York Cemetery in spring
(Mother's Day in Belgium. I did not get my promised "pony egg", but I have a thermometer, and Smurf box file decorated with farting dragons. Here's something vaguely relevant (from my Paris/cake project) about the weeks following my youngest son's birth.)
It was a short labour in a quiet hospital and at seven in the evening, there he was, a boy. The baby my mother had been planning to buy clothes for on the day she died, angular and long fingered and entirely himself.
We look quite happy in the few pictures I have from the hospital, quite peaceful. We're huddled together, my body is distorted in a post-partum sag of exhaustion, but I am smiling and our scrunched red bundle is asleep in his father's arms in his hospital issue cap, peaky, shrewish nose to the fore. I had worried that giving birth, losing my insulated status as incubator, might open the floodgates of grief, but holding him, very little seemed to have changed. I was both relieved, and slightly disappointed. People came to visit us, sent their congratulations with a sort of exaggerated jollity and relief, like we were the long-awaited redemptive twist in a dreadful story.
I don't remember much about those early weeks, but I know the sun shone, unexpectedly for March. I would walk around the Bloomsbury squares with the baby in his pram and look at the drifting cheery blossom and enjoy the faint blush of spring warmth on my back and feel, on occasion, surprisingly happy. I was astonished by how easily I loved him: he was beady and easily comforted, deliciously soft and velvety. When I fed him, I could feel, with a hand on his back, when he was reaching satiety, could feel the air bubbles that formed in his tiny digestive tract and needed to be massaged out. The outpouring of uncontainable, savage emotion I had expected seemed to have been - at least temporarily - supplanted by a quite simple contentment.
A few weeks later, days before we left for Paris, I remember taking the train up to York with the baby sleeping on my chest, sparse downy hair wild with static. Leaving the station, it was cooler in York than it had been in London and the spring morning felt a harsher kind of proposition: brighter sunshine, bouncing cotton wool clouds with a grey edge, a chill in the air and just a hint of chip fat crossing Lendal Bridge over the River Ouse, swollen and grey, threatening to break out of its banks, yet again. The grass slopes under the city walls were vivid with daffodils, bobbing in the breeze, that perpetual signifier of a Yorkshire spring. Down Cemetery Road, in the meandering lanes of the cemetery where I had last been in October in a scuffing, persistent drizzle, spring had also arrived: the grass was long and the alleys full of tangled flowering briars.
There was no one around as we walked down a maze of overgrown paths, into a small clearing ringed by bent willows heavy with catkins, past uneven rows of lichen green headstones. I wasn’t quite sure I was in the right place, but yes, here it was: I recognised the neighboring tombs. We had chosen the plot because the two nearest graves were dashingly named First World War officer casualties. We thought she would have liked the idea of a perpetual escort of handsome young men in uniform. My mother’s grave was now a small hillock covered in short, springy heath grass, nothing like the narrow, astroturfed hole of the previous autumn, with the shockingly small coffin being lowered into it. I sat down on the grass next to the grave and unstrapped the baby, still dozing on my chest, lying him down next to me on my jacket. His eyes snapped open suspiciously and he began to kick and wriggle experimentally, deciding whether to cry.
“So here he is” I said to the hillock, feeling idiotic. “I brought him to see you”. I paused: there was nothing to hear but bird song. The cemetery was empty and so was I: I wasn’t at all sure what I was doing, wasn't sure that this lump of earth or my trip to see it had any kind of significance. My own grief still eluded me: it was not a thing I recognised as grief at all, this mixture of weariness and anxiety and outbreaks of quite mundane contentment. Even so, the trip had seemed like something that needed to be done before we left: it was the kind of thing, certainly, that she would have done, and that seemed like reason enough. I sat for a while longer.
It was sheltered in the clearing and the grass was warm and only slightly damp in the sun. The baby had not gone back to sleep, but was kicking his legs, decidedly, at high speed, his grey eyes wide open and focussed on something, or nothing, in the middle distance, beyond my mother’s grave. He was a funny little thing: quite tightly coiled, alert, and yet also astonishingly cheerful most of the time. He really wasn't a difficult baby, but even so, I struggled to imagine what made him tick, what governed the Yorkshire spring rapid moods that shifted and animated his long limbs. Babies that new are so peculiar: unfathomable small mammals we love without understanding. It’s why seeing them emerge into people, with decided ideas and emotions, is such a strange, delightful, intermittently confounding process. My mother, I thought, would have enjoyed the puzzle of him. It seemed extraordinarily unfair that she couldn’t. I cried for a little while and it felt terrible and insufficient and good, all at once.
Then I picked the baby up and walked back through the lunchtime bustle of York town centre, weaving through tourist and shoppers, my feet taking their own route without conscious thought: Aldwark, the soaring white arches and flapping scaffolding covers of the Minster, King's Square, the compost smell and cobbles of the market. Finally, I stopped at Betty’s and bought myself three fondant fancies, two yellow and one pink.