Friday, 3 May 2013

The End of an Era

Wednesday, 1st May 2013

What a beautiful day to start May! Clear blue skies, warm spring sunshine, not a breath of wind - and I thought of Henri who used to walk these hills over so many decades but who will set foot to earth no more. As cancer took hold in her ninth decade, she said she had done with her life and now just wanted to float. She passed away on Monday and today I imagined her up there, smiling down on the place she loved so much and knew so intimately.

I have been here but a decade, yet the spirit of place has entered my soul completely. As I dug the earth to plant my columbines, primulas, pulsatilla, wallflowers, campanulas and aubretias, the sheep and lambs lay quietly in the filed, the birds sang their spring song at last and the drill of a distant woodpecker drifted across the valley. I thought of the kingfisher Henri always told me about down by the stream where she walked, and I missed her. The brittle clack-clack of her walking stick as she walked purposefully up the long hill past our house, heading for the beech groves or some such other place, her little 3-legged dog trotting companionably by her side and to whom she was devoted.

Henri (who made it quite clear to me from the start that she hated being called Henrietta!) was a trooper - a no-nonsense woman who had led her entire life in and around this village. I'm sure she had travelled but her home was essentially here, and this is where much of her extended family still lives, many of them working the land she loved to walk on.

It was through her love of walking that I first got to know her. She would put me to shame with her early morning yoga and twice-daily walks. I was always passing her in the lanes - especially when the girls were at the infant school, morning and afternoon, out with her dog, regular as clockwork. Her routine coincided with my drop off and pick up times and we would always stop and have a chat. She taught me most of what I know of this village, its history and its people. Early on she wanted to introduce us to her family and friends and I will always remember going to her delightful cottage, drinking sherry and meeting them. She was devoted to several other 'grande dames' of the village, always ready to help out her frailer friends. I certainly never imagined that she would be gone before they.

Even when I was no longer going to the infant school daily, I would frequently pass her on our lane as I dashed off somewhere else, but I would always put down the window of the car and have a catch up - or at least ask after her and explain that I couldn't stop. One of the last times I saw her was earlier this year. I passed by in the Defender as she was chatting with a neighbour further down the lane. I wound down the window to say a quick hello and Henri quipped, in her classically clipped no-nonsense voice: 'Are you safe to drive that thing?'!

Not so long after that I met her again and stopped to have more of a chat. I noticed how her face had grown thin, her once lively brown eyes more sunken. I asked how she was and she said, elusively, that she hadn't been well but it was clear she did not want to be drawn. Instead she asked after the girls, whom she had watched grow up these past 10 years, and we parted in due course, me none the wiser as to the gravity of her situation. Little did I know that that would be the last exchange we would ever have.

Henri was a part of the landscape of this village and it is hard to believe that she is no longer with us. She will be sorely missed by so many, not least of all, of course, by her immediate family to whom she was know, quite simply, as Granny. As her granddaughter-in-law said, it is truly the end of an era.

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