Why Do Beautiful Days Hurt the Most?


Temple Wood cairn in Kilmartin Glen, by Lnolan at the English language Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7247430

So… there I was, driving home from family visits in England. I crossed the border early in the morning, with a quick stop at Gretna for coffee and to say ‘hello’ to Scotland. I had errands to run in Glasgow, and ended up mid-afternoon on the last leg of the journey to catch my ferry, pushing on through torrential rain in a queue of cars all possibly heading for the same destination. Due to a road closure, I’d been forced to take the long way round, south from Inveraray to Lochgilphead, and then up the back road to Oban. The rain gradually eased and the sky lightened. I passed through an area of poor radio reception and pressed the CD button.

I hadn’t registered it consciously, but over the last few weeks I’ve become less and less likely to be struck with a sudden wave of unbearable grief, and I’ve got used to driving again. It’s ages since I’ve had to actually pull off the road and curl up around a pain so awful that it feels as though I’m going to stop breathing. The empty hole in my chest is much larger than a heart ought to be – I’m sure it occupies its own mysterious pocket universe, as no matter how much I feel it seems to have an infinite ability to feel more at a moment’s notice. But there we are – I’d hardly thought about it at all for days. I hadn’t considered the way bad weather keeps us at home, or if we go out it makes us keep our heads down, concentrating on the task at hand rather than taking in our surroundings.

I came round a bend in the road just as the CD started up and a shaft of sunlight broke through the clouds and illuminated the rich green pastures of Kilmartin valley, one of the most beautiful and interesting pre-historic sites in Scotland. The song was Leonard Cohen’s “Ain’t No Cure For Love”, and its haunting saxophone intro hit my ears just as the shaft of sunlight struck the ground, and I remembered that this – this place, these ruins, this history – was one of the places I’d planned to bring Mark to, as soon as we had a chance.

It’s a very beautiful location – lush, rich pastures laid out across the floor of a broad valley, with scattered remains of cairns and standing stones dating from both Neolithic and Bronze Age periods of occupation. I went there with my Dad last October, and I’ve passed through a couple of times on the way to meetings. It’s such a contrast to the rough lands to the north, with their steep slopes and skeletal soils, fit only for forestry or vast swathes of bracken.

Mark had a great love for old places. He wasn’t necessarily compelled to find out the facts about them – he loved to wander into a ruin, perch himself on a pile of stones and pontificate about what life might have been like at the time they were laid down. There are certain abandoned villages on Mull that I can’t visit without breaking down, because his presence there is still so strong. He’d have loved Kilmartin; the place is rich with history: every stone has its story. Under the blade of sunlight lancing down from the heavens, all the brighter for the dark hint of rain behind it, the fields glowed an almost impossible shade of green and Cohen began,

I loved you for a long, long time.

I know this love is real.

It don’t matter how it all went wrong,

That don’t change the way I feel,

And I can’t believe that time is gonna heal

This wound I’m speaking of.

There ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure, there ain’t no cure for love.

I shut my eyes. I was in the middle of traffic, at fifty miles per hour, on a winding country road and I shut my eyes. I couldn’t help myself. It only took seconds to extricate myself from the line of cars and pull into a side road where I could stop. There weren’t any tears – I doubled up over an oh-so-familiar pain and as the sunbeam broadened and the landscape glowed I heard myself making a terrible sound, like an animal with its leg in a trap. Interesting thought – if I could rid myself of this pain by some means analogous to gnawing my own leg off, or even if it was possible to free myself by some simple expedient such as medication (and don’t think it hasn’t been suggested to me) – I don’t believe I’d do it. I’m not ready to let go yet.

Someone asked  the other day – not just me, there was a group of us and it was a pretty general question – if you could bring anyone back from the dead for five minutes, who would it be? God. I would bring him back mouldering and half-skeletal for the pleasure of hearing his voice again. I would bring him back just long enough to get there and tell him I loved him before he was gone again. I’d bring him back simply to be there in that final moment, so that he would know he wasn’t dying alone. God help me I’d bring him back for good even if it ended time and destroyed the universe. Thank goodness it isn’t possible to raise the dead!

Of course I didn’t stop breathing. The song ended, the sun went back behind its cloud, the world became ordinary again. My heart kept beating. I’m sorry, my love. For such a long time I hoped it would stop. After all, it isn’t mine. You gave me your fragile but reliable heart, and I promised to take care of it. You broke mine, so badly that it couldn’t keep you alive any more, and now I have your steady beat in my chest and it won’t let me stop. The sun shines, there are still songs to be sung, and beautiful places are somehow even more beautiful now that I wear my nerves exposed and raw. And I couldn’t give your heart back now, even if I wanted to.

It was Philip Sidney (1554 – 1586) who wrote these lines. They are ours, and they remain true.

My true-love hath my heart and I have his,

By just exchange one for the other given:

I hold his dear, and mine he cannot miss;

There never was a bargain better driven.

His heart in me keeps me and him in one;

My heart in him his thoughts and senses guides:

He loves my heart, for once it was his own;

I cherish his because in me it bides.

His heart his wound received from my sight;

My heart was wounded with his wounded heart;

For as from me on him his hurt did light,

So still, methought, in me his hurt did smart:

Both equal hurt, in this change sought our bliss,

My true love hath my heart and I have his.