Caught by the River

Shadows & Reflections: Ben McCormick

Ben McCormick | 14th January 2019

Shadows and Reflections: the annual collection of postings in which our contributors and friends consider the events that’ve shaped the past twelve months. As we begin the new year, Ben McCormick looks back on 2018:

Aujourd’hui, maman est mort. Ou peut-être hier, je ne sais pas. I found myself uttering these opening lines to Camus’s L’Étranger while sitting in the beer garden of a picture-perfect country pub in East Sussex, just north of Ashdown Forest. We’re almost halfway through 2018 and I’m faced with the same reality that sends the book’s anti-hero Meursault on a downward spiral that would inspire The Cure’s first single a few decades later. I too am confronted by a similar conflict between a desire to live for today – to not dwell on the past and worry less about the future – and a sudden recognition there will come a time when there is no longer a today. I’m also trying to cope with a now-unbearable heatwave in a year that’s thrown up its fair share of contrasts.

Three months earlier I head south from Hebden Bridge in a blizzard of snow and thoughts. Days later, I feel like I’m skating across Flanders fields dusted with a fine white powder-snow that renders any past irrelevant while driving towards St Sixtus’ Abbey in Westvleteren. We are on a pilgrimage to the monastery famous the world over for brewing one of the finest beers on the planet. The whole weekend is a magical voyage of discovery and laughter. A few weeks later I am sipping chilled white wine on a roof terrace in Gracia, Barcelona, and grinning like an idiot at what the weekend has in store. In a way, it doesn’t seem real.

And as we head into May, I am again driving through the pan-flat fields of Flanders in pursuit of more beer. My B&B is miles from anywhere, but they have an unusually well-stocked fridge and I spend a quiet evening on the terrace helping myself to several Belgian specialities. It’s a rural idyll and so peaceful it’s easy to forget the outside world. But I’m less upbeat than on my last visit: I know my mum is dying; it’s just a question of when.

I cover thousands of miles. South to the Rhône valley, then further south and west to Barcelona again. I run a bar at a small festival on the border between Catalonia and Aragon and catch up with old friends. I drive back through the Massif Central drenched by the worst storm I have ever seen and one that renders the impressive Viaduc du Millau invisible. Then just after I emerge from a familiar car-bound tussle with the Rue Périphérique around Paris, I get a call from my sister. I can’t take it as I’m driving, but I know it can’t be good news. And so it proved. I still have a couple of hundred miles before reaching my Belgian B&B, but if you asked me to recall any of it now under pain of death, I couldn’t.

The north coast of France is remarkable only in that, from the steadily retreating distance of a Dover-bound ship, it looks a little like a graphical representation of an audio file that’s been heavily compressed. I gaze at its nondescript, characterless form, at the same time wondering at how fate has put me on a cross-channel ferry in the biggest race against time of my life. I arrive at my parents’ place to a warning from my sister that my mum looks just like my dad did when he died of cancer. She’s not wrong. I wonder if that’s what the disease does to people. My mum can no longer speak. I’m told she can hear and process things, but it’s difficult to see how. I tell her she was right about how long and ridiculous my driving holiday was and that seems to go down well. Three hours later, she stops breathing in and that’s it.

If the year to that point had been clear, interesting and filled with vitality, then that was the point at which it stopped making sense. It’s been difficult to fathom what’s gone on since. I accepted a job in an office for a time, taking part in a World Cup sweepstake and making small talk about weather and traffic while there. I earned a fortune; all now gone after work trickled to a halt. I’ve been at the same time taciturn and talkative. I’ve had a nagging feeling I haven’t mourned enough; that I’m not as upset as I should be. That my world hasn’t ended. It does seem to be getting smaller, though. In one way and another, I am gradually focusing inwards. Closing off. Pulling the shutters down. Working in isolation helps, as does being too broke to socialise (or too drunk when I do). Perhaps I’m suffering a mid-life existential crisis the like of which should have happened in my late teens. Are black polo-neck sweaters still available in shops?

Someone told me I’m allowed to do one mad thing after the loss of a parent with impunity and I wonder whether this is it. Trying subconsciously to disprove John Donne’s famous assertion about men and islands. But as the year draws to a close, I feel I’ve let that play out as far as I can. Work is threatening to pick up and force me to meet and communicate with people. I have plans and ingredients for several beers I want to make. I’ve committed to riding my bike around the cobbled hills of Flanders, so long as there’s a visit to the breweries there afterwards. Given pretty much everyone in my family dies of cancer early, I’ve not got much longer left to live for the day. So inspired by the blooming garden that greeted me when I returned to my flat – the one my mum and I had planted the year before – I’ve also decided to ditch the angst-ridden musings of Camus and literally follow the advice of Voltaire: il faut cultiver votre jardin.