Truthfully I feel a bit of a fraud, and very humbled. There I was as if I was doing something arduous making the trip, and really all I had to do was roll out of bed a bit early, into the shower, and thenceforward put myself into the hands of competent and caring people, many of whom had got up nearly as early as I had and been a great deal more active in making sure I was ferried about, met, ferried about some more, fed, watered, welcomed, hugged, swept up and mopped up and generally allowed to bask in the warmth of human goodness.
My awareness of this was made even more acute when I met Clare and Tristan, sitting in a shy aura of sweetness on a bench away from the throng at the crematorium, where I was easily able to catch their eyes and knew instantly who they were. They too made much of me for getting there, then nonchalantly mentioned that they had both been up earlier than I had, at about 2.30: Clare to spoon Calpol into her sick children in the hopes of some kind of night's rest so she might get away that afternoon, and Tristan to start his round in his big truck, which was parked out the back, even earlier than usual in order to be able to make it on time. This un-boasted and un-fêted heroism without doubt put my efforts in the shade.
In fact the three o'clock rising, four o'clock leaving was a far larger time allowance than necessary, but St Brieuc being the terminus in this case, the train was there and open, nearly empty but with one or two other passengers and the guard not too deserted. It filled up at Rennes; a graceful young woman in a Breton striped t-shirt sat next to me, folded her hands in her lap, closed her eyes and remained that way, not sleeping but straight-backed and completely still for the remaining two hours of the journey. A peaceful quiet prevailed, no mobile phones (their use banned in all French trains at all times except at the doorway ends of the carriages), no crackling food wrappers, scarcely even any laptops in use. I dismissed the thought of the cereal bars and fruit juice in my bag overhead, read a little, closed my eyes a little, and otherwise watched the light gradually strengthen over Normandy, the upper Loire country and the vast flatlands before Paris.
I had leftover Metro tickets given to me by Dutch E which hastened my progress across the city, time to loiter a little at the Gare du Nord and take some pictures, was swept up into the Eurostar by pleasant staff and given bread rolls and pains chocolats and orange juice and fromage frais and plenty of coffee. Alighting in next to no time into the (at that time) sepulchrally deserted platforms and passageways of Ashford International station, RR and VR, who must also have got up considerably earlier than they would otherwise have had to in order to be there then, met me with hugs and smiles and installed me in the front seat of their extremely comfortable vehicle, and we drove through pretty Kent lanes lined with pretty clapboard cottages and four-wheel drive cars half the size of the cottages, sprinkled with oast houses and ancient churches and pubs restaurants painted in Farrow and Ball colours, a couple of which we stopped at for coffee and food and officially designated Rustic Beer, before proceeding to Tunbridge Wells.
And, despite the sinking feeling that came on arriving at the crematorium, when the knowledge of why I was really there which had never actually been absent but which I had been able to put to one side for a time presented itself afresh, everything continued as I had dared to hope it might, only many times more so. For the service there was Satie's Gymnopédie and The Lark Ascending, Joe's children Toby and Pippa read Roy Campbell's translation of Baudelaire's Voyage (it is there in the link, you need to scroll down about a third of the way) and one of Joe's Explorers sonnets, (the one his brother Ken/Lucas posted here immediately after his death) and seeing the book with the familiar photo of a misty bleak New Zealand beachscape on the cover made me feel all proud and wobbly. The kindly celebrant, who had also conducted Heidi's funeral so little time ago, quoted Proust's lovely 'people do not die for us immediately...' words and we all enjoyed a collective wince when she pronounced him Prowst. As well as a recent photo of Joe on the front of the booklet, there was a black and white one from much longer ago which Pippa had lately found in a box where he's holding his pipe and looking gorgeous and impossibly glamorous and it looks like it really should have been on an old burnt orange Penguin book cover or similar; Clare and I exchanged a smile when the elderly neighbour behind us exclaimed aloud 'Wasn't he a good-looking man!'
The same neighbour broke into spontaneous applause when Robbie finished his address; conventional notions of appropriateness prevailed and it wasn't taken up, which was a damn shame because it should have been. I won't try too hard to represent his words here, but he as well as sharing some of the stories he himself posted here and here, as well as quoting from Ellena's comment on the second of them:
I can feel how sorely Mr. Hyam is missed by many of us - the blessed ones who knew him personally and all of us who read his daily posts.
