To the End of the World.
I chose Australia because two of my dearest friends were on a one-year Sabbatical travelling round the
I also had a former work colleague and friend who lived in Sydney and one of Henry’s oldest friends lived in Perth. So I had a range of places to visit if I chose.
The trip was paid for by the sale of Henry’s Nagra, a then state-of-the-art recording machine which had travelled the world with him taping soundtrack for wildlife documentaries among other things. Henry told me once that if you ever see an eagle rising majestically from a tree on TV it’s not from hours of patient waiting and filming but usually because the sound recordist shot at it with a catapault.
The Nagra brought in £9,000, a veritable fortune, and it enabled me to fly business class on a four-stop journey to Cairns, Sydney, Perth and Bangkok. There is a saying that crying into a damask cushion is no better than weeping into a cotton one but when it comes to leg-room and 24 hours of flying when you’re already miserable, that goes right out of the window. I won’t say I got drunk on the journey but I certainly quaffed much the champagne that was offered.
It was almost unbelievably hard to go but it was impossible to stay. I was going quietly crazy in my little house in Harborne and once I had cleared out Henry’s flat in London and let it, there was no more need for me to travel up and down the motorway. His friends in London were all kind and asked me to supper when I was there, where I met the ‘lone widow’ syndrome for the first time. For some it means you’re a threat — vulnerable and alone and (in some women’s eyes) liable to get laid easily; for others you’re an awkward knobbly bit on the end of the table. The worst dinner party was the one where everyone was clearly going to start on the cocaine after pudding ... I made my excuses and left early so I wasn't the sore thumb sticking out but it shook me. After all, I’d only known Henry for 18 months. Had he ever indulged? I would never know.
I made a beautiful plot of spring flowers where his ashes were buried — and someone rode their bicycle over it. Such things are annoying at the best of times but heartbreaking at the worst.
And I was angry with everything. I swore I wasn’t angry about Henry’s dying (I was one of those ‘nice’ people who didn’t get angry). But I got mad at shopkeepers, at the people who engraved his stone for getting one word a millimetre out, at drivers, at the news. I got angry because the whole world just kept turning just as if nothing had happened. To the world, of course, nothing had. Life goes on (hideous words to someone newly bereaved).
I think the final straw was having supper with an old friend and colleague from Central TV when he said “don’t cry” when I shed some tears over my chicken. “Don’t cry”? Two months after Henry died, don’t cry? Of course he was trying to say it to comfort but trust me, it didn’t work.
I needed to be somewhere where I could begin to find ‘me’ again on a blank canvas. You have to think clearly when you are somewhere new and Australia was certainly that.
My family worried that I wasn't sane enough to be setting off for the unknown, but adventure has always been my friend and this time it was going to be a life-saver. If I had to think on my feet, at least my thoughts would have some kind of positive focus.
I thought I saw Henry standing on the tarmac as I climbed up the steps to the shuttle to London at Birmingham airport (this was back in the days when you still walked to an aircraft). It was as though he was trying to say goodbye to me. Every cell in my body pleaded with him to stay a little longer and I believed that he was with me for much of the journey. Such imaginary or spiritual comforts mean a great deal to the bereaved. Whether we do experience the beloved or not it helps to have faith that we do.
I arrived in Cairns the night before my birthday and was lucky to be allowed in, given that my Australian visa, which had arrived at the last minute, thought I’d be better named “Whitehorse.” It was a wonderful introduction to the Aussie state of mind that the immigration officer was happy to let me pet the beagle sniffing at my baggage while he pondered my passport. I told him about the puppy who’d be greeting me when I got home and he decided that “what the heck, you’re a dog-lover not a smuggler. Welcome to Oz!”
Sarah and Pete hadn’t arrived in Cairns yet; they were hoping to arrive within the next 48 hours so I had nothing to do but settle into my hotel room and walk around the town, which was mostly shut, it being a Sunday. There are only so many baths you can reasonably have in a day so by 6pm I was done and, tentatively, went down to the hotel bar with a book to pass an hour or two prior to deciding what and where to eat. I thought I’d have a glass of wine and read in a public place; you cry a lot less in public.
Within 15 minutes of my being there, a young Australian man threw himself into the seat next to me. I looked up, surprised and he landed me with the worst chat-up line in the world.
“Me and my mates at the bar got a bet on,” he said. “I bet them ten bucks you can’t be as mean as you look.”
Actually it worked. I was so nonplussed and also so lonely that I talked to him, explaining why I looked so unappealing. He was a true Aussie bloke and thought I should just cheer up and get on with things. After all, that's what Henry would want me to do, right? He managed to persuade me to go for a walk with him by the levée and we bought fish and chips which we ate, sitting by the water. I have a vague memory that we even went to a broken-down bar and danced a little but to be honest I can’t remember if that’s true. It ought to be true because dancing was just what I would have needed back then to shake the misery out of my body.
But I went back to the hotel alone. My Aussie friend was quite sure that Henry wouldn’t mind if I slept with him but I had no such intention. I didn’t even kiss him and he ended up being quite sure that he’d lost his bet. “You’d feel a lot better for a decent shagging,” he said.
I didn’t agree. I was still holding the memory of Henry's body close to mine and wearing as many of his clothes that would fit — and which still retained his scent. But I’ll always be grateful to my first Aussie friend for helping me through that first evening on the other side of the world.