I think that I had it relatively easy when Henry died because I had only known him for 16 months so and I could remember life before him. Nowadays, when I care for the dying in St. Mary's Hospice, Birmingham, I see the incredible bravery of husbands and wives who have been together for 50 or more years and simply don't know how they are going to survive alone.
But I didn’t have my job to fall back on because I had taken a gamble just before I met Henry on becoming a documentary producer and presenter on China rather than a daytime TV producer. And just a couple of weeks before Henry’s diagnosis, the international crisis that was Tiananmen Square had happened which meant that China was strictly off limits to reporters and documentary-makers.
So my Universe had not only crashed and burned personally, it had done a double-whammy on my career as well. And I didn’t have any duct tape for sticking it back up — or even a beagle to run over it with wagging tail and lustrous eyes.
Confused, bereft and bamboozled — and in full keeping with my usual habit of running away — I disappeared off to Australia just two months after Henry died. I’d never been there before but Fate/Nemesis/Destiny had arranged for two of my best friends, Peter Seccombe and Sarah Douglas, to set off on a one-year Sabbatical around the world at exactly the time that Henry was diagnosed. Email just about existed and I told them our news. Sarah phoned me from some far distant country and, bless her, said, ‘Come to us. Just come out and join us, wherever we are.’
And because of Henry’s film equipment, including a tape machine called a Nagra, which turned out to be incredibly valuable, I was able to get on a Quantas flight for Cairns and vanish for six weeks from a world that couldn’t make up its mind what to do with me.
Pete and Sarah were due to arrive in Cairns some time before the end of April; none of us knew exactly when, as often happened in a world before mobile phones and constant Internet access. I arrived on 25th April, the day before my birthday. I timed that because I simply couldn’t face any celebration back in England. Sarah and Pete arrived the following day.
Thanks to the Nagra, I was staying in a good hotel so at least I had some comfort that first night. I was very aware of being not normal; grief had set me somehow about half an inch out of my skin and everything looked and felt wrong wherever I was. I managed to define it just before I left while talking to a friend. I told her that I really didn’t care whether I went on living or not.
I didn’t mean for a moment that I was contemplating suicide; I just didn’t care. Well, I cared — I cared desperately in terms of loss and grieving but existence itself didn’t really appeal. I wasn’t going to jump in front of a bus but if I was crossing the road and a bus turned up going too fast and it didn’t stop, I wouldn’t have minded. I certainly wasn’t paying very much attention to life.
She was horrified and even offended and I realised that it wasn’t nice of me to talk like that. Which is one of the reasons why I went to Australia. I wanted to talk to people who didn’t know who on Earth I was and didn’t have opinions on how I should be feeling.
The first night in Australia, I pushed myself to get out of my room where all I wanted to do was sit and weep with loneliness. So, was sitting with a book in the bar at the Hilton hotel when a young man threw himself down in a chair in front of me. I looked up, warily, and he raised a bottle of beer in one hand and said:
‘Me and my mates at the bar got a bet on and I bet them ten bucks you can’t be as mean as you look.’
As chat-up lines go, that leaves a little to be desired perhaps. No, come on — it’s the worst I’ve ever heard. So why did it work?
Because the sheer cheek of it made my lips quiver and I laughed.
And, don’t forget, I was nice ... so I didn’t want the boy to think that I wasn’t.
‘I’m not mean,’ I said. ‘I’m upset.’
‘Drink up,’ he said. ‘I’ll take you to a party. That’ll cheer you up. You’re not from round here are you?’
I don’t remember much of the evening except eating fish and chips as we walked by a levee. I’ve no idea what the boy’s name was or even what he looked like. But I do remember dancing in a ramshackle building that doubled as a bar and a nightclub. I danced as if no one was watching and I felt the life force begin to seep back into me.
However, by the time I got back to the hotel; the arguments as to why I wasn’t going to sleep with my knight in tarnished armour had rather spoilt the evening. His Aussie sensitivities thought it would be good for me to get a good shagging but I wasn’t quite up to that thought ... let alone the experience. It was good evidence however that even though I’d run so far away from Henry’s death that I was on other side of the world, I’d still taken myself with me. I’d got exactly what I’d asked for ... but I certainly wasn’t ready for it.