Seán Moncrieff: I got a message to tell me that she was dying

Time is all mixed up, and sometimes it feels like the present mocks the past

We tend to think of life as a story that moves in one direction: birth, all the stuff that happens after that, and then death. Yet that’s not the way we perceive time. In our minds, we whizz back and forth: five minutes or five years in the future, back to when we were kids or something that happened last week. Constant mental time travel. The present goes instantly, and when we think about it, it’s already become the past.

So, weeks after it took place, this is a Christmas story. Of sorts.

Before that, we have to go back even further, and visit a cliché about First Love, and all the blazing intensity it’s supposed to engender. The same story, endlessly repeated: two young people subsumed by feelings they’ve never had before. It establishes a mental template that can subtly affect every subsequent relationship. Some psychologists compare it to the start of an addiction.

Yet this isn’t true for everyone. Herself remembers her first boyfriend fondly, but no more than that. He was grand. For me, my first proper relationship was the full fireworks display. I can remember – or think I can – when I first saw her: and to my painfully earnest teenage mind she seemed both beautifully alien and familiar; as if we already knew each other from a different place.

READ MORE

The process of becoming boyfriend and girlfriend was long and exquisitely torturous, and in my memory it’s a series of wintery night-time images. Our clasped hands shoved into her coat pocket for warmth.

Inevitably, it ended. After school, there was college, work and other relationships. We had sporadic contact, then ended up in different ends of the country.

She became part of my story, one I told to friends, girlfriends, wives and my kids. And, as you do, I would occasionally Google to see what she was up to: a search that never yielded much information. She wasn't one to advertise her private life. There were social media accounts, but she never posted. All I knew were the basic facts: her job, where she lived, her family circumstances. She sent me a card for my 40th birthday and wrote that she felt it was a good age, when you finally have some sense of who you are.

Three weeks before Christmas I got a message to tell me that she was dying; that she probably wouldn’t make it until the end of year. I hadn’t known she was ill. She wanted me to know. Even after all those years, she knew I would want to know.

Yet even though I felt I didn't quite have the right to be so, I felt devastated too: like I was 16 again, and we had seen each other hours before

All those years. We assume there is a hierarchy to grief, that it is moderated by time and proximity. Of course, there were people around her, who loved her and who were devastated by her loss. Yet even though I felt I didn’t quite have the right to be so, I felt devastated too: like I was 16 again, and we had seen each other hours before.

I wanted to visit, but Covid worries and Storm Barra made that impossible. We arranged a phone call, but that had to be kept short as she was declining fast. It was a matter of hours. I won’t write here what we said to each other. She wasn’t one to advertise her private life. But they were, I like to think, the things we already knew.

Afterwards, I went upstairs. Herself was putting Daughter Number Four to bed. I needed a long hug. Daughter Number Four said it was the first time she’d seen me cry. She said I do it funny. Through her bedroom window, the Christmas lights blinked.

It’s difficult to know what to do after a phone call like that. But the present, or the near future intervened. I had to record some audio for a TV show voice-over: a line about whisked cream. Time is all mixed up, and sometimes it feels like the present mocks the past.

Read More

Recommended