So we’re off tomorrow. Off to Butterfly Bay.
It’s not really called that, of course. Though come to think of it, I don’t know why of course. But it’s not even called Buddleia Bay which would certainly make sense. It’s called Budderly Bay.
Sally always used to say it sounded a bit like swearing, and used it as a swear word, but our parents did the wisest thing and ignored her, and she took the credit for having first named in Butterfly Bay. She almost certainly wasn’t the first to call it that, but I think, at least when she was ten, she believed she was, and I wish now I hadn’t teased her so much about it.
But no, no sanctimonious twaddle. She could be annoying, in the way little sisters consider it their duty to be. But she was also the kind of child who decided a place was called Butterfly Bay.
As children, with two years between us and far too much like each other, we squabbled non-stop. I’m not going to pretend we didn’t. But there was still this essential “us against the world” feeling. In our teens and early twenties we were very civilised to each other and grew apart.
But oh, I’m glad we grew together again.
I won’t say it means no regrets and no guilt and no “if onlies”. But, and I keep reminding myself of this, she trusted me enough to appoint me guardian of her children if, as it says on those TV advertisements for Life Insurance, the worst happens.
And oh yes, I said it would be a pleasure but I was still glad it would never come to it! For all I doted on Milton and Christabel, even if I wasn’t sure about her choice of names.
She had no acrimony at all towards the children’s father, Guy, whom I only ever knew slightly, but still made it plain that if the time came (another of those insurance ad euphemisms!) she wanted me to look after them and not Guy. “Wouldn’t he raise a fuss?” I asked, “Though we’re only speaking hypothetically, of course.”
“No,” she said, tersely. “Oh, he’s fine for Christmas and birthday presents, but he’s said himself he’s not father material”, Grace.”
I’m glad now that I stopped myself saying he should have thought about that before they slept together without protection. She would have said herself (and I wish I had her ability for making a truism sound profound) that it takes two to tango. And he was very, very, good in bed.
Some people, saying that, would seem either arch or distasteful or proving a point. Sally didn’t. She was simply stating a fact. I almost thought that it was as if she were saying he had a good singing voice (which apparently he did) or was a good handyman (which he wasn’t, but we were used to it with our Dad, bless him, who needed counselling after trying to put a bracket on the wall). Something pleasant and nice, but not grounds enough for spending your whole life with someone.
God, I’m making her sound promiscuous! In fact she had a puritanical streak. Not one of those austere, virtue-signalling ones, but it was there.
She was full of contradictions. So are Mill and Bell, as they’ve decided to call themselves. At some point that might become awkward, though I guess Bell can just obtain an “e”, but this isn’t the time to say so. Children are funny about names. She was (oh I hate that was!) called Sarah, but would only ever answer to “Sally”, but I loathed being called Gracie, and didn’t hesitate to say so. To the best of my knowledge I never suffered any childhood trauma listening to repeated playing of Gracie Fields. If we did, it didn’t put off Sally because of the Alley!
I hadn’t meant to lapse into childhood reminiscences. Not on principle, and not out of self-protection but because – well, they can’t take over.
Like bittersweet deceptive time machines, they are on the shimmering and weeping edges of my mind.
Think of something practical. Make sure the children have all the stuff they need. Check and double check. Mill thinks that packing is something other people do for him, Bell is insistent, just as her mother was when she was ten that she can do it all for herself. And she probably can, just as her Sally could, though we never let her forget the time she forgot (and she was older then!) to pack any underwear!
I’ve always been a careless and “random” packer. One thing Sally and I always used to laugh at were those articles about starting to prepare for your holiday a month in advance. One of those little things that bonds people at the more awkward stages in their relationship. I remember how we used to alternate between parodying those articles and trying to outdo each other (and she probably won with “make sure you have an allergy cream in case you develop an allergy to your allergy cream!”) and going to the other extreme with our own advice (and I think the victor’s spoils went to me on that with “fling a few things into your holdall on morning of departure – this can also be carried out in the car, though preferably not when driving!”
At times I feel a sudden hot, sour, surge of resentment that cuts through the smiles at such memories. I am too young to be living on memories!
Well, so what? Sally was too young to die. Which puts my whining in perspective.
The trouble is, saying things have been put in perspective doesn’t make it so!
Back to the packing. In the full knowledge that we’re hardly going to a desert island, only to Norfolk, and it will be easy enough to replace or supplement anything forgotten.
So we’re off today. Off to Butterfly Bay. I’m a poet and I don’t know it, as we used to say when we were little, with all the pride of well knowing it. I still wonder about the wisdom of this. I still ask myself if it might not be wiser to go somewhere with no memories and no connections. Of course, Mill and Bell have no actual memories themselves, but as Bell said, “Mummy talked about it so much it feels like we’ve been there.”
