Tuesday, 1 December 2015

Pushing the Boundaries

Take a deep breath and keep on walking. Focus on the far side of the bridge. Don't glance at the spot where we had our photo taken after one of our first visits to the theatre together and where others are now posing for the camera. Don't think about the Whitehall Gardens immediately behind me, where we decided to give things another try after a short break up in the early days. Try not to look at the glittering night time panorama of London, sweeping across the Thames and taking in St Pauls Cathedral, the distant behemoths of the Square Mile and across to the Shard, the Oxo Tower and the South Bank.  Our skyline. Our city. Ignore the couples walking hand in hand, huddling together against the cold. Hand the beggar a pound because Louise would always do so. Choke back the welling tears and make it across.

Although born in South Africa and raised in Surrey Louise was a London girl to the core. Until we returned from our Whitechapel flat to the suburbs we lived our version of the metropolitan middle class lifestyle, spoilt by the easy access to a vast array of shows, exhibitions, museums, parks and restaurants. We hungrily absorbed the artistic, cultural, political and historical highlights. We may not always have understood them but we were keen to challenge ourselves. London was our playground and the South Bank our favourite corner of it. 

Which was why returning to the very heart of that life for the first time since Louise's death was enough to threaten my first breakdown in public for several months. The award winning Hungerford Footbridges which connect the Victoria Embankment and the South Bank are the busiest in London, modern steel and concrete structures crossed by 8.5 million pedestrians each year. Yet my passage felt as lonely, precarious and as challenging as a hire wire walk across a deep gorge. This was a bridge that we crossed and re-crossed together so many times. We never failed to stop to admire the view. It seems like no time at all since I was walking across it on my way home after our second date, light headed with disbelieving happiness at the good fortune which had suddenly engulfed me. Then I had gained more than I had ever dared dream of. Now I have lost it. A full circle of life.

Always sentimental, always vulnerable to the emotional significance of place, I feel Louise's loss particularly keenly in those locations which played a part, however fleeting, however mundane, in our lives together. Towns we visited, restaurants we ate in, museums we attended, train stations we stopped at, supermarkets we shopped in, roads we walked down. Every single one of them carries a memory. My mind wanders back to the moments we shared there, airbrushing out today's crowds and traffic and superimposing a ghostly vision of us, as we were then. The streets, buildings and landscapes are the same so its a struggle to understand how Louise too is not still here. 

I mentally divide locations in to two categories, those which are 'safe' because they played no part in our lives together, and the rest, all of which are approached with trepidation, as if crossing an emotional minefield. Certain places, those close to home, are impossible to avoid and I have become hardened to them as the months go by. The second visit easier than the first, the third better again. Gradually, by repetition, they lose their sting. 

But substantial areas have remained off limits. Places that are simply too emotionally difficult to return to. Some are easier to avoid than others. I'm unlikely on a day to day basis to have cause to visit the deserted romantic beaches of the Northumberland coast or Kardamyli, the Greek village nestled between the Taygetos Mountains and the Messenian Bay which we thought we would return to again and again. But London, a city of 8 million people on our doorstep, is impossible to ignore.

Bit by bit I have been cautiously renewing acquaintance with the capital in recent months, conscious that I cannot allow myself to be a prisoner of those memories for ever. Rather than decline opportunities, as I did during the early days, I have more recently been determined to accept the challenge and go wherever invitations and events take me. Therapy by Oyster card. 

So I have once again wandered the streets of central London on my way to restaurants, pubs, meetings and conferences, extending my boundaries as I go. I have sat on the low retaining wall outside City Hall where we shared our first kiss, found myself on Louise's daily route to her Bermondsey Practice, ventured onto the District and Central lines through our former home stations, and stood still amongst the movement of busy commuter crowds, staring transfixed at the car park of a wine merchants near Liverpool Street Station, lost in the moment four years previously when we were returning glasses from our wedding reception.

Louise's absence has been felt at every step. How can I be in these places without her being by my side? I push my hands deeper into my pockets, trying to fight the instinctive urge to hold one of them out ready to find hers. Completely lacking in any natural sense of direction myself, I stumble around uncertainly, yearning to be able once more to relax and follow Louise, with her intimate knowledge of every side street and shortcut. And I hope no passers by hear as I talk to her under my breath at every point of resonance, trying still to share our memories. 'Do you remember when we....?

Some particularly cherished places still remain beyond reach. The immediate environs of our old flat, the Bethnal Green church we married in, Victoria Park, beloved by all East Londoners........and until now the section of the South Bank that was dearest to Louise, the cultural hub stretching from the South Bank Centre to the National Theatre, a place which spoke to her love of performance, curiosity and learning.  A place accessed via the Hungerford footbridge.

I had no need to take that route across the bridge. I could have avoided it and kept the memories locked away. But memories that I cannot trust myself with are no memory at all. If they are all I have left then I have to learn how to safely set them free and, in time, draw comfort and pleasure from them. I cannot allow myself to be limited either emotionally or practically by the boundaries they impose.  A short walk across a footbridge, painful though it was, therefore represented another significant landmark in my journey towards a new life, helping me towards reclaiming both a special place and a host of precious memories.

1 comment:

  1. Dear Gary, my iPhone has deleted all your contact details, can you possibly text me your numbers please as it would be good to catch up.

    Best wishes