The film was taken on the Lakeside & Haverthwaite Railway, a short sail away from Bowness-on-Windermere.
We had moved to the fresh-faced coastal town on the day after April Fool’s Day, not wanting to tempt fate any further. Five months and one day after my father’s death, and spring seemed hopelessly far away; we were still deep in winter. But I was absolutely certain that just around the corner, just over the hill of this uneven path was a straight, downhill section, where we’d be bathed in sunshine, and life would start again in earnest.
For the first few weeks, the wind blew with a force so insistent I wondered if I would ever get used to it. Was it normal to have to hold onto walls to get round corners or for holes to be blown through your pyjamas on the washing line? But each gust seemed to sandblast more sadness away, sending it crashing into the North Sea.
When the long-awaited spring came and quickly bloomed into a blazing summer, the visitors started to arrive. Among them, my sister, struggling to get over a chest infection, and I tried to persuade her to stay longer, to soak some more sun into her thin skin. I let her sleep in my own soft bed, cooked her favourite foods and we warmed our hands over plans for this new life.
As the summer sky deepened into a blue I’d never seen in Scotland before, the days were spent entirely on the beach, rediscovering the joy of digging channels into the sea with my small, dogged son. We returned to the house only to watch the tennis, and were back on the beach so quickly, passers-by shouted out the result to us, assuming we’d missed it.
My sister came back from a week in Paris with a pretty ring on her finger, and we tumbled over each other, getting ready for a wedding at the end of the summer. I took charge of some of the preparations, designing invitations, ordering French napkins, because the chest infection didn’t seem to be getting any better – if anything, it was getting worse, and the doctor advised hospital to see if they could get it under control.
As my sister started to fail, the dresses and tablecloths started to arrive in the post, and the sweet invitations hit doormats all over the country.
The doctors tried this, and then they tried that, but by the middle of July, the family had started looking at each other with horror. On Lifeboat Day, our house was surrounded by music and fairground rides and cool beer tents, but I was glad of my sunglasses, and no-one else but me knew that my legs were newly made of concrete.
The long distance to Glasgow melted to nothing as I went to and from the hospital, where each hour felt like a minute as the time screeched away from me, from us.
On the last day of July, I sang our old family lullabies to my now sleeping sister and said everything I needed to say to the nearly-closed eyes. Later, the nurse closed those eyes and switched off that which was switched on, and my sister’s song was complete.
And so now I’m back by the sea, starting again, waiting for the bend in the road, the crest of the hill, for my world to open again. But the days are impossible and I rail against time wasted staring into nothing, hours spent just keeping squalor at bay. I make mistakes all the time, lose things, miss trains, leave my passport behind, and I think, “This is not the path I was supposed to be on.” I play a record my sister and I loved and I hear a grotesque howling, just like the noise my sister made when she knew what was happening to her, and then realise it’s my own crying. I put the record away and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to listen to it again. Looking in the mirror is an exercise in despair –rosy apples have turned to mouldy plums, and I know what my friend means when she grabs my cheeks and says, “Oh…your poor face.” Every other day I come across the wedding clothes and fabric and I am convulsed anew each time.
I keep hoping that next week will be different, and while things are sometimes easier for a few days, there are still potholes and speedbumps on this shitty road and I don’t see any signs pointing to the right path.
Yet, after a while I start to ask myself why I have been so unusually lucky over my blunders. Why, when I miss the train, the railway company lays on a free taxi home. Not once, but twice. And why the flight attendant pretends I don’t need my passport to board the plane. It takes months for me to realise that the face that I can hardly bear to look at is the very thing that is drawing the kindness out of these strangers. And maybe it hits me, finally, that there is not going to be that downhill stretch any time soon. That my family is mostly old, and that the leaves will continue to fall from that tree; some of them will go at once, noisily, in an unnatural gust of wind, and others will just drift gently down, making little sound, but forming a heap big enough to cover hedgehogs and other small creatures.
I am sure that there will be golden spots on this road, plenty to rejoice in, always, even if it’s not where I thought I’d be. But it’s probably time to start drawing the map, finding directions for this way in life.
So this is it, this fork in the track through the woods.
This is it.
Perhaps, this is it.