No ten year old should have to speak of her mother in the past tense. But she does. She does and Mill does though no nine year old should have to either. And all the shoulds and oughts in the world aren’t going to change it.
Sometimes the sheer manner of her death makes me feel physically sick. In the early days (but it still feels like the early days and I suppose in a way it always will) I realised that it is genuinely possible to see red with rage. Now it is more of a suppurating grey. Although there is nothing wrong with my eyes, it is as if the colour is blanched from things. And I fear it will be blanched from the sea at Butterfly Bay that can change from grey (but a different grey, a grey that speaks of power and softness at the same time) to almost blinding blue within seconds, blanched from the glorious shifting and sifting clouds on the East Coast and from the yellow sands, and from the heady purple fields of lavender on the approach road. I have gently warned the children that despite the name, they might very likely not see any butterflies at Butterfly Bay, though there will be some not far away. Butterflies don’t tend to like the crashing waves and the jutting cliffs.
Losing anyone, especially far too young, is always, I know, a ghastly matter. But I can’t help thinking, I CAN’T, that it would be easier to accept if she had been ill and the doctors had done all their best, or if it really had been just a total, unavoidable accident, or even (and I hesitate to say this, even in my diary, because you just don’t say things like that, well, I’m sorry, but like I said, I’m cynical of oughts and shoulds) some terrorist attack that some people saw a reason for, even if it was a sick and twisted one.
No. She died because some moron (I know his name, but like a frightened child in a fairytale, do not want to speak it) thought that speed limits applied to other people and that being at his meeting mattered more than anyone else’s life. He is still in a coma. I won’t say I hope he doesn’t come round, but how much of that is so he will evade justice if he doesn’t, I don’t know.
Oh, how liberal and non-judgemental principles can crumble and prove fragile!
I do feel sorry for his mother. She is a gentle, frail-looking woman and I did not for one minute doubt her tears were genuine and that the little, tortured note she wrote to us came from the heart, and do not hold it against her that she whispered, in her only interview on local radio, “He’s still my lad.”
So yes, I am capable of sympathy for her. But I won’t lie. I don’t think about her very much.
Sally was wearing her new top that morning. Not for any especial reason, not because she had any interview, or anyone to impress, but just because she never did see the point of keeping things for best. She had shown it off to me only the previous day. A lovely blue top, the kind of blue that manages to be deep and bright at the same time, quite plain, but with a little lacy pattern round the neck, and setting off her clear, pale skin and nut brown hair beautifully. Even at the time of our worst squabbling, and that was now years past, we had never, curiously, been jealous of each other in matters like clothes and looks.
Have just double-checked the cases. All present and correct, and no need to have checked. As I knew all along, of course.
We are on the road to Butterfly Bay. I remember Sally once proudly told me that even though she had been carsick as a child, her children never were, and she was right. We have broken the journey, even though we didn’t really need to, at a service area. Mill and Bell are playing on the little climbing frame, though even as I write, they have tired of it, and are on the swings instead. I am at one of those outside wooden picnic tables that seem to have been perversely designed so nobody could ever get their legs underneath them. I am determined not to give into the temptation to yell at them to be careful, or to hover, or to wrap them in the proverbial cotton wool. But it is hard. They sometimes call me Grace and sometimes Auntie Grace, and I’m fine with either, but would never expect them to call me Mummy. If they had been younger, it may have been different. But I am not their Mummy, and never will be, though I love them so much it hurts and feel so desperately inadequate.
I have phoned Meg, who owns the holiday chalet where we’re staying, to let her know we’re on our way and should be there within a couple of hours. I’m glad (though I always feel I should put words like “glad” and “happy” in disclaimer quote marks – something I know full well Sally would think utterly ridiculous!) that I was spared having to decide whether it would be a good idea to stay in the cottage where we stayed when we were children. It’s not let out for holidays anymore. Meg knows about what has happened. She said, “Oh, how bloody awful,” with a simple sincerity that spoke volumes.
We are at Butterfly Bay. Meg greeted us at the chalet, quickly explained how the boiler worked, said not to hesitate to phone her if we had any problems or needed anything, but then left us to ourselves. I was right to trust her and warm to her. There is something calming about her practical kindness.
The sun will set soon, though of course, as we are looking out to the east, we won’t see it set over the sea. But I remember that somehow the sea still seemed to reflect it.
I broke off. Time seemed to stand still. For despite what I had told the children, a butterfly came down to light, just for a few seconds, on the pages of my diary, stretching and flexing its wings in the warm, fading light.
A beautiful blue butterfly. The kind of blue that is both deep and bright.