On the ferry home. A huge drive behind us. Eternal thanks to John Partington for collecting and delivering us to the end and the beginning of our journey. We leave France and the ride wanting more. A good state of mind.
Our last day of the holiday was spent on the beach. The sea, despite its recent dusty addition, was clear and blue. We swam in it.
Our neighbours, the ones I think I flooded, compounded my guilty conscience by turning out to be amazingly generous divers. Gilles, a rugged rocket engineer (really) and his lovely extended family introduced Tilly and Betsy to the wonders of the deep.
He took them snorkeling and then with a tank took them deeper to discover octopus, dogfish and a myriad other creatures. It was wonderful.
Gilles and his family are opposed to any hunting or damaging the seabed. They collect plastic and other human detritus that litters it. This area of the med is benefitting from a nearby protected marine reserve and flora a fauna is abundant. Gilles produced an octopus from under a rock for the girls to hold and stroke. Betsy in particular was enchanted. Involuntary clapping and skipping gave it away. The Octopus was allowed to slip away under its rock.
Later on that afternoon another family appeared. Dad and son donned snorkels and with sticks went in. A while later they found an octopus, maybe the same maybe not, it was dragged out of its hole and bludgeoned to death on the rocks. The teenage daughters of the man squealed their admiration. Tilly was indignant and made her displeasure clear.
I want to be the father that finds and marvels at the beauty of the world’s wonders, there was after all no heroism in the poulpe pummelling. But the delight of the men’s sisters and daughters in their hunter gatherer machismo made me wonder about the value of some hardcore Darwinian life lessons. I guess it’s the curse of 1st world problem parenting. Explain and illustrate the realities of the world’s inequalities or protect, nurture and leave life’s lessons for later on?
Maybe the girls have had the biggest lesson in life they’ll ever need. Anyway, fact is they’ve got enough to cope in terms of life’s challenging inequalities while I am wearing these budgie snatchers.
One of the hardest things to endure about losing a partner is the sudden disappearance of any intimate (or otherwise) physical presence. Since Nicky died I have looked for and found her manifest in many strange and wonderful ways. She was the most graceful creature I’d ever met. Perfect. Often while she slept before she was ill, and even when she was dying I’d lie beside her scrutinising the rise and fall of her body. Now when I walk or ride the south downs I see in every hill and Vale a shape that reminds me of her. The small of her back, her neck, her hips and bum. It pleases and saddens me.
She’s not been here though. The craggy rocks of the Pyrenees don’t in any way remind me of her. So I am pleased we decided to sprinkle of her ashes on the rocks here. In the evening sun in the stretching shadows of the church of notre dames des anges we stood and watched as a set of waves washed up and took them away. She’s here now, as she and I wanted. A part of the sea.
So, this part of our recovery is done. I’ve come to realise that it’s not the destination but the journey that matters. I, we, will always grieve for her. It will not end. The bike is a way for us to share that experience as a team. Moreover we celebrate the present as we discover more about each other as nick and I did in India. I get the feeling we are building foundations for their future relationship on love and shared experience. The girls (who have been nothing short of wonderful) have already committed to the next part of the journey.
As we walked back to the bike I turned and looked around the remarkably pretty town of Couliorre. I noticed that the spire of the church is highly reminiscent of a big phallus.
“Tut” she’d say, “Now is not the time for dick jokes.”
We had an ice cream.
and cycled back to the campsite. The sun was setting. Red sky. Set fair for the morning.
The last few days have passed so quickly. The route south from Narbonne to the coast was the right one. We have stayed in some pretty places. The campsites have been variable, expensive and with some hilariously bad entertainment. I’ve let the girls have a big part in deciding where we have stayed , a process governed by two factors, pool size and flume quantity.
As so often people have been incredibly kind, and then even more so when they hear our story. Emanuel and Karine leapt up to help me erect the tent , and ended up drinking with me late into the night.
The comments are all along similar lines and of course people are full of admiration for the girls. “Bravo les filles!”.
We ended up at a great place with a clifftop pitch overlooking a pretty little beach. It’s about 15minutes on the bike from Collioure. We arrived in persistent rain that became heavier and heavier all day. It was grim and at one point I was convinced we’d be flooded. l was out in the rain in my pants bailing out our pitch as a sailor would his dinghy. I finally resorted to digging a discreet channel that diverted the rainwater, which was by this time almost 4 inches deep and rising fast towards the tent, away. It unfortunately sluiced through the neighbouring pitch. Little done for Anglo Franco relations .
The Journey is behind us now. Our trip is almost done . John who has so kindly brought us to and from this trip is already on his way to get us. He accepted with such grace the extra miles we’ve made him come.
Tonight we complete the mission.
It’s 3.30am. For some reason I can’t and won’t fall asleep.
Lying within the domed reddy pink of our tent it’s as if I am on the inside of her skull. Prostrate within her cranium, me and the girls. In a way it was ever thus; the girls, me, us we were always at the centre of her thoughts. I am crying now, inside the head of my dead wife. Who tonight, again, I miss more than my own skin.
Grief is a fucker. One minute you’re on top of it the next you’re looking at the precipice.
The kids are fitful sleepers tonight too. I am reaching out in the dark to the point in space where the tumour was within her brain. I want to find it, seize it and hurl it far beyond the jaggeddy teeth of the pyrenees.
Sadly it’s impossible to find things in dark tents and it won’t be there in the morning.
We are in the finest fettle. Heading south towards Spain. We may not make our new destination near the Spanish border but the girls are eager to continue.
Cycling has always been a meditation for me and I believe that it has become one for the girls. As we ride we sing, make up fanciful stories with the same evermore ludicrous and now familiar characters and we talk, but occasionally there is silence. We have over the last weeks become comfortable with that silence. We know we’ve changed, are different, stronger and more able to cope. We cope with each other, our jobs and our roles, and individually and collectively with our grief. It has been a journey and one through which I feel ever stronger, the girls too.
The last few days brought great fun and near catastrophic disaster both of which we welcomed with same sense of inevitability.
We canoed down 9km of the Aude. It was a lovely thing.
That same after noon we met Steve and Rebeca. An American and Spanish couple we’d seen occasionally en route. They’d got mechanical problems that they couldn’t fix but I could. Thanks were wine, food and great company as we free camped for the first time. Drinking the wine made from the vines amongst which we slept. Rebeca, a teacher, took the girls into the bushes and both came back beaming. Tilly and Betsy can both now do squatting pees.
It was a great little meeting. I hope we can find a way to keep in touch.
Misdirected we had a mechanical breakdown as the trailer snagged the brake disk on the bike as I dragged it across a disused railway. It could have been the end of the ride. I managed to remove the Torx bolts with a Torx tool (Tedious) and remove the disk. No Pyreneean decents this time I guess.
We sailed through Narbonne. A shame but the girls were tired and so we ended yesterday in a theme park of a campsite complete with drag queen entertainment. Nothing on Brighton. Today we reach the coast.
I am thinking more about the purpose of our journey. We have come so far, dealt with joy and adversity, and we are more of a team than ever. If nothing else this makes me more comfortable with saying goodbye, even if I am not quite yet ready.