Humility, passion, humour, compassion & empathy, decency - are some of the parts of this man that spoke to me when reading his posts ... His passing has provoked a deep reflection on what traces I myself will leave behind.
May our traces be as worthy as Mr.Hyam's and the memories as precious.
and from Joe's own final post:
Cheerfulness is my chief object in life even when it seems to be a fleeting virtue. I find myself hoping that people will make allowances for its present frailty.
Tristan lingered in the chapel a few moments discreetly to take the photo for a post as eloquent as anything I can say here; we filed out into a kind of water garden, I looked behind once and he was there, again and he wasn't. I was sorry to miss him, but being a seasoned practitioner myself of the art of filer à l'anglaise, I understand sometimes it's what you have to do. Clare said she'd take the opportunity for a walk and some air and make her own way through Tunbridge Wells back to the house, and I quickly hooked up with her. We walked and walked, and spoke of how grief is seldom one grief only but contains many others within it, of the warm red brick pavements of the town and their many patterns and how they splash your legs on wet days, of how The Grove had become like a character in Joe's writing, and more besides. We saw Tristan's big truck disappearing into the distance and waved wildly. Clare is a brisk walker, a thing I appreciate, and we still arrived at the house before things were ready for the gathering, so we walked a bit more and looked in on Nick and Alec and Bettany to make sure they were all right. By the time we reached the house again the party was in full swing, and the house very packed. Such occasions, I've observed, are often quite jolly, this one was particularly lively, which somehow didn't surprise me.
We checked in to the hotel just out of town before meeting again for dinner, the pleasant managing girl at the desk asked with formulaic cheeriness 'Have you had an enjoyable day today?'. Mmm. After a moment of adjustment Robbie explained our reason for being there. 'Oh dear,' she said 'foot-in-mouth time'. Well yes, I said, but having said that...
We went to dinner in the centre of town with Pippa and Toby and Joe's cousin Nigel, sadly Ken and Joyce weren't there, but happily I'd been able to talk to Ken earlier. The second choice of pub restaurant, it seems, as, according to an apocryphal rumour that was circulating, Joe and Heidi had had themselves barred from the first choice for being 'difficult'. Finding this hard to believe, we came to the consensus that in fact they'd probably barred themselves, though I did recall Joe grumbling mildly about somewhere which had gone downhill badly in his eyes, which had 'all been taken over by accountants and become the kind of place they count the whitebait'.
After more hugs and thanks and well-wishing on the pavement, an Albanian taxi driver, initially guarded but later warming to Robbie's questioning about his homeland, took us back to the Hotel Mercure. The Robinsons proposed a nightcap, but on turning to me to do so, beheld a sorry, lachrymose and sodden sight; which they wrapped in yet further hugs and kindness and packed off to bed. Robbie was initially concerned that my state somehow signified a failure in his responsibility of care to me, which he seemed to think, bless him, entailed a necessity to protect me from any affective consequence of being there. However, I think between us VR and I have convinced him that this is so far from being the point as to be its opposite.
The snowy tub in the Mercure bathroom contained just about enough space and hot water to hold and wash away all the tears I had to shed, and the snowy bed was soft and downy and cosy enough to ensure five hours good sleep, which was more than enough to ensure I rose bright and refreshed enough for the return trip.
Ashford station was considerably busier with passengers heading out to France at a weekend, and the train was more crowded and less luxurious, but the journey passed quickly enough, all connections were made, and I had a double seat to myself most of the way back to Brittany. The sight of the familiar, solid pretty villas round the station at Lamballe, and the little town gardens on the approach to St Brieuc, made me feel grounded and secure and home again, the French provincial disregard for haste and space reasserted itself as everyone got in everyone else's way kissing and chatting and fumbling about with their luggage and no one getting impatient, Tom was on the platform and Molly gave me a slurp from the back seat. Nothing disastrous or even messy had happened. There were wonderful Indian lamb and potato dishes for dinner, and we propped the service sheet with its picture of Joe on the table, and toasted him in curry.
Robbie's account of the day is here,
Tristan's post is here,