south to Baja Mexico and from there Central America. “Care to join me in Belize this winter?” He asks. He knows I was bummed when I learned he wasn’t going to India as he had previously considered doing from November to April, because I’d hoped to be able to visit him there in late November or early December, after John and I have completed our ride. “Maybe,” I say, although I know nothing at this point about when I’ll be returning to the US and thus that part of the world.

He’s working on his house, getting it ready to rent out, and scrambling to find a tenant. Over the next week we ride around a bit on the 1980’s BMW he’ll ride on his trip, and I read, walk and write while he’s busy sawing, fitting, arranging and painting. He finds a tenant at about the same time as John calls to let me know he won’t be ready to leave again till early to mid October. Mark tells me I’m welcome to stay on and house sit for him when he goes, as the tenant isn’t moving in till the mid to latter part of October. I accept his offer gratefully, as accommodation is expensive in England, as is eating out.

One evening I come back from the village store to find a friend has dropped by, a woman called Ingrid. They are having a cup of tea and talking about places they’ve traveled. I sit with them for awhile then go into the kitchen to fix dinner, an asparagus in cream sauce pasta recipe I found online, but finding no asparagus at the market I’m substituting broccoli. I ask Ingrid if she’s staying and she says no at first, then after a while she changes her mind. She’s a tall blond woman, a few years older than me, and she exudes warmth and perceptiveness, as if she’s seen many strange and wondrous things and is hoping for more. She is so skinny that I wonder at first if she too has cancer or some other ravaging illness, perhaps anorexia. It turns out (after I’ve known her longer, the subject of weight arises, and I’ve confided in her that I was anorexic for a few years) she has always been naturally skinny without any interference or complications (“I do eat, really I do!”) She does in fact eat the entire portion of pasta she’s served, and generously proclaims it to be delicious. She once co-owned and managed an Italian restaurant so I appreciate the compliment.

She, too, has been to India, and more times than Mark. She’s been going for about eight years now for a few months each winter, and purchases clothes, handbags and blankets while there which she brings back to England and sells over the summer. She is eking by. She asks about my plans. When I tell her about riding with John she asks, “And then?” I say I don’t know. “Come to India,” she says. “Maybe,” I say, heartened by this, my second invitation in the space of a week to visit a warm and exotic place this winter in the company of someone who has knowledge of the area.

Before I know it Mark has gone and I’ve got the house to myself. It’s the first time I’ve been alone for weeks, and I need it. I call my grief mentor, who lives in Las Vegas, and tell her about some paperwork I received from my attorney’s office. It took me right back to the moment when what has happened became my reality and all those emotions that I’d experienced – shock, disbelief, rage, hatred, anguish, remorse, helplessness, sorrow, and feelings that don’t have names for them so far as I know, but are dark and ugly and wretched and bring to mind maggots and cobwebs and tight crevices and scalding water and flayed skin and what it might feel like to lay trapped under a burning tractor trailer – were upon me once again, as if we had never even briefly parted ways. She understands – her daughter, slightly younger than Jackson, was killed in a freak auto accident eight years ago – and knowing this calms me. She doesn’t say stupid shit like, “just breathe,” “don’t think about it,” or one of the worst offenders, the pseudo-philosophical “everything happens for a reason.” I want to strangle people who say that last one, then tell their relatives “everything happens for a reason.” Instead she asks me if she can do any of the paperwork for me, or if she can contact someone back in California who can act as my advocate to get it done.

A few days later Ingrid invites me over to her house for dinner. She tells me that in India, grief, especially for a child, is treated with much more respect and compassion than in Western cultures. You aren’t treated like a pariah with a contagious disease, nor are you expected to “get over it,” “buck up,” or by all means “keep it to yourself.” You don’t cry alone, she tells me, and you cry for as long and as much as you need to. A shrine to your dead child isn’t considered creepy, it’s considered natural. She takes my hand. “Come to India.”

I’ve decided to visit two friends in France while I’m waiting for John, so I book a ferry crossing, train ticket and accommodation at a hostel in Plymouth. As I leave Devon I regret that I didn’t get the opportunity to sample scrumpy, a home-brewed cider version of what we Americans lovingly refer to as rot-gut or moonshine. Maybe next time.

If you are looking for an eloquent and interesting read that blends history, travel writing and memoir, I suggest Ghost Riders: Travels with American Nomads, by Richard Grant, a Brit who emigrated to the U.S.

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