“They came, the brothers, and took two chairs” (Thomas Hardy)
It’s the foulest of days! After one of the mildest Septembers ‘since records began’ (why do they insist on saying that all the time?!!), we are shocked to wake and find havoc being wreaked on our road networks by strong winds and driving rain. It doesn’t take much, does it? To shock us, I mean. The weather even made the news this morning. Have we so little interesting stuff to talk about that we have to have the weather conditions commented on by journalists? There he was, the journalist, hanging on to one of those huge fluffy covered microphones (they always make me laugh – I mean, could you really talk into one of those and not think you were whispering sweet nothings to a dead squirrel?). He was on the bridge across the M62 at Ainley Top, Huddersfield, letting us know how windy and terrifying it was for motorists. Well, I guess they hadn’t noticed that themselves, had they? They hadn’t woken this morning to find billions of wet leaves being hurled around, making it slippy- slidey and obscuring vision and the rain lashing their windscreens; they hadn’t dealt with the spray from large vehicles; they hadn’t dashed from their houses to their cars and got themselves drenched? No, they were all completely oblivious to these conditions until the BBC very kindly and sensibly went to the trouble of reporting on them for us. Bless them for that!
I shouldn’t mock, but we are as a nation, seemingly obsessed with the weather. We can’t even stand in a bus queue without longing to share our opinions on what it’s doing today. One of my favourites has to be “Can’t make its mind up, can it?”. Of course, “it” can’t make its mind up! “It’s” not a person! “It” hasn’t got a mind! “It” is simply the prevailing conditions! “We can’t grumble” – this usually said after a cold wet day following on from two consecutive sunny days. Apparently, we have no cause to complain if we have had at least one day of summer when the temperature rises above 2°C. We must not upset “It”, in case “it takes umbrage and refuses to allow the sun shine again!
Being tickled by the idea of the change in the weather making the news, I was browsing through a book that I’d used to collect together quotations and scraps of reading to return to one day. My attention was drawn to a Hardy poem – “The Announcement”
They came, the brothers, and took two chairs
In their usual quiet way;
And for a time we did not think
They had much to say.
And they began and talked awhile
Of ordinary things,
Till spread that silence in the room
A pent thought brings
And then they said: “The end has come,
Yes: it has come at last.”
And we looked down, and knew that day
A spirit had passed.
It’s the way the scene is set with the ‘waiting’. Something is known to the tellers that the listeners don’t yet know, and even as they wait they hope to be wrong. But a sense of something is created in the mood of all as they wait – and it’s that, to me, that makes the poem so beautiful. The stillness of it; the wanting to hold on to the moment where that telling, and its implications, has not been told, yet knowing, really knowing that it must be told; that there is something that will happen. In all of that, there is a soft tension that can be felt by all but never spoken of.
It’s the “usual quiet way” that perhaps leads those watching to hope. So things are the same as they’ve always been, are they not? Surely nothing can be wrong? But then comes the talking “of ordinary things”. There must have something extraordinary in that ordinariness to create that tension that becomes the silence that spreads in the room that a “pent thought brings”. A thought we try to hold back from having – because once thought, once tripping delicately through our mind – we cannot take it back. Thoughts we have thought take on a life of their own and begin a chain of events that often we do not want to set in motion, but we must.
It brings to mind a memory of watching a documentary about the Hillsborough football disaster, when 96 people were killed and over 700 injured in the most horrible way. One of the mothers of two teenage girls was talking; her daughters had gone to the match with their father and she had remained at home but had watched the horror unfold on the TV screen minutes after the whistle had gone. The girls had been in the central pens but their father was in a different part of the stadium along with a friend. He tried desperately to find out what had happened to them amidst the ensuing chaos but it was hours before it was confirmed that they had been killed; their bodies taken to the school, acting as a temporary morgue. He had to return home without them and tell his wife this most dreadful of news. She tells on the documentary of how she saw him climb out this friend’s car and look towards the window where she was standing. “I ran out of the house and down the drive, but saw his face and knew what he was going to tell me. So I ran up the street as fast as I could. I thought ‘If I can just get away he can’t tell me, then it won’t be true.’”
As though she could push away the telling and hold back the horrible impact by not hearing the words. Reality cannot begin as long as she has no confirmation of the worst possible news.
There’s something of a horrible tension between wanting to know the truth but yet not wanting to hear it vocalised. When we have been feeling ill, with symptoms we cannot explain, it can be something of a relief to finally receive a diagnosis that means we can begin to manage or treat. Having a name for a condition can be helpful and at least give us something to focus our energies on. Now we can feel less helpless and get back in control.
I saw this all too often too with parents of disabled children. They would know something was not right and when someone eventually could name a condition, or identify a particular impediment, it was as though they could begin to move forward once again. For a time they had been circling, feeling as though they were going mad; feeling isolated from all those families of ‘normally developing’ children. There were differences that couldn’t be sufficiently explained. In cases of illness or disability, one has been living ‘in the dark’ quite often for so long that an announcement, although in some ways dreaded, is also welcomed, as it marks the end of what has often been a nightmare of not-knowing.
There is a difference when the announcement is about death. This is about the end of a life and there is no going forward for the person whose life it was. Where there was once a person, there is now a gaping hole. Whatever our beliefs, there is that moment, that we would rather not face, when we are told; when we come to know. For the Hillsborough mum, the ‘pent thought’ made her scream and run to attempt to stave off the terrible truth. I remember my mum’s face when she had to tell me my grandfather was dying of oesophageal cancer and had only days to live. I didn’t run or scream, but there was a mad moment where I almost covered her mouth to stop her telling me. As she was speaking I was uttering words of denial. As though only in the telling will the truth emerge.
“The end has come…at last”. Life endings are inevitable; we will all share that experience and yet none of us will be able to recount it to another and thus give the comfort that all of us, if truth were told, really desire. As each person leaves the life we know now, there is a moment that has to be marked “And we looked down, and knew that day – A spirit had passed”. Somehow it seems fitting that that is what we do. A collective sign of acknowledgement – ‘you have gone and I remain’ – and also of our helplessness. This last thing we cannot explain or control, yet must one day face ourselves.
 The Announcement by Thomas Hardy: p428 “The Collected Works of Thomas Hardy” 1994 Wordsworth Poetry Library Press