The field is beautiful this morning, the kind of beauty that you can’t photograph, only feel. The sun is rising in a cloudless blue sky, and making brilliant every frosted blade of grass, every silvered twig. I walk slowly, listening to the polystyrene squeak of my boots, my nose burning from the coldness of the air.
It’s the funeral today of one of my neighbours, a private, sweet little lady who liked to see the children on their swings. Her house borders the cricket, and I walk past it every day, but I only ever went in to visit her once or twice, and I’m ashamed of that.
I know people will give me a ready excuse: that I’m too busy, a working mum, but that wasn’t the reason I didn’t knock on her door. The reason is a guilty, cowardly thing.
I’m frightened of being around very old people. I’m worried in case I don’t understand them, or they turn out to be mad and angry, or pass wind when they get up, or their false teeth fall out. All of those reasons are ridiculous, and say far more about my own po-faced insecurities than it does about anyone else. I’ve been both mad and angry, can fart like a drayhorse, and sometimes can’t keep even food in my mouth, so I imagine false teeth must be quite tricky.
This fear is absurd; a pursed-lipped mealy-hearted plip of a fear, and I know, rationally, that I can cope with any sort of conversation or behaviour. My clay feet only become apparent with elderly people outside of my immediate family. My own grandad is 92, and he still lives in his own house and looks after himself. He’s not at all mad. And I’m never frightened of him.
But when I was little, my Nan (who was not all old – in her fifties) used to take brother and me with her to do Visiting. She would wash the farm mud off our faces and hands and put us in her blue Dolomite to drive around Warwickshire, seeing people. Not just relatives, but friends of my great-grandmother, strays and waifs, oddballs and people who lined their armchairs with newspaper. We would be presented to frightening old men with sticks and enormous shoes, and be kissed by tiny, bristly old ladies who gave us sticky lolly pops in crumpled paper bags. Sometimes people in the houses we visited would smell extremely strange, and Nan would agree with my brother and me, that people ‘weren’t quite right’, but that we must be kind, because people liked to see children’s faces.
I’ve reached the low wall of the pavilion now, and I press my finger into a frozen fairy-cushion of silvery moss. The ice melts instantly, and the cushion turns green. I press my finger against my cheek, to test the coldness.
It’s fine for me to be afraid, but it’s really not okay for that fear to make me a coward. I take a deep, cold-air breath, tip my face to the pale winter sun. This morning, I’ve seen and understood something of myself that I can’t ever pretend I hadn’t. I am frightened of old people because of what they are, what they were. Once as strong-armed, straight-backed, as shrill-voiced and energetic, as I am now. I will be like them one day, and it’s that thought that frightens me, not the people themselves.
I press my finger to another cushion of moss, then another, another.
I think of Nan, and her Visiting, and wonder how to start.