For Frances: love, life and getting lost in the dark
‘Grief, I find, is a funny thing’
‘Where is she?’ I asked myself, wading through the dark meadow — the stars above and the reflection of the moonlight in the river all I could see. The glow of my phone torch revealed that I was surrounded by mounds of soil, some with flowers atop — silhouetted and casting long shadows in the dew. I could hear my own breath, and nothing else.
This was not how I had imagined it. For five years I had waited to return to where I said goodbye to my best friend, Frances*. She is still very much alive to me — burning bright as she always was— just less tangible.
In the lead up to what would have been her 30th birthday — though to me she’ll never be more than 24 — she was on my mind. More than usual. A close friend who had heard many, many stories about her, asked if I had visited her ‘resting place’ since her funeral. I hadn’t. He offered to drive me down to the depths of Devon, to the natural burial ground where Frances rests, and to give me as much time and space as I needed. I was nervous about it. About going back to a place where I had shared and shed so much emotion. Where I met her parents, who held me as if we’d known each other forever — and I wore the badge of having been her best friend. At her funeral, as I had stood beside the wicker basket that cradled her, I had realised that my life would change forever.
I accepted the suggestion for the trip, and two days later we set-off from London to Totnes. I was on edge. Both excited and acutely aware that I didn’t know how I would feel when I got there. I was daunted by the possibility of reopening the deep grief I felt last time. I would never be ready, I realised. So, why wait?
‘Grief, I find, is a funny thing. How it starts off as a constant, deep pain and then, in time, changes its course. Its pace. Its path. How it weaves its way into our lives more fluidly and never ends. It remains just as strong as in the beginning, but less predictable.’
On the way I texted Karen, Frances’ mum, to ask if I could pop by and say hello as I was going to be in the area anyway. It was Frances’ birthday after all. Of course, she told me, and within a few hours I was sitting in her living room having a socially-distanced tea with her and her husband, Frances’ dad, Dick. Soon after, Karen drove us up the windy, hedge-lined roads to Sharpham Meadow Natural Burial Ground — a route that she had taken countless times over the years. Going to visit ‘Francie’ is now part of her routine and will continue to be for as long as time.
As we got out of her car I realised that I had to hold myself together. Karen brought, in her familiarity with the trip, a remarkable peacefulness. I, on the other hand, was brimming with emotion. But Karen is Frances’ mum and she had been kind enough to welcome me to join her birthday visit. I had to carry myself, at least on the outside, with grace and care. I breathed deeper than I knew was possible, and followed her as she navigated the meadow trying to identify her daughter’s green grassy mound, which looked startlingly similar to the surrounding green, grassy mounds. After a minute or two of trial and error, and self-deprecating laughter, she found the spot and pulled the grass back to reveal the slate which read, ‘Frances Lyndale’.
The two of us sat on either side of the mound, Frances nestled between us. At first, we were silent. Holding space to take in the beauty of the surroundings and the river in the valley next to where she used to work. Then we talked, as if Frances were there with us, of life and love. Of everything in between. And nothing at all. We talked as if we had always talked on that hill, the three of us together. Only with a deep bond comes that closeness and ease, warmth and hope. I chalked, ‘Happy Birthday’, and ‘I love you’ on the slate, as well as Frances’ middle name, ‘Jasmine’, as the ants crawled over it, before we headed back.
As special as that time was, I left wanting more. I still needed to spend some time with Frances, alone. My pilgrimage was not yet complete.
My friend and I headed down to the seaside and devoured hot chips and pineapple fritters. We watched the summer sky down by the pier turn from blue to dusky pink before the cloud-clad sun dipped out of our sight. And then he asked me if I wanted to go back. By this point, it was getting late, and darkness had fallen, but I knew I had to do it.
‘How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard’
Frances died suddenly. Apparently, it only took a couple of seconds, like a flame in the wind. That’s what her housemate told me. They hadn’t really known each other as they’d only been living together for a few weeks. Two young women thrown together by fate, and the British Council, who had just arrived to work as teachers at a remote school in northern India. And then, just one. Mary Oliver famously said, ‘What is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?’ But I’d rather know what it is you want to do with it. Plans, I find, don’t always lead us down our most joyful path, or the one that suits us best. Sometimes we find ourselves weighed down by “shoulds”, at the expense of what we actually want. Frances put should on the shelf, in favour of what set her alight. She took pleasure in the present — without the worry of looking too far ahead. One of the things that I admired about her was how she made decisions with her heart. That said, when I met her, she told me that her own nervousness about the unknown had historically obstructed her chances for exploration and self-discovery. She had struggled to be spontaneous and held on to a desire to know what was coming next, at least in the upcoming few days and weeks. When she went to work in rural Thailand where I first met her, even she seemed surprised. Over time though, she challenged herself to be more open.
