In early May of my first year teaching my mum died of a pancreatic cancer which had spread like wildfire through her body, taking subsequent command of her lungs and thus her ability to breathe. She inspired me so much that I rarely, if ever, remember her with sadness. The funeral, a cremation of a gardener who wanted to rejoin the earth and who often had discussions with me on the fragility and precariousness of life, was followed by a celebration of everything that she held dear: music, food, life, her animals, her garden, her family and the friends she perhaps didn’t realise she ever had.
Her death was a shock, of course, and marked a turning point in my family’s history. My brother, two years my junior, began a very late search to find out who he really would be; my stepfather, not really knowing what to do with himself, started to travel again as he had done in his twenties; my father, never one for doctors, had a lump seen to and has spent the last five years or so having and recovering from various cancers: he has very nearly died a number of times but would certainly not still be farming if it were not for my mum’s passing.
I’m reminded of this tonight because I visited somewhere beautiful. Having moved back to South Devon, where I grew up, and to the town I went to school in I am rediscovering the quiet majesty of my childhood. Tonight I walked beside Haytor Rocks to an old pool at the quarry that brought granite to London Bridge, via the Haytor Granite Tramway and the Stover Canal, in the early C19.
Sitting on a mossy ledge in the heavenly silence that defines this part of the moor every late summer evening I could hear her voice. We would often walk here together, talking about music and the aforementioned precarious nature of existence. I heard her brisk walk over the well-worn path through this Eden: the pant of her two Field Spaniels, the brush of her denim; the smell of her old Barbour – far too big – and the, ‘Come on, Tobes. Keep up!’ in her oddly well-spoken accent. My father, too, speaks well for a Dartmoor farmer: when he is interviewed on Radio 4, as he sometimes is regarding ponies, I struggle to believe it’s him. Mum was from Woking-way, but her stress on speaking properly rubbed off on me.
During the Christmas holidays of 2009 we walked here and through the fields below the farm. I have a photograph somewhere of her standing on top of a picnic table in the low, winter sunset. She was a very young 60. I remember her unusually wanting to cut our walks short. She’d had a cough since October. She said, ‘I don’t feel well.’
This part of the moor, where I walked tonight, is ethereal in its vast and overwhelming quiet. The bracken is so sweet smelling as to be herbaceous. The view over almost the entirety of South Devon reminds me of the photographs of Earth from the Moon. Yet there is a cacophony of oxygen. The few trees stand solemn and silent, resolute against the howling wind that attack the volcanic shepherd that perches atop the moorland. Or perhaps they stand because of the wind, a defiant gesture that has twisted their branches into ghastly living scarecrows. The horizon is inverted. The sky is a Turner that wouldn’t be given credence. This is where we walked.
It wasn’t until March that she telephoned me with the news. That phone call which nobody wants to hear. Those three words that are not ‘I love you.’
‘Toby, I have cancer.’
‘I love you.’
I lived in an old manor house in Croyde. My landlady was another keen gardener and even in early spring the green of her lawn and palm-tree was vibrant. I can picture clearly how, as I held the cold receiver against my ear, that green morphed through teal to grey. Everything was grey. Grey noise.
My year as a new teacher had so far been eventful. I’d decided to move, probably abroad, and had contact with schools in Singapore, Australia and Uzbekistan of all places. Exactly two months later, in May, my mum died. I’d seen her the day previously, in a hospice, looking so frail I that I worried I might break her but I so needed to hug her. Papyrus. She sent me a text with a smiley face saying thank you for coming. I’d told her I’d see her next weekend but hadn’t really believed it. I broke down outside the hospice.
The phone call came from my father at six am. He was sobbing, but I did not. I then called my Head of Department and spoke to her husband, the Deputy Head. I apologised for calling so early. He said to not worry about anything at school and come back when I was ready. I was thinking about cover. Did I have to provide cover? I really wasn’t in a planning frame of mind. Did I have a textbook at home from which to set something for Year 8? Don’t worry about it. We’ll see you when we see you.
I telephoned my brother. His howl of pain is something I will never forget.
After two weeks of trying to sort everything out at home – and my word, there is a lot to sort out after the death of a family member – I returned to school. I remember one child’s reaction in particular. A cheeky chappy at the best of times his broad Mancunian accent marked his voice out from the rest: ‘It’s Mr French. He’s back! I can’t believe he’s back so soon!’ They knew and it brought them closer to me. There was a sadness in their eyes which mirrored mine. But there was also care, regret and kindness.
My mum’s passing, my brother’s difficult few months, my stepfather’s lack of purpose and my father’s subsequent diagnosis meant that I couldn’t leave. I just could not. There will never be a time when losing a parent becomes less painful, though I now even more feel that pain of the poor child who is suddenly bereft of that love and warmth. I had my mum for twenty-three wonderful years.
Walking back towards the car across the soft grass the conifers which surround Haytor Vale and Pinchaford and Ilsington beyond stand menacing and black against the darkening blue-orange sky. Mum and I walked through these many times, her whistle hanging in one hand, the torchlight bouncing across the bracken in the other. She was so proud that I was going to be, and then was, a teacher. I still want to tell her about everything I’ve done, like we all did when we were young.
That year changed my family forever, like so many little things do every day but in the most devastating and emptying way possible. Since then my aunt, and my mum’s best friend, has also become a teacher. We don’t talk enough.
Sitting in this silence tonight – the God-extinguishing silence – I’m reminded of my mum and thus why I, among thousands, teach: to fill and inspire, to help explain and question: to see the beauty in everything, even death and the seemingly barren.