Years ago, in 2008, I was crew on the Spirit of Fairbridge for the Tall Ships race. Spirit was a beautiful 92’ schooner dedicated to giving disadvantaged young people new opportunities in life and being part of her crew was a huge privilege – and an unforgettable experience. I was lucky enough to spend several trips on board, and the Tall Ships race was something I was really looking forward to. Meeting new people and sharing such a memorable trip would be exciting and exhilarating, the privations of sharing an eight-berth cabin and sleep deprivation in 4-hour watches came as part of the whole package and just added to the whole thing.
And it was memorable. After a night of the volunteers and permanent crew and the young people all getting to know each other in the bars of the marina, we set off from Liverpool to sail more than 800 nautical miles to Bergen in Norway. When I’d been on Spirit before, on a trip from Southampton to Bristol, we’d gone round the Lizard peninsula in a Force 9 gale, a particularly terrifying experience of unimaginably huge waves relentlessly throwing the boat from side to side – so I was expecting similar buffeting and pitching and rolling as we headed up towards Norway across the notorious North Sea.
Instead, a few days out of Liverpool, we were completely becalmed. There was no wind. The ship stopped. For days, we just bobbed about, going nowhere. Any chance of winning the race ebbed away as we sat, waiting, not able to do anything other than just accept that we were helpless, at the whim of Nature. We played cards and read books and fished for mackerel and cleaned below decks and sunbathed and shared life stories and smoked endless cigarettes – and just waited. It was a strange, strange, prolonged period of enforced nothingness, when we’d all been expecting adrenaline and excitement and rope pulling and exhaustion and the sheer exhilaration of sailing a tall ship across the waves. It was weird and unnerving.
Eventually, of course, the wind came, and the sails trembled and flickered and filled and the rhythm of the ship stirred and awoke again, and we finally made it to Bergen for several days of partying, which is a whole other story. But those still, stagnant days, that feeling of being in the doldrums, of waiting for something to change, the awareness of being small and human and impotent and at the mercy of ancient endless powers – I remember that far more clearly than the boat parties and celebrations that followed.
Four months into Steve being dead and I recognise that same feeling. It is permeating my every day, sometimes a faint trace, an ever-present sense of ennui underlying my thoughts and colouring everything with a tinge of grey – other days it’s an overwhelming feeling of nothingness. Of absence. Of waiting for something.
I’m going nowhere at the moment. There’s no feeling of movement, no sense of going forward. The days just come and go. Every day I get up, pull on dog walking clothes, walk for an hour or two, then come home and get on with whatever I feel I can manage. There’s a framework of a kind to the days, vaguely cleaning and tidying the house, working at the computer, occasional trips to the supermarket, looking after Leo, Albert and Amelia, walking again, trying to sleep. But this framework is just a superficial construct, something that I’ve adopted to just keep getting through one day after another, marking them off in my head as another day done.
I appreciate how lucky I am not to have to go to work at a job where I am expected to perform. I can choose when I work, which is a bonus, but I have to make myself choose to work, which is a challenge. Self-motivation has never been my strongest characteristic, I had become used to Steve being my conscience, nagging me to get on with things I was avoiding. He was particularly good at knowing when I was deliberately side-stepping boring tasks or necessary admin, I couldn’t get away with not doing stuff because he just knew, he’d look at me in a way that somehow made me laugh and give in all at once.
That just knowing everything about me is irreplaceable. It is the fabric, the weft and weave of our relationship, knowing each other inside out, sharing everything, from the mundane to the mysterious, from the tedium and humdrum stuff of daily life to the precious, precious moments of total connection and completion. Among all of the million and one things that are missing from my life now, it’s the shared existence that we had together that is the loudest in its absence.
It’s what I’m waiting for, the feeling of completeness, of the wind gradually returning, softly stirring and stroking the sails, the ship quivering into life in response, lifting her bow and beginning to move forwards in a joyful recognition of the return of her lover giving her energy and strength, taking her onwards. Without the elemental, elusive presence of the wind, the ship just drifts with the waves.
I don’t know what to do without him. It’s as simple and as profound as that.