One Tuesday, in the midst of final-year dissertation stress and exam preparation, I asked her to come with me to Geneva that weekend. She laughed at the suggestion, thanking me for the invite, and wishing me on my way. It was way too soon and she had too much to do. But then, an hour or two later, she surprised me: ‘I’ll come with you’, she said.
Frances was a big believer in ‘modern stoicism’, which according to Sim Cambell (someone I Googled when trying to find the definition) is a philosophy which is ‘very present-moment focused and helps you deal with such things as: the whims and wiles of human nature; sickness and old age; falling in and out of fortune and living life to the fullest.’ The second, starkly, never became relevant for her. But the rest, especially the last one, rung true. When she died, she was very much alive. Living in a country she loved, doing work that she enjoyed, and not saving for tomorrow what she could do today.
We had spoken on the phone the week before, as we often did. Chattering away about what was on our minds, our hopes, our joys, our fears and naturally — our love lives, or lack thereof. She told me, very seriously, that she would have to live vicariously through me as the school where she was working was ‘very conservative’. I was amenable. I also missed her, and the feeling was mutual. Before she went to India, she quoted Winnie the Pooh to me, ‘How lucky am I to have something that makes saying goodbye so hard’.
‘Even though you are gone, you will be with me for eternity’
And I was. So lucky. Saying goodbye was so hard. But there is one thing that stood out that I remain grateful for. Frances died at a time where there was absolutely nothing that I would have changed about our friendship. Although this made my grief exponentially worse, I had no regrets and that gave me a lot of peace.
Since then six years have passed. I have done so much, seen so much, met so many people and learned a hell of a lot about myself and the world. I have grown older, when she has not — but through the poems I write about her, the stories I tell, and the place she occupies in my life now. Sshe’s still her and she’s still here. Never far away from me. And that’s the way I like it.
Before her funeral, a poem wrote itself through my hand. I tried to realistically and lovingly represent Frances — in a balanced way that is often bypassed at such gatherings. She, like all humans, was fabulous and flawed. I wanted to remember her as she was — both vibrant and funny, indecisive and moody. I found out that she once punched someone in the face when she was younger, which for some reason, gave me great pleasure. It felt like the kind of thing one should learn at a celebration of someone’s life.
My poem, which I practiced about 100 times beforehand, so as to be able to actually get the words out, read:
‘I never wanted a tattoo, skin inked permanently freezing your intentions firmly from that moment, but remaining.
The ink following you in your journey towards old age, like your skin is a page in your book of life, part of your story, your history that endures the present and future too.
But I’d get one for you.
A tattoo for you. Or at least consider it.
Even though my mum would disapprove it would prove that even though you are gone, you will be with me for eternity.’
And another part read:
You had this way of smiling at me, kind of like Jay Gatsby.
Like you saw me for who I want to be.
The best possible version of me, and only you did that.
I hope you know that I looked at you in the same way, at least every second day, because we both know we are not loveable all the time, even when we are loved.’
After the service, Karen bundled me in her arms and commanded me never to get that tattoo. My mum, I think, is grateful. On my return to the meadow, in the dead of the night beneath the moon and the stars, I sat with Frances. Like I had wanted to all along. Talked to her like we used to. Filled her in on what was going on, the things she would have wanted to know. I laughed and cried, but mostly laughed. And then, we parted ways again, until next time. I crouched in the dark, my feet planted firmly on the moist ground beneath me. Knowing that I had not saved for tomorrow what I could do today.
By Charlie Ogilvie
Charlie Ogilvie is a self-proclaimed storyteller who chases and embraces the unexpected. She currently ‘writes stuff’ for work and for fun.
*Frances was my best friend. We met working in Thailand in 2013 and became fast friends after I visited her for her birthday in a rural Thai town in a province where we were both working as English teaching assistants. I gave her a little cake and a soft drink, and soon after, my heart.